Discovery & Research

Protection of the Great Wall

No one who has seen something of the Great Wall of China can deny that this wonder of ancient military fortification is a fantastic relic from the past that also bears witness to human endeavour. The Wall attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year from all parts of the world. The Great Wall is probably the most widely recognised and enduring symbol of China and it has been rightly said, "The man who doesn't visit the Wall has never been to China."

In its entirety, the Great Wall, or to give it its Chinese name Wan Li Chang Cheng, stretches over 10,000 li or 5,000 kilometres. Following a forty-five day long survey of 101 sections of the Wall in different provinces, the China Great Wall Academy reported on December 12, 2002 that this distance is now merely an historic record. The forces of nature and destruction at the hand of mankind are bringing about the gradual reduction of its extent with the result that less than 30% remains in good condition. The Academy has called for greater protection of this important relic.

Fight against natural calamity

On our visit to Yulin, we found that the desertification of the area is very serious. Although the government has had a forestation programme in place over the past two decades, sands drifting in the winds from Mao Wu Su Desert to the north continue to wreak havoc, especially in springtime. Much of the ruined Wall has been buried by sand and the only clue to its whereabouts is the scattered beacon towers. Photographs taken of the recent excavations of the Western Gate of Chang Le Bu indicate clearly how this once grand fortress had been completely lost under the sand.

While the effects of nature are gradual and may take effect over a quite lengthy period, the deliberate destruction by man could totally deplete the Wall in a very short space of time.

Should the new be built from the old?

The Yulin stretch of Wall lies along the route of the Yulin-Shenmu Road. Local people have described how much of the Wall here was destroyed when the road was constructed. We came across a number of beacon towers as we travelled along this road and their position confirms that the highway has been constructed on the line of the grand old fortification. Recent reports show that this is not an isolated case. In Ningxia, Shanxi, and Gansu Provinces as well as in Inner Mongolia thousands of miles of the tamped earth wall have been quarried. The rich soil from the ramparts has been used as fertilizer, while in some areas bricks have been taken for road construction as well as reservoir and house building. Some parts have been dynamited and the stone sold off. This means that traces of the wall are hard to find in some areas.This begs the question "Is it right that the new should be built from the old?"

In a small village near Chang Le Bu we came across a peasant who was busily building a stockyard of bricks taken from the Wall. Nearby, it was plain to see tracks where material had been hacked from the surface of the Wall. Although there are regulations forbidding the construction of new buildings within 150 metres of the Wall, it appears that this official announcement has failed to reach every corner of the city.

Rebuild or destroy it?

The Report cites two examples of improper Wall "restorations".

On its arrival in Dong Jia Kou, a small village in Funning County, Hebei Province, the research group found a section of the wall was being restored. It had been whitewashed and the whole section appeared like a lime wall. This kind of restoration is more akin to defacing rather than protecting. In another location, the Report states that "new" sections have been built on the original site of the Wall. This had been done with bricks and stone, whereas the according to historical record the original Wall was of tamped earth. It is as a consequence of this kind of thing that it becomes difficult for archaeologists to trace the actual ruins.

Swarms of tourists from all over the world have come to see this ancient Chinese wonder with the result that it has become trendy to walk along the Wall. The current problem is to strike a balance between the need to protect our cultural heritage and the economic benefit it engenders through the tourism it brings to the country. So many questions remain to be answered with regard to preservation and the development of tourism. Clearly, steps have to be taken to preserve the Wall in a manner that does not detract from its cultural importance while keeping it in good condition for the benefit of future generations.