Ancient Wonder, Modern Challenge
AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE FOR THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA ICON！WORLD MONUMENTS MAGEZINE
BY WILLIAM LINDESAY
In the early 1580s, an illustrated manuscript was delivered to the Antwerp
atelier of renowned cartographer Abraham Ortelius. According to the manuscript's
purveyor, Arius Montanus, a Benedictine monk and one of the cartographer's most
trusted informants, the document had come from Luiz Jorge de Barbuda, a brother
in the Society of Jesus and a prominent Portuguese geographer. On a chart, Barbuda
had summarized various discoveries and observations made by Jesuit missionaries
in the Far East since the establishment of Portugal's colony at Macao in 1550.
Ortelius included a copy of the chart-the first map of China ever published
in the Western world-in his 1584 edition of Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theatre
of the Whole World).
Perhaps more important, the illustration provided the West with its first glimpse
at what was destined to become one of the world's most famous monuments-the
Great Wall of China. Alongside the rendering of the Great Wall was a brief inscription:
Murus quadringentarorum leacarum, inter montium crepidines a rege Chine contra
Tartarorum ab hac parte eruptiones, extructus (A wall of 400 leagues, between
the banks of the hills, built by the King of China against the breaking in of
the Tartars on this side).
With a purported length of approximately 1,200 English miles, some regarded
the Great Wall depicted on Ortelius' map as the grotesque sea monsters guarding
the deep. Nevertheless, the Great Wall would become a standard cartographic
element, appearing on numerous maps, including one published in 1590 by Venetian
Giacomo Gastaldi, which illustrated the route taken by Sir Francis Drake during
his 1577 circumnavigation. For the cartographic community, the Great Wall of
China was neither building nor landmark, but an integral part of Earth's geography.
Built during the Ming dynasty (A.D. 1368-1644), the Great Wall of China depicted
on the maps was the last in a succession of defensive walls raised to protect
the country's northern frontier from nomadic attack. At least 16 Great Walls
were built between the fifth century B.C. and the sixteenth century A.D.; collectively,
they stretched an estimated 50,000 kilometers across the Chinese landscape,
most of them taking different routes from their predecessors. Five of the walls
were known as wan li chang cheng (walls of boundless length) due to their enormous
scale. Of these, the Qin Dynasty (221-207 B.C.) Wall is the oldest; the Han
Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D.220) Wall, which runs some 7,200 kilometers, the longest.
The Liao and Jin Great Walls, built during the earth and twelfth centuries,
were, ironically, the work of the very invaders China's emperors worked so hard
to keep out. The Ming Wall, built in large part during the reign of Wanli (A.D.1572-1620),
is the youngest of the walls, the most militarily sophisticated and grand, and
by far the best preserved.
Eventually developing into a tortuous system of border defenses, including
loops and spurs, and measuring some 6,700 kilometers by the time of its abandonment
in 1644, the ruins of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall are architecturally varied
and collectively constitute the world's largest cultural relic in sheet building-material
volume. Early travelers to the region attempted to relate the scale of the wall
to those back home. British audiences of the late 1790s were told in An Authentic
Account of an Embassy From the King of Great Britain to the Emperor of China
that "the amount of stone in the wall was equivalent to all the dwelling houses
of England and Scotland." If dismantled and reconstructed at the equator, readers
were told, there would be enough material to build a smaller wall that could
circle the globe twice. Adam Warwick, in a 1923 edition of National Geographic,
showed his American readership on a map "where the wall would run if transferred
to the United States," while L. Newton Hayes, a missionary's son living
in Tianjin, speculated in human eye from Mars." Hardly a book, magazine,
documentary, or travel feature since has not included the trivial！and outright
fiction！that the structure is visible from the Moon.
Architecturally, the Ming Wall contains a number of structural elements, linked
physically or lying in relatively close proximity to the wall. In desert areas
the wall was made of rammed earth; only in mountain regions was it made of quarried
stone and brick. Aside from the wall itself, the most common architectural elements
are beacon towers, used for signaling, storage, shelter, and withstanding siege
in the event of attack. Most towers were square or rectangular in plan, a few
circular or ovoid. The more important towers had large central chambers to accommodate
section commanders, while less important ones were simple networks of interlocking
arched corridors. Most towers were two-story structures with flat roofs, but
a few had apex-roofs, as evidenced by occasional room walls and roof tiles.
More elaborate roofs had ridge ends and roof guardians, and rare field evidence
shows that some roofed structures even had decorative tile ends bearing monster
faces. Many towers contained engraved tablets recording visits of military officials
and other visiting dignitaries. Along the wall, many gates were built to accommodate
the passage of people and water, and grand fortresses were constructed at the
most vulnerable locations. The best examples of these are the terminal fortresses
of Jiayuguan, at the western end of the Ming Wall, and Shanhaiguan, at the eastern
end of the wall's main line. Jiayuguan is located on the desert escarpment between
two mountain ranges, while Shanhaiguan occupies the narrow band of coastal plain
between the Yellow Sea and mountains.
