Skateboarding the Great Wall 万里长城

Skateboarding the Great Wall 万里长城


Skateboarding on the Great Wall of China in 1995 | Badaling 八达岭 万里长城

Learning Adventure for Students of 806-123 / 809-122 Eastern Civilization

Click on images to enlarge.

Backstory – My first time to skateboard on the Great Wall

Between 1995 and 2002, I studied Chinese philosophy during summers at Peking University. Hiking – and skateboarding – on the Great Wall quickly became my favorite activity, outside of attending lectures and campus life.

Each time I traveled to the Wall, I learned something new, and the more I visited different areas, the more I wanted to learn about the history and culture behind this amazing symbol of the Chinese people.

Catching air at Badaling Great Wall 八达岭 万里长城

Skate the Wall

Our sleek private taxi wove its way between big trucks and buses, tiny cars and vans, zooming motorcycles and buzzing scooters. The silent bikes and carts yielded without stress, smoothly avoiding us as if doing Tai Chi.

Radiating from Beijing, the traffic faded into tranquility. We, students from the University of Hawaii, headed due north with our driver, a kind-hearted Chinese man with dark glasses and a love for classic Western rock music.

We gave him a thumbs-up and nodded when his stereo played Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall.

En route to the Great Wall with our favorite taxi driver | 2002

Around us, wheat and corn formed a checkerboard landscape, as hills graduated to small mountains with riverbanks planted with weeping willows, walnut and peach trees, thriving under deep blue sky. Slender poplar trees cast zebra-striped shadows which flickered on our faces while we blazed on.

It was a perfect day to skate the Wall.

Skateboarding on the Great Wall | 2001

Philosophical Attitudes

Just as philosophical attitudes of Chinese and Americans may differ, so too have their reactions to my skating on the Wall.

Photos from my early trips in 1995 shocked some Western friends to contend, “You mean they allow you to do that?”

Badaling Great Wall | 1995

In contrast, Chinese friends were enthusiastic and positive.

The first time I skated the Wall, a guard stationed at the Wall shouted in Mandarin and took my board. To my surprise, he traded me his rifle for my skateboard and tried to ride it, shooting down the hill out of control, skidding to a halt, and tearing holes in his clothes.

Bruised and bleeding, he reacted with a smile, and raced up the hill for another try.

World's oldest skateboard park

Unexpectedly, we had a marvelous hour together, sharing the moment and cultural experiences.

I realized that the function of the Wall had changed from combat to sport, from exclusive to inclusive, from military to peaceful – attracting tourists and hikers, students and teachers, philosophers and politicians.

The Wall had become fun and exciting, as if suddenly transformed into the world’s greatest skatepark.

Skateboarding at the Great Wall

Meng Jiang Nu

In contrast to the touristic carnival-like atmosphere experienced at many sections of the Wall today, truth is, the Great Wall is no laughing matter.

Hiking the Wall on a hot summers day, exhausted at the onset of heat stroke, I could feel the blood, sweat and tears of the conscripts and prisoners who built it.

Sometimes called the "World’s longest tombstone," the Wall was a place where men were sent to toil and suffer until they died and their bodies were buried near the Wall.

Hiking on the Great Wall of China, north of Beijing

Set in the Qin dynasty (221BC-206BC), one story still resonates among the collective memory of the Chinese, the dramatic separation of a loving couple and their tragic ending as a result of building the Wall.

Ancient literature, paintings, poems, music, and modest temples throughout China, Japan, and Korea honor the heartbreak of Meng Jiang Nu (Lady Meng Jiang), who searched the entire length before finding her beloved dying husband, Fan Qiliang. Legends tell she cried so hard that the wall collapsed where she found him.

Modern cartoons, videos and films in recent years continue to romanticize her story, representing the ruthlessness of the emperor, the tragedy of the Great Wall, and the kindness of a gentle woman.

