Inside the mammoth project to restore the Great Wall of China.

Words: Wang Yiwei & Fu Danni
Photos: Shi Yangkun

In late April, a group of construction workers clambered back up the mountains north of Beijing. Aided only by donkeys and simple pulley systems, the team hauled tons of building materials up the steep, rugged paths.

After a monthslong hiatus amid the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the world’s largest restoration projects had recommenced.

Despite being one of China’s national icons, the Great Wall fell into terrible disrepair during the height of the country’s economic boom. Construction and tourism projects chipped away at the ancient fortifications, with hundreds of kilometers of wall lost forever.

In recent years, however, things have changed dramatically. As Beijing pursues a policy of “national rejuvenation,” making the Great Wall great again has become a central objective.

Local governments from Beijing in the east to Jiayuguan over 1,500 kilometers to the west have launched large-scale repair works. Swathes of land have been reclassified as a Great Wall Cultural Belt, with strict controls on future development.

Yet the preservation efforts have also stoked controversy. Officials have been accused of ruining the monuments they’re trying to protect. Repair teams have struggled to complete jobs in remote, mountainous regions. And villagers have chafed against new conservation policies, which they say harm their incomes.

In this special report, Sixth Tone traveled to communities at both ends of the Great Wall — to Jiankou, just north of Beijing in the east, and to Shandan County, Gansu province, in the west — to observe how the drive to protect the Great Wall is playing out on the ground.