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This is from the Great Wall of China. It was collected by someone called James Lowe in 1876.

Many people over the last two and a half thousand years have attempted to dismantle the wall. I’ve no idea how Mr. Lowe succeeded in pocketing this souvenir. He probably wouldn’t get it through customs these days. But then very few of the objects in any museum would get through customs these days.

Any great empire is built by crushing and excluding what it cannot control, but even the greatest of all empires cannot survive forever without itself being destroyed. China has done pretty well so far, but one day even this great wonder of a wall will be gone. Having withstood Mongol hordes for millenia, parts of the wall in Gansu, gateway to the Silk Route, may be reduced to mounds of dirt in another 20 years. They are being swept away by sandstorms, a result of desertification caused by human agriculture. Other parts of the wall are being washed away by flash floods caused by extensive deforestation by humans.

The wall has also been dismantled to make pigsties, coalmines and factories, blasted to make way for roads, and torn down to make tourist villas. In China the driving force of economic development has often overwhelmed any other consideration. Indeed Chinese idealogues have often even actively striven to eradicate the past.

Add to these forces the enthusiasm of tourists like Mr.Lowe, and the Great Wall now stands reduced to approximately a third of its former glory. As China develops it won’t be long before the remaining third is gone. Who cares?

It seems ignorance and neglect may be even greater forces than war. The real barbarians can never be kept out by fortifications. They are already here.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Bodger permalink
    28/07/2009 8:26 am

    I’d have thought you’d be all in favour of dismantling the wall in some of these ways.

    If a symbol of oppression can be recycled into something that helps life and well-being, is that not a good thing? Very ‘swords into ploughshares’, surely?

  2. Stephen Welsh permalink
    28/07/2009 9:45 am

    There are numerous objects in the collection that were once traveler’s souvenirs.

    The desecration of ancient monuments and archaeological sites isn’t a phenomenon simply restricted to Victorian gentleman like James Lowe. Soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have been known to pick up ancient artifacts as mementos, bricks from Babylon included. I lost count of how many tourists I spotted chipping off chunks of brick in Pompeii and popping them in their travel packs. Where would farmers in the Borders be without the plentiful supply of stone that was Hadrian’s Wall?

    With international legislation and ratified conventions, by some if not all countries, hopefully the life of such sites and monuments can be extended for a few more decades at the very least.

  3. 28/07/2009 12:00 pm

    This brick came as part of the exchange between Manchester Museum and Salford Museum in 1969-70. Manchester Museum sent Salford Museum all its local history collections, including a police truncheon used in the infamous Peterloo massacre. In return Salford sent most of its non-European ethnology, including this brick from the Great Wall of China.

    • Tom Stephenson permalink
      28/07/2009 8:39 pm

      Most of it’s non-European ethnology and a brick (to a Red-Brick) in return for a truncheon? I reckon Manchester saw them coming. I wonder what the tonnage of Berlin Wall sold on the internet has been – and I wonder how much was British hard-core.

  4. 28/07/2009 7:09 pm

    Part of the Chinese Wall, this brick is not just Ancient History, but also a constant reminder of the fact that walls can – and often should – be broken down nowadays. For me it symbolises the physical borders that disappeared, and the more metaphysical ones that came into place.

  5. 29/07/2009 12:03 pm

    The Great Wall is a fantastic reminder of the vast conquests, wars and marauding civilizations that roamed the earth thousands of years ago. Some may say nothing’s changed, but that doesn’t stop the Wall being a great historical object and beatiful relic in its own right, rather than a mere symbol to be knocked down. On a more recent note, no-one can deny that Auschwitz-Birkenau is a symbol of human opression and violence of the highest order; yet it should remain in place not only as a poignant reminder of what can happen to a vulnerable nation, but also as an important historical object in its own right.


  1. » Brick « The Manchester Hermit

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