Redefining the Great Wall

Not the Changcheng

As China seeks to expand the influence of its culture abroad, more attention is being given to the importance of translation. Not just in the most obvious contexts – the embarrassment of mechanical translations and errors caused by ignorance, or the mind-bending officialese found in state organs – but more subtle issues involving specific aspects of Chinese culture. Do existing translations fail to capture all of the nuances of certain cultural phenomena? Or worse, are they misleading enough to actively obstruct the successful spread of Chinese culture worldwide?

Zhao Qizheng, former director of the State Council Information Office, has argued that Peking Opera should really be called “Jingju” so it is not confused with the European art form, and the traditional form of stand-up comedy sometimes called “crosstalk” is just as often referred to in English as “xiangsheng.” The dragon is another example: the true majesty and benevolence of the Chinese variety is obscured by the malevolence of the western mythical creature that also goes by that name. The issue also crops up in relation to government buzzwords, but in those situations, there often is considerable debate among the Chinese public over the proper interpretation of certain terms.

But it’s not just concepts from art or politics that are contested. Even something as concrete as the Great Wall is a victim of misleading English, argues Pei Yu (裴钰), a columnist who writes about the tourism industry.

Pei’s article, published in the China Youth Daily as part of a series of columns on cultural tourism, discusses the need for proper protection of the Great Wall as a monument of world cultural heritage. He asserts that the current English translation harms the cause of cultural heritage preservation because it represents only one small aspect of an integrated cultural heritage experience.

Pei’s piece concludes by recommending an unorthodox (and to my mind, at least equally misleading) replacement translation for “Great Wall.” Although he does not suggest using the romanization “Changcheng” (长城), for the sake of clarity, that is the term used in the translation below in place of the usual English rendition.

My Opinion of the Incorrect English Name for the Changcheng

by Pei Yu / CYD

Returning from a research trip to the Changcheng, I had the intense feeling that its English name, “The Great Wall,” is incorrect. This translation to a large extent not only affects the appreciation of China’s Changcheng on an international level, but also directly influences our own preservation, development, and utilization of the Changcheng.

Viewed as cultural heritage, the Changcheng is not a ‘wall’ () but rather an ancient Chinese frontier “town” (城镇); not merely solitary mountain passes, but an ancient Chinese cultural system comprising army posts, residences, supply depots, and border trade, and which included various ethnic groups with different folk traditions. In the context of ancient military affairs, the Changcheng is a “town defense,” the “wall” being just one part of the frontier town. The ancient town of Chadao, for example, was a military post at the Ming Dynasty Badaling Changcheng, but it was also a hub through which border trade passed, as well as a typical Ming Dynasty town.

The Changcheng is a world cultural heritage site, and from the perspective of heritage preservation, the frontier towns should all be systematically protected. Full and systematic protection of the town regions, including the Changcheng wall, means “area” preservation of each and every town region, not “point” protection of beacon fires and watchtowers. Since ancient times, the Changcheng has never been just a wall or a series of beacon fires; it was always a series of defense towns. And the “Great Wall of Ten-Thousand Li” is not a wall extending ten thousand li, but rather a defensive region formed out of the many frontier towns. The emphasis of Changcheng preservation should be on the “town” (城) and not on the “wall” (墙) so that an overall plan and systematic protection of these frontier towns can be achieved.

A primary goal of heritage preservation is reviving traditional culture and folk customs. The cultural heritage of the Changcheng lies not merely in military defense, but is also founded on traditional Chinese frontier culture and multi-ethnic engagement and exchange, giving it rich resources of ancient ethnic folk customs. Therefore, cultural preservation of the Changcheng is the preservation not of an individual artifact (the wall) but of a cultural system (people and customs).

From the perspective of heritage development, the Changcheng is a “town” rather than a “wall.” Beacon fires, watchtowers, and wall supports are scenic spots, but the scenic area must be fully developed and expanded into ancient town areas. Mao Zedong once wrote in a poem, “Until you reach the Changcheng, you are not a real man.” The word “reach” here is quite correct, and expresses the idea of reaching the Changcheng’s towns and personally experience ancient frontier life and traditional folk customs through sightseeing, lodging, entertainment, and shopping. This is the integrated concept of “cultural tourism.”

