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Repair worker protects ancient Great Wall brick by brick

2020-06-16 00:00:00 / XINHUA

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Cheng Yongmao works on the Jiankou section of the Great Wall in Beijing's Huairou district last week. He has helped repair about 20 kilometers of the Wall over the last 15 years. CHEN ZHONGHAO/XINHUA

With a helmet, a small camera and a climbing stick, Cheng Yongmao, a 64-year-old worker whose specialty is repairing the Great Wall, is heading for the Jiankou section of the Great Wall early in the morning, where he and his colleagues have been carrying out repairs since April.

Located in Beijing's suburban Huairou district, the Jiankou section is one of the most dangerous parts of the Great Wall and is known by hikers as "the wild Great Wall".

Despite its status as a precious cultural heritage site, the Great Wall has been damaged in recent years due to natural disasters and human impact. It is in dire need of maintenance and reinforcement.

Over the past 15 years, Cheng has participated in the repair work of the Great Wall at Huanghuacheng, Jiankou, Mutianyu West, Hefangkou and other sections, with a total length of nearly 20 kilometers.

Due to the COVID-19 epidemic, repair work on the 1,094-meter-long Jiankou section was postponed for nearly three months. Now, Cheng is racing against the clock to get the work done by the end of this year without compromising quality.

With many steep slopes and cliffs, the Jiankou section is known for its complex terrain. To lessen the transportation burden for workers, mules are used to carry bricks all the way to the foot of the mountain, and manual workers then shoulder bricks to the repair sites.

Manual workers usually can carry about 30 kilograms of bricks on their backs. After arriving at the repair site, they are often worn out.

"It's a real mountaineering assignment. A one-way trip generally takes at least one hour, so you can't repair the Great Wall without good physical strength," Cheng said.

Cheng has been repairing ancient buildings since 1991. He studied with Pu Xuelin, the 15th-generation descendant of Xinglongmen (wood factory) and senior engineer of the Palace Museum.

Xinglongmen is one of the main workshops that participated in the initial construction and repair of the Forbidden City and other royal buildings from the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911).

"I have always adhered to the ancestral training of Xinglongmen," Cheng said.

During the process of the reinforcement and repair of the Great Wall, the sizes of the Great Wall bricks are various and different from those of ordinary modern bricks. Cheng firmly disagreed with some manufacturers who decided to replace the ancient bricks with bricks of similar specifications to cut costs.

"I would rather spend a high price to make customized and high-quality bricks the same as the existing bricks from the Great Wall," Cheng said.

For Cheng, even after hundreds of years, the materials, crafts and practices used in ancient buildings still need to be abided by.

"As workers protecting cultural relics, it is our responsibility to end the use of materials that are not made in accordance with traditional requirements or that are unqualified," he said. "It is our duty to pass on the methods and the spirit of cultural relics protection from generation to generation."

In 2018, the traditional restoration technology of the Great Wall of the Ming Dynasty was included in the sixth edition of the district-level Intangible Cultural Heritage Representative List of Huairou.

In Cheng's eyes, passing down the technology is urgent as most of the workers are old and young people are unwilling to work as bricklayers.

"To make the traditional restoration technology of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall widely spread, applied, summarized and improved, we need to attract more people to engage in the work and increase the training for workers in cultural relic repairs," Cheng said.

Cheng still insists on climbing the Great Wall at least once a week to provide technical guidance for repair workers.

"I hope I can continue with my repair work and contribute more to cultural relics protection," he said.

(Written by CHEN ZHONGHAO)

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