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Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2008


Great Wall more than a structure to Chinese

BEIJING — It's easy to point a finger at another country, to criticize its pace of modernization, to say its leaders are out of touch with reality. After all, many people will insist, our country does things the "right way."

On a cool, beautiful Monday afternoon, I was walking on the Great Wall of China thinking about these topics a day after the Closing Ceremony of the Beijing Games.

There are few places on earth with more historical and cultural significance than the Great Wall, and on this day it happened to be one of the most peaceful, relaxing places I've ever been.

Only the sound of the wind and a few chirping birds in the distance eliminated the possibility of complete silence.

Walking up the steep steps with breathtaking mountain scenery to my left and to my right, I was approached by a Chinese fellow named Mr. Mao (he told me his English nickname is Jackson), who asked me if "I needed to have my picture taken."

Sure, that's a fine idea, I told him.

We took each other's photograph and started walking and talking as we hiked up the Badaling section of the Great Wall.

After exchanging initial pleasantries, Mao spoke with a tone of pride in voice, explaining what the Great Wall means to Chinese people: a national symbol of hard work and diligence.

"It took 1,000 years for China to build the Great Wall," he said.

That was one of the most profound statements I've ever heard — and ever will hear.

Nowadays a five-year plan to fix the economy or a three-year plan to overhaul a bad professional sports franchise tests people's patience. That's too long; we want results now, people will say.

The Great Wall is, well, a great reminder that patience and perseverance are respectable traits.

It was a tiring walk for Mao and I. But as we continued to ascend the wall, time seemed to stand still — it's the only cliche that truly describes the situation. It felt as if we were neither in the past nor the present, only in a state of perpetual contemplation.

How can people spend 1,000 years on a construction project?

The Great Wall is the greatest public works project of all time even if that wasn't what the ancient Chinese called it.

China has changed dramatically in the past 10 years and continues to change at a rapid pace.

Mao told me that Beijing is a much better place to live than it was five years ago, that entire neighborhoods have undergone massive facelifts in the past two years. Beijing is cleaner and people here are more optimistic about the future, he added.

For the Chinese, the Great Wall, roughly 6,400 km in total distance (greater than the distance from New York to Los Angeles) is a symbol of optimism, too.

It reminds them people can accomplish anything, but first we must have a goal — simple or grandiose — in mind.

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