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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)

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

The plundering of the Great Wall, once fed by poverty, is now fueled by progress. In the early days of the People's Republic, in the 1950s, peasants pilfered tamped earth from the ramparts to replenish their fields, and stones to build houses. (I recently visited families in the Ningxia town of Yanchi who still live in caves dug out of the wall during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76.) Two decades of economic growth have turned small-scale damage into major destruction. In Shizuishan, a heavily polluted industrial city along the Yellow River in northern Ningxia, the wall has collapsed because of erosion—even as the Great Wall Industrial Park thrives next door. Elsewhere in Ningxia, construction of a paper mill in Zhongwei and a petrochemical factory in Yanchi has destroyed sections of the wall.

Regulations enacted in late 2006—focusing on protecting the Great Wall in its entirety—were intended to curb such abuses. Damaging the wall is now a criminal offense. Anyone caught bulldozing sections or conducting all-night raves on its ramparts—two of many indignities the wall has suffered—now faces fines. The laws, however, contain no provisions for extra personnel or funds. According to Dong Yaohui, president of the China Great Wall Society, "The problem is not lack of laws, but failure to put them into practice."

Enforcement is especially difficult in Ningxia, where a vast, 900-mile-long network of walls is overseen by a cultural heritage bureau with only three employees. On a recent visit to the region, Cheng Dalin investigated several violations of the new regulations and recommended penalties against three companies that had blasted holes in the wall. But even if the fines were paid—and it's not clear that they were—his intervention came too late. The wall in those three areas had already been destroyed.

Back on the hilltop, I ask Ding if watching the wall's slow disintegration provokes a sense of loss. He shrugs and offers me a piece of guoba, the crust of scorched rice scraped from the bottom of a pot. Unlike Sun, my guide in Hebei, Ding confesses that he has no special feeling for the wall. He has lived in a mud-brick shack on its Inner Mongolian side for three years. Even in the wall's deteriorated condition, it shields him from desert winds and provides his sheep with shelter. So Ding treats it as nothing more, or less, than a welcome feature in an unforgiving environment. We sit in silence for a minute, listening to the sound of sheep ripping up the last shoots of grass on these rocky hills. This entire area may be desert soon, and the wall will be more vulnerable than ever. It's a prospect that doesn't bother Ding. "The Great Wall was built for war," he says. "What's it good for now?"

A week later and a thousand miles away in Shandong Province, I stare at a section of wall zig-zagging up a mountain. From battlements to watchtowers, the structure looks much like the Ming wall at Badaling. On closer inspection, however, the wall here, near the village of Hetouying, is made not of stone but of concrete grooved to mimic stone. The local Communist Party secretary who oversaw the project from 1999 on must have figured that visitors would want a wall like the real thing at Badaling. (A modest ancient wall, constructed here 2,000 years before the Ming, was covered over.)

But there are no visitors; the silence is broken only when a caretaker arrives to unlock the gate. A 62-year-old retired factory worker, Mr. Fu—he gives only his surname—waives the 30-cent entrance fee. I climb the wall to the top of the ridge, where I'm greeted by two stone lions and a 40-foot-tall statue of Guanyin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. When I return, Mr. Fu is waiting to tell me just how little mercy the villagers have received. Not long after factories usurped their farmland a decade ago, he says, the party secretary persuaded them to invest in the reproduction wall. Mr. Fu lost his savings. "It was a waste of money," he says, adding that I'm the first tourist to visit in months. "Officials talk about protecting the Great Wall, but they just want to make money from tourism."

Certainly the Great Wall is big business. At Badaling, visitors can buy Mao T-shirts, have their photo taken on a camel or sip a latte at Starbucks—before even setting foot on the wall. Half an hour away, at Mutianyu, sightseers don't even have to walk at all. After being disgorged from tour buses, they can ride to the top of the wall in a cable car.

In 2006 golfers promoting the Johnnie Walker Classic teed off from the wall at Juyongguan Pass outside Beijing. And last year the French-owned fashion house Fendi transformed the ramparts into a catwalk for the Great Wall's first couture extravaganza, a media-saturated event that offended traditionalists. "Too often," says Dong Yaohui, of the China Great Wall Society, "people see only the exploitable value of the wall and not its historical value."

The Chinese government has vowed to restrict commercialization, banning mercantile activities within a 330-foot radius of the wall and requiring wall-related revenue to be funneled into preservation. But pressure to turn the wall into a cash-generating commodity is powerful. Two years ago, a melee broke out along the wall on the border between Hebei and Beijing, as officials from both sides traded punches over who could charge tourist fees; five people were injured. More damaging than fists, though, have been construction crews that have rebuilt the wall at various points—including a site near the city of Jinan where fieldstone was replaced by bathroom tiles. According to independent scholar David Spindler, an American who has studied the Ming-era wall since 2002, "reckless restoration is the greatest danger."

The Great Wall is rendered even more vulnerable by a paucity of scholarship. Spindler is an exception. There is not a single Chinese academic—indeed, not a scholar at any university in the world—who specializes in the Great Wall; academia has largely avoided a subject that spans so many centuries and disciplines—from history and politics to archaeology and architecture. As a result, some of the monument's most basic facts, from its length to details of its construction, are unknown. "What exactly is the Great Wall?" asks He Shuzhong, founder and chairman of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (CHP), a nongovernmental organization. "Nobody knows exactly where it begins or ends. Nobody can say what its real condition is."

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