“Walking on the Chinese Wall” by Philip Bailey

Although the lyrics of Philip Bailey’s “Walking on the Chinese Wall” may appear uncomplicated in and of themselves, they are actually based on centuries’ old Chinese philosophy and classic Chinese literature. And deciphering them in depth would require us studying these subjects more in depth as apparently the primary writer of the song, Roxanne Seeman, has.

You can view the lyrics, alternate interprations and sheet music for Philip Bailey's Walking on the Chinese Wall at Lyrics.org.

But considering that this track went on to become an international hit in the Western world, the implication is that the masses of people who embraced it didn’t actually understand I Ching for instance. And there is somewhat of a storyline present in the lyrics. Or stated otherwise, the wording is in fact in English. 

And its references to Chinese mysticism and symbolism actually serve more as a motif then something a listener would have to study in order to make out what’s going down.

And as Seeman was at the time, what the singer comes off as is somewhat of a visitor to China, or someone who is traversing the country. Note that the Great Wall of China, i.e. the “Chinese Wall” which he is walking on, is some 13,000 miles long in its entirety. 

And yes, it is in fact the Great Wall of China which the singer is referring to. For even if Philip Bailey may not have ever been there literally, once again Roxanne Seeman had. And it was her visit to a particular section known as the Northern Juyongguan Gate which spurred her to write this song.

Are you really literally referring to the physical “Great Wall of China”?

Yes. However, if this song were dropped in the same day and age this post is being written, i.e. the third decade of the 21st century, the phrase “Chinese Wall” would likely mean something different, i.e. an allusion to communism or government censorship or what have you. 

It’s like these days the beef between China and the United States is more pronounced and out in the open. But back then, the West wasn’t really concerned with the Middle Kingdom like that. And as far as the American mainstream media was concerned, China was more of a shall we say undeveloped country. In fact the popular Western consciousness was more concerned with karate and again Chinese mysticism than anything else (as evident by Pat Morita, aka Mr. Miyagi’s presence in this song’s music video).

Lyrics of “Walking on the Chinese Wall”

So basically, what we have here is the narrator traversing the Chinese landmass, looking for a favorable destiny. Or perhaps we can say, considering that he references the aforementioned I Ching for instance, that he is hoping to come across some type of unexpected luck or divine favor. 

It is such an idea which the phrase “watching for coins to fall” alludes to.  But this is not to imply that the vocalist is passive in terms of seeking out his destiny, even if he can’t perceive the outcome. For instance, he is actively searching for his “golden fleece”, which is actually a nod to European, not Chinese, mythology. 

But utilizing such a symbol makes it clearer that his ultimate or at least ideal goal is in fact prosperity.

And just as Jason and the Argonauts had to set out on a quest to retrieve that legendary item, likewise the singer appears to be going through his own hardships in the name of fulfillment. In fact at one point he even seems to refer to himself as possessing “ivory skin”. Said phrase would again likely allude Roxanne Seeman who, unlike Philip Bailey, was actually White. 

Or maybe it is a reference to another of the track’s writers, Billie Hughes, who concurrently while contributing to this song spent a good four months in Japan. In fact the late Hughes was an avid traveler. And he was in the Land of the Rising Sun looking to fulfill his destiny so to speak, or at least advance in his career. Verily it was in Japan where he actually achieved his greatest success as a vocalist. And he did so via another song, “Welcome to the Edge” (1990), that he co-wrote with Roxanne Seeman.


So conclusively, the best way to describe this track would be something like an attempt to capture a traditional Chinese mystical element lyrically in a Western song. And it is actually centered on the vocalist pursuing his dream or vision, in China. 

Yes, said attempt may be laced with stereotypes, so to speak. For instance, the music video features imagery akin to karate-inspired dancing, and people farming instead of, say, living in modern cities. But more to the point would be the sentiment behind the lyrics. 

This was fresh after the 1970s, a decade which featured a fair share of American acts embracing different forms of spiritualism. And that would definitely include Earth, Wind & Fire, the band which Philip Bailey sprang from. 

So it can be said that he had already established a reputation for himself as sort of a truth seeker. And that is the same character Philip takes on in “Walking on the Chinese Wall”, though in this case he is resorting to traditional Chinese as opposed to say Ancient Egyptian mysticism.

Lyrics of "Walking on the Chinese Wall"

Music Video

The music video to this song, as directed by the late Duncan Gibbins (1952-1993), took place in California though in what are referred to as the Santa Monica Mountains. And it featured the late Pat Morita (1932-2005, who was actually Japanese-American). This was around the same time Morita was at the height of his fame, after taking on his signature role as Mr. Miyagi in “The Karate Kid” (1984).

Release Date of “Walking on the Chinese Wall”

This track is from an album which itself is entitled “Chinese Wall” (1984), Philip Bailey’s second solo full-length.  Philip Bailey is a singer who made a name for himself as one of the lead vocalists of Earth, Wind & Fire, one of the most celebrated African-American bands from the 1970s.

“Chinese Wall” was a notable hit, breaking the top 30 on both the Billboard 200 and UK Albums Chart. But the most-successful track from the project wasn’t this one. Rather it was the lead single, “Easy Lover” (1984), which is a duet between Philip Bailey and Phil Collins.

In fact it was Phil Collins who produced the entire project, including this song. And he also lent his vocal as well as drumming and keyboarding skills to “Walking on the Chinese Wall”.

This song first came out, courtesy of Columbia Records, as part of “Chinese Wall” during October of 1984. And the following year it was re-issued as the third single from the project. And as can be deduced, the album was named after the song.

Philip Bailey

Creation of Song

The writers of the piece are Roxanne Seeman, Marcy Levy (aka Marcella Detroit) and the late Billie Hughes (1948-1998).

This track was recorded in two locales. First and foremost would be Townhouse Studios, which were found in London. In fact Philip Bailey relocated across the pond a couple of months to lay down “Chinese Wall”. And the second location, which was involved to a lesser extent, was Hollywood’s Ocean Ray Recording.

Facts about “Walking on the Chinese Wall”

This was a significant song for Bailey. It got listed on the Billboard Hot 100 and UK Singles Chart, as well as charting in a handful of other countries. And whereas it didn’t perform exceptionally well chart-wise, it is still considered to be one of the standouts of its project.

Outside of traditional Chinese philosophy, the lyrics of this song are said to be based on two additional sources. One is a divination text known as I Ching which dates back to the BC era. And second would be a group of 18th century novels which are known as “Dream of the Red Chamber”.

This song holds a place in history as it was performed at an event, in 2004, called the Wall of Hope concert. Said event was the first time a pop concert had been conducted at the Great Wall of China. And it was climaxed via a rendition of “Walking on the Chinese Wall” sung by Cyndi Lauper, Nellie McKay and Sylvia Tosun.

Some of the notable instrumentalists to perform on this song, outside of Phil Collins himself, include the following:

  • Nathan East (bassist)
  • Daryl Stuermer (guitarist)
  • The Phenix Horns (a group of musicians who were formerly the horn section for Earth, Wind & Fire) 

And the quartet who participated on the track are as follows:

  • Michael Harris (trumpeter)
  • Rahmlee Michael Davis (trumpeter)
  • Don Myrick (saxophonist, 1940-1993)
  • Louis Satterfield (trombonist, 1937-2004)

1 Response

  1. VoidMaster says:

    One of the greatest songs ever. So evocative, spiritual and beautiful. Philip Bailey singing, Phil Collins drums combine to produce a most uplifting song.

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