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.”  



       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 alone.

        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?”



       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 admissions.



       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.