The northern frontier of China is frequently equated with the Great Wall. The line of the Wall is widely regarded as delimiting ‘China proper’ (see Map 3.1), separating ‘civilisation’ from the ‘barbarian’ lands of the steppe nomad since the third century BC.1 In fact, the Wall tourists visit today was not built until the Ming 明dynasty (1368–1644), and a recent book by Arthur Waldron argues that it represents a uniquely sustained effort at creating long-term, static, linear defences, contrasting sharply with earlier Chinese wall-building, which tended to happen in brief bursts, producing only short sections of wall which were generally not maintained.2 For most of its history then, China’s northern frontier has not been marked by a physical wall, and although the idea of a Great Wall crops up from time to time in the sources, it is far more common to find references to fortifications of quite specific kinds than to a generalised ‘Great Wall’. In the absence of a Wall or even references to it, how were the northern frontiers of China defined and maintained? The tenth century provides examples of frontier construction and maintenance, both real and theoretical, and, as we shall see, extending beyond the tenth century itself to the vital question of the depiction of the northern frontier in later historical records.
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