Cheng Yongmao uses his principle to protect China’s symbolic heritage

By Shan Jie Source:Global Times Published: 2020/6/11 20:33:40

Cheng Yongmao stands on the Jiankou section of the Great Wall in Beijing. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Cheng Yongmao, a 64-year-old engineer of ancient architecture restoration, climbs the Great Wall in Beijing at least once a week.

With his wooden stick, he climbs faster and more skillfully than most visitors, undeterred by the dangerous and steepest parts of the ancient wall. It's not uncommon for him to spend time waiting for others to catch up.

When visitors arrive at a platform or beacon tower, Cheng gives a brief introduction of the masterpiece of the ancient architecture.

"We found many parts of the Great Wall here were built in the 34th year of Emperor Wanli's reign, around 1605, in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), roughly 400 years ago," Cheng noted.

Cheng does not remember how many times he has climbed the Great Wall. "Nowadays at least once a week," he told the Global Times.

Cheng, who has spent decades in protecting and restoring the Great Wall, now hosts the restoration project at the Jiankou section of the Great Wall in Huairou district, northern Beijing. The Jiankou section is known for its precipitous cliffs, which has made it popular among adventurous hikers in China and from around the world.

Moreover, the damaged walls and towers have left lots of rubble on the wall, which poses additional risks when climbing. There used to be deaths reported each year from climbing Jiankou.

The Great Wall's restoration is often under spotlight and has even courted controversy online, adding pressure to Cheng's work. But with years of experience, Cheng has found multiple ways to preserve the landmark while retaining its original style.

"When it comes to conserving the Great Wall, we still have a long way to go," said Cheng. "Because the Great Wall is the treasure of China, I hope to better protect it and the surrounding environment as well."

Follow the principle

When the Global Times reporters met Cheng in Xizhazi village near the Jiankou section of the Great Wall, he was ready for his full day of work in the mountains.

He wears a baggy vest, a pair of soft boat shoes and dons a red safety helmet. "This outfit makes it perfect for me to shuttle between different beacon towers on the mountain," said Cheng.

In less than half an hour, Cheng has already led a team of five people up the Great Wall to the top of the mountain, more than 1,000 meters above the sea level. Cheng's project, now in its third year, is to reinforce the Great Wall. The restoration is not only about maintaining the symbolic ancient wonder, but also guaranteeing the safety of its visitors.

However, restoring the Great Wall has brought Cheng great pressure. Restoration work in other parts of the Great Wall not related to his project were claimed to have rebuilt the Great Wall, making it into a new building.

Cheng has decades of experience under his belt and believes it is necessary to restore the Great Wall while keeping its original style.

"You have to restore the old building and make sure it looks like the old one," he said.

His efforts have proved exemplary among people from other Great Wall restoration projects when visiting Cheng to learn his methods.

"We strictly follow the traditional materials and skills to restore the original style of the Great Wall," Cheng said. "We have to save the Great Wall while letting the public accept the restored Great Wall."

Due to natural causes and human activity in recent years, some parts of the Great Wall suffered great damage, even collapses.

By the end of 2019, Cheng and his team had worked with urgency for 15 years to reinforce more than 19,000 meters of the Great Wall in Huairou.

Cheng has to visit every section of the current restoration project. He will typically spend time at the site investigating measuring, drawing graphics with computer-aided design and coordinating construction tasks.

The Great Wall was built on large regions and in consideration of local landscapes so every part of the Great Wall is different. In the principle of restoring ancient buildings, Cheng visited almost all of the Great Wall remains around Beijing and read literature on its history.

Apprentice to master

Cheng started work in 1973 as a bricklayer's apprentice. He gradually grasped tile-roofing skills in constructing modern buildings and traditional civil buildings.

In 1991, Cheng joined the newly-formed park and ancient construction restoration company under Beijing Huairou Construction Corporation.

That year, he also participated in the tile-roofing work in the restoration of the main hall in Hongluo Temple, an iconic Buddhist temple in Beijing.

The project invited two senior specialists from the Palace Museum. Chen took the chance to acknowledge Piao Xuelin as a mentor.

Piao was not only a senior engineer at the Palace Museum, but also the 15th generation of inheritors of the Xinglong school, which used to be the main carpenter's shop for building the Forbidden City and other royal buildings in Ming and Qing dynasties.

Meanwhile, the Beijing Municipal Administration of Cultural Heritage launched an ancient buildings training course, which Cheng took.

During the Hongluo Temple's restoration, Cheng was receptive to his master Piao's strategy and technologies used in building ancient roofs. 

The Hongluo Temple was the beginning of Cheng's career in restoring ancient buildings.

In 1990s, he joined in many key restoration projects, such as repairing the roofs for Beijing West Railway Station and the former residence of Chinese writer Lu Xun. In every project, Cheng would carefully study the formation, size and some special designs of the buildings. Piao often visited the construction site, directing his work.

Working hard and developing his skills, Cheng steadily improved before becoming a senior engineer on the tile-roofing work of ancient buildings. Some more significant projects sought Cheng's expertise in the following years.

In 2003, Cheng hosted the key protection project of the Tiananmen peribolos. Cheng's successful completion of the tasks won him and his company great honor in the restoration sector.

As an inheritor of the Xinglong school, Cheng said he has the responsibility of inhering and promoting ancient building restoration.

As a tradition, skills and knowledge were taught orally in Xinglong school. To better promote the heritage, Cheng and other apprentices have completed a book to record Xinglong skills as intangible cultural heritage.
Newspaper headline: Great Wall watchman

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