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Since 1998

Saving the Wall

I Beautified the Great Wall!

In April 1998 I organised the first ever public clean-up on the Great Wall. This simple action has, over the years, become a milestone event in the history of conservation of the monument and its environment.

   Harnessing the efforts of 100 people, both foreigners and Chinese in roughly equal numbers, and the attention of a dozen or so journalists, the historic day of action put the neglected issue of the Great Wall’s physical degradation and spiritual degeneration on the agendas of cultural relics protection ‘organs’ in China, and food for thought in the minds of the Chinese people. Each participant on thatday wore a T-Shirt with the words “Wo Meihuale Changcheng” (我美化了长城), meaning “I Beautified the Great Wall!’. 

   Asked whether the event, at Jinshanling, was a one-off, or the start of a prolonged campaign, I pledged to "carry on for as long as is necessary, at least during my own lifetime.” I have done so. As I write this summary of ‘Saving the Wall’ (July, 2016) I can report that in the first half of 2016 I have organised five mass clean-ups. In total, me, my family and our supporters have removed more than 200 bags of trash from the Wall. 

   What we have done in our 19th year of action is a measure of the severity of the issue, a tip of the iceberg problem within a slew of serious attacks on the Great Wall-- and a question with much wider implications.  Overloaded with garbage bags, standing on the iconic ramparts, said to symbolise the culture of China, I look around and ask a poignant question:

 “If people trash this — a world heritage, national icon, and awesome monument of human effort — then what hope does the ordinary land down there have, in far off provinces?”

International Friends of the Great Wall




A second clean-up followed in autumn of 1998. A journalist asked me “Who are the people helping you today?” I thought for a second and replied “They are international friends of the Great Wall.”


My ‘Calling Cards’

The early press reports on my clean-up efforts served as my calling card to approach and then meet with officials at state level and Beijing level in order to talk about about Great Wall conservation issues. Although I was the first foreigner to make a journey on foot along the Great Wall, and the first in modern times to write a book about seeing the Great Wall from end to end, it was becoming the most famous foreign garbage collector in China that allowed me to get my foot in the door and talk about the Great Wall. In those meetings I referred to the Great Wall  as “an open-air museum without a curator”.

Bins and Signs


In 1999 I won corporate support to purchase garbage bins, which were donated to Jinshanling Great Wall — where they remained, functioning well, for well over a decade. Today, among the sections of tourist Great Wall, Jinshanling has by far the highest level of environmental care, with unobtrusive garbage receptacles and green-message signage.

   In the same year I also placed signs asking people to “Take Nothing But Photographs, Leave Nothing But Footprints’ on paths leading up to a section of Wild Wall in Huairou District. Another first!

A Countryside Code


As early as 2003 I suggested nine concrete ways in which visitors to Wild Wall, and all wilderness and countryside areas, could help protect the environment. Boards with the Countryside Code were placed beside trails in both Huairou District and Funing County (Hebei).

The First Ranger Team on Wild Wall


Another first for ‘International Friends of the Great Wall’ was an initiative that all motivated members of society end up doing: when you see something that needs doing, then do it. Set a good example. 

    I raised funding on an annual basis to employ six farmers to walk trails leading up to the Great Wall, and along it. This program lasted for 10 years. Another first! The cost of the program, which kept about 8 km of Great Wall in respectable condition, worked out at no more than 150 yuan per day — that’s US$ 25.-


Methods Matter Most, Money Matters Less


My ranger scheme proved that mega-bucks are not needed to protect the body and soul of the Great Wall. That, in fact, is quite cheap. But what really matters is method and motivation.

     The Great Wall, rather like the human race, is afflicted with a plethora of health problems, and there is no panacea. An inspection of one area can identify some of its problems. Those problems can be alleviated, even solved, by simple schemes, mechanisms or labour work. They only require modicums of funding and most importantly knowledgeable management. 

“Who are we, if we cannot cherish the Great Wall?”


During the Long March in 1935, Mao Zedong wrote a poem called ‘Liupanshan’ (Mt. Liupan), in which a line reads ‘Who are we if we cannot reach the Great Wall?’

    These characters in Mao's own hand have been carved onto ornamental rocks at many Great Wall tourist sites. The context of these words should be understood, as he was not trying to boost tourist numbers at the Great Wall. No, he was encouraging his men to go the extra mile. He had already led them across China, and had probably decided that his new Communist base area would be just south of the Great Wall in Shaanxi Province, about 500 km further northeast from Mt. Liupan.

   Nowadays, its not too difficult to reach the Great Wall. But the facts — the garbage, the graffiti, the encroachment of development — show that it’s difficult to it.

World Monuments Fund — 100 ‘Endangered Sites’


In 2002, with the support of the Beijing authorities, I nominated the Great Wall landscape of the Beijing Municipality to be listed as an endangered site by the World Monuments Fund (WMF). The bi-annual listing aims to inform the world as to which cultural heritage sites are facing threats. 

   In 2004 I once again nominated the site, and it was duly listed, helping make people around the world and in China aware that the Great Wall near the booming capital was coming under threatening attacks, this time from the city’s urbanites, not northern nomads.


Call for UNESCO Re-assessment


The present inscription of the Great Wall as a UNESCO World Heritage, being regarded as a ‘Cultural Heritage’, overlooks one major of the Great Wall’s attributes which make it unique and ultra-worthy of protection.

   Principally, the majesty of the Great Wall is best appreciated t where the Wall itself is seen crossing mountainous terrain. The beauty of this backdrop is clear, but most importantly it should be appreciated that the land beside the Wall is an integral part of its evolutionary and operational story. 

  Military personnel in the form of detachments of military families settled the land and then sourced and manufactured the various building materials that they would later use in its construction. Archaeologically therefore the land inside the Wall is part of its construction story. 

   It should be considered an urgent task to have the inscription of the Great Wall as a World Heritage reassessed as a cultural-natural site. In this way the inscription may offer some assistance to the protection of the Wall’s important surroundings.

   Ultimately, protection work should not only be concerned with ‘The Great Wall of China’ but rather ‘The Great Wall Landscape of China’ — because there is no other place in there world that possesses such extensive cultural-natural qualities.

Presenting Evidence


Inspired by William Geil’s journey along the Great Wall of 1908, 'we made a journey along the Wall in the past and present’ starting 2003. For five years I ‘rephotographed’ many of the images that featured in William Geil’s book ‘The Great Wall of China”, published in 1909.

  Our results were presented, most significantly to the Chinese people, via a book and exhibition. Our aim: to influence a better future for the Great Wall by showing how much Wall had been lost.

    'The Great Wall Revisited' was the first book about the Great Wall written by a foreigner, and translated into Chinese, and published in China!

   An exhibition of the same name was staged at Beijing’s Capital Museum in 2007.

  Instead of being told that the Great Wall was being damaged, destroyed, or had even disappeared, the public  could at last view some indisputable evidence.

This is My Namecard!


A simple cloth bag printed with the Countryside Code has become my name-card. Supported by Black Yak, thousands of the bags have been distributed to people heading into the great outdoors. It’s just the start. We need tens of millions of such bags out there, being used.

Make Every Day An Earth Day!


In April 2016, I organised a group of 90 volunteers to join me to pick up garbage on the Wall. It was the day after ‘Earth Day’, so I seized on the 'bad timing' to make it known that with the Earth in such an environmental mess we can’t afford just to focus on doing one good thing once a year, we have to make it a daily habit. A new campaign was born!


"Make every day an Earth Day!"

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