The World Monuments Fund added the Great Wall of
China to its "most endangered sites" list after
parts of the wall began crumbling under the forces of nature and the feet of
millions of tourists.
The Late Great Wall
A wonder of the world is vanishing, unable to resist the destructive forces
of nature and economics. What can be done to save it? A tour of the ruins
By Melinda Liu
NEWSWEEK June 29 2002
The Great Wall of China can’t quite
match the myths that have grown up around it. Still, the truth is astonishing
enough. The Chinese call it the Long Wall of 10,000 Miles—an exaggeration, even
though its actual length would stretch from Miami to Seattle.
THE WALL WASN’T BUILT 2,000
years ago, as some sources claim, and yet a few parts are centuries older. In
fact, it’s really not a single wall at all, but a tangle of parallel and
proximate fortifications. The pieces weren’t organized into a unified system
until the Ming dynasty, which lasted from 1368 to 1644. And one more quibble:
it’s not visible from the moon.
The sad part is, less and less
of it is visible from earth. The Great Wall is vanishing, unable to withstand
the destructive forces of nature and economics as deserts, development and
tourists spread across China. This year the
New York-based World Monuments Fund added the wall to its “most endangered
sites” list. “It’s harder for really well-known sites to be selected because
there’s skepticism as to whether they really need help,” observes Bonnie
Burnham, the group’s president. Truth is, the wall needs urgent help—but where
to start? “It’s difficult to protect because there’s so much of it,” says
William Lindesay, a British preservationist who is trying to rescue at least
part of the untouched “wild wall” and its spectacular natural landscape near Beijing. He calls it
“the largest single cultural-relics-protection challenge in the world.”
‘LOVE YOUR COUNTRY’
The upcoming 2008 Olympics
have made cultural preservation a particularly hot issue in Beijing. China desperately
wants to put on its best face for the occasion. Unfortunately, Chinese
authorities often think the way to look good is by tearing down old buildings
and putting up shiny new ones. Nearly two decades ago China’s then
paramount leader Deng Xiaoping launched a national campaign under the slogan
“Love your country, rebuild the Great Wall.” By that point, the local press
estimated, two thirds of the vast national symbol had been reduced to rubble by
centuries of war, weather and peasant farmers mining its bricks to build homes
and pigsties. Some Chinese think the rebuilders should have left bad enough
The first stretch of wall to
be rebuilt was at Badaling, in the hills roughly 45 miles northwest of Beijing. Zhang Jianxin,
an official of the National Bureau of Cultural Relics, recalls how unspoiled it
was in 1979, when he took a weeklong bike tour nearby and encountered wolves.
Today the site is part theme park, part carnival and part shopping mall,
managed by a corporation that is listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. The
area around the wall is packed with tour buses, T-shirt vendors, souvenir “ride
a camel” photo stands and a huge, grinning likeness of Colonel Sanders
clutching an oversized bucket of fried chicken. Zhang tries not to go anywhere
near the place now. “It’s lost its sense of history,” he says.
The mandarins of Beijing didn’t seem to
mind. The place was a money machine. Next they renovated another section of
“tourist wall” 60 miles northeast of Beijing at Mutianyu.
Sightseers can ride a cable car to the wall’s crest, more than 3,000 feet up,
and swoosh back down the grassy hillside on a toboggan. Not surprisingly, when Harvard University’s president,
Larry Summers, visited a stretch of the wall near Beijing in May, he
sounded more than a little concerned. “Go-kart rides, Disneyland-type scenes
and golden arches,” he said with a sigh to NEWSWEEK. “Is this good?”
HITTING A WALL
Good or bad, modern times have
hit the wall—and not only around Beijing. Some 200 miles
northeast of the capital, the wall’s eastern terminus, the Old Dragon’s Head,
rises from the sea. You can still see a few bits of the wall’s ancient
foundation there, enshrined in weather-beaten glass cases atop the rebuilt
wall. What stands on the site now is actually a reconstruction, erected in the
late 1980s. The original Dragon’s Head was demolished by European expeditionary
forces in 1900. These days you run a gantlet of aggressive hawkers brandishing
trinkets and offering to take your picture dressed as an emperor or a modern
Chinese Army general. On the grounds of the Old Dragon’s Head, passengers ride
“the Dragon Boat,” an amusement-park attraction that rocks back and forth at
increasingly sharp angles until the keel is perpendicular to the ground.
But tacky tourism isn’t the
most serious threat besieging the wall. It’s indifference—that of impoverished
locals who seek to eke out a living from hikers and “wall walkers,” and that of
county authorities who are always willing to take a bribe to look the other way
when locals violate the few existing preservation laws. In fact, most of the
wall is unrestored “wild wall,” as Lindesay and other preservationists call it.
