William Lucas Lindesay
Rephotography of a vintage photograph taken by William G Heil in 1908, near Beijing, in 2005 Author: Wang Baoshan
2022

William Lucas Lindesay

Geographer

Evidence of change on the Great Wall of China

meet william

William Lindesay OBE is a geographer and expert on the Great Wall of China. In 1987, he made a 2500-kilometer traverse of the Great Walls on foot. He settled in China in 1990, dedicating himself to Great Wall studies through exploration and research, and has pioneered a new era of conservation since 1998. He established International Friends of the Great Wall and organized the first volunteer activities removing litter and erasing graffiti. He had the Great Wall landscape listed as an endangered site by the World Monuments Fund and set up ranger teams to patrol sections of wilderness. He produced and placed the first green message signage there and used re-photography to measure the monument’s deterioration.

Evidence of change on the Great Wall of China
Nominated by: Steven Schwankert FI'05
Class of 2022 Location China
Great Wall landscape amidst sea of summer clouds, with William Lindesay’s shadow on the ramparts, in 2002
Great Wall landscape amidst sea of summer clouds, with William Lindesay’s shadow on the ramparts, in 2002 Author: William Lindesay

My 1987 traverse of the Great Wall still inspires the spirit of adventure and exploration in young people. Since then, I have gained renown for approaching the study of the Great Wall differently from both sides, the Chinese side and the outside, and for stressing that while its history is important, its future and conservation need to be prioritized. My most important field discoveries have been on the Great Walls outside China. By radiocarbon-14 dating analysis of branch fragments, I evidenced that a wall in Mongolia’s Gobi was built 1000 years later than assumed, by a polity not previously known to have built a Great Wall. In China I am seen as the foreigner who collects trash from the Great Wall and one of the two Williams of the Great Wall. The former epithet seems lowly. Those sustained actions by me and my supporters seem just a band-aid solution to visual pollution, but the trash issue was the tip of the iceberg that made me realize that the Great Walls, for there are many Great Walls built by different dynasties, constitute the world’s largest open-air museum, without a curator.

“My future hope is that the wilderness environment surrounding the Great Wall can be preserved with integrity.”

- William Lucas Lindesay
Gazelle herd crossing line of the Genghis Khan Wall, Great Eastern Steppe, Mongolia, 2016
Gazelle herd crossing line of the Genghis Khan Wall, Great Eastern Steppe, Mongolia, 2016 Author: James & Thomas Lindesay

My most influential conservation advocacy utilized the technique of re-photography. By presenting scores of before photos of the Great Wall taken in 1908 by American explorer William Geil next to my own modern updates, I have compiled evidence of both human and natural damages to the monument and its surroundings during the 20th century. I have publicized my findings in books in Chinese and via nine exhibitions, national and provincial, in venues along the length of the Wall. This kind of shock-and-see approach has helped to alert governments and to awaken the public’s consciousness toward new efforts to protect the Great Walls. My future hope is that the wilderness environment surrounding the Great Wall can be preserved with integrity.

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