Lady Meng Jiang and the Great Wall | Source: Stent, 1878

Her story is a recurring theme in Chinese folklore, with literary evidence dating back more than two-thousand years. One of the many treasures of Chinese historical literature, a Bianwen manuscript (c. 9-11 century) of the story was discovered at Dunhuang, Gansu province, an important stop on the Silk Road.

The story of Lady Meng Jiang | c. 9th-11th century Bianwen manuscript

Iconic guardian of China

A great unification of the Wall took place under Emperor Qin Shi Huanghi, the legendary ruthless ruler who founded the Chin Dynasty (221-206 BC) and hence gave his name to China. He also left behind his personal terracotta army of Xian, the larger-than-life clay soldiers built supposedly to guard him in the afterlife.

A continuous project, the Chin fortifications that began in strategic mountain passes now string together to stretch thousands of miles across China, from Heilongjiang Province in northeast China, winding westward to Jaiyuguan, Gansu Province, in the Gobi Desert.

View from a garrison | Jinshanling Great Wall

The Wall is an iconic guardian of China, towering over the fertile river-valleys and plains of the south, protecting them from invasion by the marauding bandits of the Mongolian plateau to the north.

The northern face of the Wall is always sheer, often 30 feet tall, or perched on the rim of a high cliff, while the southern face is sometimes only ground level.

Today, the Wall with all its branches, if placed end to end, would stretch more than 30,000 miles.

Jinshanling, north of Beijing, a 10 kilometer stretch of unrestored Wall

The World's first internet

The Great Wall can be justly described as the world's first information superhighway. Timely information could be sent across the entire country in a single day – smoke by day, and fire by night.

The Wall served as a secure connection network, offering enough band-width to allow soldiers to ride two-abreast and travel in both directions, garrisons serving as safe terminals, battlements providing the firewall, vats of hot oil ready to be poured on the heads of potential hackers.

From the east, China streamed live to the world – and from west, the world steamed live to China.

The Great Wall – Connecting east and west

The Silk Road

The Great Wall was heavily fortified, serving as the military power line of the Silk Road as early as the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), when caravans of horses and camels transported men and women, trade wares and silks, plants and animals, technologies and religions. Han Dynasty garrisons extended the reach and power of the Great Wall system deep into the desert areas of western China (see photo below).

Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) garrison on the ancient southern Silk Road

Perhaps no other exchange of information was as profound as what occurred leading up to the Golden Age of Chinese philosophy (Tang Dynasty, AD 618-907), when Indian Buddhism flowed into China along the trade routes of the Silk Road, carrying information and ideas that changed how the Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans think.

For example, ancient Buddhism and art, illuminated with Greek and Persian influences, flourished in Western China, a sign that east-west cultural communication and collaboration is much older, and much better developed, than previously thought. (Visit my Silk Road and Pakistan pages to learn more about Grecco-Buddhist culture and China, or see the works of Sir Aurel Stein and Sir John Marshall).

Uyghur dancer | Turpan, Xinjiang

Jiāyùguān Fort

The Ming Dynasty (AD 1368-1644) earned the reputation for hosting China’s most masterful wall builders, creating faultless square-cut bricks, which still appear clean, tight, and engineered into perfect function.

The most famous Ming Dynasty wall remains Jaiyuguan Fort, the western terminus of the Great Wall in the Gobi Desert, fabled end – or beginning – of the civilized world, depending on one's perspective.

Sunrise at Jiayuguan Fort | 2001

One story of Jaiyuguan Fort tells of a architect placed in charge of construction. Upon ordering the massive number of bricks required to build the fort, which he calculated down to a specific number, he was warned that it had better be enough. With confidence he agreed and added one brick to the order just in case.

When the complex was completed, only one brick remained. The story is a testament to Chinese ingenuity.

Four characters inscribed near the front gate roughly translate to mean: Strongest fort under heaven.

Jiayuguan Fort | Ming Dynasty | AD 1368-1644

Acuity and continuity

Layers of architecture attest to the acuity and continuity of Chinese culture and philosophy as the wall, like the art of the earth, rises in chronological order from a subterranean foundation.