What is known as “climbing the Changcheng” is an erroneous term for what is just climbing a wall. The Changcheng experience shared by American presidents Nixon, Reagan, and Obama, who came to China over the course of more than three decades, was that of walking along a section of the Changcheng wall, and this has its origin in the misleading term “Great Wall.” The “Great Wall” mentality disrupts the development and utilization of the Changcheng scenic area. Today, the area is less a tourist area than an “open-air museum,” and the Changcheng has been subject to narrow “preservation” as a wall standing atop a mountain range. Domestic and international tourists come in droves to climb the wall, but then they turn around and leave. Most travel agencies schedule between 90 and 120 minutes for visiting the Changcheng, insufficient time for recreation, entertainment, and shopping. This is why existing Changcheng scenic areas typically rely heavily on ticket revenue. There has been little expansion into related sectors and the service industry is highly underdeveloped. Although annual tourist capacity is enormous, tourism development has been lingering at a modest, primitive, low quality level for some time, a situation completely at odds with its status as “world cultural heritage.”

The English name of the Gugong (故宫) is “Palace Museum,” but the World Heritage List gives it as The Imperial Palace of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, which means that in the view of world heritage, the Gugong is preserved as an “imperial city.” World heritage tourism today does not mean turning cultural heritage into unconnected, isolated artifacts or museums. The Changcheng is not a “wall,” nor is the Gugong a “museum”; rather, both must be incorporated into a systematic structure of cultural heritage which includes systematic preservation and systematic development.

In personal opinion, from the perspective of the preservation and utilization of cultural heritage, “Changcheng” should be more accurately translated into English as “The Great Town.” Nitpicking the English name of the Changcheng is not my purpose here; rather, I wish to take the opportunity to clearly distinguish the Changcheng’s properties as cultural heritage. The Changcheng is cultural heritage, not a cultural artifact, and in the next five years, its scenic areas will become new hot-spots of ancient frontier town cultural tourism.

Links and Sources
There are currently 13 Comments for Redefining the Great Wall.

Comments on Redefining the Great Wall

The term used for the section of Roman wall that was given UNESCO heritage status in (jointly) Germany and the UK was "limes" - the description of it is very similar to what Pei Yu is arguing above for 长城, ie a fairly open frontier zone, rather than a bolted and barred line of battlements.

It's listed with UNESCO as "Frontiers of the Roman Empire". It incorporates a section in Germany and Hadrian's Wall in Tyne & Wear. Perhaps worth trying to follow this model.

While I can agree with a more holistic approach to preserving cultural sites, I have two big problems with the article.

First, what the author seems to really want is to turn more of the great wall into a tourist area. It seems like the authors real concern is that the great wall's full commercial potential isn't being exploited. There is a direct conflict between preserving a site's folk customs and physical environment and increasing the amount of shopping tourist do.

Second, the issues over what words are used in the English language to describe Chinese cultural artifacts seems to have more to do with nationalistic assertiveness then with accuracy or a wish to add clarity and meaning to the English language. Switching Peking Opera to Jingu doesn’t really add any meaning to the listener, although the speaker would probably need to explain more and the listener would gain a new vocabulary word that they could forget. With the great wall, it almost makes more since for the term “the great wall” to be used in Chinese than to change the English term because the current concept of the great wall is a western concept. By using “the great wall” for the modern, western definition of the great wall; china can help preserve the Chinese meaning of the term found in writings that predate western influence which associate the concept with tyranny and forced labor. Maybe a compromise can be had that both preserves the ancient and now obscure Chinese meaning and reflects the Pei Yu’s idea of preservation. The new Chinese word for the great wall should be Cha-Ching.

Yet another interesting translation, Mr. Martinson.

As a long-time translator, this constant nit-picking over the 'rectification of names' is a big pet-peeve of mine. While I agree that many English terms for Chinese ideas insufficiently convey their meanings in Chinese, if we can't just stick to a given set of terms, then there is no way to have a cross-cultural discussion, which I think is much more important. If a Chinese expert were to write an article in English, talking about how westerners misunderstood the concept of the Great Wall, he'd have a chance at educating a lot of people. If he wrote an article about the 'changcheng', most people would have no idea what he is talking about, and a chance to communicate ideas is lost.

