Discovery & Research

The great repair job of China

Two thousand years of war, revolution and tourism have taken their toll on the most famous Chinese landmark. Clifford Coonan reports from Mutianyu, near Beijing, on the latest measures to protect it.

Standing on the Great Wall of China looking out to where hostile armies from the north once threatened the Middle Kingdom, it is easy to understand how the structure gave this country's ancient emperors a sense of security. Its stout ramparts look down over steep mountainsides and hilly terrain, offering one of the world's most spectacular views.


But the Great Wall was never actually used to withstand an attack. Weakness and corruption within the imperial government allowed invaders to threaten Beijing. Legend has it that Genghis Khan bribed his way past the guards to get into China. Now, rampant development, 13 million visitors a year and wild gangs of party animals are doing more damage to China's most famous landmark than the Mongol hordes ever did.

More than 20 centuries old, the Great Wall once stretched almost 4,000 miles through China, from Gansu province in the west to the city of Shanhaiguan in the east, where it just reaches the Bo Hai Sea. For many years, the Wall was believed to be the only man-made structure visible from space. But these days, China's national symbol is in a sorry state, with only about 1,550 miles of the vast defensive structure left standing.

The Great Wall at Mutianyu is easily accessible from Beijing by car and looks spick and span, having been rebuilt late last century with the help of the German chemical company Henkel. Near the flashy cable-car ascending the mountain, you can see camels, which used to be a common site in the desert area around Beijing, but these days the hump-backed beasts are led out for children to pose on for the cameras.

Badalingh lies a little nearer to Beijing and is an even bigger tourist trap. Here thousands of visitors clamber over the ramparts every day, pursued by hundreds of hawkers pushing all kinds of mass-manufactured kitsch disguised as chinoiserie, from what the touts claim are antique door panels from southern China to Tibetan cowboy hats to pot noodles.

The stone walkways along the ramparts are worn smooth from millions of feet and nearly every brick has names scratched in saying "I visited the Great Wall". Some 60,000 people climbed the Great Wall near here during the National Day holiday in October.

Cable cars bring tourists up the steep hills to the wall itself, which is lined with guardhouses and looks exactly like the classic image of the Wall from cigarette packets in China and crayon packets sold in the west, as well as the tourist brochures. Half-marathons and 10km (6.2-mile) races are run along sections of the Wall here. While these are undeniably spectacular sights, conservationists are unhappy at the way tourist hotspots such as Badaling and Mutianyu have been restored so that it looks newly built. In parts it looks like something out of the animated Disney film Mulan. People want something a bit wilder.

Now a different kind of wildness is taking its toll on the Wall; there have been many raves and rock concerts here in the past few years. Last year, there was widespread outrage at reports of a dance party at the wall where guests, Westerners and Chinese, took drugs and had sex on the ramparts and urinated against it. Is nothing sacred, the citizens asked? Clearly not.

Sections of the wall have been knocked down for motorways and housing developments. The Great Wall Society, a non-governmental organisation charged with conserving the structure, says villagers living in its shadow plunder the wall for stones to build pigsties and henhouses.

Among those trying to save this magnificent monument is William Lindesay, the founder and director of International Friends of the Great Wall. "The next 30 years are going to be a period where destruction of the wall is going to be much, much less," said the energetic British geographer who has just opened an exhibition at Beijing's Capital Museum, which shows how much the Wall has changed since the first pictures of it were taken 135 years ago.

The photographs show huge fortifications overlooking flowing rivers. In modern photographs of the same sites, often there is little to see, and the rivers have dried up as a result of desertification.

The heavy guns of Japanese invaders during the Sino-Japanese conflict 1931-45 are blamed for much of the damage, and the defending Chinese armies were also forced to knock down sections of the wall to build barricades at other points along the route of the invading army.

"The past century couldn't have been much worse," says Lindesay, who in 1987 became the first foreigner to run the length of the Wall - he wrote a book about it. During his run, he was arrested several times and even deported at one point. He said: "Even into the 1990s, I have seen farmers with hoes dismantling towers, putting the bricks in their baskets to carry downhill for building."