I have stood at sections where the base was built during Chin Dynasty, the middle during Han, the upper during Ming, the watchtowers Qing (AD 1644-1911) while the surface was only one week old.

I’ve watched as farmers bashed bricks off the Wall with sledge hammers, loading them on donkey carts to use on their farms, while in the distance I could see contemporary building crews adding a fresh face, handrails, stairs, and toilets for tourists.

Farmer at Jinshanling Great Wall

Can we see the Wall from Space?

It is often said that the Great Wall is the only man-made structure recognizable from space, but when I asked Colonel Scott Horowitz of the US Air Force, commander of four Space Shuttle missions, he told me:

“It's nearly impossible to see the Great Wall, even from low orbit, because the color of the bricks and building materials match the colors of the corresponding landscapes, and also due to the heavily polluted skies over China.”

Scott said that it was just about possible to make out the line traced across China by the Wall, with a little imagination, on a crystal-clear day. On the other hand, he said that the Great Pyramid, in Giza, Egypt, was clearly visible throughout the hours of daylight, and especially in the early morning and late evening, due to its long shadow.

Surf Doctor Steven with NASA Astronaut Scott Horowitz in 2002

Above Huanghuachen Great Wall | 2001

Prof Yang Xin | Peking University

Returning to Peking University after a trip to the Wall, I asked my philosophy professor, Yang Xin, a specialist in Great Wall aesthetics, “Why Great Wall, and not simply long wall or border wall?”

He explained, “Although the original name may have implied long wall (wall of 10,000 Li), the significance matured and greatness was attributed. One brick is only one, with function limited, yet when they combine, a great animation is formed, just like the Chinese culture.”

He added, “The Wall unifies mankind with heavenly forces, as if an enormous composition of cursive calligraphy, its aspects constantly altered through time and seasonal changes."

Professor Yang Xin, specialist in Great Wall aesthetics | Peking University

We’re all just bricks in the Wall

When I first visited the Wall in 1995, I was shocked by its grandeur; later its spiritual aspects overcame me as I saw it as a symbol of both the Chinese people and the human race.

From some viewpoints the Wall looks like a coiling dragon, reaching to the sky, riding on the backs of mountains. From other angles, it resembles a growing plant, following the earth’s natural curves.

Simatai 司马台 Great Wall

After skating the Wall, I could imagine the ancient battlements reflecting rhythmic, piano-key-shaped shadows playing rock-n-roll upon the earth, zigzagging up the mountain in harmony with nature.

Ultimately, the greatness of the Great Wall stands for the greatness of humanity, as well as the suffering of humanity – we’re all just bricks in the Wall. ♦

Jiayuguan fortress, westernmost garrison of the Ming Great Wall | 2001

Thank you for visiting my Great Wall Learning Adventure page.

I hope you enjoy the photos and the information in the links provided. If you feel motivated to learn more about this topic or would like to arrange for me to give a public talk, please let me know – I’d love to hear from you.

–Steven Martin

Other skating, sandboarding, surfing fun in China...

Sandboarding at the Singing Sand Dunes in Dunhuang, China | 2001

Surfing behind a water buffalo in a Chinese rice paddy | 1997

Surfing small waves on an island near Shanghai, China | 1997

Hiking with students from the University of Hawaii | Jinshanling Great Wall | 2000

Skateboarding at Huanghuachen Great Wall | 2002

Skateboarding with Chinese youth | 2001

Short Videos

TED-ed | 4:29

Smithsonian Channel | 4:52

Eastern Civilization & Chinese Culture

Eastern Civilization & Chinese Culture

Tibetan Culture at Jiuzhaigou National Park, Sichuan Province, China


Course description

Civilization of Persia, India, China, Japan and Korea; Development of political, economic, social, and cultural thinking; The dawn of Eastern philosophy; Epoch of changes through western civilization and its influence on social systems and philosophy of the East, and Eastern civilization’s adaptation towards globalization; The Impact of Islamic, Indian, and Chinese civilizations on other Far East countries.

