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Bad History: Modern Marvels – The Great Wall

Speaking of Great Walls, I screened the “Great Wall” episode of the History Channel series Modern Marvels today hoping I’d finally found a good Great Wall video to show students.


In fact, the whole episode seemed to have been crafted solely to give David Spindler contact hives.

Burying scholars. Burying people in the wall. All your favorite Wall myths and clichés were included, wrapped in a gauzy Orientalist vibe with section titles like “Sleeping Dragon” and music that I think may have been lifted from the Chun Li fight scenes in Street Fighter II.

The episode did debunk the moon myth but it got bad after that, which was surprising considering the talking heads were Orville Schell, Arthur Waldron, and the late Fred Wakeman.  That’s a murderer’s row of China expertise which somehow failed to raise up the rest of this awful documentary.

How bad was it? At one point, the narrator solemnly intoned that the Wanli Emperor was synonymous with the Great Wall.  We know this because the Chinese use his name when referring to this marvel of the East…calling it the Wanli Great Wall.*  I wish I were making that up.

This was only the most egregious of the many howlers.

Sorry History Channel, but this one was a fail.

*For non-Chinese history nerds, these are two different words in Chinese.  One means 10,000 li, a Chinese unit of distance.  The other refers to an emperor who ruled China from 1572-1620 but refused to come out of his bedroom for much of his reign.