For the first time Friday, it will be a crime to damage China's ancient Great Wall.
For a national symbol so intimately linked to China's international image, the Great Wall is in a pretty sorry state.
Crudely rebuilt in places to resemble a Disneyland attraction but mostly left to crumble unattended, the country's most famous monument has suffered the ravages of both time and man. Now, for the first time, a nationwide set of rules to protect the wall is coming to the rescue.
Starting Dec. 1, it will officially be illegal to remove bricks or stones from the Great Wall, to drive vehicles along it, to hold all-night rave parties on it, or build houses right up against it, among other indignities to which the awe-inspiring structure has been subjected.
One might have thought that such activities would already be outlawed; after all, the Wall has been a prominent entry on UNESCO's list of World Cultural Heritage sites since 1987. But for almost all its length, as it snakes its way from ridge to peak across northern China, the wall has never enjoyed more than the spottiest protection.
In fact, there is no single "Great Wall." There are stretches of wall, built at different times to keep out different enemies, and some of them are not "walls" at all, but rather earthwork mounds or even ditches. They add up to several thousand miles' worth of defenses.
"Even today there is a lot of discussion to identify what exactly the Great Wall is," says Lu Zhou, an architectural historian at Tsinghua University. "Some parts have been designated national treasures, but mostly nobody has cared."
"Great Wall research is in a state of chaos," adds Dong Yahui, vice president of the Great Wall Society, a group promoting greater care for the wall. "The government still doesn't know how long even the [most recently built] Ming Dynasty wall is, how much is in good condition, or how much has collapsed. There is no central record."
After the collapse in 1644 of the Ming Dynasty, whose emperors built the impressively crenelated brick and stone walls studded with watch towers that are depicted on millions of postcards today, the wall fell victim to neglect. China's new rulers came from one of the northern tribes the wall had been built to repel, so they felt no need to maintain it.