I had a discussion with a painter about the term 'bi mo', which translates as 'brush and ink'. He insisted that this translation was wrong, because 'bi mo' means so much more in Chinese than just brush and ink. But what are we supposed to do, say something like "could you please pass the mohair and bamboo brush as well as the carbon-based ink and the several thousand years of historic, artistic and cultural import?" What matters is the context of the discussion, not the words. If we can settle for our imperfect words, then we can actually have a discussion about their imperfections. Otherwise, we're just spouting gibberish at each other.

Anyway, keep up with the interesting translations.

Technically speaking 城 doesn't really translates into town, but really a fortress town. In Chinese, the names for Town/City such as 城, 镇, 市 etc. are interchangeable in modern Chinese, but they very much different beast in Ancient China. 城 actually refer to the inner walls and keeps of a city (outer parameter defenses are refereed to as 郭), the settlements enclose by it called 邑; while the markets are called 市. (镇 on the other hand, means settlements by 军户, whom does not pay taxes but contributes military service instead. They become centers of population during Chinese middle ages much like castles in the European one.)

In these sense, translating 长城 as "Great Wall" or is not wrong. Just it's a defensive system that's more than wall. For example, border towns built close to wall are referred to as 邑. (Such 马邑, where its siege opened the Han-Xiongnu wars) The same way settlement closed by city defenses (城) are call 邑.

Most translations from Chinese into English
have distortions - Things were conceived in western thought and idea. Time to get the translations right. China is Chongquo - Central kingdom and not the word that
English could use to describe their utensils or
tea cups! So as Great wall - it not a wall as such but a long city. Imagine Chinese words ascribe to america is that of 'beautiful nation'.
To UK as 'heroic nation'. So as france and germany
that Chinese used the most respectable words. Unless western idea can reciprocate with equal
term China should refrain from accepting translations which is condescending or incorrect.

Seriously. I demand the Chinese no longer incorrectly translate LA to 洛杉矶, when the real meaning is 天使.

I'd just like to re-iterate the fact that 城 actually traditionally refers to the walls of a city (城市 being walls & market, hence a city) so rephrasing the Great Wall as The Great City would be erroneous.

Secondly, as I think meister ede is pointing out, at the end of the day, translations are decided by the native speakers of the language you're translating into, not by that of the speakers of the original language. You can bark on all you like about changcheng, jingju and changjiang, but that's not necessarily going to impact on English speakers renderings of The great wall, Peking opera and the Yangtze. In the same way I doubt that the Americans were consulted about 美國, or the English about 英格蘭, or the Scottish about sinifying golf as 高爾夫球 or indeed the numerous people who have their names transferred into characters.

Granted, no translations are perfect (evidently Nixon's attempt at poetic praise--"It certainly is a Great Wall!"--was printed in the Chinese papers as, 尼克松说:长城真长!), and most could be improved. But two points stand out to me: First, translation works when it is a negotiation between two languages, not the implementation of the rules of one upon the rules of another; Pei Yu doesn't seem to have any comprehension of, or care for, why a term like "Great Wall" would be preferable in English (for a sign of English resistance to such an idea, see the translator's use of the direct article in the phrase "the Changcheng"). Second, for the purposes of China's own cultural heritage, who cares about what anything's called in any language other than Chinese? Even in the case of UNESCO, which administers "cultural heritage" sites, as an organ of the United Nations its official languages are Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish; why so little concern about what to call things in Chinese and other languages, and so much about English?

Assuming, which I do, that you have some knowledge, you pose a disingenuous question. Why so much concern about English? Because that is hands-down the most global of languages--excluding math.

Nicely put, Lucas. The use of the definite article wasn't a totally conscious choice, but I did make edits in a few places where I'd left it out in the initial draft. I'm sure it stems from a conceptual distinction in my mind between a particular geographic location (Jiuzhaigou and Changbaishan don't require it, to me) and something more loosely defined and spread out.

