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A timely and compelling portrait of a world, quickly vanishing under the rising waters of the Yangtze River.
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About the Author
Deirdre Chetham has been a frequent traveler on the Yangtze River for almost twenty years. She has been the executive director of the Harvard University Asia Center since 1997, and until 2000 served concurrently as the executive director of Harvard's Fairbank Center for East Asian Research. Prior to this, she spent a decade as a U.S. foreign service officer, with assignments in Beijing, East Berlin, and on the Burma desk in Washington D.C. Deirdre Chetham has been a contributor the National Geographic News Service, Gemini News Service in London, and Radio Netherlands International.
Read an Excerpt
Chapter One: The Towns
Shibao Block has a kind of charm one doesn't see much in China. Narrow cobblestone roads are lined with two-story wood and stone buildings with graceful shuttered balconies. The main street, too narrow for cars, is a jumble of shops selling suitcases, shoes, chili, green peppers, fans, cold medicine, and clothes scattered among hairdressers, restaurants, and barber-dentists still pulling teeth with filthy iron tools. Old people sit on stools outside their shops for much of the year, fanning themselves and calling to their neighbors across the ten-foot wide road. Their voices are loud across the short distance. Town residents comment upon everyone who goes by and everything that goes on. With a population of about two thousand, and only another thousand or so in the dozen villages within a few hours' walk, everyone who belongs here knows everyone else. Visitors are plentiful, but because they have no social or community connections, they make scarcely any impact except in the money they spend.
The Shibao Block Pagoda, a twelve-story red tower built on the side of a high cliff in the late eighteenth century, is what brings most travelers here. Looming over the town, the striking wooden structure houses several important Buddhist scriptures and was known for its magical features. These included a hole in the floor of the top story from which rice flowed spontaneously. One day a greedy monk wanted more and tried to make the hole larger. The punishment for his gluttony was an end to the rice. The true powers of the second hole, located in front of the pagoda, are more questionable. This is the "Duck-throwing hole," into which one could toss a duck and watch it appear on the Yangtze, hundreds of feet below, only seconds later. The transgression which ended this source of amusement is lost to history.
Whatever moral lessons the tower may have had to offer, the fact that it was big, red, old, and visible from the river was enough to make its existence critical to the town's development and the focal point of contact with the outside. Shibao Block's experience is typical of many Yangtze communities whose historical sites guaranteed interaction with the outside world. Retreating armies, Buddhist scholars, Communist leaders, and ships full of tourists have stopped there. In the late 1960s, during the Cultural Revolution, when Chairman Mao declared all transportation free so that the youth of the country could bring revolution everywhere, the state-run "East is Red" ship line (the only one on the Yangtze) brought students from all over China through the Three Gorges and the towns beyond. Red Guards from neighboring towns also made their way to the tower, some to see it, some to attempt its destruction. Placed under the protection of Zhou Enlai, the pagoda escaped serious harm, though the stone Buddhas once on its rooftop temple were smashed and stolen.
In the 1970s, the town had few visitors, and these were mainly students sent down to the countryside to live in villages as part of the Cultural Revolution policy requiring city youths and intellectuals to "learn from the peasants." Vacationing foreigners and southern Chinese began to arrive in the 1980s and have been multiplying ever since.
The town has two docks, one for high water, and one for when the river is low. In the hot summer and fall, before the river rises, there is a lone expanse of sandy beach which slopes upward to the steep concrete steps leading to the town center. Peasants train young water buffalo to plow here where there are no crops to damage. Down the beach, men repair rickety-looking boats, and grandparents follow small children in circles. In the early morning, the elderly exercise and the middle-aged fish, and at mid-day vendors of painted rocks and sedan chair bearers brave the brutal heat to await the arrival of the tourist ships. On summer evenings, when the temperature is often above a hundred degrees Fahrenheit, the entire town congregates by the river, the only place where the air moves.
