The Great Wall Story – The Way I Have Discovered It

“By reviewing a series of personal Great Wall explorations… I will show how diverse, personal, unconventional – and “foreign” – approaches have made significant contributions to the surprisingly narrow, Sino-centric and limited corpus of Great Wall knowledge, as well as popular understanding.”

Between the late fourth century BC to 1644 AD at least 16 border-defence systems were intermittently built, or inherited and operated, by rulers of Chinese dynasties – all of them functioning as fortifications against nomadic cavalry from the north. These are known as “Great Walls of China”. Chinese chroniclers wrote a great library about their empires, including a history of each dynasty, but shy of rough work on imperial frontiers they seldom reference “Great Walls”. Today, their remnants comprise the largest system of related ancient ruins in the world, yet in spite of the urgent need to conserve these monuments their academic study and field research is ignored by university faculties – because “Great Wall Studies” transcends many fields.

By reviewing a series of personal Great Wall explorations, field-research foci, discoveries, advocacy and archive projects carried out and achieved in China between 1987 and 2017, as a geographer, author and film-maker I will show how diverse, personal, unconventional – and “foreign” – approaches have made significant contributions to the surprisingly narrow, Sino-centric and limited corpus of Great Wall knowledge, as well as popular understanding.

“The Great Wall”, the most famous building in the world, a bucket-list must-see, remains the least-known and most superficially protected of UNESCO world heritages, as continuing damage to it by nature and man shows. I hold that a better future for its protection, and rational, economic, educational and inspirational uses, rests with the development of “Great Wall Studies” as an integrated course at university level.

Mr Lindesay gave this Keynote Presentation at The Asian Conference on Media, Communication & Film (MediAsia2017) in Kobe, Japan.


William Lindesay OBE

William Lindesay OBE is an honorary senior research fellow at University of Liverpool, where he studied geography and geology in the 1970s. Recently he received the Royal Society for Asian Affairs’ Special Award 2016. He first went to China to recce the Great Wall in 1986, making the first documented traverse of the ruins on foot the following year, in 1987, in which he covered 2,470 km.

Since 1990 he has resided permanently in China, spending more than 2,700 days on its Great Walls. He has written five books on the subject, published by Harvard University Press and Penguin among others, and fronted documentaries that have been screened on National Geographic Channel, Channel 4, Discovery Channel and the Smithsonian Channel.

William Lindesay is credited with arousing China’s national consciousness to protect the Great Wall and its environment, and he has created/curated two national exhibitions in Beijing, at the Capital Museum and the Imperial Academy, and seven provincial exhibitions. For his work presenting and preserving the Great Wall and assuming the role of its international ambassador he was granted permanent residency in China. He lives with his wife and two sons in Beijing, in a village below the Great Wall in the city’s northern suburbs.


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