The Great Wall of China Is Under Siege

China’s ancient 4,000-mile barrier, built to defend the country against invaders, is under renewed attack

Sun Zhenyuan views preserving the wall as a sacred mission: “If you had an old house that people were damaging, wouldn’t you want to protect it?” (Mark Leong/ Redux)
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The Great Wall of China snakes along a ridge in front of me, its towers and ramparts creating a panorama that could have been lifted from a Ming dynasty scroll. I should be enjoying the view, but I'm focused instead on the feet of my guide, Sun Zhenyuan. Clambering behind him across the rocks, I can't help but marvel at his footwear. He is wearing cloth slippers with wafer-thin rubber soles, better suited to tai chi than a trek along a mountainous section of the wall.

Sun, a 59-year-old farmer turned preservationist, is conducting a daily reconnaissance along a crumbling 16th-century stretch of the wall overlooking his home, Dongjiakou village, in eastern Hebei Province. We stand nearly 4,000 twisting miles from where the Great Wall begins in China's western deserts—and only 40 miles from where it plunges into the Bohai Sea, the innermost gulf of the Yellow Sea on the coast of northeast China. Only 170 miles distant, but a world away, lies Beijing, where seven million spectators are about to converge for the Summer Olympics. (The massive earthquake that hit southern China in May did not damage the wall, although tremors could be felt on sections of it near Beijing.)

Hiking toward a watchtower on the ridge above us, Sun sets a brisk pace, stopping only to check his slippers' fraying seams. "They cost only ten yuan [$1.40]," he says, "but I wear out a pair every two weeks." I do a quick calculation: over the past decade, Sun must have burned through some 260 pairs of shoes as he's carried out his crusade to protect one of China's greatest treasures—and to preserve his family's honor.

Twenty-one generations ago, in the mid-1500s, Sun's ancestors arrived at this hilly outpost wearing military uniforms (and, presumably, sturdier footwear). His forebears, he says, were officers in the Ming imperial army, part of a contingent that came from southern China to shore up one of the wall's most vulnerable sections. Under the command of General Qi Jiguang, they added to an earlier stone and earthen barrier, erected nearly two centuries before at the beginning of the Ming dynasty. Qi Jiguang also added a new feature—watchtowers—at every peak, trough and turn. The towers, built between 1569 and 1573, enabled troops to shelter in secure outposts on the wall itself as they awaited Mongol attacks. Even more vitally, the towers also functioned as sophisticated signaling stations, enabling the Ming army to mitigate the wall's most impressive, but daunting, feature: its staggering length.

As we near the top of the ridge, Sun quickens his pace. The Great Wall looms directly above us, a 30-foot-high face of rough-hewed stone topped by a two-story watchtower. When we reach the tower, he points at the Chinese characters carved above the arched doorway, which translate to Sunjialou, or Sun Family Tower. "I see this as a family treasure, not just a national treasure," Sun says. "If you had an old house that people were damaging, wouldn't you want to protect it?"

He gazes toward the horizon. As he conjures up the dangers that Ming soldiers once faced, the past and present seem to intertwine. "Where we're standing is the edge of the world," he says. "Behind us is China. Out there"—he gestures toward craggy cliffs to the north—"the land of the barbarians."

Few cultural landmarks symbolize the sweep of a nation's history more powerfully than the Great Wall of China. Constructed by a succession of imperial dynasties over 2,000 years, the network of barriers, towers and fortifications expanded over the centuries, defining and defending the outer limits of Chinese civilization. At the height of its importance during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), the Great Wall is believed to have extended some 4,000 miles, the distance from New York to Milan.

Today, however, China's most iconic monument is under assault by both man and nature. No one knows just how much of the wall has already been lost. Chinese experts estimate that more than two-thirds may have been damaged or destroyed, while the rest remains under siege."The Great Wall is a miracle, a cultural achievement not just for China but for humanity," says Dong Yaohui, president of the China Great Wall Society. "If we let it get damaged beyond repair in just one or two generations, it will be our lasting shame."

The barbarians, of course, have changed. Gone are the invading Tatars (who broke through the Great Wall in 1550), Mongols (whose raids kept Sun's ancestors occupied) and Manchus (who poured through uncontested in 1644). Today's threats come from reckless tourists, opportunistic developers, an indifferent public and the ravages of nature. Taken together, these forces—largely byproducts of China's economic boom—imperil the wall, from its tamped-earth ramparts in the western deserts to its majestic stone fortifications spanning the forested hills north of Beijing, near Badaling, where several million tourists converge each year.

From its origins under the first emperor in the third century B.C., the Great Wall has never been a single barrier, as early Western accounts claimed. Rather, it was an overlapping maze of ramparts and towers that was unified only during frenzied Ming dynasty construction, beginning in the late 1300s. As a defense system, the wall ultimately failed, not because of intrinsic design flaws but because of the internal weaknesses—corruption, cowardice, infighting—of various imperial regimes. For three centuries after the Ming dynasty collapsed, Chinese intellectuals tended to view the wall as a colossal waste of lives and resources that testified less to the nation's strength than to a crippling sense of insecurity. In the 1960s, Mao Zedong's Red Guards carried this disdain to revolutionary excess, destroying sections of an ancient monument perceived as a feudal relic.

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