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You can't see it from space, won't find it in a guidebook. But there it is, scattered like the ruins of a medieval castle, snaking atop the lush green slopes of rural southern China.

Until this spring, not even the locals knew that these nearly 400-year-old stone fragments were remnants of a forgotten "Southern Great Wall," a distant cousin to the architectural marvel begun more than two millenniums ago across northern China.

Not much is left of this line of charcoal-colored fortresses and rocky footpaths, which even in its prime was only a fraction of the length of the other Great Wall. But it carries no less significance, because it maps out a very different set of cultural and political circumstances. Instead of warding off much stronger nomads--who were closer to the emperors' capitals--across the fabled northern frontier, the southern wall was designed to intimidate the primitively armed ethnic Miao people.

It didn't need to be as colossal as its northern counterpart. And because of its less impressive appearance, and its out-of-the-way location, it attracted much less attention.

For generations, farmers helped to quicken its demise, chipping off pieces of stone to build houses or barriers in their fields. It took a dogged 77-year-old outsider to expose the treasure in their midst.

"When I saw it, I was shocked and excited," said archeologist Luo Zhewen, an authority on the Great Wall from Beijing who visited Fenghuang in April. Since his youth, he had been fascinated by sketchy details of a twin to the Great Wall but was unable to verify its existence. For 50 years, he searched throughout southern China and found nothing.

"Finally, I was able to confirm what I believed all along," Luo said by phone from his Beijing home.

In a bit of historical irony, much of the cheap labor force that will be used to restore the wall will come from the very Miao people the wall was built to keep out.

Even before the wall was "found," the city of Fenghuang, in the heart of the county of the same name, was worth the very indirect--and uncomfortable--trek here, by plane, train and minivan. Despite the wear and tear of time and political upheavals, it offers rare snapshots of history. Majestic stone gates. A Confucian temple in the middle of a modern schoolyard. Traditional houses perched on long wooden legs that reach into a river. Extended families living under the same roofs their ancestors built.

Generations of Chinese art students have sketched this slice of life from another time, paying visits to the childhood homes of celebrated Chinese writer Shen Chongwen and artist Huang Yongyu.

Only recently did local officials realize that their landmarks might be worthy of national recognition and possibly trigger a badly needed infusion of money and tourists. So they asked a team of experts from Beijing, including Luo, to inspect their relics.

They never expected to hear what they did.

"It's as if a treasure had fallen from the sky," said Chen Qigui, the former head of the local historic preservation institute.

Chen remembers the car ride during which he made the fateful move of pointing out a hilltop watchtower to Luo.

Luo asked the driver to stop the car. Despite his age and a mist of spring rain, he leaped over a small creek and climbed up the steep hill covered with waist-high weeds to see if this could be what he had long dreamed of.

It was--and just like the history books described it, down to the broken pebbles used to fill the cross-sections of wall, a mark of distinction on the other Great Wall. Both are Ming Dynasty structures built for defense, Luo told his stunned hosts.

As news spread, local officials quickly hit the history books for a refresher course.

Fear Spurred Building Campaigns

For 2,000 years, dynasties had risen and fallen, with each monarch building great walls to protect his territory. The best known and most well preserved was completed during the heyday of wall construction, in the Ming Dynasty. It stretches an incredible 1,500 miles like a dragon guarding the heartland against the tenacious nomads from beyond the Gobi Desert.

At the end of the Ming Dynasty, in the 17th century, a similar fear gripped the rulers around Hunan province. Threatened by numerous ethnic uprisings, the emperor, Wanli, dispatched about 40,000 pieces of silver to help the locals build their version of the Great Wall to keep the Miao at bay.

Completed in three stages throughout the 17th century, it ran about 125 miles and crossed from Hunan into present-day Guizhou province. About half of it cut through the ridges and valleys of Fenghuang County. There were nearly 800 observation towers, and about 400 are still standing in various stages of decay. As many as 7,000 soldiers could be deployed along the wall at one time. The wall served its purpose well, fending off repeated attacks.

The rolling hills around the ruins are littered with neat clusters of tribal homes built from stone slabs of the exact color and shape as the wall. No one denies having scavenged from the convenient neighbor, whose pieces are perfect for home construction and fencing.

"I hear the elders say my family used to live inside there," 27-year-old farmer Xiong Qilin said as he and his 3-year-old son herded a cow through the hillside pasture, next to one of the most well-preserved beacon towers in the area called Victory Camp.