Having defended China for more than two millennia, the last of the Great Wall,
like its predecessors, was eventually abandoned, this time in the wake of the
Manchu invasion of 1644. Today, 359 years since construction ceased, the Great
Wall is a mere shadow of its former self. Over the centuries, various forces,
both natural and man-made, have conspired to alter, damage, and destroy it,
leaving an estimated 4,500 kilometers！or two-thirds！of its original structure
standing. What remains of the wall presents one of the world's great conservation
As soon as the Ming Dynasty collapsed, the military looted the wall for the
best pickings, removing wooden doors and shutters of towers, fine carvings,
and engraved slabs of stone. Nature, too, has done its past. Winds have deposited
sand on the pavement of the wall. Bird droppings containing seed soon colonized
the pavement with plants！weeds at first, then bushes and small trees. Roots
have loosened masonry, and once-a-century earthquakes have struck and toppled
sections of the wall. Arches have weakened and collapsed, and towers have cracked.
Winter freeze-thaw cycles have gradually forced slabs of rock apart. Summer
rains have washed away loose mortar. A wilderness wall, or wild wall, has evolved.
To protect something fully, one must first define its boundaries. It is important
to understand that the wall and its surroundings are archaeologically inseparable,
united in a consanguineous relationship. The land beside the wall and in view
of the wall is where stones were quarried, where bricks were baked, where clay
was dug, where trees were felled to fuel kilns, and where the wall builders
lived and worked. In essence, the wall is a reflection of the very land from
which it was created.
Following the abandonment of the Ming Wall, it is quite likely that many of
those who built, guarded, and maintained it remained, living in its shadow as
ordinary farmers. It also follows that the modern inhabitants of wall-side villages
are descendants of the ancient wall builders. Sometimes this can be verified:
for example, bricks sometimes bear cartouches that record the provincial military
construction unit, and these often match with the location of villagers' ancestral
In mountain areas, village buildings themselves might also be considered part
of the landscape, as many were wrought of material removed from the wall during
the destructive revolutionary campaigns of the Great Leap Forward (1958-1959)
and Cultural Revolution (1966-1977), when Chairman Mao Zedong urged people to
"let the past serve the present" and "smash the four olds by
sweeping away the dust of all the old ideas, culture, customs, and habits of
the exploiting classes."
The Great Wall is therefore a rich cultural tapestry that encompasses not only
the varied architectural remains, but also the local people who have inherited
tales and legends relating to the wall from older generations. So distinct and
striking is this landscape that perhaps it deserves a name to reflect its significance.
"Wallscape" would seem appropriate.
The concept of a wallscape can best be appreciated by viewing a section of
the original Great Wall in comparison to a section whose space has been invaded
by modern construction. From enjoying the former we realize that the majesty
of the Great Wall has two components: the ancient building and the natural backdrop.
Once the wall's surroundings are violated by modern intrusions, the majesty
of the view is diminished. In addition to the degenerative problems of old age,
the wall is under constant attack by man. Vast sections of the wild wall close
to Beijing, that only a few years ago were out of reach, suddenly have become
more accessible. Cars got cheaper, suburban roads improved, and local townships,
eager to get a piece of Great Wall tourism for themselves, even erected road
signs to point the way to drivers. This new popularity of the Great Wall prompted
local farmers, township officials, and country entrepreneurs to jump on the
bandwagon and try their hands at shadow-of-the-wall tourism. Exploiting the
absence of a single specific law to protect the unique wall！as an all-encompassing
cultural landscape！crass commercialism has sprung up beside, or even upon, the
wall in many places. Picnic rubbish has been wantonly discarded, people have
scrawled on the 500-year-old bricks, and encroaching development has resulted
in a group of ugly, bright buildings that seem alien！modern intrusions on this
In February 2002, when American president George W. Bush visited the Great
Wall at Badaling, he said: "The wall's the same, the country's changed
a lot." Bush had been to China when his father, the former president, was
stationed in Beijing as U.S. ambassador in the 1980s. Had the president wanted
to comment accurately on the state of the Great Wall, he would have been correct
if he had said: "The wall's not the same, because the country has changed
As China continues to record massive economic growth, which in turn is changing
lifestyles, the Great Wall takes on added importance by offering preservationists
a new horizon in their seemingly futile quest to tackle conservation of the
world's largest cultural relic in the world's most populous country and most
rapidly booming economy.
Until recently, plans to protect the wall had not matched these massive social
changes. China has adhered to the maxim of the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping:
"Love China, rebuild the Great Wall." uttered in the wake of Mao-sanctioned
destruction of things historical, including the Great Wall.
Nationwide, a dozen or so sections of wall have been patriotically reconstructed
for mass tourism. For almost 20 years this approach has defined Great Wall conservation.
For the past three years, International Friends of the Great Wall, working
in collaboration with the Beijing Bureau for Cultural Relics, UNESCO's Beijing
Office, and the World Monuments Fund, has spearheaded a program to create awareness
of the problems afflicting the wall via the domestic and international press
and media, and piloted a stewardship field program. Inclusion of the Great Wall
Cultural Landscape in the Beijing Region on WMF's 2002 list of the 100 Most
Endangered Sites has highlighted the plight of the Great Wall so that its conservation
might find a place on China's cultural relics protection agenda.
Partly as a result of these efforts, Great Wall conservation moves into the
modern era this Summer, as the Beijing Municipal Government introduces the first
generic cultural relics protection laws aimed at combating the destruction！physical
and spiritual！of the wall, albeit only in the Beijing area. The leasing of land
to developers adjacent to the wall will be banned, people will be prohibited
from accessing certain fragile sections, and buildings causing "visual
pollution" will be razed to preserve China's Great Wallscape.