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China Human Rights Net > CSHRS > Magazine > Text
From Trespasser to Honorary Citizen

--- Life of a British Great Wall Preservationist in China

By Qu Ang

Roaring on the streets in Yulin in northwest China's Shaanxi province, some vehicles were escorting the town's newly-named honorary citizen, William Lindesay from Britain, to a ceremony to award him the title of honor.

Immediately after the car arrived at Yulin's Centennial Square where the ceremony was to be held, Lindesay got off, and began to look around. This "yang hongjun", or say "foreign red army soldier" as he is nicknamed, noticed the new look Yulin had takenbrand new high-rise buildings along tree-lined, asphalted roads in a once dusty, dilapidated desert town of sprawling mud huts. Everything had changed beyond recognition.

Yet the name Yulin would instantly kindle the Great Wall preservationist's 20-year-old memory of his encounter in the old town, and he would tell you at great lengths that life in Yulin and the whole China was a drastically different story two decades ago. Indeed, the "Honorary Citizen" of  Yulin was the last title Lindesay would expect when he was deported from the town in May 1987, after he was arrested for trespassing this area for study of the Great Wall. 

And the story began to unfold there, in Yulin, and on the Great Wall.


Great Wall Odyssey

Perhaps very few people are in a better position to pour out the difficulties foreigners faced in China before China's opening-up policy was able to fully hold sway. Now a resident of Beijing, he arrived in this historical country for the first time in the summer of 1986, attempting to trek along the Great Wall from end to end, to fulfill his childhood ambition of seeing in person this, a most splendid monument created by human beings. 

When he was 11, his primary school headmaster in Britain liked to say that one should keep three books next to his or her bed: the Bible, a prayer book, and an atlas. Lindesay read the maps at night, and was hooked by the saw-tooth line on one of them——the Great Wall of China. That being his first encounter with this architectural wonder, he thought it would be a great journey and a great adventure to see it in mysterious China. 

When he set out in 1986, his plan was to start his trek from Shanhaiguan, where the Great Wall meets the sea, all the way to the largest and largely intact pass of Jiayuguan. He arrived in Beijing, however, only to discover that his biggest adversary was neither the hostile weather along the route nor the insufficient funding, but the restrictions on foreignerstravels in closed areas, particularly those outlying areas that the Great Wall snakes through.

Lindesay refused to give up, but his first try ended in failure. "Half way from Shanhaiguan," he told the author in an interview, "I was unable to get used to the heat, and caught a diarrhea." As Lindesay describes himself, he is never a person whose passion only lasts five minutes. His Great Wall dream did not vanish. After half year's rest, the spring festival of 1987 saw him return. This time, Lindesay changed his strategy-- he decided to go eastward from Jiayuguan. Still, his trek was illegal because of the restrictions, and he had to brave out his trip surreptitiously.

But in the 1980s, the presence of foreigners in China was still rare though the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping had opened up the country. A pair of blue eyes, a big nose, plus his 1.85 m-tall figure, made him eye-catching wherever he was. In May 1987, when Lindesay set foot on the soil of Shaanxin Province, whistle blowers reported to the police about a suspicious foreigner. He was arrested by Yulin police. He was kept in a hotel for ten days, and his camera and films were confiscated. In the end, he was deported after paying a fine of 150 yuan "about two months" salary for an average Chinese worker at the time.

The very policeman who nabbed him 21 years ago warmly received Lindesay in 2007 when he was made honorary citizen of Yulin and had his Great Wall photos exhibited in the town. Recollecting the shared memory, they both marveled at how China had changed from a relatively secluded, homogeneous place to an opening, diversified country, thanks to the deepening of the reform and opening-up policy.

“There has been a change of attitude," said Lindesay.

Only a few carefully selected places were open to foreigners in the 1980. "Signs bearing the words 'out of bounds for foreigners' " in Chinese and English were seen everywhere," Lindsay recalled. “Those 'open' areas accounted for just about one percent of the Chinese territory." It is a drastically different picture now in China. “The entire country, except a limited number of sensitive areas, is now open," Lindsay said, adding that in October 2008, the Foreign Ministry reaffirmed that foreign journalists would be allowed to travel around the country and interview Chinese citizens without government permission. 

Exotic Romance

Lindesay has also witnessed China's changes through his marriage to Wu Qi.

