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A Tale of Two Williams: Revisiting the Wonderful, Withering Glory of the Great Wall

2008/11/01 14:00:00 US/Central
text by Andrew McEwen, photos courtesy of William Lindesay

The most interesting question about the Centenary of William Geil's Exploration of the Great Wall exhibition is not “Who’s William Geil?”

The real question is how a forgotten American explorer has become a major influence on the preservation of the Great Wall 83 years after his death.

“The answer is in his book, the first ever on the subject,” said William Lindesay, curator of the exhibition at Beijing’s Imperial College. “His carefully photographed traverse of the entire length of the structure preserves a Wall that in many places is no longer there.

Perhaps that explains why Geil is a hero in China, where his book has been translated, but why then is Geil mostly unknown in the United States?

Lindesay believes he has an answer: If only Geil had pinched a few bricks, perhaps a watchtower or two, he might have got his name into the history books.

“The ethos of the day was proof and display,” said Lindesay. “Explorers tended to return from their journeys laden with treasures, archaeological, zoological or botanical.”

Aurel Stein, for example, carted off more than 100,000 antiquities from China, which he lodged in the British Museum and National Museum in Delhi, the institutions that funded his explorations.

Not Geil. When Geil came across engraved tablets on the Wall, his helpers copied down or produced rubbings of the inscriptions. When the explorer died at 60 in Venice on April 11, 1925, all that was left behind were a few tin boxes of Great Wall diaries and photos, soon to be lost. Aside from a dusty old copy of “The Great Wall of China” in the library, Geil’s remarkable achievements had faded out of memory even in his hometown of Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

“To this day I find it astonishing that there is such an apparent lack of interest among the American media,” says Lindesay.

With the The Great Wall Revisited: From the Jade Gate to Old Dragon’s Head exhibition, the Beijing-based British geographer believes Geil’s time might finally have come.

“People read a newspaper or a magazine and they throw it away. Somebody writes a book and it might be unsuccessful and just sit on a shelf. But you are writing something beyond your time when you produce a book. Perhaps it might only come to be fully appreciated a hundred years later.”

At least Geil takes pride of place today in the local Doylestown cemetery tour. Lindesay has chatted with Tim Adamsky, the local historian who “knew William Geil was a great traveller, but he had no idea Geil was the first man to traverse the Great Wall.” Lindesay placed a bronze commemorative plaque at a poignant graveside ceremony attended by family members on June 23, 2008.

Lindesay is more than a fan. He hiked the whole Wall himself in 1987 and feels a special, spiritual connection. The cascade of coincidences between the two Williams can sometimes seem a bit spooky. William the younger is tall and sports size 14 (49) boots. “When I sat down with farmers, they gathered around and were amazed at the size of my feet. Geil was also tall and had big feet: he wrote about the exact same things happening in the exact same places with the same names of people over and over again.”

An eerie series of connections began in 1991 when Marjorie Hessel Tiltman was listening to BBC Radio Oxford: a young author was plugging his adventure story. She called him up. “You should know that there’s another William who walked the Great Wall,” she told Lindesay and donated him her copy of the out-of-print book. “You should be the next owner,” she told him.

There are countless more coincidences, but what makes Lindesay sincerely believe in “destiny” was a photograph he saw in that book that immediately seemed to speak to him.

He was struck by an oddly familiar portion of the Great Wall: he could not recognize it at all at first, but eventually he came to realize that he had included the same location in his own book, “79 years apart.”

The reason it took Lindesay so long to notice was that something was missing from his own photo of Luowenyu, Zunhua County, Hebei Province: a watchtower.


Uncertain Future


“I am actually hoping to move people's hearts, to shock them” said Lindesay. “I am hoping that that they think ‘Wow. Look what's happened.’ ”

Lindesay’s exhibition displays 84 pairs of photos, including 35 originals from Geil. “It’s not just a few locations dotted around Beijing. For the first time you get to see the full variety and majesty, showing the changes of the Wall from one end to the other.”

Since 2004, Lindesay has travelled 45,000 kilometres back and forth along the Wall: to the Jade Gate Pass near Dunhuang three times, Jiayuguan at the west end of Wall four times, Gubeikou near Beijing 12 times, Badaling 10 times and Shanhaiguan by the sea five times, laboriously re-photographing the correct location from the correct spot.

“The changes are one thing, but the stories behind the pictures are what get people into the human history of the Wall,” he says.

Lindesay’s then-and-now images, some published last year in The Great Wall Revisited, document the destruction that has been visited upon the Wall since the last century, accelerating into this last, most devastating decade.

Preservation of such an enormous and often isolated structure would be a challenge for any country, but it represents an especially desperate contradiction for the world’s fastest-rising economy. As the founder of International Friends of the Great Wall, a non-profit body focusing on the Wall’s protection, Lindesay seems to be making his life’s mission to save the Wall before it is too late.

