Seeing the Great Wall in China is a must-do for many travelers. Most who make it there end up in parts like the Beijing area’s Badaling section, which is well preserved but swarming with visitors, including over 385,000 (link in Chinese) during last year’s weeklong National Day holiday alone.
For years there was a more authentic experience to be had on Yan Mountain, in the Liaoning province to the east. There a “wild stretch” of the wall called Xiaohekou retained the original essence of the structure. Running for a length of about 9 km (5.6 miles), it showed plenty of wear and tear. Then again, it was 700 years old. The crooked walkway, missing stones, and crumbling edges were part of the picturesque charm.
But the charm is gone. (Warning: Anyone who cares about architectural conservation might want to stop reading here.) The “most beautiful wild stretch” of the wall, as Xiaohekou was nicknamed, has been “repaired” with an ugly slab (link in Chinese) of what looks like concrete along the top. The tone-deaf restoration work took place in 2014, but the widespread outrage over it didn’t hit the Chinese internet until yesterday, after a netizen in a discussion forum posted pictures (link in Chinese) that quickly went viral.
The outrage over the work might be late, but it’s intense, and officials who approved it suddenly find themselves on the defensive.
The state-mouthpiece People’s Daily is among those deriding the work. On its official Weibo account, it wrote (link in Chinese):
An original wild stretch of the Great Wall has been changed from the original look. Even if there was a need to restore the Wall, it should have followed the Protection Ordinance’s principle.
Introduced in 2006, the Great Wall Protection Ordinance stated that “the repair and restoration of the Great Wall should keep the original scene by principle.”
Few would say the work done at Xiaohekou followed that guidance, except perhaps the officials who ordered it. The work was “legal,” said Wang Jianhua of the Suizhong County Heritage Conservation Bureau, and it was approved by the national State Administration of Cultural Heritage. It was also necessary for safety reasons, he told Huashang Newspaper (link in Chinese).
That earned howls on social media. One commenter noted under the People’s Daily post that the gates and walls of the Forbidden City underwent annual maintenance, but unlike Xiaohekou, they weren’t ruined in the process. The comment received about 230 likes.
Another commenter asked why the provincial government wasn’t taking more blame, noting it’s unusual for a county official to get approval straight from a national organization like the State Administration of Cultural Heritage. “So county-level governments can now pass provincial levels and apply to the central government directly?”
The Suizhong County Heritage Conservation Bureau also defended the work by noting that the ugly grey material was not in fact concrete, but rather lime mortar (link in Chinese). Like the project itself, it seemed to be missing the point entirely.