The Great Wall of China, a short story, was written by Franz Kafka in 1917. As the famous biography goes, Kafka only found fame posthumously (few of his works were published during his lifetime). Before his death of tuberculosis aged 40 in 1924, Kafka ordered his friend and literary executor Max Brod to destroy all his manuscripts. Brod ignored the order and the result was a mass publication of many of Kafka’s works, which often dealt with anxiety, oppression, existentialism, and absurd situations (leading to the Kafkaesque literary term).
The Great Wall of China finally received publication in 1930 and you can pick it up in many of Kafka’s short story compilations. It’s written in the first person by an older man, who contemplates the nature of the wall, the lingering presence of the Emperor, and why the wall was built in the manner it was (it went up in chunks, putting it in layperson terms). It’s one of his most famous short stories, so let’s take a closer look.
The Great Wall of China
The narrator begins by talking of the wall and its relentless presence, even to those in the south of China who aren’t around it. In a separate piece of writing called the News of the Building of the Wall: A Fragment, Kafka writes: “It seems that infidel tribes, among them demons, often assemble before the imperial palace and shoot their black arrows at the Emperor.”
He explains its presence on those growing up with its, already legendary, status presiding over China’s past, present, and future. The Great Wall was introduced to protect against invasions, but went up in piecemeal segments rather than in a continuous flow across the country. The narrator explains its impact on his life from a young age:
"This work was not undertaken recklessly. Fifty years before the start of construction it was announced throughout the whole region of China which was to be enclosed within the wall that architecture and especially masonry were the most important areas of knowledge, and everything else was recognised only to the extent that it had some relationship to those. I still remember very well how as small children who could hardly walk we stood in our teacher’s little garden and had to construct a sort of wall out of pebbles, and how the teacher gathered up his coat and ran against the wall, naturally making everything collapse, and then scolded us so much for the weakness of our construction that we ran off in all directions howling to our parents. A tiny incident, but an indication of the spirit of the times."
Kafka then shifts the story in the direction of the Emperor and his influence over the country and its citizens. His invisible presence seems to weigh heavily on the narrator, and all citizens of China, but he’s keen to indicate this is all for the greater good and the main man should be protected. As such, this element of the story offers a learned insight into Chinese history (Kafka had obviously done his research).
Now, you could read it as a piece of historical fiction, but this being Kafka we’ve seen some critics online suggest it’s an allegory for the absurdity of existence – how an ordinary man (the narrator) is simply a cog in the Emperor’s country (God’s universe). We’re not entirely sure we buy into that – was he intending a deeper meaning? It really does come across as a fictional study of the structure. If you’re interested, you can read the complete short story online and decide for yourself – it makes for a compelling, concise little story: Kafka – The Great Wall of China.
The Great Wall
One of the most famous landmarks on Earth, you can take a free flyby above. The soundtrack to this clip is music from the Last Samuari (2003), which seems a bit stupid considering the film was about Meiji period Japan rather than China and its enormous wall. We guess we’re being pedantic, but it’s important someone picks up on these things!
Anyway, the wall is just enormous and arcs for some 5,500 miles, and that’s just from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), which is what makes up the majority of the existing wall today. This is, of course, now a major tourist attraction, so it is maintained by the government as a World Heritage Site – as you’d expect. This structure is a remarkable feat of human activity which played out for generation after generation (although the myth you can see it from space is nonsense).
Due to its omnipresence and legacy, the Great Wall is a regular staple in popular culture. There have been films (the most recent being the average Hollywood blockbuster above with the very Chinese looking Matt Damon), references in TV shows as many and varied as Futurama, paintings, and more.
It is, of course, principally a tourist attraction these days and is constantly crammed out with huffing and puffing sorts from across the world struggling to deal with its steep inclines. It seems a shame to turn an exceptional landmark such as this into a place where people go and take selfies, but if it keeps such a structure in the public conscience then we can’t argue with that.