“If you’ve never been to the Great Wall . . .

“If you’ve never been to the Great Wall, you’re not a real man.” Or in Chinese (pinyin), “bu dao changcheng, fei hao han.”

So said Mao Zedong, sort of. In 1935 the Chairman wrote this poem to inspire the men and women struggling to complete the Long March:

The heavens are high, the clouds are pale,
We watch as the wild geese disappear southwards.
If we fail to reach the Great Wall we are not true men,
We who have marched more than 20,000 li.

Over the years the context for the third line was lost. Today, “bu dao changcheng, fei hao han,” translated as “if you’ve never been to the Great Wall, you’re not a real man,” is a popular Chinese saying.

We did not even need to make it to the wall to hear it for the first of what will be no doubt countless times.

On the train from Dunhuang to Jiayuguan we were spotted by a man named Gao Wei Ping. Seeing a chance to practice his English, he kicked a woman out of her seat and came over to chat. We didn’t kick anybody, but were just as happy for a chance to practice our Chinese.


Mr Gao

When we told him we were headed to Jiayuguan, “bu dao changcheng, fei hao han” may not have been the first sentence out of his mouth, or even the second, but it was definitely in the top five.

We spent much of the four-hour trip swapping simple translations and writing down sentences, characters and their meanings.


Translations with Mr Gao (click on the pic for a clearer view)

Mr Gao repeatedly wished us good luck and “victory” on our trip, and his pride in China and the Great Wall was infectious.

(Translation of Mao’s poem from Chen Guoliang (ed.), Mao Zedong shici baishou yizhu (One hundred annotated poems by Mao Zedong) (Beijing: Beijing chubanshe, 1997), p. 84, quoted in Julia Lovell, The Great Wall: China against the World, 1000 BC – AD 2000 (London: Atlantic Books, 2006), p. 308.)

One thought on ““If you’ve never been to the Great Wall . . .

  1. Hi there. I thought that the two articles one on the meeting with Mr. Gao and the other on the Mogao caves, were an excellent mixture of human interest and facts. Keep up this mix as much as you can, it makes absorbing reading. Of course there mightn’t be too many Mr. Gaos out there once you get away from the main centres.
    Halsundbeinbruch et Bon Chance!! D ‘n M

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