The beach resonates with lilting Sichuan voices softened by the sound of the water and the thick humidity, which seems to swallow up other noises. People talk about how hot it is and whether someone has paid too much or too little for today's purchase, when a brother or a son is coming back from working in the docks or factories of Chongqing or Guangdong, and how much he is being paid and whether or not it is worth it. Like many conversations overheard in China, these public discussions are often circular and almost a ritual-it's too hot, it's too cold, you're wearing too much, too little, you'll get sick, what are you busy with? where is your mother? Everyone on the beach, regardless of age, exchanges jokes and good-natured ridicule. They repeat movies and soap operas verbatim and report in detail to one another about any local altercation. Except for a few school teachers, usually assigned here against their will, and women who have married in from neighboring towns, everyone has known one another since childhood. They may not always get along, but they have always been here, and for the most part, so have their parents and grandparents and everyone else before that.
The open space of the beach, lit only by channel markers and passing ships, but occupied by half the town, provides privacy for young couples and others in need of a place to discuss whatever they may not want the whole world to know. The only private place in China, it has been said to me repeatedly, is one filled with people, for if you are alone with someone, everyone knows you are up to no good and they will try to find out as much as they can. Only with dozens, or better still, hundreds of other people around are you not suspected. Here in public, men and women set up business transactions, plan marriages, and scheme to leave Shibao Block far behind.
Though children chase after one another and old women knit and gossip, the night beach has its melancholy side. There are fewer twenty- or twenty-five year olds than one might expect, and those who are here wish they weren't. Young people stare wistfully at the passing ships and long for Zhongxian, the county seat which poet Bai Zhuyi loathed so much, with its two movie houses and karaoke bars. They dream of experiences and opportunities elsewhere, some past, some future, some totally imaginary.
The town shopkeepers and government officials and the farmers who live near the river are relatively prosperous for the upper Yangtze region. Life is comfortable enough, but it is a stratified society, with all the intrigue and distrust that characterize small communities everywhere and Chinese ones in particular. Complex obligations and opportunities for exploitation abound, and the level of suspicion and discontent which permeates life in the town and neighboring villages is high. The resulting frustration evident among the peasants and tradespeople contrasts sharply with the self-satisfaction characteristic of the town's few educated people and officials, whose minor power brings substantial rewards. One local irony is that while many ordinary workers spend their lives dreaming of ways to leave, the lucky few who do manage to get out and get an education often spend years struggling to get back to where they started. They now live a privileged life, a modern version of the scholar-official of centuries ago, divorced from day-to-day problems of the rest of the population and unaware of the distance which separates them.
An ordinary day in Shibao Block begins before sunrise. By dawn, hawkers have positioned themselves on the stone steps leading to the town with baskets of fruit and lukewarm drinks they hope to sell to disembarking passengers before they reach the main street. Nearby, the elderly man who runs the candy and noodle shop in the ramshackle hovel where he lives with his daughter-in-law and two granddaughters is sweeping the dirt road. His son has gone to Chongqing to pay off the fine on the second child, who was supposed to be a boy and wasn't. In the town, people sit on their doorsteps and eat cold watery rice for breakfast and brush their teeth in the side alleys. The wooden storefront shutters open and the business day begins. Women with running water hang laundry from their balconies, while on the outskirts of town, others carry their wash to the river. The fan maker takes out his basket of rattan and begins the day's weaving between puffs of smoke from an old-fashioned foot-long pipe.
Shibao Block has several different rhythms to it, all traditional village patterns, but altered and adapted to a semi-modern life. The two major occurrences which mark time and produce activity are the market day, every eight days according to the lunar calendar, and the arrival of the boats, which varies with the season. The market brings the interior out, whereas the river brings the exterior in. On market days, peasants from villages scattered throughout the county set off as early as two AM for what can be a four-hour walk over the mountains. From the pre-dawn hours until about seven-thirty AM, when the last of the latecomers arrive, the road leading into Shibao Block is filled with what seems like a massive exodus of refugees. Dressed in blue cotton and black rubber boots, men and women pour into town with small children and vegetables strapped to their backs. Babies and chickens counterbalance one another in baskets hung from the ends of shoulder poles of adults and older children. For many villagers, vegetables are the only source of cash income. Money, not beans nor goods in kind, is necessary for cloth and tools and school tuition, but with the price of green beans about ten U.S. cents a pound, and every farmer selling the same crop, most families earn next to nothing. The most motivated farm wives arrive in Shibao Block's town center by six AM, working hard to persuade the cooks from the government canteen and small restaurants that their vegetables are the freshest, their pig, the tastiest.