Teaching Demo | Eastern Civilization | The Silk Road


In 1995, I applied to Peking University (北京大学) and the  University of Hawaii at Hilo (UHH) to study Chinese philosophy after a professor captured my imagination when he said:

"Go to China – learn many things – change your life."

He was right; it did!

Since that time, I have been fortunate to study with outstanding Chinese professors, such as Yang Xin and John H.L. Cheng during summer study abroad programs with the Department of Philosophy at Peking University, widely considered to be China's top university in Humanities and Social Sciences, earning the nickname "Bei Da" (北大), literally "North Big".

At Peking University 北京大学 1995

Professor Cheng

University of Hawaii Professor John H.L. Cheng | 1995 Chinese Culture Study Tour with Peking University

One lifetime is not long enough to allow for a complete understanding of Chinese culture. Once a student, always a student – As reflected in the Chinese proverb: "Huo dao lao, xue dao lao," that is, "Live arrive old, study arrive old," an age-old Chinese belief in life-long learning.

Combining 20 years of academic experience with 5 University of Hawaii and Peking University Chinese Culture Study Tours, and as many accredited independent study travels in mainland China, I am happy to share my personal and practical knowledge with students through several introductory presentations featured here.

The topics and links provided are intended to guide open discussions and encourage active learning among students.



Develop an academic poster using PowerPoint or other software which can incorporate images, maps, tables, and text boxes.


Choose an archaeologist with deep experience in East Asia and discuss his/her education and personal background leading to their fieldwork. Emphasize the archaeological site or group of sites where s/he conducted fieldwork and research.

Note: Archaeology is the study of the ancient and recent human past, cultures, and civilizations through material remains and may include Cultural Resource Management (CRM) concerning the measures related to handling recovered materials.


Set slide dimensions for international A3, portrait or landscape (297 x 420 mm) (11.7 x 16.5 in)

Best Eastern Civilization Midterm Poster | By Pupae 2018


Chinese Culture | Typical art featuring the guardian-philosopher

Introduction to Chinese Thought in the Eastern Tradition | PDF

Introduction to Chinese Philosophy in the Context of Eastern Civilization | PDF



I first traveled the Chinese Silk Road in 1995 (Xian to Kashgar) and again in 2001 (Beijing, China, to Delhi, India).

The presentations featured here are based on my personal experience, that is, teaching through storytelling. As part of the Learning Adventure series, I have designed two website instruction pages: Part I – The Silk Road, and Part II – Pakistan and the Indus Valley.

On Ancient Tracks | The Silk Road and My Journey to the West | Click to learn more...

2011 scholarly presentation on the archaeology of the Silk Road by Colin Renfrew at the Penn Museum

Unsolved Mysteries of the Silk Road | Colin Renfrew | Penn Museum | 1:00:07

I have been fortunate to visit and explore a number of the sites and topics featured in Renfew's presentation. For our class discussion today, here are a few of Renfew’s "Questions of east-west exchange before Silk Road: one wheel, few horses".

  1. Earliest contacts: the millet question?
  2. First settlements in Xinjiang? : wheat at Xioahe
  3. The first copper metallurgy in China?
  4. How did the chariot reach China?
  5. The first mounted warriors in China?
  6. Indo-European origins seen from the east

National Geographic | Treasure Seekers: China's Frozen Desert

Based on the lives of Sir Aurel Stein and the 7th century Buddhist Monk, Xuanzang: "As commerce flourished along the Silk Road, Central Asia became a melting pot of cultures. Here on the edges of the Taklmakan Desert, an exotic blend of Indian, Mongol, Chinese, and European influences fueled an astonishing cultural Renaissance. In the 7th century, a Chinese monk, Xuanzang, plunged into the desert while on a Buddhist pilgrimage to India...

