China Botches Great Wall Restoration, Big Time

Whoops: A previously 'wild' section of the China Great Wall in the northeastern Liaoning province now resembles a flat cement walkway due to what's being called a restoration-gone-wrong. (Photo: STR/AFP//Getty Images)

Add this one to the annals of well-meaning spiff-up jobs gone awry. Really awry.

In 2014, a 700-year-old stretch of the Great Wall of China — a network of ancient fortifications winding from the North Korea-abutting Liaoning province in the southeast to Jiayuguan City in the Mongolia-bordering Gansu province in the northwest — was quietly restored to protect it from further erosion-related damage.

This in itself isn’t that big of deal for the UNESCO World Heritage Site-listed tourist magnet. Certain sections of the 13,170-mile-long defensive barrier-cum-world landmark have fallen into an extensive state of ruin over the centuries and have, in turn, been subject to extensive repairs. This includes a particularly photogenic section constructed during the Ming Dynasty just north of Beijing.

However, many local governments in which decaying sections of the wall pass through struggle to maintain their piece of the treasured monument. Sizable stretches of the world’s largest man-made structure have been neglected, left to be ravaged by vandalism, theft, unchecked plant growth and severe weather. In some rural areas, the Great Wall has been dismantled, brick-by-brick, by farmers.

The China Great Wall Society estimates that, in total, two-thirds of the Great Wall has been damaged with the Smithsonian noting that only 8.2 percent of the structure’s total length reported to be in “good condition.”

The 2014 “emergency” restoration job in question was performed along a 1.2-mile “wild” stretch of the Great Wall in Suizhong county, Liaoning province, to prevent further damage — damaged largely unleashed by Mother Nature herself. Just now are the unfortunate — and extremely aesthetically unpleasing — results of the repairs coming to light.

Apparently, local officials’ wall-saving solution was to essentially pave the stone structure over with concrete creating, in the words of NPR, something that looks more like a “gray sidewalk than a global treasure.” The New York Times likens it to a “cement skateboarding lane dumped into the wilderness.” CNN calls it “a repair job so ugly you can probably see it from space.” Ouch.

As you can see, what once appeared to be an ancient crumbling relic dating back to 1381 now looks just, well, perfectly hideous.

While unclear why it took so long — over two years! – for anyone to first notice the 5-mile-long concrete eyesore (this particular part of the Great Wall’s remote locale likely has something to do with it), public reaction to the botched restoration has been unrelenting.

Great Wall of China, botched restoration.
From rough and rugged to smooth and flat: Officials deny that cement was used to repair decaying pars of the Great Wall's Xiaohekou section. Others, however, beg to differ. (Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Preservationist groups, media outlets and local residents haven’t shied away from expressing their dismay. Writes Beijing News in an outraged editorial: “Its cultural value has been seriously sabotaged. This is not a restoration, it has been seriously ruined.”

Many would have rather let nature take its course than see the Great Wall sloppily smoothed over in concrete. “This was vandalism done in the name of preservation,” local park officer Liu Fusheng laments to the Times. “Even the little kids here know that this repair of the Great Wall was botched.”

Adds Liu, an expert on this particular section of the wall who has helped to draw international attention to the beyond-shoddy restoration: “It’s like a head that’s lost its nose and ears. They didn’t restore the carvings back to where they belonged and just tossed them aside. They used new bricks to fill in the original spots, and that saved a lot of expense.”

Condemnation has been particularly harsh on Chinese social media platforms such as Weibo. Writes one user: “This looks like the work of a group of people who didn't even graduate from elementary school. If this is the result, you might as well have just blown it up.”

But seriously, don't mess with the Great Wall of China.

Great Wall of China, botched restoration.
If you restore it will they come? Local villagers worry that visitor numbers to the area will continue to fall given that so many Chinese tourists come to get away from concrete, not see more of it. (Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Officials in the Liaoning province have, naturally, assumed a defensive stance, claiming that applying a concrete cap or “protection cover” to the stone wall was the only way to save it from crumbling completely into nothingness. The Times notes that officials deny adding cement to the mix, claiming that a mixture of only sand and lime was used. Liu insists that the mixture also includes cement as a binding agent.

Cultural preservation officials responsible for that part of the wall defended their efforts. They said that the section was in danger of falling down, that the higher authorities approved their plans and that, like emergency dental work, beauty was not their priority.
But since the uproar, the officials have conceded that the results were less than satisfactory. The State Administration of Cultural Heritage declared that it was time — two years after the repairs were done — to get to the bottom of what had gone wrong.

Ding Hui, deputy director of Liaoning’s department of culture, is one official that has spoken up and owned it. While making it clear that urgent repairs to the Xiaohekou section were very much needed, Ding does admit to CCTV that the results “really are quite ugly.”

Great Wall of China, botched restoration.
Unrestored and loving it: Mercifully, only a small segment of this remote 5-mile stretch of the Great Wall was subject to a subpar repair job that has left preservations and the public alike in a tizzy. (Photo: STR/AFP//Getty Images)

Earlier this week, Beijing News reported that despite the preservation-minded intentions of officials, the restoration violates established rules dictating how repairs to the Great Wall are carried out. While the use of concrete was indeed approved by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, the way in was applied to the site was not.

Dong Yaohui, vice chairman of the China Great Wall Society, explains that even if concrete was approved for the restoration, that decision is still questionable as, customarily, repairs to the Great Wall are carried out using the original material that the section of wall was originally built with. In this case, it would have been stone and stone alone. What’s more, there are reports that the concrete pathways are already in rough shape just two years in.

Such colossal restoration screw-ups often have an unexpected silver lining.

Take for example Spanish octogenarian Cecilia Giménez’s unintentionally ridiculous 2012 restoration of “Ecce Homo,” a 1930 fresco depicting Jesus wearing a crown of thorns. While the original painting was masterfully executed, the restoration turned a small church in Borja, Spain, into an unlikely tourism hotspot with folks lining out the door to catch a glimpse of the dramatically altered painting.

So then, will the newfound ugliness of the Great Wall’s Xiaohekou section make it even more popular with visitors?

Thus far, this doesn’t seem to be the case as local villagers have noted a steep drop in visitors over the past two years. After all, most of those who flock to this famously untamed part of the wall come from China’s cities.

Remarks one villager to the China Morning Business News: “After tourists see it now, they say that there's already a lot of concrete in the city — there was no need to come all this way to see the Great Wall here."