Secret History (Season 14, Episode 4: The Great Wall of China – Hidden Story): taking audiences through the length and breadth of Chinese history

Ian Bremner, “Secret History (Season 14, Episode 4: The Great Wall of China – Hidden Story)” (2014)

The famous Great Wall of China is rightly one of the most awe-inspiring engineering feats in human history and this documentary valiantly tackles those aspects of the Wall’s own history that have inspired its construction and made it such an important megastructure. The documentary follows chronological order from the time the Wall was first begun over two thousand years ago, using that basic logical structure as a foundation to explore some of the more quirky characteristics of the Wall.

The documentary begins with the dimensions of the structure itself and, from following recent research, discovers that the Wall is made up of at least sixteen different walls plus other walls whose remains still lie underground. Altogether all these walls have a total length of 21,000 km which is much more than the distance between the North and South Poles! Naturally the question of why the Chinese went to so much trouble to build walls arise and the program diverts to an investigation of a nomadic horse-riding tribe, the Xiongnu, living in the Gobi and other realms north who during the first few hundred years of the first millennium CE harassed the Chinese empire at about the same time that Germanic and Hun barbarian tribes tormented the Roman Empire with raids and plundering. The Xiongnu’s cavalry tactics forced the Chinese to improve their defence capabilities by building a network of walls that acted as much as a communications network and a form of military offence against the nomads as it did as defence. Unfortunately nothing is said about how successful the Wall was in its myriad functions against the Xiongnu or what happened to these nomads.

A major attraction of the Wall is its longevity and here the most surprising aspect of the documentary is revealed: during the Ming period (1368 – 1644), when reconstructing the Wall became a major engineering priority, mortar made of sticky rice was used to help cement massive bricks. During this period, the Wall’s reconstruction stimulated brick-making on an industrial scale and encouraged hundreds if not thousands of craftsmen, workers and their families to migrate to northern and north-central China to work in kilns located near or on the Wall itself.

Finally the program considers the success of the Wall in its various functions (actual and expected) and finds a rather mixed record: it was not all that successful in repelling Genghis Khan and his mixed Mongol / Turkic forces in the 1200s, or the Manchus in the 1600s. Nevertheless the Wall continues to stand as a symbol of Chinese civilisation, ingenuity, determination, stability and invincibility.

Easy to follow thanks to Paul McGann’s narration, and with experts like William Lindesay, chemistry professor Bingjian Zhang and military historian Mike Loades on hand for more detailed explanations and enthusiastic demonstrations, the program provides interesting fodder at a steady clip and weaves its way through the Wall’s history, jumping from one topic to the next smoothly and skilfully. Animations help audiences appreciate the size and complexity of the Wall’s various meanderings across northern China.

Audiences are sure to ponder questions such as whether the Wall could have led to an industrial revolution in Ming-era China but this and other issues arising from the program’s narrative demand independent investigations in their own right. This documentary is aimed mainly at a family audience and school students learning Chinese history: what better way to understand some of the length and breadth of that history through its best-known engineering feat?