Finding his niche in Great Wall

Glionna is a Times staff writer.

David Spindler stands along a crenellated crown of the Great Wall and gestures toward a river valley that snakes away northward into the gloom.

“Over there,” he says, his voice lilting in a sense of discovery. “That’s the direction from which the Mongols attacked.”

For two hours on Oct. 23, 1554, a bloody battle raged. The raiders used ropes to reach the Chinese defenders, climbing the wall “like ants,” Spindler explains. He talks of a Chinese soldier who hacked off the hand of an attacker only to be killed moments later, his head pierced by an enemy arrow.


Spindler has done his homework, much of it in the National Library of China, where he has pored over government reports and military archives detailing the clash along this isolated mountain ridge 75 miles northwest of Beijing, deciphering the ancient Chinese characters that hold clues to a past 454 years old.

The lanky, 6-foot-7, 41-year-old American is an unlikely, almost accidental scholar of one of China’s most beloved icons, a Harvard Law School graduate who left his job as a consultant and lived off savings to pursue his grand obsession thousands of miles from his Massachusetts roots. Some day soon, he hopes to publish a book on all he’s learned.

Without academic affiliation or funding, Spindler has spent 14 years traveling across China and even to Japan to review arcane centuries-old texts for firsthand accounts and details. And he has spent more than 830 days clambering over the wall’s far-flung ramparts around Beijing -- enough to wear through several pairs of hiking boots.

On hikes over steep, difficult terrain, he has bushwhacked, with his body scratched and bleeding, through thickets to reach new sites. Often, Spindler approaches the wall along ridges, much as the raiders did centuries ago -- excursions he calls “hiking like a Mongol.”

Dressed in a wide-brimmed Tilley hat, red-checked hunting jacket and arm-length work gloves, he has endured the humid 100-degree days of summer and shortened snow-blown days of December.

“I’ve spent 5% of my life there,” he says of the wall.

Spindler’s relationship with the Great Wall was not love at first sight. He initially visited there as a tourist in 1987 while on a summer study program in China.

Years later, after moving to Beijing to study pre-modern Chinese history, he still saw the wall less as its own destination than as a respite from the stress of a teeming foreign capital with 17 million residents.

In 1994, a friend suggested that they take an overnight hiking trip there. Always athletic -- he was a collegiate rower and cross-country skier -- Spindler was challenged by the physical exertion of tracing the structure’s roller-coaster rises and falls.

Soon, he was hiking every weekend. “By then, friends either went on hikes or they didn’t see me.”

Eventually, the wall began to speak to him. He grew more curious about its history and human story, and believed there might be a book in the subject.

In the fall of 1997, he returned to the U.S. to attend Harvard Law School. But the Great Wall followed him. Spindler kept a map of his beloved barricade over his dorm room desk.

“I remember how unhappy David seemed at Harvard,” recalls Andrew Field, a friend and China historian now living in Shanghai. “It was obvious he was pining for China, and for getting back on the Great Wall. Even then he was obsessed with it.”

At Harvard, Spindler began doing library research on the structure’s history during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the last major wall-building period. He consulted anything he could get his hands on, including contemporary books and original Ming texts, but soon realized there was no modern university-affiliated academic, either Chinese or Western, who was concentrating mainly on the wall.

That fact both amazed and challenged him.

In 2000, he returned to Beijing and worked as a management consultant as he pursued his research. In early 2002, Spindler surprised even his closest friends: He left his consulting job and soon began to pursue the wall full time.

“You ask the question: Huh?” says Jonathan Ball, an Oakland-based fine art photographer and a former classmate at Harvard. “But then you think about how people find their professional passion. Some people find theirs early in life, some later and some people never find theirs at all. David found this.”

For years, Spindler survived mostly off savings from his consulting work. He scaled down his lifestyle to a minimum -- taking buses and subways, cooking his own meals, living in tiny, threadbare Beijing apartments -- all the while rejected for grant money because of his lack of an academic research pedigree. Eventually, he made some money speaking to travel groups on Great Wall history.

Again and again, there were uncomfortable encounters with strangers at parties. When told of his pursuits, many looked at Spindler as if he were some towering Don Quixote chasing a Chinese windmill.

“People didn’t know how to deal with me,” he says. “They couldn’t imagine how you could make money that way. It wasn’t a career.”

Spindler is also stubborn. Slowly, he earned academic respect.

“David is clearly the leading expert on the Great Wall in the English language, and certainly ranks high even among the Chinese,” says Ken Hammond, a New Mexico State University history professor and editor of a journal called Ming Studies, which will publish an article by Spindler next year.