The mood of the moving crowd is not exactly somber, but nor is there any noticeable sense of fun in taking part in the market day. People say this was different once, back when their grandparents were children and the alleys were filled with storytellers and performers. There are still a few itinerant fortune tellers and magicians around from time to time (a local numerologist, for example, told me not to travel at age fifty-two, and I have repeatedly run into a man breaking bricks on his head), but they are relatively rare. People are here to do business and in the first hour of the day there is a ferocious jostling for position on the streets and constant shouting about the quality of lettuce and tangerines. This subsides as the day goes on. By early afternoon, women are gossiping back and forth with relatives from other villages and tending to their own errands. By three or four, the villagers have packed up what is left of their goods to make the long trek over the hills before dark. The crowds on the road out of town are thinner, with less energy.
Like other rural areas of China, Shibao Block went through land reform and then the formation of cooperatives and communes, which resulted in the closure of private shops and the eradication of private plots. During the Cultural Revolution, the villages around Shibao Block, which are hamlets of a few dozen people with the same surname, were turned into work teams and brigades. In the early 1980s, with the introduction of the "individual responsibility system" in this area, families, rather than production teams, again resumed responsibility for most agricultural production. By the mid-1980s, the teams were back to being villages. All that remained of the Red Star Brigade, to which they had belonged, were abandoned signs with its name in faded red. The change in structure, which provided rewards for hard work, as well as for good land and large families, allowed some to prosper while others floundered, and a new group of wealthy and poor farmers emerged.
The social and economic structure of greater Shibao Block, and the characteristic mix of hope, resentment, and resignation predominant among its inhabitants, is typical of many communities in the region. The people here are struggling to hold on to the life they know with the tenacity with which peasants cling to their land and to what is safe and familiar, yet they are also facing its imminent disappearance. This is not only because of the Three Gorges Dam, but the result of economic and political changes which have always caught Chinese peasants in their grips. Some of the river towns, like Xituozhen across the river or Wushan downstream, with its desperate energy, seem to suffer from a widespread exhaustion of spirit which is hard to define, but immediately recognizable. It is a kind of weariness that tends to prevail in places where opportunities are few, nothing is clean, and there is a sense of decay and decline. Walking through some of the towns on Yangtze reminded you of Walker Evans's depression-era photographs of rural America in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a kind of dusty resignation which suggests endurance and possible survival but little in the way of hope. From a single-child policy which is not consistent with family farming, to the fact that the government had invested practically nothing in infrastructure development and industry here over the past forty years, people who live here are affected by a variety of issues beyond their individual control, to which they respond with widely differing capabilities and sophistication.
Peasants struggle both to stay and to leave for a variety of reasons, primarily lack of land or too much land but too few family members, no other work, and profound boredom. Unemployment is widespread. Almost every family has at least one member gone south or west to work in factories or as laborers. Some young people take their chance and go off on their own to find work in Chongqing, where the men end up as coolies unloading cargo in the harbor, and the young women as child-care workers or waitresses, if they are lucky, or working in far worse situations if they are not. Most youths looking for work take the somewhat safer route of signing up with one of the factories from the Special Economic Zones in Guangdong Province, which use middlemen to recruit junior and senior middle school graduates every spring. Youngsters must prove they are in good health and unmarried, and then are shipped off to light manufacturing factories where they work for half the local wage, but many times what they could earn at home. Their parents speak longingly of them, as if they were departed spirits who come back once a year for New Year's and then go away again. Some return home to marry and continue farming, and use the money they have saved to pay off taxes or invest in small businesses. Others join the hundreds of thousands of Chinese who have migrated illegally all over the country and will never be back. Older men go away to work too, though they return after cold winters on construction crews in Xinjiang and Gansu and other far-flung provinces.
Just as market days demarcate the weeks for local farmers, the landing of the tourist, transport, and cargo boats sets the daily schedule in Shibao Block. When the arrival of a tourist boat coincides with the market day there is pandemonium, with hundreds of Hong Kong Chinese and Germans and Japanese looking for the route to the tower in the maze of narrow streets heaped with eggplant and peppers. Though the visitors provide almost everyone with an opportunity to supplement their income somewhat, the townspeople hate it when the peasants and the tourists swarm through together, everyone in everyone's way.
