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Home in the Great Wall


Two generations of a Hui family in Ningxia have made it their goal to protect this ancient structure, by living in a cave house at the foot of the former city fortress. Mei Jia reports.

A popular Chinese saying goes: "If one man guards the pass, ten thousand won't be able to get through."

Two generations of a family in Northwest China's Ningxia Hui autonomous region have been keeping that spirit alive, by staying at a section of the Great Wall and fighting to keep it intact.

home Great Wall

Yang Guoxing, 36, and his family live in a cave house in Xiamaguan, a small town in Ningxia. It stands at the foot of a tower of the ancient city wall, part of the Great Wall, since the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

"We live in the Great Wall," even Yang's younger daughter, 6, announces proudly to visitors.

Yet, "it is a tedious defensive war," says Yang, referring to the nearly 60 years his family has spent trying to preserve the Wall, beginning with his father, now dead, and Yang himself, who is the father of two school-age daughters.

Xiamaguan, which means a fortification where military officers rested in ancient times, once had a city wall built with rammed earth and bricks, like parts of the Great Wall.

The tower, where the Yangs of the Hui ethnic group reside, was once the South Gate of Xiamaguan.

Over the past four centuries, however, most of the town's city walls have been reduced to rubble, as nature has taken its course and locals have used the bricks to build their own houses. In the 1980s, smugglers got in on the action by selling parts of the wall as relics.

To keep people at bay from the tower, Yang's father, Yang Qinglu, built a fence in 1955, three years after he moved into the cave house turned from the gate entrance and provided by his employer.

Yang Guoxing, the youngest of the family's five children, has been living in the cave house since birth. He remembers as a child how he would climb to the top of the city gate and enjoy watching the sun set over the ancient town.

Home Great Wall

But he also remembers the times when his father would fight with brick snatchers.

"At first, they were mostly neighbors," Yang says. "The bricks are thick and solid. Who wouldn't want construction materials like that for free? Then people started offering high prices to buy the bricks."

He recalls that at the height of the rush for Great Wall memorabilia in the 1980s people would offer 1 yuan ($15 cents) a brick, when the average monthly income for a family in the area was between 30 and 50 yuan.

"My father drove all of them away," Yang says.

Yang senior even turned down the offer of a spacious flat in the town center.

"It is much more comfortable living in a flat than in a traditional cave house without modern conveniences," Yang says. "But my father said he was worried about the bricks being stolen if he left. He couldn't let go of the Wall."

Though Yang's siblings moved on, when his father passed on in 1998, it was his dying request that Yang stay and keep an eye on the Wall.

Yang married Li Yonghong in 2000 and though she wanted to move into a modern apartment, he and his mother, now in her 70s, insisted on staying on.

Fortunately his two daughters have learnt to appreciate the beauty of living in the Great Wall and enjoy being called "Great wall princesses" by visitors.

But the craving for Great Wall bricks has not abated.

Yang's "stubbornness" has made his family alienated from their neighbors. Some simply slam their door in his face when Yang tries to reason with them.

"Sometimes I do feel lonely living in the cave house and I owe my family a comfortable dwelling. But I know the Wall would soon be peeled off its bricks."

The family relies on Yang as its only bread earner. He does odd jobs and cannot travel too far to find jobs. "I have to keep checking on the Wall from time to time."

He also paints big characters on the Wall, bao hu chang cheng, ren ren you ze, which means everybody should protect the Wall.

Since 2005, the junior high school graduate has been gathering information about the section of the Wall and his town and hand-copying it into a manuscript of tens of thousands of characters.

home Great Wall

Aside from its ancient history, the Wall also stands as witness to a glorious moment in modern times.

In the 1930s, Xiamaguan was the headquarters of a division of the Red Army, led by Xu Haidong, one of the generals who helped establish New China.

In 1936, American journalist Edgar Snow interviewed Xu in the tower house of the city gate where Yang's family now dwells. Snow recorded the interview in his diary and in his bestseller Red Star Over China (1937).

Yang says this part of history would have meant a lot to his deceased father, as the man had great respect about revolutionaries.

"The city wall has been witness to many historical happenings," Yang says. "Taking down its bricks is like wiping away those histories."

The local relic protection office has been deliberating moving the family elsewhere and giving the Wall better protection. But so far nothing has been done.

"I will stay on as long as it is like this," Yang says.

In 2008, Yang was honored with the candidacy to an award, Perosnality Who Move Ningxia.

Chinese National Geography contributes to the story.

(By Mei JiaZhu Qianhua and Mei Jia, China Daily Updated: 2010-03-15

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