The Soapbox: Great Wall of China and Lady Liberty

By Susan Steinberg

A big wall will not make us safe. It’s been tried before.

Perhaps the most recognizable symbol of China, the Great Wall actually consists of numerous walls and fortifications. Originally conceived by Emperor Qin Shi Huang (c. 259-210 B.C.) in the third century B.C. as a means of preventing incursions from barbarian nomads into the Chinese Empire, the wall is one of the most extensive construction projects ever completed. But it was completed over hundreds of years and six dynasties.

Quick facts:

Length: 13,170.7 miles

Age: more than 2,300 years old

Existing remains: Nearly one-third of the Great Wall has disappeared without a trace.

Since 1644, when the Ming Dynasty was overthrown, no further work has been done on the Great Wall for military purposes. Emperor Kangxi (1654–1722) reasoned that the era of Great-Wall-building emperors and enmity with northern neighbors was over. Moreover, Great Wall construction cost lots of money and manpower, which was bad for his people. He believed that the only way to protect China was to gain international support, instead of border battles.

Though the Great Wall never effectively prevented invaders from entering China, it came to function more as a psychological barrier between Chinese civilization and the world.

Instead of walls, our nation’s most recognized symbol of enduring strength is our Statue of Liberty, whose beacon is welcoming, not repelling like a wall. The spirit of our nation was captured in the words of a poem by Emma Lazarus, whose lines are inscribed on the statue’s base.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles.
From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Emperor Kangxi had it right: build support, not walls.

Susan Steinberg is a resident of Stuyvesant Town since 1980 and the president of the ST-PCV Tenants Association.