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A Lifetime Dedicated to the Great Wall

As I entered Luo Zhewen's home, what impressed me first was the vast amount of books. Piles of books nearly reaching the ceiling occupied half of the corridor that led to the house, only allowing enough room for one person to squeeze through sideways. In fact, half of the house is used to accommodate books, pictorial materials and bookcases. Even the ventilator on the balcony is covered with books, leaving the air conditioner in the sitting room useless. When interviewed, Luo Zhewen, who is already in his 80s, said, "Ancient constructions are extremely valuable. The Great Wall that I worked towards is only the tip of the iceberg. There is still a lot for me to do."


Professor Liang: Unforgettable Enlightenment


Luo still remembers how his teacher Professor Liang Sicheng, an eminent architecture specialist, carefully instructed him, right from the basics of using mapping instruments to sharpening pencils. Benefiting from this, Luo received a thorough standardized education and learned a precise attitude. In Luo's mind, Professor Liang was a diligent teacher, blessed with great foresight. Liang's wife, Lin Huiyin, gave Luo a book entitled Rules of Qing-Style Constructions. Luo has kept the book for 60 years.


According to Luo, Liang stressed three main points concerning the recovery of the Great Wall: First, the Great Wall should be reconstructed as closely as possible to the original construction to maintain its antiqueness; second, the resting places on the Great Wall should be aesthetically pleasing and retain their wildness; third, no high growing trees or vegetation should be planted around the Great Wall, or it will reduce the enjoyment of visitors.


Luo has always remembered and practiced the aforementioned three points. As China's most famous expert in the research of the Great Wall, he advocates maintaining the original look of every section of the Great Wall when it is reconstructed.


Getting to the Great Wall


It was in 1948 when Luo saw the Great Wall for the first time. "The Great Wall is so imposing," he said. "I visited the Badaling section that time. The Great Wall was severely damaged during the wartime, but still retained its magnificence. At that time I felt researchers absolutely must visit the site which they were surveying. You won't learn about what problems the Great Wall faces unless you get there." Since then, he has visited the Great Wall hundreds of times to personally conduct repairs, and to survey and photograph.


Researchers and repairers of the Great Wall may face many dangers. The closest shave that Luo has experienced occurred during his research trip to Huangcaoliang, not far from Beijing. Luo was in his 50s at the time, and in view of his age, some who were to accompany him recommended taking a bus. On a steep, narrow mountain road, one of the bus's wheels slipped out off road and was left spinning in mid-air. Luo felt nothing, but his colleagues outside the bus were left dumbstruck.


Now in his 80s, Luo often visits the Great Wall without any fear. "It is interesting to climb up and down," he told me, with smile on his face.


Mysteries Still to Be Solved


Undoubtedly, the Great Wall is considered as a huge historical and cultural wealth throughout the world. However, there are still some uncertainties and misunderstandings when it comes to comprehending this great architectural establishment.




According to a popular Chinese saying, the Great Wall extends for 5,000 kilometers. How long is it exactly? To find the answer, Luo worked for more than 30 years. Some foreign scholars have concluded that the Great Wall is 2,500-3,000 kilometers in length. Through his investigations, Luo found they had reached their conclusion by simply measuring the wall on a map. Luo regards this conclusion as wrong because the Great Wall is not a straight line, but zigzags, and more importantly, is overlapping in certain sections. Over the past dynasties, the Great Wall was reconstructed many times, giving rise to this phenomenon of overlapping. Therefore, its total length should, according to Luo, be calculated by adding up all the sections built throughout history. Luo once measured some sections of the Great Wall that he has visited. He concludes that the total length of the Great Wall exceeds 5,000 kilometers. But, the exact length is still uncertain, and this will be for following generations to find out.


Memories Timeless and True


Architecture involves many genres of the arts. "Many old buildings in China are decorated with antithetical couplets outside and paintings and calligraphic works inside," said Luo. "Nor instance, the Tengwang Pavilion is closely associated with Chinese poetry and calligraphy. Even battlements on the Great Wall are decorated with exquisite carvings. These ancient buildings are so beautiful." Apart from their appearance, decorated with an artistic touch, the ancient buildings also boast "harmony between man and nature," a traditional Chinese philosophical conception. Perhaps it is a little superstitious to pay attention to so-called feng shui (traditional Chinese practice of determining the location of a house, tomb, etc., supposed to have a vital bearing on the fortune of a family, owner, user, etc.) in construction, but few deny there are some scientific foundations. For example, such practice is good for ventilation, drainage and anti-leakage. It is their unique attractions that stimulate Luo to devote his life to the research of these ancient buildings.


Some say that a nation without any historical records is like a man who has lost his memory, and these ancient buildings are certainly symbols of the long-term aggregation of history-the true memories of a nation. As memories of the past become fainter and fainter with the passage of time, the remaining architecture, although mute by nature, is a timeless record of the history of human civilizations. Luo has dedicated 65 years of his life to seek and protect these memories of his nation. In this process, he has grown from an ambitious young fellow to an aged man. However, he maintains that he will continue in his pursuit. "Then you fall in love with this undertaking," Luo said, "You'll find you can never be separated from it."


Luo Zhewen - A Background


Luo Zhewen, born in Yibin, Sichuan Province in 1924, is a celebrated expert in ancient Chinese architecture. In 1940, he was enrolled in the China Construction Society, the only ancient building research institution in China at that time, where he learned from Professor Liang Sicheng. In 1946, he was engaged in researching and teaching work at the China Architecture Institute and the Architecture Department of Tsinghua University. He has long been dedicated to the protection and research of ancient buildings. He has acted as director of the China Institute of Cultural Heritage and as a member of the 6th, 7th and 8th National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). At present, he serves as head of the Expert Team of Ancient Architecture under the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, chairman of the China Society for Cultural Heritage, vice president of the China Great Wall Society and vice chairman of the Chinese Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS).


Author: Zhang Qiyang


(China Pictorial August 11, 2006)

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