CHINA HERITAGE NEWSLETTER China Heritage Project, The Australian National University
ISSN 1833-8461
No. 1, March 2005


The Great Wall of China | China Heritage Quarterly


An exhibition of old photographs of the Great Wall, many from the 1960s, that opened in Beijing in February 2005 highlights the ongoing threats faced by China's internationally best known ancient "monument". The photographs were collected by English enthusiast William Lindesay, who since 1987 has reportedly "walked 2,400 km along the Great Wall". His travels are documented in two publications – Alone on the Great Wall (Fulcrum Publishing, 1991) and The Great Wall (NY: OUP, 2003), but he is best known to Beijing's ex-pat public for cleanups of tourist-generated trash along sections of the Wall organised by the group he founded - International Friends of the Great Wall.

Fig. 1 The Great Wall at Badaling Pass, Beijing
Fig. 1 The Great Wall at Badaling Pass, Beijing

The Great Wall has come to symbolise China itself. Responding to reports on threats to the preservation of the Wall, Deng Xiaoping underscored this identity of nation and wall when in 1984 he penned the exhortation: "Let us love our country and restore our Great Wall". Given this symbolic conjunction of wall and nation, it is not surprising that one of the key jaunts for participants at Fortune Global Forum 2005, to be held in Beijing in May, will be "a walk on the wild side of the Great Wall" with William Lindesay and canapés at Commune by the Wall, an architecturally innovative resort located at the Shuiguan section of the Wall. Lauded and applauded the Wall might be, but it is tourism – with developers exploiting previously inaccessible areas – as well as inappropriate restoration and development that now loom as major threats to this set of ancient structures.

The popularly held view of the Great Wall is that this long rampart was constructed by an army of slaves working for the engineers of Emperor Qin Shihuang (259-210 BCE) who incorporated the smaller defensive walls of earlier states into a single structure that snaked across north China demarcating a boundary between agrarian and nomadic cultures that endured over millennia until rebuilt and strengthened in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Although there are elements of truth in the various parts of this popular definition of the Great Wall, the history of China's walled defences is more complex. As Arthur Waldron pointed out in The Great Wall: From History to Myth (Cambridge University Press, 1990), the walls constructed under the Qin were far from being the impressive Ming structures that we see today near Badaling in Beijing; moreover, the pre-Ming walls were not thought of as a Great Wall. In fact, there was no term for a single Great Wall in the ancient Chinese language. The modern Chinese term for the Great Wall - Wanli Changcheng, "Ten Thousand Li Long Wall", does occur in ancient texts but not as an unchanging term for a specific construction; its widespread use is modern, and its neat numerical formulation has provided a rough measure of the length of the monument that has come to serve as a sustaining national myth. The elusive nature of the Great Wall is no better demonstrated than by the fact that while the Chinese media often state that the Great Wall is a UNESCO-listed World Heritage site, UNESCO in 1987 in fact listed several sites separately – Badaling (the section of the wall in Beijing best known to tourists, see Fig. 1), Shanhaiguan (the eastern "end" of the Ming wall near Qinhuangdao adjoining the coast in Hebei province, see Fig. 2) and Jiayuguan (the complex at the western end of the Ming wall in remote Gansu province, see Fig. 3). In November 2002 a section of the Ming Great Wall at Jiumenkou built on a riverbed in north-eastern China's Liaoning province was also listed by UNESCO. The 1,704-meter Jiumenkou wall section located in Xintaizi village, Suizhong county, crosses a 100-meter wide river, where the wall takes on the characteristics of a stone bridge comprising a battery of eight piers and nine sluice gates. Built in 1381, the Jiumenkou section has undergone several major repairs and renovations. The Great Wall section at Jiumenkou became the 27th site in China to be listed by UNESCO.

Arthur Waldron certainly does not deny that the various walls which form parts of the Great Wall story testify to remarkable building programs undertaken by ancient Chinese ruling dynasties; he merely points out that the story has many breaks and gaps, and that the notion of a constant Great Wall is mythic, Chinese and non-Chinese alike being complicit in the generation of historiographies built around this construction. Although walls rarely form a part of traditional Chinese ritual concerns, they play a key role in Chinese discourses of power and provide an aesthetic for defining urban spaces and housing that resonates through Chinese architectural history.

