For a national symbol so intimately linked to China's international image, the Great Wall is in a pretty sorry state.
Crudely rebuilt in places to resemble a Disneyland attraction but mostly left to crumble unattended, the country's most famous monument has suffered the ravages of both time and man. Now, for the first time, a nationwide set of rules to protect the wall is coming to the rescue.
Starting Dec. 1, it will officially be illegal to remove bricks or stones from the Great Wall, to drive vehicles along it, to hold all-night rave parties on it, or build houses right up against it, among other indignities to which the awe-inspiring structure has been subjected.
One might have thought that such activities would already be outlawed; after all, the Wall has been a prominent entry on UNESCO's list of World Cultural Heritage sites since 1987. But for almost all its length, as it snakes its way from ridge to peak across northern China, the wall has never enjoyed more than the spottiest protection.
In fact, there is no single "Great Wall." There are stretches of wall, built at different times to keep out different enemies, and some of them are not "walls" at all, but rather earthwork mounds or even ditches. They add up to several thousand miles' worth of defenses.
"Even today there is a lot of discussion to identify what exactly the Great Wall is," says Lu Zhou, an architectural historian at Tsinghua University. "Some parts have been designated national treasures, but mostly nobody has cared."
"Great Wall research is in a state of chaos," adds Dong Yahui, vice president of the Great Wall Society, a group promoting greater care for the wall. "The government still doesn't know how long even the [most recently built] Ming Dynasty wall is, how much is in good condition, or how much has collapsed. There is no central record."
After the collapse in 1644 of the Ming Dynasty, whose emperors built the impressively crenelated brick and stone walls studded with watch towers that are depicted on millions of postcards today, the wall fell victim to neglect. China's new rulers came from one of the northern tribes the wall had been built to repel, so they felt no need to maintain it.
The 20th century saw occasional archaeological studies and repairs, but these efforts were easily outnumbered by damaging acts that continue to this day. Only this week, Reuters reported that three workers in Inner Mongolia were detained for digging up part of the wall to use as landfill in a local construction project. "It's just a pile of earth," one village leader was quoted as saying, according to the Xinhua news agency. Next week, anyone following their example will risk a fine of up to $62,500.
The stretches of wall that the authorities have decided to transform into tourist attractions may have escaped destruction, but historians cringe at them nonetheless. Badaling, for example, the most heavily visited spot just north of Beijing, was restored in such picture-perfect fashion in 1984 that it appears to have been built yesterday.
"That is not the route we want to take in future restorations," says Professor Lu. "The new regulations take a new approach, to express what the wall is now, and to show its history."
The trouble that archaeologists and conservationists have in China, he explains, is that "the traditional Chinese view is to prefer things looking fresh, and not to give them a historical feeling. Ordinary people prefer perfect."
Behind the neglect that the wall and other historical structures have suffered, Lu suggests, is a cultural issue. "In Europe cathedrals are monuments, but for the Chinese, temples are more like clothes," he says. "We wear them, then take them off, or throw them away. For us, function is more important than history. We don't have a tradition of protecting buildings."
Under the new rules local government authorities will still be responsible for the wall's protection, but for the first time they will have to obey central government directives on what they can and cannot do with it. "This is the first time that the state has showed it will offer overall protection to the whole Great Wall," says Mr. Dong.
Whether the government will be able to ensure such protection is unclear, and given Beijing's inability to control so much else of what goes on in China's provinces, Dong has his doubts.
"I'm delighted the regulations have been passed," he says. "But is there any system in place to enforce them? Have local authorities been given the budget to uphold the law? Are the rules specific enough about what is allowed?" Unless those questions are answered, he worries, "the law will be hollow."