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Finding his niche in Great Wall

Without academic affiliation or funding, a Harvard Law grad has made himself a leading scholar of the Chinese landmark's history.

November 28, 2008|John M. Glionna | Glionna is a Times staff writer.

JINSHANLING, CHINA — 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.

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