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Re-creating Beijing's Glorious City Wall and Watchtowers

A one-woman effort gets underway to re-create Beijing's glorious city wall and watchtowers that have long disappeared, writes Raymond Zhou.

When the sun was barely over the horizon on May 6, a crowd had already gathered outside the gate of the Red Sandalwood Museum on Beijing's east side. Commuters who were rushing downtown might be unaware, but they were passing witnesses to the unveiling of a project that can be traced back some 600 years.

Covering the front compound was a structure that is 18 meters by 17.2 meters and 5 meters tall. It was a replica of Beijing's Zhengyang Gate (Gate of the Righteous Sun). Some of the guests were standing on top of the wall, happily posing for photos.

It is one-tenth the size of the original structure. Instead of bricks and stones, the replicas are made of red sandalwood for the main buildings and Yinchen wood for the wall section, precious materials used mainly for collectible furniture and pricey artifacts.

As a matter of fact, the watchtower of Zhengyang Gate still stands to the south of Tian'anmen Square, but the surrounding structures, including an arrow tower and a barbican with two sluice gates, have long vanished. So, the replicas give a fuller picture than an actual tour of the original location.

It was not just one city gate that Chan Laiwa (Chen Lihua) and her red sandalwood museum had recreated, but all 16 of them that form both the inner circle and outer circle of the old Beijing wall. It is a project that took six years, a hundred top craftsmen and an untold amount of money.

"Of the 1.3 billion-plus in China's total population, probably less than 100 million have seen Beijing's city wall. We wanted to absorb and reflect their sense of awe and longing when they recall their experiences with the original structures. We wanted to capture that collective memory," says Chan, founder and curator of China Red Sandalwood Museum, and as ranked by Forbes in 2014, the 10th-richest mainland Chinese, the richest woman in China and one of only 19 self-made female billionaires in the world.

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