Battles and Scrapes for WMF at the Great Wall
I first heard of World Monuments Fund in 2001 after leaving the UNESCO Beijing office somewhat disillusioned.
I had been to see UNESCO to show them a collection of photographs that showed various kinds of damage to the Great Wall, mainly at Huanghuacheng. Developments were creeping up close to the Wall, and local farmers had claimed watchtowers as their own and placed ladders in key positions to earn a few yuan for each person who used them. One tower in particular was of special concern because the farmer had erected a permanent metal-shelter within a tower so he could be there day and night and not miss collecting a toll.
The UNESCO representative was clearly shocked at the evidence, and he confirmed that World Heritage listing requires the host nation to report any impact to listed monuments.
I explained that the site of Huanghuacheng was about the closest section of the Great Wall to Beijing, yet such problems occurred. We could only image what graver problems existed further away, in the provinces. I asked about the UNESCO World Heritage in Danger List.
“That would only antagonise the Dragon!” came the response. “But you might look into the World Monuments Fund,” he said.
World Monuments Fund (WMF) is the world’s largest and earliest private conservation organisation, and is based in New York. Every two years the WMF publishes the ‘List of the World’s Most 100 Endangered Sites’ in order to focus attention on the most tragic conservation issues around the world. 2002 would be the next listing, so I requested a brochure and application form.
Listing the Great Wall in the Beijing area as an endangered site, would I thought, help put the plight of capital’s Great Wall higher on the cultural relics protection agenda. However, for applications to be considered, they needed to supported by a local government level body.
I wasn’t very optimistic about obtaining such support, but I tried nevertheless. I had already shown the photo evidence to the Beijing Bureau for Cultural Relics, so made a return visit to introduce the concept of WMF listing. Some of my photos showed newly-built structures quite close to the Wall, which was a concern of the bureau. They agreed to support the nomination provided that the site in danger was described as ‘The Great Wall landscape, Beijing Region’. The application was submitted, and we would be informed of the outcome in October of that year.
In the meantime a group of donors to the WMF visited Beijing, principally to visit a palace in the Forbidden City where renovation of fine arts was being financed by an American donor who was born in China in the early 20th century. The Vice President of WMF, Mr Henry Ng telephoned me to ask if I could take a group of several donors as well as reporter covering their China visit, to see a section of Wild Wall. I agreed, and we drove to Huanghuacheng.
I was mainly concerned with the presence of white-tiled building that stuck out like sore thumbs just a couple of hundred metres away from the Wall. We walked along the Wall and before long reached a watchtower with a ladder at the entrance, which was about 2 meters above the height of the Wall pavement itself. The farmer manned the ladder and took a toll of 2 yuan per person for using it. We climbed up, one by one. But Mark, the reporter, was tall and strong, and said he didn’t’ want to use it — on principle. He managed to climb into the tower without touching the ladder.
Preparing to settle up, I said to the farmer “Ok, so five us, two yuan each, that’s ten yuan, here you are…” handing him a grey note.
“No, there’s six of you…”
“Yes, there are six of us, but only FIVE of us used your ladder….”
Mark reiterated in perfect Chinese the fact that he hadn’t touched the ladder.
So off we went.
I was a few steps outside the tower and I heard a bit of s scuffle from the top of the tower and sensed something flying nearby. A bird swooping perhaps?
No, a whole Great Wall! We were being attacked. A brick shattered on the pavement right beside us!
Up on the top storey of the tower stood the farmer, swearing and shouting — and just about to hurl another brick. I pushed one donor out of its path as we hurried to get out of this madman’s range.
“If one of these stones hit any of us, I’ll call the police and you’ll go to prison — there’s six of us seeing what you, one person, is doing!” I shouted.
Of course logic means nothing to a madman, so we hurried off.
We had narrowly averted a disaster that would have made the front pages…..because….this group of WMF supporters had collectively donated more than 2 million dollars to conservation projects in China. And they’d been violently attacked by a farmer hurling several Great Wall bricks from the advantageous height of four metres!
The team had received a very vivid indication of the chaotic state of the Wall on Beijing’s doorstep.
No surprise that the 2002 listing did indeed include the Great Wall landscape of the Beijing Region. In fact the site was re-listed in 2004.
As journalists met me to talk about conservation issues, I would always mention this contribution, but hardly any dared to include the fact in their reports.
I’m prompted to write this story because just last weekend I was asked by a travel agency to escort another group of WMF donors to visit the Great Wall, and by sheer coincidence they would see yet another of the Wall’s many ailments right in front of their very eyes.
We visited Mutianyu, a section of tourist wall replete with surveillance cameras, guards and even a special tower where visitors are encouraged to put their graffiti.
As I stood on the battlement, explaining the purpose of the merlons and loopholes, a suited man walked towards me and stopped a couple of meters away. I heard a rattle, and in the corner of my eye noticed him lifting what appeared to be a bunch of keys, perhaps with a small knife or nail clippers. Then he proceeded, right beside me, and many others walking the Wall, to scrape characters on one of the bricks…
I interrupted my explanation….and interrupted his composition.
“Hey, d’you know what this is?” I said, pointing to a brick, “and d’you know what this is?” looking all around.
He looked at me with a blank expression.
“That’s a brick of the Great Wall of China!”
“And there are regulations stipulating fines of up to 30,000 yuan for wantonly damaging the Wall.”
We came down from the Wall. We had lunch. And we got not the bus ready to drive back to Beijing.
One WMF donor sat beside me and said “D’you know what was the most impressive aspect of our visit today?”
“Of course the Wall — it looked so great in the snow!”
“No” he said, “It was you, you were brilliant and you showed us what a great advocate you are for this monument …”