Chairman Mao Zedong used to say: "You're not a real man if you haven't climbed the Great Wall." But the Communist revolution of 1949 did little to protect the Wall. Mao was happy to spout rural wisdom for its publicity value, but as far as he was concerned in practical terms, the Great Wall was merely a historical relic, a symbol of feudalism, and he encouraged farmers to make free with the raw materials the Wall offered. Many a reservoir or a farmhouse along the Wall was built with its stones.

But since 1 December, the Beijing government has introduced a raft of new measures to protect the longest wall in the world, which has been on Unesco's list of World Cultural Heritage sites since 1987.

The new regulations oblige "all citizens, legal entities and organisations" to protect the Wall and report illegal activity to local government offices. Taking away earth, bricks and stones is forbidden, as are planting crops on it, daubing and inscription, installing facilities unrelated with Great Wall protection, driving across the Wall, exhibiting articles that may damage the Wall, organising activities in sections of the Wall declared off-limits and other activities forbidden by China's cultural relics protection law.

Anyone violating the regulation could be fined up to 50,000 yuan (£3,200), and institutions can be fined as much as 10 times that.

The first American to clear the Wall on a skateboard was given a piece of it by the Ministry of Culture, the China Daily newspaper reported, while wondering if such events will also be banned. "Inappropriate tourist activity has caused damage to the Great Wall and its historical features," an official from China's cabinet, the State Council, said in strict language, which suggests the government may be serious about protecting the Wall this time. The great structure was built during the Qin Dynasty, from 221BC to 206BC, one of the biggest feats of engineering the world had ever seen, involving hundreds of thousands of workers, including soldiers and prisoners. The workers were often attacked by roaming gangs of brigands. Legend has it that when the workers died, their bodies were put into the foundation and it became known as the "longest graveyard in the world" although historians doubt that is what happened to the bodies.

It was rebuilt during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) but the demise of the Ming meant the end of the Wall's importance. The new Manchu rulers actually hailed from north of the Wall, one of the tribes of warlike bannermen the structure was originally conceived to keep out. In 1644, the Manchus convinced General Wu Sangui to open the gates of the Wall at the Shanhai Pass and allow them through. Legend has it that the Manchu army took three days to cross the Wall.

Weaving through nine northern provinces and municipalities, the Great Wall is the collective name for many originally unconnected castles and smaller walls and fortifications. It stretches to some of the country's most remote regions, making its exact length and condition difficult to keep track of.

There was consternation when China's first astronaut, Yang Lewei, revealed that he could not, in fact, see the Great Wall from space during his country's maiden manned space flight in 2003. Although space travel has debunked one myth about the Wall, it may help give more accurate information about the structure because China plans to use satellites and other hi-tech devices to check the length of the Wall and find ways to better protect it. Tong Mingkang, the vice-director of the State Bureau of Cultural Relics, said the survey could take two to three years. He added: "We will use remote sensing, aviation and information technology. Scientific analysis allows us to grasp the current condition of the Great Wall and update the current regulations on its protection. It's imperative to hold such a large-scale investigation to build up a scientific and integral record for the Great Wall."

Astonishingly, there are still sections being discovered; in some remote areas, bits were found as late as 2002. At the same time, weather erosion has also wiped away chunks of masonry from the structure.

Last month, three workers in Inner Mongolia were detained for digging up part of the Wall to use as landfill in a local construction project, and the way they shrugged off the complaints of officials from the Municipal Office on Cultural Relics Protection shows the indifference many people feel. "It's just a pile of earth," Hao Zengjun, the head of Erhaihao village said at the time. On 3 December, the Hongji Landbridge Investment company became the first company fined under the new rules. It was told to pay 50,000 yuan (£32,000) for knocking down large chunks of the Wall to make way for an illegal motorway, also in Inner Mongolia.

Dong Yaohui, the secretary general of the Great Wall Society, spent 35 days inspecting the Wall in summer last year and said about 20 per cent of the 4,000-mile structure is in reasonable shape, 30 per cent is in ruins, and the rest has disappeared. He described the new rules as a milestone in protecting the Wall. "It makes clear for the first time that the Great Wall has to be protected as a whole instead of in sections," he said. "The value of the Wall lies in its unique size and complexity, not in a few towers."

Lindesay hopes the new rules will help to save the Wall, despite the challenges. "It's not going to be easy. The greatness of the Great Wall is its totality. If the gaps get larger, it's not such a great wall."