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Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (CHP) is a small grassroots, legally-registered NGO working to protect cultural heritage across China.

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Volunteers Looking After the Wall

In a remote corner of the Funing District of Hebei Province, near the Liaoning border, lies the village of Dong Jia Kou, home to 122 families. Six hundred years ago, in the Ming Dynasty, the Great Wall was constructed close to this village. Four hundred years ago, the famous Ming Dynasty General Qi Jiguang ordered the strengthening of this section of the Wall. Experts believe that this Dong Jia Kou section of the Wall is a very representative Ming Dynasty section that is in relatively good condition. The Dong Jia Kou villagers believe that the maintenance and protection of this section of the Wall, for several tens of kilometers, has been the work of their ancestors.
What follows is the story of one of those villagers, Sun Zhenyuan. This empowering story illustrates how CHP can use a very small amount of money to encourage local people in the countryside to protect cultural relics. Sun, is 56-years-old and in most ways lives a life no different from hundreds of millions of China’s other farmers. He makes a living by cultivating three mu of land, and supplements this by occasionally taking a few local products sell at the markets. But in one respect he is very different from other farmers: his deep reverence for the Great Wall protection efforts of his ancestors has led him to devote all the time he has left over, after producing enough food for his family, to the ongoing task of looking after the Dong Jia Kou section of the Great Wall.

Sun Zhen Yuan was raised on village stories of the Great Wall. He does not remember how old he was the first time that he walked the entire length of the Dong Jia Kou section. Asked when he started to undertake Great Wall protection efforts, he replies,  “I am not sure when that was, but from the time that I was a youth I have been climbing up to the Great Wall to look after it. A few decades ago, I saw a part of the Wall knocked down by a flock of sheep. The bricks of the Wall are a bit salty, so livestock like to lick them and over the course of time the animals scrambling over the Wall damages it. After realizing that, I began going to the Wall on a regular daily basis.” Whenever he saw livestock climbing onto the Wall, Sun would take a staff or stone to scare away the animals.
In subsequent years, people began coming to the Great Wall to catch scorpions to take to the market for sale. Sun said, “These people were disgusting and very difficult to get rid of. They would hide an iron rod in their sleeves. When no one was looking, they would use the rod to pry Great Wall bricks loose. If they found a scorpion, they would pry loose a whole bunch of bricks—bricks which were fired hundreds of years ago in the Ming Dynasty. Often I would get into arguments with these scorpion hunters.” In those days Sun received no compensation for his daily patrol, involving several tens of kilometers of walking on the Great Wall. As a result, he gradually sunk into poverty as he neglected his agricultural work.
Three years ago, CHP met Sun Zhenyuan. We saw that he was a hero for his protection work, but even heroes need recognition, appreciation, and help, and the work was too much for this one man. As we watched the profile of Sun on the high peaks of the Dong Jia Kou area picking up the garbage on the Great Wall, an idea formed. With Sun as the core,  CHP would organize a Great Wall Volunteer Group, with each volunteer looking after the Wall for half of each day. In compensation for the time taken away from agriculture, each volunteer would receive an annual subsidy of Y 500, with an additional annual supplement of Y100-500 as a reward, depending on the results of the work.
This idea was enthusiastically embraced by Sun and two of his friends, and also by the District government. The District officers promised that if the CHP program was successful in the first two years, the District government would take over responsibility for the program. This propsal was ideal for CHP, and so after simple training the program started, with three people dividing up the work so that the important parts of the Don Jia Kou section of the Wall were patrolled each day. A record of each day’s patrolling was kept. A monthly summary report was submitted to CHP, either by telephone or by a personal CHP inspection.  If anything untoward happened, the volunteers were to immediately notify both CHP and the District authorities.
The program turned out to be a great success, and after only six months, the District authorities assumed responsibility for funding and supervising the program—a year and a half earlier than they had promised! Even more exciting, other areas in the district started similar programs. The success was based on the example of Sun Zhenyuan, who inspired the local officials.
Today, the enthusiasm of Sun and the other patrollers is even greater: “We have achieved some recognition and honor for our work, and some material compensation for our efforts.” The key is that they now feel that they have been employed by the government, and when they go on patrol they wear the Protection Officer badges, with their names and photos, so that people transgressing on the Wall can no longer ignore them.
When asked what are the greatest problems that he faces in protecting the Wall today, Sun responds, “The key problem is that there is insufficient education on the value of the Great Wall. The flocks of sheep around the Wall are now less of a problem than in times past, but there are more kids climbing the Wall in search of scorpions, and there are many more tourists from the city coming out to hike the Wall. The kids play hide and seek with us, and they can always outrun us, so they are difficult to deal with. Young people from the cities now like to come here to hike the Wall, which would be fine were it not for the fact that they like to pick up stones and bricks from the Wall, and wherever they stop for a rest they leave a mess. They have competitions to see who can throw the broken bricks furthest.
Sun has also considered the larger issues related to the protection of the Wall by attempting to improve the behavior of younger people through education. He has created partnerships with two local schools, providing opportunities to speak with the school children. He tells the students that they can make some money from catching scorpions, but they must weigh this against the destruction of the Wall their ancestors have been caring for over the generations. “Most of the kids get the message quickly enough. It is the hikers from the city who are a problem—they won’t listen to reason, and often speak to me roughly, so I respond in kind, as I have the law on my side. If they do not cease imprope  behavior on the Wall, I promptly notify the police and report them to the District authorities.”
Speaking of the future, Sun expressed concern: protection of the Great Wall is a mammoth undertaking, and those who are committed are still small in number and the task of educating the public has not proceeded far enough. But what makes Sun happy is that his son has taken up the work, and in his free time from his farming, he accompanies Sun on his patrols. Whenever we ask Sun for his recommendation, he always replies, “On TV get across the message that when you hike on the Great Wall, be careful to do no damage. It would also be good to give all Great Wall Protection Officers a standard uniform so that the we can be easily identified.”
The story of Sun Zhenyuan is one of many similar instances of how intervention by CHP has brought relief to an endangered heritage site. Using a small amount of funding, CHP has mobilized dedicated local people to protect their heritage at a grassroots level. Once the program is up and running on a sustainable basis, CHP generally turns it over to the local government for ongoing support and replication in other locations. This has proven to be a very successful model, and works well because of CHP’s ability to communicate with and understand the needs of both farmers and officials equally well.  Increased donations in support of CHP in the future will enable CHP to undertake a greatly expanded number of these grassroots protection activities.
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