Wall Mentality: Learning from History

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Wall Mentality: Learning from History

Walls. Big walls. Thousands of miles of walls. Walls to keep invaders out. Walls to keep people in. Wall mentality.

In fact, unlike what many people think, the 5000-mile Great Wall of China is only a small part of what may be more like 35,000 miles of walls that the various Chinese dynasties have constructed in a complicated web all over the country.

Are Walls Valuable?

The Great Wall tried to keep Mongols out. In Cyberspace, the Great Firewall of China attempts to keep information out. The former did not work very well; neither has the latter. Maybe the Chinese need to evaluate whether building protective barriers is productive or counter-productive. Perhaps they should consider their wall mentality.

Construction crews razed an area of old crumbling houses outside one side of our university in China to prepare the ground for new construction. This kind of demolition is quite common in every city we’ve been to in China.

We also observed something else. Chinese tend to wall in an entire area and then build their structure. This differs from the Western approach to construct their building and then erect a permanent wall. In China, the construction takes place inside the wall.

Wall Tradition

Even the traditional architecture of China reflects the importance of walls. The traditional hutong (old-style neighborhood) is a ring of buildings around a central courtyard, with all the windows of the buildings facing in. There is one gate that allows people to enter the central courtyard.

Ningbo University, where we once worked teaching English, had several gates, but walls enclosed the rest. There were only two ways to get to our classes from our apartment, either through the East Gate or the South Gate. It was sometimes frustrating when a class took place directly over a wall from our apartment. Without the wall, we’d be at the class in two minutes; with the wall, getting to class required a ten-minute walk through one of the gates.

One day I went for a run at 5 a.m. I had never realized it before, but the block of buildings where our apartment actually stood in a compound requiring one pass through about six gates to get into it. During the night, guards regularly locked five of these six gates. They proceeded to unlock them at 6 a.m. Turned out it was difficult for me to exit the compound at 5 a.m. for my run. I had to try several exits before finding the one gate I could go through.

Walls as Security or Control?

There was some security in knowing that during the night our apartment building was inaccessible to all save those who enter through the main gate. But, on the other hand, there was a sense of claustrophobia, of being controlled. We couldn’t help but think, “the foreign teachers will not escape at night….”

Walls protect those within. They keep the enemy out. Walls keep 5 a.m. runners in. They control the movements and funnel traffic to a desired destination. Given the omnipresence of walls in China, maybe this wall mentality shouldn’t be too surprising. It seems the Chinese have been worried about allowing too much Western influence into their country.

Although the allure of Western technology, wealth, and freedom is great in China, many Chinese have felt that the way of the West is a siren song leading to the destruction of their way of life. This wall mentality may also explain why the Chinese government appears to want to control all aspects of life. Thousands of years of emperor-rule has ingrained this into the culture, even though, ironically, the current government is communist.

Although walls can be highly valuable, too many walls can become oppressive and claustrophobic.

China has plenty of walls. It’s interesting, however, that with the possible exception of the Great Wall, most of the walls in China are made up of pretty weak materials.

A few months after the initial walls were built, I noticed someone had torn down one portion of the recently built wall surrounding the razed area to the west of campus. Then they had constructed a new wall in a slightly different position, all in a period of three days.

These walls are easily torn down. How about the wall mentality that accompanies them?


Now the discussion about building walls has moved to America. Do we really want to be builders of walls, or should we be focused on tearing them down?

Dale DePalatis

Dale DePalatis

Editor & Interculturalist at CultureWeave
The husband of the principal founder of CultureWeave, Dale is a high school teacher of English with an M.A. in English Literature from Stanford University. With a passion for language learning (including Italian, German, and Japanese), he loves the way the brain expands when studying overseas and experiencing new cultures. He also loves reading, traveling, running, and enjoying meaningful conversations about life’s deep questions.
Dale DePalatis
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The husband of the principal founder of CultureWeave, Dale is a high school teacher of English with an M.A. in English Literature from Stanford University. With a passion for language learning (including Italian, German, and Japanese), he loves the way the brain expands when studying overseas and experiencing new cultures. He also loves reading, traveling, running, and enjoying meaningful conversations about life’s deep questions.