Op-Ed Contributors

Save the Great Wall from philistines

By David Chard (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-06-17 07:55
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China's most famous icon is the Great Wall. This national symbol of Chinese strength and determination has stood for thousands of years and remains one of China's most popular and enduring tourist attractions.

As a 35-year resident of Asia and a fluent Putonghua speaker, I have traveled to Beijing countless times on business. But I never managed to find time to visit the Great Wall and experience its grandeur. I had to be content with studying its history and watching the awe-inspiring documentary films on Discovery and National Geographic channels. I always looked forward to the time when I would stand on the Great Wall and be able to get a personal sense of its majesty and mystery.

Last month I was in Beijing, again on business, and I found myself with a day of free time. I was determined to visit the Great Wall this time. My hotel helped me hire a car and a guide and 90 minutes later we arrived at the entrance to Mutianyu, said to be one of the most photogenic stretches of the Great Wall. With great excitement I walked up past the tourist shops and up the steps to the Great Wall itself. I admit, I was thrilled and couldn't believe my luck.

All that changed, however, after walking about 50 meters. To my utter amazement, I saw two Dutch women, happily scratching their names into the wall! I could not believe my eyes. In full public view, two foreign tourists felt it was no problem defacing a historical monument, a monument that is the pride of the Chinese people.

Unable to stop myself, I walked up to them and asked: "What do you think you are doing?" One of them smiled and replied: "It's OK, everyone is doing it!" I then asked her: "If everyone decided to jump off this wall would you follow them? I hope you do!"

My guide, who understood English, later said to me: "Thank you for doing that. I get very angry when I see such things, but I dare not say anything. It's great that you made them think about what they did."

As I continued along the wall, I found many parts that were completely covered with graffiti - mostly people's names scratched into the bricks. There were one or two names in Chinese - the vast majority were the handiwork of foreign tourists. Reflecting on this on the way back to my hotel, a number of questions arose in my mind:

1. What would happen to a Chinese tourist who dared to scratch his name into the wall of the Louvre in Paris? Or into the bricks of a canal house in Amsterdam? Or into the side of one of the Pyramids? The Washington Monument? (My guess is he/she would be immediately arrested and probably slapped a stiff fine and/or jailed.)

2. What goes in the minds of foreign tourists who do such things? Have they not been educated to show respect to another country's national icons? Do they practise double standards?

3. How can people in China allow this to continue? Would it not make sense to put up a sign at the entrance telling visitors that the Great Wall is not a public blackboard and that anyone caught defacing it will be subject to fine, imprisonment or both? (Better yet: Anyone caught defacing the wall would have to spend two days cleaning it as punishment.) The authorities can then take some photographs of this signboard and send them to the international wire services to get the message across: China welcomes tourists but does not tolerate defacing of its heritage sites.

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