“If there’s public concern, that will put pressure on all of us who care about conservation, on the experts and on the government officials to work harder and actually do something with their resources and funds to help these places.”

In the past, wars have wreaked untold damage. The New York-based World Monuments Fund has listed the Great Wall as one of the world’s “100 Most Endangered Sites.”

Today an alliance of misguided tourism industry leaders, township enterprise entrepreneurs and well-connected developers pose the greatest threat the Wall has ever faced.

“We are fighting people with the power, money and connections to build fancy villas with fine views. But any modern intrusion into the Great Wall landscape is inappropriate,” says Lindesay.

“I’m not saying the Great Wall should be kept in mothballs, but it should not be exploited for short term gains.”

William Geil: A Great but Forgotten Explorer

William Geil (1865–1925) made four great journeys through China: as well as his Great Wall trek, he travelled along the Yangtze River and to the 18 ancient capitals of China and the country’s five sacred mountains. He published four books on these journeys.

He travelled Great Wall in 1908 from Shanhaiguan to Jiayuguan and his book The Great Wall of China was published in 1909. Despite publication of a biography, books and newspaper clippings, Geil’s fame proved fleeting. Devastated by his death, Geil’s wife never recovered enough to promote his memory. They had no children.

His personal effects were scattered and sealed under lock and key at private residences.

Until Lindesay’s efforts, Geil was virtually forgotten, his name left out of textbooks, museums and even the lore of his native Doylestown, 25 miles northeast of Philadelphia.

The Heyday of Wall Exploration

The heyday of Great Wall exploration came surprisingly late: between 1907 and 1914.

“I suppose the events of the day had something to do with that. Geil got in there just a few years after the Boxer Rebellion,” said Lindesay. “It’s just those few years when the Great Wall leapt from being unknown to being a world story.”

1907 – Aurel Stein investigates the Han Wall near Dunhuang

1908 – Geil’s journey

1909 – Clark and Sowerby hunting expedition visits the Wall in northern Shaanxi

1914 – Geologist Frederick Clapp travels across North China from Shanhaiguan to Yinchuan (capital of today’s Ningxia) and made the first detailed Great Wall map published in the West

The Great Wall Revisited: From the Jade Gate to Old Dragon’s Head includes a special segment called “Centenary of William Geil’s Exploration of the Great Wall.”

Dates: October 24–December 20

Open: 8:30 a.m.–5 p.m.

Tel: +86 10 6406 3352


Address: The Museum of Confucius Temple and Imperial College, 13–15 Guozijian Street, Dongcheng District

孔庙国子监博物馆, 东城区国子监街13-15

How will the Great Wall Look 100 Years from Today?


“The Great Wall Revisited evidences changes on the Great Wall since the advent of modern photography in the mid 19th century,” said exhibition organizer and curator William Lindesay. “It shows precisely how the Wall has changed, and in the course of the five years’ fieldwork to put the dossier together, one thing has been apparent more than anything else, and that is that change is ongoing and the moment we call “now” is only temporary. I know that most sites covered by my re-photography will change in the next hundred years.

“In China, the population now is 1.3 billion; what will it be in 2108? Many more: and that will mean pressure on the land, as a place to live, as a place to play, as a place to produce food, and other resources. The Wall will change as a result of these and other forces, especially natural, unless things are done now to counter them in advance.

“I once asked a Chinese journalist what made her most proud about her country. She answered ‘My country’s history’. Then I asked ‘What are you most ashamed about in your country? She answered ‘My country’s history.’

“The Great Wall Revisited evidences both the pride and shame in Chinese history, so the answer to my work will date in the next century can be given either optimistically or pessimistically: the best and worst case scenarios....

“The worst case scenario is that the Great Wall in its many, many places continues to be seen as just an historical building. Yes, of course, this building needs protecting. If towers along its length are not stabilized, many, perhaps most that still stand in my photos will no longer stand in 2108.

“But my worst fear is that development continues to encroach into the Wall’s backdrop, diminishing the majestic natural surroundings of the Wall. If I had answered this same question in 1908, when Badaling was a wild, beautiful section, the worst case scenario has already happened there. That’s not with the rebuilding; it’s with the placing of tourism infrastructure right beside the Wall. There are a few ‘1908 quality Badalings’ out there, but they are under threat of ruination in a similarly tragic way, although the buildings planned in their shadow may be designed by award-winning architects. Badaling has no real Great Wall people: they are just vendors who travel in, because the real Badaling locals have moved away.

“The best case scenario is that a government decree pronounces the entire Great Wall and it many components as a national treasure where nothing can be tolerated as an intrusion on its landscape.

“The key point is for all these Great Wall communities to have guidance. This calls for the creation of a very serious entity. I propose a cultural centre for Great Wall studies staffed by professional conservationists. We need experts managing cultural heritage. In today's environment, it’s a very specialist area. Resolving this kind of conflict requires education in a very, very specialized field of study.”