The Ch’in emperors who originally envisioned the Great Wall snaking across the face of China believed they could unify their civilization by constructing a barrier that would at once keep invading barbarians out and restless subjects in. They spent centuries proving the plan didn’t work while simultaneously creating one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The Wall was never completed. Attacking hordes easily scaled it. Vast sections fell into ruin. The beauty of that serpentine line today lies as much in the audacity of its inception and echoes of voices stilled in its rubble as in the concrete details of geography and structure.
It may be a mistake to overromanticize such an imperfect symbol of wholeness. The Middle Kingdom was never actually the middle of anything other than its own illusions, and the Wall marked neither the beginning nor the end of civilization. But when astronauts spot the Wall through their windshields in outer space, they don’t think about the imperfection. They don’t fault the line for being too short, or too old, or irrelevant. They speak of the sighting with awe and pride, as if the Wall is their own. From that great distance it marks where every one of us comes from, and where we belong.