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The Great Wall Goes Missing
William Lindesay has documented the danger facing China’s Great Wall in a series of stunning photographs. After digging up photographs and drawings made over the past 200 years, Lindesay has gone back to the same spot and retaken the same image. After recounting his 2,470 km trek along remains of the Wall, in the 1989 book Alone on the Great Wall, Lindesay founded International Friends of the Great Wall, a group of enthusiasts dedicated to preserving its glories. It has taken him five years to hunt down and capture 65 pairs of images of places scattered across the breadth of China. Confronted by this fresh evidence of the acute threat, the Chinese government is taking action but is it too late to save the Wall? This is the story of Lindesay’s journey.
The G312 road runs westwards, a thin ribbon linking China’s teeming coastal cities with the barren spaces of central Asia. In 1987, it was a lonely remote place when I rested, thirsty and footsore, under a mud gate tower grateful for the shadow it cast. I took a photograph of the only other living things – a reluctant mule hauling a two-wheeled cart loaded with sticks and a driver wrapped up in a sullen silence.
"The Sister Towers aren't here anymore, they're gone," cried 82-year-old Lu Wencai when the century-old photograph placed in his hands came into focus. The Sister Towers at Gubeikou – two watchtowers side by side overlooking a river-- may have constituted a unique architectural assemblage on the entire 6,700-km-long Great Wall. According to Lu Wencai who lives in a hamlet just 200 metres away from the towers (now reduced to rubble and no longer beside the river which has almost run dry), they were first damaged by Japanese bombers as they targeted Chinese forces using the towers as machine-gun posts during the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45). Later, in the early 1970s, when the People’s Liberation Army built a railway up the valley, soldiers dismantled the towers for bricks used in building makeshift shelters. "Once the army left we collected the bricks and used them ourselves," said Lu. "I hope that one day our country is rich enough to rebuild the Sister Towers." he added. When I returned 18 years later, a six-lane expressway swept through the Wall. Rows of shacks competed to offer food and other comforts to the long-distance truckers who now roam the Gansu corridor, the ancient caravan trial of the Silk road. The new highway linking Lanzhou with the great oil fields and refineries of Xinjiang had blasted out a wide tranche of the Great Wall.
Two thousand miles east where the Great Wall dips its head into the Yellow Sea, it was the same story of change. At the ‘First Pass Under Heaven’ in the Shanhaiguan fortress town, I looked in vain for the great white stone lions which had guarded the huge gates for five centuries. They had gone and so had the Buddhist temple which figured in the photograph taken in 1910
In 1937 the Chinese photographer Sha Fei had taken one of China’s most famous wartime resistance images. It showed cheering Nationalist troops gathered on a watchtower north of Beijing preparing to defend the capital against the Japanese invaders, just as the Chinese garrisons had stood guard against invaders from the North for century after century. When I came back to the exact spot where Sha Fei had stood 60 years earlier, the tower had collapsed.
The Great Wall came under the protection of UNESCO as a world heritage site after 1987 but it must now withstand forces greater and powerful than Japan’s Kwantung Army, which had bombed the Kuomintang forces camped on the wall. In 1984 paramount leader Deng Xiaoping had had called on the Chinese people to 'love the great wall’ and to protect it. Yet the forces he unleashed has created an uncontrolled boom and the assault is coming from all sides.
Local peasants have raided the wall for bricks for their houses and the state has built a network of roads and railways that must inevitably breach this defensive wall if central China is to be linked with the great industries and cities of the northeast.
And there is not just one wall but many. Some are made of tamped down mud, washed down by the rain for 2,200 years since the first Chinese emperor, Qinshi Huang, unified the country. Others were made thick and solid with bricks and mortar by the Ming emperors 400 years ago to guard against the Manchus and Mongols. Beijing is surrounded by a complex lattice of overlapping walls, fortresses and guard towers.
It was said that guards manning watchtowers at its eastern end would have witness the sun rising 90 minutes before their counterparts at its western end.