“He manages to communicate his love for this subject and the excitement he feels when he gets up on the stones and gazes out over the hills and the twists and turns of the wall.”

Writing a book was his initial goal, but the wall became something more to Spindler: a personal quest to master such an exotic topic.

“David’s approach to the wall is a very personal thing,” Field says. “Every time he goes, he has this welter of great memories of experiences he’s had there with friends or by himself. He makes accidental discoveries, a plaque or piece of wall he’s never seen before. It goes way beyond academics.”

His research has also separated myth from fact.

He has learned, for example, that the Great Wall is not one continuous structure but a series of fortifications, built with various materials, including packed earth, bricks and mortar, fieldstones and quarried rock. In some places, it isn’t a wall at all, but a string of unconnected signal towers. No one has determined exactly how long it runs, but estimates vary from thousands to tens of thousands of miles.

Part of the appeal of Spindler’s Great Wall research is being outdoors. The work has allowed him to savor a sensation unfamiliar to many residents of the world’s most populous nation: isolation.

He has hiked for days without seeing another soul, explored abandoned villages, gotten lost and watched fellow hikers break arms and legs in falls -- all while tracing the route and origins of the meandering wall.

Many mornings, he rises at 4:30 to check the weather and plan the research day ahead. He keeps a spreadsheet on the number of days he has spent on the wall and the roughly 30 days of research there he has planned, the things he has chronicled, the places he still longs to visit.

But sometimes, high in the mountains, he stops his work to appreciate the beauty of the moment.

“I always like sitting around here and looking around,” he says during a recent hike. “I see new things all the time. It’s also a great vista.” He paused, then spoke again. “This is a wonderful workplace.”

Over the years, Spindler spent time nearly every day in Chinese-language Internet chat rooms, trading minutiae with both serious and amateur wall enthusiasts -- never letting on that he was an American.

That’s where he met Hong Feng, a Peking University policeman and fellow wall researcher. Spindler used a Chinese nickname online and Hong assumed he was a local student.

“He was always persistent and well trained,” Hong recalls. “He always asked for evidence for everything.”

Last year, Spindler decided to reveal himself. He called Hong and arranged a dinner. The policeman recalls seeing Spindler for the first time, amazed at his height and nationality.

His first words: “I didn’t think you were a foreigner.”

Spindler offered him a gift only a fellow Great Wall wanderer could appreciate: a pair of elbow-long elk-skin gloves.

“I understood immediately what his gift meant,” Hong says. “For Great Wall climbers like us, it gets really cold in winter. I immediately sensed the warmth from him. I admire him.”

Spindler doesn’t romanticize the Great Wall. He doesn’t over-glorify it or write it off as many Westerners do as a symbol of Chinese xenophobia. He sees it simply as a pragmatic fortification that for centuries protected successive emperors from outside attack.

In his newest project, he has teamed with Ball, the fine art photographer, to show overseas audiences panoramas of the historic structure.

But their 25 photographs are hardly stylized picture postcards. They re-create the utilitarian perspectives of the soldiers who defended the wall and of the Mongol raiders who attacked it, by showing a dozen battle sites on the same day of the year and at the same time as the original clashes. The first lecture was this month at the Berkeley Art Museum, with at least one more to follow in Colorado.

“The photos are taken on battle anniversaries; the vegetation is the same, the light the same,” Spindler says.

“They are as close as you can get in the modern era to being there at that place and time.”

Peering down over a 100-foot precipice, Spindler describes the Mongols’ nearly suicidal task of scaling the Great Wall in battle.

On the morning of the battle on Oct. 23, 1554, the Mongols had tried to gain purchase at several spots before attacking. The fighting lasted from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. as the Chinese soldiers repelled them with arrows, crude cannons, clubs and even rocks.

Spindler points to a pile of heavy stones that could have been considered ammunition. He believes the Great Wall proved to be a successful defense strategy.

“Without it . . . northern China would have been an indefensible no man’s land,” he says.

Spindler still speaks to travel groups about Great Wall history to make ends meet and together with Ball is pursuing other opportunities with the photography project that include exhibitions, print sales and maybe a coffee-table book. He hopes to finish his own book by the end of 2010.

No one, least of all Spindler, thinks that will mark the closing chapter of his Great Wall adventure. Next, he wants to learn Mongolian as a way to study Great Wall texts from the raiders’ perspective.

On this day, though, it’s time to leave behind the battle of 1554 and return to the modern bustle of Beijing. As Spindler lopes along in great strides, a companion asks him the time.

“Twelve-fifty,” he says, consulting his watch. “The battle’s over.”