Fig. 2 The Great Wall at Shanhaiguan, Qinhuangdao, Hebei province
Fig. 2 The Great Wall at Shanhaiguan, Qinhuangdao, Hebei province

If the Great Wall itself has a "mythic" quality, the reasons why many Chinese dynasties built walls are still debated. Walls served defensive purposes, denoted land ownership, demarcated boundaries and were used as communication lines for relaying messages. China's leading Great Wall scholar is Luo Zhewen, president of the China Society of Cultural Heritage and a specialist on ancient Chinese architecture. As the most active Great Wall conservator in the 1980s and early 1990s, Luo has characterised the wall as "a great wall of peace", stressing the defensive nature of the walled structures. This view received welcome support by archaeologists from Liaoning province who, in July 2004, reported the discovery of what they dubbed a "feminist Great Wall", specifically a section of wall constructed by soldiers under General Qi Jiguang. The soldiers' wives decorated parts of the wall with images of clouds, lotus blossoms and "fluffy balls" (xiuqiu), "symbols of peace and love". This interpretation of graffiti from a hardship post is fanciful, but another recent find is an explicit call for an undisturbed status quo: the discovery in 2002 of a Ming dynasty stone stele at the Bachakou wall crossing near Shuozhou in Shaanxi has led to the wall being seen as an ancient monument to "ecological protection". This stone tablet dated 1589 bears the 700-character text of an edict of Emperor Jiajing that banned tree-felling and called for efforts to restore pastures or return farmland to woodland. The text warned that those who violated the decree would be dealt with harshly and exiled to remote regions. However, it should be pointed out that these green concerns were designed to serve a military purpose, and the decree also referred to building a mountain pass to reinforce defences.

Many have argued that the walls served less a defensive purpose than functioned as a bureaucratic and economic organisational focus, rather like the ongoing NASA program that continues to attract massive funding despite the lack of clarity about its original military purpose. A scholar who argued that the "Great Wall" of the state of Qi, in today's Shandong, was originally constructed to thwart salt smuggling from the north (see: Guo Hongguang, "Further discussion on why the construction of the Qi Great Wall was initiated" [Qi Changcheng zhaojian yuanyin zaitan], Historical Research [Lishi yanjiu], 2000:1), was taken to task by Zhang Huasong, a scholar writing in the 30 April 2004 issue of China Cultural Relics News, who cogently drew on textual and topographic evidence to assert that the Qi walls were built to confront military threats from the south.

Fig. 3 Jiayuguan Pass, Great Wall, Gansu Province
Fig. 3 Jiayuguan Pass, Great Wall, Gansu Province

Great Wall studies (Changchengxue) is a relatively new branch of Chinese scholarship that examines the history of China's various walls, and it is a field that attracts professional archaeologists and amateur enthusiasts. The China Great Wall Society is the leading organisation championing the restoration of the Great Wall, and it has established an Academy of the Great Wall to give greater credence to its work. The society is made up of amateur and professional conservationists, architects and archaeologists dedicated to mapping, documenting and conserving China's heritage of defensive walls and their heritage, and it functions like a lobby group. In 2001 the society sent the China Great Wall Investigation Team on a 9,000 km journey to document the current condition of the complex of walls that have come to be termed collectively the Great Wall. The society's work highlighted the failure of the State Cultural Relics Bureau to map and document the locations of China's wall complexes which is the necessary first step for implementing any national protection plan. Any plan must look at each section of wall in the context of its local environment and economy. Residents in many areas are often unaware that they live adjacent to the Great Wall, and the myth of the Great Wall reinforced by images from Badaling and other impressive examples of Ming architecture has played its part in perpetuating this ignorance.

Like Arthur Waldron and Luo Zhewen, most serious Chinese Great Wall scholars know only too well that the notion of a single, unchanging Great Wall of China is erroneous. Jing Ai, an archaeologist from the Chinese Academy of Cultural Relics, has also lashed out at the ongoing conflation of the Great Wall myth by scholars who serve the interests of tourism by fancifully adding to the length and antiquity of the Great Wall. In the 30 January 2004 issue of China Cultural Relics News he attacked an unnamed scholar who attributed the construction of China's first unitary defensive Great Wall to King Zhuang (r. 613-591 BCE) of the southern kingdom of Chu, a powerful ruler more than four centuries earlier than Qin Shihuang, by pointing out that it would have been illogical for the expanding state of Chu to construct a defensive wall that would have impeded its own northern expansion. The scholar Jing Ai does not mention in his article in China Cultural Relics News is Xiao Luoyang, director of the Institute of Archaeology of Henan Province, whose assertions were not simply textually based. Xiao was discussing the archaeological discovery in 2002 of a stone and brick wall, without mortar, that had been discovered running for 800 km across Lushan, Yexian, Fangcheng and Nanzhao counties in south-western Henan. Many reacted with enthusiasm to Xiao Luoyang's interpretation of these recent finds; Dong Yaohui, president of the China Great Wall Society, described the Chu wall as "the father of the Great Wall".