...His descriptions of the oasis-cities he encountered would prove invaluable to another explorer, more than a thousand years later. 20th century archeologist Sir Aurel Stein took on the deadly Taklamakan to prove his own theories about Western China's lost civilization. Again and again Xuanzang's writings led him to archeological treasure - once thriving cities now buried in the sand. On their monk's trail, Stein made his greatest discovery, a thousand-year-old Buddhist library in near-perfect condition " (National Geographic, 2001).

Marc Aurel Stein's Century-old Adventure Diary | Treasure Buried in the Sands

Click on the image below to view or download this 2013 CCTV-9 (China) English Documentary

Treasure Buried in the Sands

Century-old Adventure Diaries

Marc Aurel Stein [CCTV-9 Documentary English] 48 Minutes – Download

Click on the image or button below to view Stein's 1915 survey map of "Innermost Asia" (China's Taklimakan Desert) or his 1933 book "On Ancient Central-Asian Tracks"

Stein's 1933 "Innermost Asia" Map

CCTV Documentary Series Xuan Zang's Pilgrimage

In 2016, China's CCTV produced "Xuanzang's Pilgrimage", a documentary series on Xuan Zang's travels on the Silk Road. Narrated in English, the 12 segments are posted in 6 videos on YouTube. Runtime of each video is approximately 48 minuets.

Xuan Zang (1-2)

Xuan Zang (3-4)

Xuan Zang (5-6)

Xuan Zang (7-8)

Xuan Zang (9-10)

Xuan Zang (11-12)

2016 Biographical Drama Da Tang Xuan Zang

The 2016 Mandarin language historical drama “Da Tang Xuan Zang” is based on the life and travels of Xuan Zang during the Tang Dynasty. The film maps the young monk’s travels to India and quest for Buddhist teachings, featuring some of the challenges and struggles he faced.

Xuan Zang 2016 Historical Drama (Trailer)


A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy

Chan, W. (1969). A sourcebook in Chinese philosophy. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Available online at

Click to view or download this book | PDF

Key chapter reviews by Dr Steven A Martin


2010 Biographical Drama | Confucius

Confucius Motion Picture | Full HD | 2:05:00


Tai Shan, China | PDF Presentation

Cultural continuum on the North China Plain

Tai Shan | UNESCO World Heritage

According to UNESCO: "The sacred Mount Tai ('shan' means 'mountain') was the object of an imperial cult for nearly 2,000 years, and the artistic masterpieces found there are in perfect harmony with the natural landscape. It has always been a source of inspiration for Chinese artists and scholars and symbolizes ancient Chinese civilizations and beliefs."

GB Times | Tai Shan 2:41

Pilgrimage to Tai Shan | 1997

Dawenkuo Archaeological Site | 1997


Between 1995 and 2002, I studied abroad during summers at Peking University in Beijing. Hiking on the Great Wall quickly became my favorite activity, outside of attending lectures in Chinese philosophy on campus.

University of Hawaii students at Jin Shan Ling Great Wall

Each time I traveled to the Wall, I learned something new, and the more I visited different areas, the more I wanted to learn about the history and culture behind this amazing symbol of the Chinese people.

Peking University Professor Yang Xin was able to provide me with what I was looking for, namely historical and esthetic perspectives from philosophical viewpoints.

Today, my own Great Wall presentations reflect these expediences.

Great Wall of China Presentation | 57 Slides | 20 MB PDF

Hiking the Huang Hua Great Wall near Beijing | Online

Smithsonian | 5:00

TED-ed | 4:30


TAIWAN STUDIES PLAYLIST | Steven A Martin, PhD | National Chengchi University | University Filmworks

In recent years, the Taiwan (ROC) - China (PRC) relationship plays out on the geopolitical stage. However, Taiwan has its own rich history, which I have generally organized into six sections.

