STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's talk about the world's largest fortification. It's a symbol of the world's oldest continuously existing civilization. We're talking about the Great Wall of China. Roughly one-third of its 12,000 miles are in ruins. Now saving the rest may be the world's greatest task of cultural preservation. NPR's Anthony Kuhn met some people who've taken up that challenge.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: We're walking up a new set of steps to the Great Wall. We've just walked through an ancient fortified village, which used to be a garrison for soldiers protecting the wall at an important pass.
The village is where the eastern end of the Great Wall runs into the sea. Qiao Guohua lives here. He's one of the wall's modern-day defenders. The local government gives him a uniform and about $150 a year to patrol a five-mile stretch of the wall. For nearly two millennia until the 1600s, this wall was the frontier, separating the agriculture-based civilization of China from nomadic peoples of the Eurasian Steppe, including the Mongols and the Manchus. Qiao Guohua says the wall is still a sort of internal dividing line. He points to the north.
QIAO GUOHUA: (Through interpreter) On that side is a Manchu autonomous county. On this site are ethnic Han people. Over there, they bury their dead. On this side, we cremate ours. The policies are different.
KUHN: Qiao looks out for and reports places where the wall is in danger of collapsing. He also keeps his eye on tourists who may want to take a piece of the wall home as a souvenir. He says he does this job simply because it's important.
QIAO GUOHUA: (Through interpreter) Every stretch of this wall was built with the blood and the sweat of the working people. After I tell folks how many people died building it, they begin to get in the habit of protecting the wall.
KUHN: Back in the village, Qiao says that when he was a child, the wall's towers and battlements made of brick more than 400 years ago were still in excellent condition. But during the 1970s, under Chairman Mao during the Cultural Revolution, officials encouraged people to dismantle the wall and use the bricks to build their own homes. Qiao points at a large stone built into the wall of one village home.
QIAO GUOHUA: (Through interpreter) You don't see these stones anywhere else. It's ancient. See that? That piece was taken from the wall.
KUHN: In another village not far away lives a man Xu Guohua. He grew up playing on the Great Wall. A few years ago, he discovered more than 200 large kilns, where bricks used to make the Great Wall were baked. Xu opened a museum full of Great Wall artifacts he's discovered. But he also found something else, a personal connection to the Great Wall. One summer not long ago, a stretch of the wall near his home collapsed. And in the rubble, Xu found a stone tablet, which he shows me.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Chinese).
KUHN: They're using a cloth to wipe the stone tablet, wiping some of the dust off. We're trying to find the name of Mr. Xu's ancestor on this tablet.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Chinese).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Speaking Chinese).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Chinese).
KUHN: Found it. Xu says the tablet confirms what is written in his family's genealogy, that his ancestor was an official who helped build this section of the wall.
XU GUOHUA: (Through interpreter) After four centuries, we descendants are still connected to him. We are still watching over the Great Wall and protecting it.
KUHN: Up on the Great Wall above Xu's museum, I talked to Dong Yaohui, vice chairman of a civic group called the China Great Wall Society. He says the job of saving what remains of the wall is too big a task for China's government alone. His plan is to mobilize society and have companies and individuals sponsor sections of the wall.
DONG YAOHUI: (Through interpreter) See these bricks in the wall? Each one is very ordinary. But together in large numbers, they make a magnificent wall. Protecting the wall is the same idea. Each person or company we get to contribute to the effort is like a brick.
KUHN: Dong Yaohui already has pilot sponsorship programs up and running. The sponsorship money goes to pay local communities and governments to patrol and repair the wall. He's pressing China's national government to adopt his plan nationwide. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Qinhuangdao (ph).
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