Another scholar dismissed by Jing Ai has argued that "the first Great Wall" was constructed by the legendary rulers Gun and Yu in pre-Xia dynasty times, and that this Great Wall was a part of their massive hydraulic engineering projects. The latter founding story is nonsensical, but symptomatic of a trend in which local authorities and amateur scholars capitalise on the legendary associations of particular locales across China that will appeal to potential tourists, especially ethnic Chinese, from around the world. Monuments and museums are springing up across China to provide the material trappings for these new cults of ancestry and association.

Jing Ai has decried the inclusion of every rampart, bulwark, willow palisade, stockade, fortress, trench, pit and moat that constitute the limes of ancient dynasties as part of the Great Wall, but many of his arguments were questioned in the 26 March 2004 issue of China Cultural Relics News by Feng Yongqian of the Liaoning Provincial Cultural Relics and Archaeology Institute who stated, for example, that the word "Changcheng" (Great Wall) does not have to appear in the historical records of the Jin dynasty for that dynasty's "demarcation trenches" (jiehao) not to be considered part of the Wall. Feng made much of factual errors in Jing Ai's original article.

However, the recent archaeological discoveries of new stretches of wall in remote parts of China tangibly fuel the Great Wall industry and enhance the mythology. As recently as 1998 archaeologists working in Xinjiang found a wall that ran from Yumen Pass in Gansu to the northern edge of Lop Nur, skirting one of the trajectories of the Silk Road. These earthen ramparts were made of rammed yellow sandy soil and jarrah branches, but according to the late Luo Zhewen there is no doubt that this is part of the Great Wall, as it comprises a complete defensive network. This discovery extended the length of the Great Wall by 500 km, to bring the wall to a length of 7,200 km. Even fortresses and sections of the Ming Great Wall have only come to light in Ningxia in recent years after desert sands have shifted.

An exhibition in February 2005 in the newly renovated museum at the Shanhaiguan Wall curated by the China Great Wall Society and the Shanhaiguan Cultural Relics Management Office highlights the paucity of epigraphic material documenting the history of the wall's construction and the neglect until recently of the few extant "inscribed bricks". The exhibition brought together all sixteen "inscribed bricks" discovered to date at sections of the wall in Beijing and Hebei. The inscriptions on these bricks, which measure 40 cm x 20 cm x 10 cm, provide valuable information regarding the construction of the Ming section of the wall, but several record details of construction during the Northern Qi dynasty (550-577), the latter being the earliest "epigraphic records of the Great Wall" according to Dong Yaohui, deputy president of China Great Wall Society.

According to Hao Sanjin, another active member of The China Great Wall Society, his group has documented all bricks with inscriptions recovered on the Great Wall sections in Hebei and Beijing since the 1980s, when it was first noticed that characters had peeled off dilapidated bricks on the Great Wall section at Shanhaiguan Pass, the last section of the Ming wall to be built. The inscriptions on the Ming bricks are better preserved indoors, because over the past two decades they have faded because of wind and rain erosion and deterioration of the environment. Until recently, the authorities managing tourism at the Shanhaiguan section have neglected the genuine historical relics to be found here, focusing their energies on staging money-making festivals and fairs. It is time that some of the lucrative gate takings at Shanhaiguan were used for conservation purposes, because the lantern festivals and other events have exacted their toll on the wall.