  • Early indigenous Austronesian-speaking peoples inhabited the island for an estimated 5,000 years.
  • Dutch, Spanish, French, British, and other cultures prior to Chinese colonization of the Taiwan.
  • A loosely administered territory of China during the Qing Dynasty.
  • The island's annexation by Japanese after the treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895.
  • Post WWII period, as Taiwan became a stronghold for the Chinese Nationalist regime supported by the USA, and the economic miracle which catapulted the country into the 21st century.
  • Democratic Taiwan, including the indigenous rights movement.

Ethnohistorical Research on the Bunun of Taiwan

The Bunun, an Austronesian-speaking peoples on Taiwan | In Our Hearts and Minds | Steven Martin 6:25

Other research and videos on indigenous Bunun and Paiwan ethnolinguistic groups in Taiwan

The Sage Hunter | Full movie 1:40:00

Eat Drink Man Woman 飲食男女 1994 Taiwanese film directed by Ang Lee

飲食男女 refers to the basic human desires and accepting them as natural as expressed in the Book of Rites, one of the Confucian classics.

Why this film is appropriate for students in Eastern Civilization

In this film, the ancient art of Chinese cuisine connects with the personal lives of a contemporary Taiwanese household. Through watching the film, students realize that the thinking, detail and complexity of cooking mirrors Chinese life and philosophy as intricate and integrated processes. In Eastern civilizations, food is prepared and served in accordance with age old traditions – socially, culturally and politically.

The way we eat is the way we think.

Eat Drink Man Woman | Official Trailer

Download and view Eat Drink Man Woman (Full Movie) here on Google Drive

INDIAN CIVILIZATION | Key Words for Student Presentations

Taj Mahal, Agra, India | Mughal Empire | Photo 2001

Choose a key word from the list below and develop a 15 minute PowerPoint presentation with text, images, maps and one video link.

Key words offered here reflect a variety of concepts, including art, civilization, culture, dynasty, empire, geography, language, literature, people, politics, and religion.

Key words: Indus Valley, Harappa, Dravidian, Aryan, Sanskrit, Vedas, Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Maurya, Ashoka, Taxila, Kushan, Bactria, Gandhara, Gupta, Islam, Sikhism, Mughal, British Raj, Scheduled Tribes, Pakistan, Bangladesh

Jivita's Story | Dr B R Ambedkar's social transformation through Buddhism | Original footage for "Arising Light" by David Blundell, content selection by Steven A Martin, and editing by Dean Karalekas

Kushan Empire | Connecting East & West

Gupta Dynasty | India's Golden Age

Mughals | Rise and Fall of an Empire




Develop an academic poster using PowerPoint or other software which can incorporate text, maps, tables, and images.


  1. Choose an anthropologist with deep experience in living among, or studying, an ethnolinguistic group in East or South Asia.
  2. Discuss the events or interests which led the anthropologist to study the ethnic group or culture.
  3. Emphasize the language, culture, history, and location of the ethnic group.
  4. Identify the significance of the ethnic group in terms of East Asian civilization.


Set slide dimensions for international A3, landscape (297 x 420 mm) (11.7 x 16.5 in)

Ethnic Uyghurs greeting tourists at the Gaochang ruins near Turpan, Xinjiang Autonomous Region, China, 2001

Examples | Scheduled Tribes of India


Hindu Culture - Agra India - Eastern Civilization - Steven A Martin - Study Abroad Journal

Hindu Culture | Agra, India

Dawenkuo, China | Archaeological Site

Buddhist Culture | Lhasa | Click to Tibet page

Kung Fu School - Shaolin Temple China - Dr Steven A Martin

Kung Fu School | Shaolin Temple, China

Islamic culture | Kashgar, Xinjiang | Click to Silk Road page

Chinese Opera | Taipei, Taiwan | Click to Taiwan page


Thank you for visiting Eastern Civilization Online.

If you feel motivated to know more about my courses or Learning Adventures, or would like to arrange for me to give a public talk, please let me know – I’d love to hear from you.

–Steven A. Martin

Monks in Xian, China, at the start of Silk Road | 1995