There is so much that the wall has defied cartographers’ best efforts to map it but it is thought that the Ming dynasty section alone extends for 6,700 kilometers
This, not any of the early walls, is the one which entered Western consciousness when in the 16th century Jesuit missionaries wrote letters back to Europe describing a long defensive rampart in the empire’s north. It made its printed debut in the first map of China ever published in Europe. This is the 1584 Theatrum Orbis Terrarum or The Theatrum of the Whole World, created by Abraham Ortelius in Antwerp.
It was drawn as a continuous solid wall, replete with turrets and towers, establishing a legend that was never challenged. It was shown like this on the Oxford School Atlas used by generations of English schoolboys and which first inspired me to dream of walking the structu7re.
Even the cartographic experts at the National Geographic accepted the myth and when in 1982 I purchased a globe from their headquarters in Washington D.C, the Great Wall of China was the only man made construction marked on it. All these maps turned out to be wrong, utterly misleading.
How did I discover this? By the simple but effective method of following the wall from West to East. In 1987, I ran and walked the wall for 78 days, probably the first person to do so for hundreds of years. For half my journey, the wall was simply not there. It had gone missing - AWOL if you like - for long stretches.
For a long time no quite believed me. Then in May 2006, the Beijing Evening News even ran a headline which announced ‘Half the Great Wall has disappeared!”
Nobody knows how or when it disappeared. We know that the wall suffered from neglect after the Ming dynasty fell to the Manchus who crossed it in 1644 and conquered China. Sections still exist, of course, but it is no longer as contiguous, long or complete as it used to be. What had happened to the rest?
One day a curious letter arrived that started me on a new journey. Majorie Hessel-Tiltman, widow of The Times Tokyo correspondent before World War II told me about a long-forgotten book in her study
This is The Great Wall of China by a now-obscure American photographer William Geil (1865-1925), a modest missionary from Doylestown, PA, who in 1907 became the first westerner to explore and photograph the Great Wall. One depicts a remote section of the fortifications in Hebei province, about 150 km east of Peking which stayed in my mind for a long time. The view seemed strangely familiar but where was it?
One morning, it hit me. I had been there myself and taken exactly the same shot. In his frame Geil sat, wearing a pith helmet, and on mine, I had wore a furry ex-Chinese army hat with a red star. Then, I noticed a watchtower in the centre of Geil’s photograph was missing.
In the intervening 80 years, the wall had fallen down or been torn down. By using old images of the wall, one could demonstrate how much of the Wall had gone which would bolster further my life-long effort to preserve its magnificence for future generations. The ghost wall could protect the existing wall.
A new technology, the Internet, helped me contact people all over the world who might provide images from the past.Digital scanning made it convenient to copy rare paintings and photos and for me to take them out into the field.
In the spring 2004, armed with a folder full of 300 images, I set out to another long hike. One caption of a William Geil photograph, for instance, said ‘Sixty li south of Cha’chienkow’, which presented two riddles. The place name was no help. All my attempts to pronounce ‘Cha’chienkow’ were met with shrugs and stares from Chinese. The measure word li is even less helpful, it is not fixed distance but rather denotes the time it takes to cover a length of ground.
Usually I started out by going around villages and showing my portfolio of photographs in the hope that some an old man would identify the scene. One steamy summer day I found myself searching for a Geil photo captioned “A superb view of the Great Wall erected by Emperor Wan Li” showing four watchtowers.
I retook the exact shot. This was what I christened the art of ‘re-photography’ linking past and present with two pictures. After noting all GPS data in my notebook, it struck me as being more than a current project, but part of a work-in-progress. Someone, century hence, a third William would take the same view.
Finding out what had happened to the lost towers is no easier. I had assumed that Mao Zedong’s furious Cultural Revolution assault on China’s past accounted for much of the destruction. A more complex pattern came to light when I tracked down the story of the ‘twin sisters’. Watchtowers were used as relay stations for the transmission of signals along the wall and near Gubeikou are two side-by-side overlooking the River Chao.
In the 1930s, the Japanese had bombed KMT troops holding out against the invasion and bombs struck the sisters. The top halves of the towers, made of bricks, were removed in the mid 1970s when Chinese troops built a railway. It was either 1973 or 1974 and the soldiers wanted bricks to hold down the canvas of their makeshift tents. After they left, the farmers used the bricks for walls. Now there is just a large mound of rubble at the base of a black cliff.