Over the last two years a number of renovation projects along the Great Wall have attempted to undo some of the damage the wall continues to sustain. In late 2003 a survey team was stunned to find that real estate developers had opened a 14-meter-long breach at the undeveloped Hongyukou section of the Ming dynasty Great Wall in Hebei province not far from the site of the Qing dynasty Eastern Tombs at Dongling, and had also faced and repaired two sections of the original ramparts with cement. The development was part of the planned Hongyu Villa project of Qian'an City and Qinglong Manchu Autonomous County. Conservationists also discovered that ancient bricks removed from the Great Wall rampart had been discarded, while the inscriptions and stone cannons formerly preserved in the wall, had disappeared. The ugly landscaping and unsightly car-parks built by the developers, but not mentioned in Chinese media reports, created a devastating overall effect. Fined RMB 100,000 yuan (USD 12,000) for the damage to the Great Wall, the investor Zhou Wen argued that he was repairing the Wall and protecting it from further deterioration, but Hao Sanjin and Dong Yaohui of the Great Wall Society of China pointed out that Zhou's improper repairs at one of the best preserved sections of the Ming wall constitute a form of destruction. An investigation showed that the project was unauthorised by any cultural relic departments, and the work unit was not qualified to undertake any construction on ancient buildings. Ironically, a cultural relics protection centre had been established in Qinglong county in 1982 to protect the 184-km Great Wall in the region. With 2,000 yuan of operating funds each year, the three staff of the centre claim that they could not afford to do any real work, but clearly they were complicit in the destruction wrought by the Hongyu Villa project. In accordance with the relevant regulations on cultural relics protection and their own job descriptions, any work that might impinge on the Great Wall should have been reported to the State Bureau of Cultural Relics for approval.

In early 2004 a conservation report on the Great Wall shows that "only one third of the 6,350 kilometres of wall" now exists and the length is still shortening. The lack of awareness of conservation is a serious threat, says Dong Yaohui. Many farmers living by the wall are oblivious to declarations that that the Great Wall is under state protection. Bricks from the wall provide the materials for building courtyard walls and animal pens. In the 1980s, cultural heritage departments provided subsidies to some farmers along the Great Wall to help with the protection of cultural relics and disseminated information on protection among farmers, but the subsidies were later discontinued due to lack of funds. Lack of money for protection organisations has also tied conservationists' hands.

Maintenance and repair of the Great Wall are overwhelming tasks, and so Beijing Municipal Cultural Relics Bureau chose the Simatai section of the Great Wall as a priority restoration project for 2004. The Simatai Great Wall lies on steep mountain slopes in Miyun county, on the northern border of greater Beijing. Simatai has more beacon towers than other sections of the Great Wall. Using traditional materials and technologies, workers repaired and consolidated partially collapsed gates, battlements and wall sections. In addition, lightning conductors were attached to recently fitted iron and steel support struts and railings.

Outside Beijing the wall faces greater threats and funds are much more limited. In 2004 it was reported that in Shaanxi Province, its 2,000 km of ancient walls are all under threat. One-third of the 850 km-long structure built in the Ming dynasty has disappeared, often as a result of infrastructural and energy projects, with up to 40 openings in the Shaanxi section of the Great Wall breached by roads. A joint notice has been issued by Shaanxi provincial cultural heritage bureau, the public security department, the land and resources department, the construction department, the environmental protection department and the tourism bureau to strengthen protection and administration of the Great Wall in Shaanxi, to prohibit excessive and destructive exploitation, and to prosecute individuals or units harming the Great Wall.

A similar situation prevails in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, which boasts over 1,500 km of walls of various architectural forms from the Warring States, Qin, Han, Sui and Ming dynasties. The section of wall in Linhe built in the Ming dynasty was demolished in two places to allow roads to pass through. Although the openings were later mended, a change in public awareness is clearly required. In Ningxia's Zhongwei city, parts of the "Great Wall" built during the reign of the Qin Shihuang have disappeared as a result of accumulative erosion and human agency. The base of the Ming dynasty wall in Shizuishan city, running along the Helanshan Mountains in Ningxia, has also collapsed. Ningxia's walls are distributed over a vast area mainly composed of desert and mountains, and are fairly inaccessible to cultural relics management personnel. Local governments in these areas are very poor and lack professional protection technology.

The media clamour for conservation of the Great Wall escalated towards mid-2004 as China prepared to host the 28th Congress of UNESCO's World Heritage Committee in Suzhou, where delegates would hear reports on the efforts of the host nation to protect its listed sites. Listings can be withdrawn if conservation measures have not been adopted or implemented. As early as in 1961, the State Council had promulgated a regulation on cultural relics protection, requiring protection zones for the Great Wall to be demarcated, and designating organisations to take charge of Great Wall protection and to build up records and files for the Great Wall, but Dong Yaohui, president of the China Great Wall Society, points out that there are still no protection zones for most segments of the Great Wall, and he appealed to the central government to make a thorough survey of the entire Great Wall and prepare detailed records as reference for future wall restoration. He also suggested the government enact specific regulations on Great Wall protection, which stipulate punishment measures for wall destruction and clearly define the rights and duties of the Great Wall protection organisations. [BGD]