Imperial history still resonates through the crumbling bricks, tangled undergrowth
and pristine natural settings of these dilapidated but majestic sites. The
question is how much longer they can survive. Wherever hikers stop on the wall,
they are increasingly likely to find litter, graffiti and peasant-operated
tourist traps. One of the most spectacular sites, roughly 40 miles north of Beijing, is the village of Huanghuacheng, where a
crumbling 500-year-old watchtower now houses a soft-drink stand.
On a recent summer afternoon,
villagers stood on the roof of the tower setting off firecrackers and cherry
bombs. Selling fireworks is a favorite way to coax money from wall walkers.
After a series of earsplitting explosions, the men found they had ignited some
dry grass growing on the ancient structure. They danced around giggling,
stamping out the flames on top of the ancient tower. A little farther on,
farmers have set up unauthorized “ticket booths” and ladders to extract
entrance fees. One local man has bolted a crude metal door to a tower’s
archway, creating a private room where he can rest when he’s not taking
DROWNING IN THE DESERT
Still, the damage is
relatively minor around Huanghua-cheng. In the backcountry, far from Beijing’s oversight,
progress is the only priority. Three years ago, in Inner Mongolia, highway
builders demolished part of a sentry-post wall dating back more than 2,200
years. To the west, some parts of the wall have entirely disappeared beneath
the sands of the expanding Gobi Desert. The parched
wasteland is advancing all across northern China, thanks to
decades of overgrazing and reckless land use.
No one has any magic recipes
for saving the wall. Beijing has some
cultural-relics regulations to protect the roughly 400 miles in its direct
jurisdiction, but no one seems to enforce them. The fact that all commercial
structures are banned within a quarter mile or so of the wall has not kept
entrepreneurs in Huanghuacheng from putting up several restaurants, a modern
hotel complex and even a mobile-phone repeater station right on top of an
ancient watchtower. What’s Beijing doing about it?
Writing more laws.
Some of the wall’s problems
are beyond human legislation and modern technology. One of its oldest standing
fragments is a rammed-earth barricade some 50 yards long and 12 feet high at
Yumengyuan, Inner Mongolia, not far from
the wall’s western tip. The ancient builders used a kind of adobe made from
soil, straw, tamarisk, egg yolk and rice paste. Now it’s disintegrating, and no
one can repair it. “We no longer know how,” says Luo Zhewen, one of China’s foremost wall
experts. “We just cannot meet the old standards.”
Nearby, the 630-year-old
fortress at Jiayuguan rises out of the desert like a mirage against the
snowcapped Qilian Mountains. Caretakers
thought they knew a way to patch its crumbling brick walls to make them
stronger than ever. “We thought cement was good because it was a modern
invention,” says a local tour guide. “But it was too heavy for the original
materials. The repaired portion collapsed.” Perhaps to distract visitors from
the damage, someone has draped the walls in Christmas lights.
Despite all the obstacles,
Lindesay is determined to save the wild wall at least. He calls it “the world’s
largest open-air museum, without a curator.” As head of the International
Friends of the Great Wall, he organizes regular cleanup drives and educational
campaigns. Just last week he signed an agreement with Beijing municipal
authorities and UNESCO to help protect the wild wall and its natural setting.
By designating special protection zones, he hopes to convince local officials
that the wall is not just a structure but a unique landscape, requiring careful
management and what he calls “stewardship.”
It’s a tough sell. Most
Chinese see the wall merely as the country’s biggest tourist attraction, while
others remain profoundly ambivalent about their national treasure. To them the
wall stands for feudal oppression as much as it represents cultural pride.
Tradition says China’s first
emperor, the despotic Qin Shihuang, worked laborers to death by the tens of
thousands in erecting a barricade against the “barbarians” of present-day
northern China. Some members
of today’s older generation saw him as a model for the tyranny of Mao Zedong.
Others have never forgotten the popular lullaby about Meng Jiang, a Han-dynasty
woman whose husband died of hunger while working on the wall. After he was
buried beneath its ramparts, the song says, she cried until it collapsed.
The preservationists hope
young Chinese will eventually learn to love the wall. Rightly or not, nothing
else in China inspires such
awe in the eyes of Westerners. China likes to
pretend it doesn’t care what foreigners think. Didn’t the ancient emperors
build the wall in order keep out the meddlesome barbarians? It didn’t work.
Wave after wave of invaders, from the Mongols to the Manchus, swept past the
wall as if it didn’t exist. Today people fly halfway around the world just to
see it. China might also benefit
from taking a fresh look.