Fond Memories of Luo Zhewen
I first ‘met’ Luo Zhewen in a bookshop, in a narrow street opposite the British Museum in central London. The meeting was akin to be unearthing a treasure, for his book, in evocative language and spectacular photography, introduced me to the Wall, the object and subject that was set to fascinate and occupy me for the rest of my life.
There on a shelf of books focussing on China was a large volume called ‘The Great Wall’, by a collaboration of international authors led by Luo Zhewen. I have just retrieved the book from a shelf in my study, for it’s always taken pride of place among many scores of book on the same subject. When I bought the book, I never imagined that on day I would meet the eminent man, let alone meet him often, and even less so be guided and advised by him.
The Great Wall, and many other of the country’s great historical treasures, have lost their first protector, Luo Zhewen.
Heritage is the story of the past, a country’s past, of mankind’s past, your past and my past. It’s our responsibility to pass on this wonderful past to our futures, our children. But it is only preserved by pioneers, and Luo Zhewen was the pioneer of historical protection in China.
I met Luo Zhewen in person, for the first time, in 1995, when a BBC TV program producer brought us together to talk about the Great Wall. I was starring as the ‘adventure’ component, talking about my long expedition of 1987, while Luo Zhewen was telling the audience about the Wall’s history, and its significance to the world. Luo Zhewen was in his early 70s then, and strode comfortably up a narrow, overgrown mountain path ascending a section of Wild Wall a couple of kilometres east of the An-Si Lu that passes through the Huanghuacheng section.
I remember how the BBC crew praised him that day, amazed at a pensioner’s tenacity and spirit. We visited an engraved tablet, a watchtower, and walked along the overgrown battlements. I remember Luo Zhewen telling me to ‘see more of the Wall, understand more of the Wall’, which I’ve always maintained as my guideline to learning.
Just a few years later, in 1998, I organized the first public activity to pick up garbage at the Great Wall. We headed to Jinshanling, with 100 volunteers and 20 journalists. That event was successful on many fronts. Yes, we pickup up I don’t know how many tens of kilograms of garbage. And yes, the journalists wrote their stories, that even made the front pages. But it was a successful, milestone event because we had the support of Luo Zhewen. He not only spoke about the overdue need to keep the Wall clean, as an indication of our care for it in the face of the many threats that it was beginning to face, but he set an example. Aged more than 70 at the time, he wore our T-Shirt, put on gloves and seized a bag and was stooping down to fill his bag. That day he turned into not only an advisor, but the leading figurehead of a group of concerned-for-Wall individuals that eventually became known as ‘International Friends of the Great Wall’.
My wife Wu Qi, and I, sometimes with our children Jimmy and Tommy, often visited Luo Zhewen in his modest abode near Andingmen. From 2004 I had started to rephotograph the Great Wall. Luo Zhewen strongly supported the idea and indeed believed that recording changes at the Wall with the technique of rephotography was indeed a useful formula for influencing a better future for the Wall. He contributed his own photos, taken at Gubeikou when he was a student of Liang Sicheng in the late 1940s. He helped identify many locations where some of the old photos had been taken. He picked up his telephone and called his contacts in Shanhaiguan. Lanzhou and Jiayuguan, asking his friends to help in the search when I went there. He called officials in the bureaus, urging their support, asking for exhibition venues to show off our results. Much of the “Great Wall Revisited’ project’s success was due to his enthusiastic, tireless support.
Today, hearing of the news that Luo Zhewen has passed away, my wife, Wu Qi, and I feel fortunate to have benefitted from his support, wisdom and kindness. He was the best example I know of living a quality life. Many people are concerned how long they will live. Luo Zhewen lived long by living a quality life. It was always astounding to us that when we telephoned him he was so often out of town, inspecting a site, attending a meeting. I saw him for what would turn out to be the last time last autumn, soon after my return from Mongolia, where I had been researching a section of ‘Great Wall Outside China’.
Luo Zhewen has passed away, he’s gone, but his youthful spirit will always be with those who love China’s history, and especially those who feel it worth dedicating their lives or even just doing a little to care for its future. We feel thankful to have known this great man so closely. He will always be an inspiration.