Squatters Left and the Weeds Took Over

According to Xiong, in the "pre-liberation" days--before 1949--the fortress became a popular trading post, a kind of farmers market. Poor families later moved within its walls for shelter.

Later, after the squatters relocated, the fortress became overgrown with brush. Some years back, Xiong recalled, a film crew made a war movie here and blew up sections of the wall. The movie makers believed that it was a relic from the Nationalist era, so they didn't think twice about damaging it, he said.

"As kids, we played hide-and-seek there," Xiong said. Underneath his brown plastic sandals, the ancient wall disappears into the red earth. "I think I pushed some bricks down the hill. It was fun."

The wall isn't the only thing lost. Locals say the area used to be covered with ancient forest. Tigers and leopards roamed its depths. All of them are gone. During the disastrous Great Leap Forward of 1958-60, entire forests were cut down and burned in a frantic effort to forge steel. The trees never grew back.

Later, the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution wreaked more havoc on this quaint city's distinct architecture. Temples, sculptures, ancestor shrines, storefronts and medicine books--whatever was designated "old"--were smashed by the Red Guards. Terrified residents volunteered to wreck heirlooms and burn furniture to preempt the arrival of the fanatical youths.

"What you see is maybe 1% of what there was," Zhang Kejiang, a retired grade school teacher, said as she played mah-jongg in an old-style courtyard.

But traces of the past live on in the people and places that remain.

Soldiers Married the Miao Women

Most of the farmers in the area are descendants of Han soldiers who were dispatched to defend the area. Many of the soldiers married local Miao women and settled around old military camps after the war years were over.

Zhang Guoyun is 83. Ten generations of his family have lived inside Huangsi Xiao, a section of the wall refurbished during the Qing Dynasty to station troops.

Zhang's ancestors were soldiers, but he was raised a farmer. These days, he doesn't do much beyond sitting in the breeze under the old city gate as his grandchildren play cards behind him. He remembers the wall but didn't know it had any special meaning.

"The Miao people didn't like the wall," the toothless Zhang mumbled. "They tried to tear it down whenever they could."

The wall, in effect, drew a line between the Miao who assimilated into the Han culture and those who remained insubordinate.

"I'm glad they found the wall, because it might bring more people to Fenghuang," said Wu Anxiong, 30, a teacher at the local middle school. "But I don't care much for it. I am Miao, and it's a symbol of oppression against our people."

In the past, he would have been considered an assimilated Miao. He got an education, married a Han woman and lives with her parents in their home. He has yet to teach his 3-year-old son the Miao tongue, which has no written form but remains actively used. The Miao are mostly illiterate in Chinese and live much as their ancestors did, on the fringe of society.

Waiting for Her Children to Call

Tang Meifeng, a Miao mother of five, washes laundry the way her forebears did for generations: in the river on a rock, using a wooden paddle to beat the dirt out of the clothes. She said she's never heard of any wall.

All of the young people in the tribe, including her children, joined the migrant work force roaming urban centers throughout China, she said. She doesn't really know where they are.

Once a week, she walks an hour down the mountain to a local marketplace where the Miao come to hawk their farm goods, wearing the traditional garb of baggy blue pantaloons with hand-embroidered flower trims. There she waits by a public phone. Maybe one of her children will call.

The drought season has pushed many Miao farmers into Fenghuang. For less than a dollar a day, they toil in the summer sun, laying bricks and lifting stones as part of the effort to restore the old city to its former splendor. The job of building roads and bridges to make the wall more accessible to tourists is also likely to fall to them.

Although local officials promise to emphasize preservation and avoid inappropriate reconstruction, some locals are skeptical.

"They scream a lot of slogans, but exactly how to protect and develop this area they have no idea," said Pi Yuansheng, son of a local traditional herbalist. "They needed people from Beijing just to tell them what's in their own backyard."

Yang Bing, a souvenir shop keeper down the street, is more interested in the traffic he hopes the wall will generate.

To him, parading the old wall before the world is the only sensible thing to do. He's already selling paintings of it, even though he remains as hazy as the next tourist about this mysterious new find.

"I can't make money with history," he said, seemingly oblivious to the contradiction of his statement. "So I don't need to know it."

GRAPHIC: PHOTO: An archeologist who spent 50 years searching for the remains of China's 400-year-old "Southern Great Wall" found them in Fenghuang. PHOTOGRAPHER: LI LIANG / For The Times PHOTO: Ethnic Miao work for less than a dollar a day to rebuild the old city.