Some experts greeted China's announcement in June that The Great Wall is actually about 2 and a half times longer than previously thought with skepticism, suggesting their motives might not be purely archaeological. The Los Angeles Times's Barbara Demick has a great story which explains the dimensions of China's claims with some crazy figures:
In early June, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage announced that it now believes the Great Wall is a stunning 13,171 miles long, if you put all of the discovered portions end to end. That's more than half the circumference of the globe, four times the span of the United States coast to coast and nearly 2 1/2 times the estimated length in a preliminary report released in 2009, two years into a project that saw the Chinese measure it for the first time.
How could someone have discovered that a structure visible from space is actually that much longer than previously though? (Edit: The space thing is apparently a myth. At any rate, it's a big wall.) Well, it's more a process of redefining what counts as Great Wall. China is including defensive walls built outside the Ming Dynasty, many of them in poor shape and overlapping. The newly defined wall stretches to the border of North Korea, and therein lies the conflict. "I'm very suspicious. China wants to rewrite history to make sure history conforms with the borders of today's China," Stephane Mot, Seoul-based blogger and former diplomat, tells the Times. China's official history stretches back over 4,000 years, to dynasties that occupied a tiny fraction of the modern day territory, so figuring out how to incorporate the histories of people who lived in areas outside the dynastic line is a longstanding issue. In this case, it's one that experts suspect is wrapped up in some more modern priorities. But just what are they?
Why is Korea upset? Just after the announcement, the South Korean government said it'd "closely watch" whether historical facts had been distorted, according to the Korea Herald. The newly discovered wall portions extend through northeastern Manchuria, currently within the borders of China. Though similar remains exist in North Korea and Siberia, China left them out. But South Koreans are upset because they suspect the new structures were built by people belonging to ancient Korean kingdoms. "The government's principal stance is not to overlook any possible history distortion as it directly relates to Koreans' ethnic identity," Foreign Ministry deputy spokesperson Han Hye-jin said in the Korea Herald.
Also, they've done this before. In 2001, China reported that the Wall was 310 miles longer than thought, saying it extended will into the northwestern Xinjiang Autonomous Region, where there has been separatist violence between Uighurs who call the region home and ethnic Han Chinese. Convenient that an iconic of China's national history extends into the area.
But China doesn't want to make claims on Korea, do they? Actually, a very skeptical editorial from the Korea Times explains the theory: "We know China's fear that should the two Koreas reunite, the ethnic Koreans in Manchuria may secede from China, igniting a string of ethnic tensions in the world's most populous country. We also know that China may be establishing historical justifications for a possible takeover of North Korea in the event of the Stalinist country's eventual collapse.Given China's recent historical maneuvering, we don't rule out the possibility that China will continue its history distortion with political intentions." Basically, we're wading into a pretty complex border region with a pretty layered history.
China? Expanding? The long-standing territorial dispute with southeast Asian countries over the South China Sea is raging. Just this week, a warship that ran aground on a chain of islands near the Phillipines freed itself, even as China sent more fishing boats and warships into the disputed territory. All of this means tensions over China's territorial claims are running high all over the region.
For now, the South Korean government hasn't done much beyond express it's skepticism, and it seems like they won't do much more over a dispute that is, really, just an issue of definitions. But if China's archaeological team keeps wrapping itself up into international politics, we'll have a new nominee for an Indiana Jones movie on our hands.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.