The Great Wall of China extends from the seaside province of Hushan on the east to just past the tower approaching Jiayuguan to the west. It is so long, no one can agree on how long it is, or was, but it is estimated to have been 4,000 miles long at one point in its existence.
It is not one continuous wall. There are breaks, there are places where separate walls break away from the main wall, and there are obviously places that allow for movement from one side of the structure to the other.
But, not unlike when it performed its historical purpose of guarding China from marauders, The Great Wall today is under attack at nearly every mile by progress, scavengers, tourists and, amazingly, apathy.
There are numerous efforts, some government-sponsored and some very local, to protect the Great Wall of China from the damage being done by modern times and modern hooligans. Every Province in which the wall passes through tells a different tale of misuse, insufficient care and outright vandalism.
Approximately one-third of the Great Wall has disappeared, crumbling to dust after the close to 3,000 years of existence, dating back to around 770 B.C. when the Zhou Dynasty first began to build walls to serve as barriers between states.
The stories of its decay have been running for decades, and the Smithsonian Institute and National Public Radio have sent journalists in recent years to study the Great Wall at key points along the path.
It is a crime today to damage the Great Wall of China, but there are no funds or security personnel to make sure the law is enforced. According to Dong Yaohui, who started a grassroots preservation effort that turned into what today is called the China Great Wall Society, “the problem is not lack of laws, but failure to put them into practice.”
The Ming Dynasty believed in the power and strength the Great Wall of China displayed, but when that dynasty ended, more modern thoughts prevailed. In the 1960s, The Red Guard of Chinese leader Mao Zedong destroyed sections of the wall, claiming that it stood as a relic of a feudal time.
When Mao’s reign ended, his successor, Deng Xiaoping, took the opposite stance toward the Great Wall, creating a rally cry in 1984 which is still heard today: “Love China, Restore the Great Wall”. Deng started a repair and reconstruction campaign along the wall north of Beijing, the most visible and tourist-heavy area of the wall.
In populated areas frequently visited by tourists, the Great Wall is profitable. There are T-shirts and photo opportunities and camel rides and a cable car that will take visitors to the top of the wall.
The Chinese government has no concerns about using the Great Wall for promotional purposes. A golf tournament kicked off with tee shots fired from the wall in the outskirts of Beijing. Fendi, the French-owned fashion house, used the wall as a catwalk for a fashion extravaganza.
“People see only the exploitable value of the wall and not its historical value,’’ Dong said.
An opposing force of concern for the wall is the apathy that exists along the thousands of miles of terrain. Sheep farmer Ding Shangyi told the Smithsonian magazine he has no special feeling about the wall, even though it serves as protection from desert winds for his own livestock. “The Great Wall was built for war,’’ Ding said. “What is it good for now?”
Nature plays a role in the destruction of the wall as well. There are areas where the wall is surrounded by desert, created by the Chinese back when the wall was built on the belief that the forest around the wall would serve as a hiding place for marauders. Without the forest to protect it, the Great Wall faces constant assault from nature’s winds and rains.
In 2012, a section of the Great Wall in north China’s Hebei Province collapsed after days of continuous rain. Strong currents of water from the mountains crushed the Dajingmen section of the Great Wall in Zhanjiakou. That section of the wall was built during the Ming Dynasty, which ran almost 300 years from the mid-1300s to the mid-1600s.
One serious problem that transcends all of the wall’s problems is that there are no Chinese academics anywhere in the world who specializes in the history and physical status of the Great Wall.
"What exactly is the Great Wall?" asked He Shuzhong, founder and chairman of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (CHP), a nongovernmental organization, in the Smithsonian article. "Nobody knows exactly where it begins or ends. Nobody can say what its real condition is."
A Chinese-sponsored International Friends of the Great Wall is conducting a 10-year survey to determine the wall’s current length and its physical condition.
“Only when we know exactly what is left of the Great Wall can we begin to understand how it might be saved,’’ said preservationist William Lindesay, head of the International Friends.
"The Great Wall is a miracle, a cultural achievement not just for China but for humanity," said Dong of the China Great Wall Society. "If we let it get damaged beyond repair in just one or two generations, it will be our lasting shame.”
Kent McDill is a staff writer for Millionaire Corner. McDill spent 30 years as a sports writer, working for United Press International and the Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, Ill. From 1988-1999, he covered the Chicago Bulls for the Daily Herald, traveling with them every day through the nine-month season. He also covered the Bulls for UPI from 1985-88, and currently covers the team for www.nba.com. He has written two books on the Bulls, including the new title “100 Things Bulls Fans Should Know And Do Before They Die’, published by Triumph Books. In August 2013, his new book “100 Things Bears Fans Should Know And Do Before They Die” gets published.
In 2008, he resigned from the Herald and became a freelance writer. The Herald hired him to write business features and speeches for the Daily Herald Business Conferences and Awards presentations.
McDill also writes a monthly parenting column for the Herald’s Suburban Parent magazine.
McDill is the father of four children, and an active fan of soccer, Jimmy Buffett and all things Disney.