Pei's piece actually contains several distinct claims that : there's the argument for broadening the notion of "Great Wall," for which he offers fairly strong support; the motivation for broadening (exploitation by tourism); the idea that the present name has contributed to an overly-narrow connotation; the idea that the English name in particular has contributed; the suggestion that the English name ought to be changed; and a recommendation for a new name. It's interesting that Pei chooses a name in English rather than simply transliterating the Chinese name (or even suggesting a new, more inclusive Chinese name and then transliterating that), but the name he comes up with is, to me, even more misleading than the one he's replacing.

Via Zhai Hua's blog, I found this rebuttal by Fang Yu, who mentions Hadrian's Wall and Antonine Wall (are they really Towns?) in support of a claim that "Wall" in English already has connotations of frontier defense towns.

In a somewhat related example, Fang also demolished the surprisingly widespread notion, presented as fact in Pei Yu's essay collection, that Lin Daiyu in early translations of Dream of the Red Chamber was given the name Black Jade, which implied that she was "a loose woman of dark skin." As in the Great Wall/Great Town example, there are multiple claims here: one, the suggestion (easily checked?) that the incorrect translation Black Jade existed and was influential among western (read English-speaking) readers; two, that the name implies certain negative things about Daiyu's character; and three, that the mischaracterization led audiences to mistakenly believe that Dream is an erotic novel and therefore prevented it from gaining the popularity it deserves.

Fang notes that the translation in question was done by Wang Chi-Chen in 1929, but suggests that the earlier H. Bencraft Joly edition was far more influential. He also marshals evidence to show that the name "Jade" does not readily imply loose morals.

He concludes:

So, Wang Chi-Chen and Wang Liangzhi's abridged translation of Dream of the Red Chamber renders Lin Daiyu as "Black Jade" which, while not very suitable to contemporary habits for translating Chinese names, would certainly not have been understood as "a loose woman of dark skin" by Anglo-American readers or those in other western countries. Nor can we use this as evidence for blaming those two earlier translators for Dream of the Red Chamber's "failure to find popularity in the west."

The same thing could probably be said about "Great Wall" and its effect on the preservation of a monument of cultural heritage.

To Lucas and Joel:

Does 长城 have the connotations that Fang Yu and Pei Yu ascribe to it in modern Chinese? If you look at examples of current usage, the Chinese national anthem or speeches by public officials (I can think of several speeches that celebrate the three gorges dam by comparing it to the great wall), the connotations that those two write about are missing and would be confusing if they were artificially added.

Rashomon--in my experience, 长城 is used in Chinese as a name for a landmark, and the specifics of it barely matter. Neither 紫禁城 nor 紫竹院 are purple, according to our current definitions of colors, and nobody seems to mind.

Nicholas--thank you for assuming that I have some knowledge. But my question isn't really disingenuous. Sure, English has become a very global language, but not only is it not the world's only non-Chinese language, it is also a matter of public choice how dominant it can be. The Confucius Institutes, for instance, exist in part to challenge the dominance of English around the world, as does anyone who learns a language other than English. I'd ask this question of just about anybody: do you want English to be the most important language in the world, or just one out of many?


Great Wall or Long Fort, the same connotations apply. "Town", in its current usage in the English language, has more emphasis on the concept of market(市) over than of fortress(城).

The replacement of "Peking Opera" by "Jinju" is more justified, for the same reasons that "Kabuki" is not translated as "Tokyo Opera" or "Kyoto Opera".

China Media Timeline
Major media events over the last three decades
Danwei Model Workers
The latest recommended blogs and new media
From 2008
Front Page of the Day
A different newspaper every weekday
From the Vault
Classic Danwei posts
+ Culture and corporate propaganda in Soho Xiaobao (2007.11): Mid-2007 issues of Soho Xiaobao (SOHO小报), illustrating the complicated identity of in-house magazines run by real estate companies.
+ Internet executives complain about excessive Net censorship (2010.03): Internet executives complain about excessive Net censorship at an officially sanctioned meeting in Shenzhen.
+ Crowd-sourced cheating on the 2010 gaokao (2010.06): A student in Sichuan seeks help with the ancient Chinese section of this year's college entrance exam -- while the test is going on!
Danwei Archives