He met Wu, a beautiful woman from Xi' an, on the bank of the Longtan Lake in Beijing during his second trip to China. Immediately falling for her, he kept sending Wu postcards while trekking along the Great Wall. But the first two times he proposed, he was refused. “My parents were both university teachers," Wu told the author. “My father was O.K. but my mother was worried: 'what if he is a spy? '"

Lindesay's perseverance finally prevailed. His sincerity and passion about the Great Wall touched Wu's heart. "I majored in history," said she, "but I gained many insights about the Great Wall through this guy from abroad." Lindesay's erudite appeal exuded through his talks about the architectural masterpiece was beyond resistance, and they got married in 1988.

The nod from Wu and her parents did not remove all the obstacles. A stack of paper work required for an international marriage at that time was a major headache before their marriage. “The passport, a letter from my employer, a letter from the embassyletters from everywhere," Lindesay recalled the ordeal of going through those procedures. Anyway, he knew it was worth it. Now they have two beautiful sons who Lindesay hopes would follow his footsteps to protect the Great Wall culture.

Messenger of Friendship

It is a long time since marriages between Chinese and foreigner citizens ceased to be exceptional, and the procedures for marriage registration are way easier. Lindesay is aware of this and other benefits brought about by the reform and opening-up policy which, he said, "unfortunately many of my compatriots have failed to appreciate." "Some people not in China say that Chinese people can't have a passport, and the government doesn't let them out," Lindesay said. "I just tell them they are wrong. Everybody, including foreign residents in China like me, has benefited from the reform and opening-up policy." During his 2007 revisit to the Great Wall, he met along the route many of the families who helped him during his first Great Wall adventure 20 years earlier. “Most of the people now have mobile phones, and their kids own all kinds of exquisite toys," he said. “Twenty years ago, kids in one of the families just had bottle tops to play with." To help his compatriots know more about China, Lindesay is planning to take his "Great Wall Revisited" exhibition to London in 2009. With more than 80 pairs of old and new photos to visualize the changes in the Great Wall over the past 100 years, the exhibition held in November-December 2008 at the 500-year-old Imperial College of Beijing proved "to be a huge success" as Lindsay put it.

On his roadmap for enhancing mutual understanding, he prioritizes the task of fuelling passion for Chinese culture in the UK. "I believe people should first have interest in a culture, and then get to know its people, before finally getting friendly," he said.

His effort to bridge China and his own country has not gone unnoticed. A decade ago, he received the "friendship Medal" from China's State Council, the highest honor awarded to foreigners in China. In 2006, he was awarded O.B.E. (Officer, Order of the British Empire) by Queen Elizabeth II for his international conservation of the Great Wall.

“Many people in the West are scared by the rise of China," said Lindesay, "but I tell them, it's not rise, but an inevitable return." An admirer of Dr. Joseph Needham, author of the monumental Science and Civilization in China, Lindesay regards China's rise as "a return to its old place," or a "bounce back."

Trustkey to Work in China

The "Great Wall Revisited" exhibition dates from 1990 when Lindesay spoke of his Great Wall adventure on BBC Radio. A listener sent him a book written by American missionary and explorer William Edgar Geil, who traversed the length of the Great Wall between 1907 and 1908.

William Lindesay was immediately thrilled by William Geil, "the first man to traverse the entire length of the Great Wall." It so happened that both Williams had photos taken at a section of the Wall called Mule Horse Pass, but in the "younger William's" photo, the tower in "older William's" photo was gone. “That prompted me to search for the changes that had taken place in the Wall, to show how the Wall looked like decades or even a hundred years ago, and what should be done for a better future of the Wall," he said.

Not long afterwards, the "younger William" kicked off what he chose to call the "Great Wall Revisited Project." The effort culminated in the "Great Wall Revisited" exhibition in Beijing's Imperial College, in which 84 pairs of old and new photos were displayed, the images together presenting a record of desecration and preservation, ruin and endurance.

"I have had the full support from the Chinese governmentthe State Administration of Cultural Heritage and the Beijing Municipal Administration of Cultural Relics (BMACR), to be precise," Lindesay said. The BMACR sponsored the Great Wall Revisited Exhibition and the publication of Lindesay's book on the project. “The change in government attitude is evident, the government attitude toward preservation of China's history and culture and toward foreigners willing to help," he said.

“Trust is a key to work with authorities in China," he continued. "Once people trust you, and see you as a friend of China, they will support you."

  from: CSHRS
China Society For Human Rights Studies
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