Shibao Block now gets about 100,000 visitors a year, of which about 40,000 are foreigners, including Hong Kong Chinese, who arrive on the tourist ships. The other 60,000 are domestic travelers who come by bus or boat, often as part of government-organized trips for students, government workers, and old people. Despite this huge influx, they are here at most a few hours a day and have little significant interaction with local residents. The impact of tourism on the overall economy here has been limited, for despite the number of visitors, all return to their boats and busses after a two-hour stop, and as a result, there had been no development of hotels or a travel-related industry. The sightseers have nonetheless provided a market for the entrepreneurial efforts of individual households and shopkeepers. On days when the big ships dock, the stores close their doors for a few hours and the owners cram the streets with folding tables stacked with painted rocks, souvenir key chains, postcards, sunglasses, jade balls, rolling pins, umbrellas, plastic towers, hundred-year old-coins, shoes for bound feet, and other relics of the past and present. Some of the wares are homemade, or found in old trunks and cabinets. Other goods are imported by the most energetic salespeople from Wanxian, the closest big city, an eight-hour boat ride away.
The sedan chair business has also had a revival. Under Communist rule, sedan chairs and rickshaws were viewed as examples of feudal exploitation and banned. Except in the occasional rural wedding, or for trips to the hospital, these were rarely seen for almost forty years. Now almost every family in Shibao Block has one. Town residents build them in their spare time for the tourist trade, attaching anything from kitchen chairs to fanciful yellow thrones to bamboo poles strapped together with twine.
One of the many current social contradictions is that services and traditions eliminated by the Communists are back as status symbols and luxuries, heartily approved of by both the people who want them and the individuals providing them. It is the foreigners who complain that it is wrong for hardworking peasants to carry heavy Americans and Cantonese up the steep slope in hundred degree temperatures, and the local Chinese who say they are crazy and the ones who suffer from "old thinking." This is legitimate work that brings in good money, not exploitation.
Officials say that the revival of the sedan chair business demonstrates initiative and self-reliance and is an example of traditional culture, but it has also led to new exhibitions of aggression. In order to curb the violent arguments over who can station their sedan chair closest to the dock, the town has instituted a licensing system and threatened to impose a fine for brawling, but this has had little impact. The sedan chair bearers still rush toward disembarking passengers, pushing them or dragging them toward a chair by their clothing, and yelling angrily at those who want to walk. The best targets are young and middle-aged men, mainly southern Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, and Germans, who tend to be the ones who want photographs of themselves being borne up the hill by girls and old men. At the end of the road near the pagoda, whether by design or miscommunication, there is usually more trouble when the passenger discovers that the price of the ride has doubled. Sedan chairs are flung to the ground and high-pitched, hysterical screams resound through the quaint streets.
Just as on the market day, the streets are empty again by mid-afternoon. Everyone who doesn't belong in the town is gone, and everyone who does is back at work. In addition to agriculture and various economic opportunities generated by the pagoda, Shibao Block has thirty-seven storefront medicine shops selling a combination of Western antibiotics and Chinese herbs and traditional remedies, six clinics, a hospital, an old age home, and several blocks of cloth merchants and tailors. An elderly undertaker still embroiders lotuses (symbols of rebirth and purification) and bats (symbol of good luck) on foot rests for the dead, and his staff makes masks of dragons and folk heroes such as the Monkey King for opera performances and New Year's celebrations. The town has a barrel maker, a brick kiln, a few stationery shops, many government offices, and two factories, one of which produces Zhongxian Baijiu, a locally favored brand of sorghum-based grain alcohol, the other firecrackers. Plans are underway for a government-owned plastic tarp factory. The idea is that in the future, when the town is moved to its new site, a few miles up and back, projects of this sort will assist the town in a transition to an economy in which light industry plays a greater role.
The general public of Shibao Block is far more concerned with the present than the future, but an awareness of imminent change is always there. In casual conversation, people on the streets will point to the markers that indicate where the water will be in a decade, and say, looking around them, "This will all be gone," often adding without any obvious distress at the thought, "and so will I." For years, the residents of the Three Gorges region viewed the possibility of a new and massive dam much like the threat of an earthquake or a volcano-a potential disaster, but one without any reality, like any other looming catastrophe, whether natural or government inflicted. Most local people perceive the dam and the rise of the river as something about which little can be done except to wait and deal with whatever happens when the time comes. At the same time, no one is naive about who stands to lose and who stands to gain, or where they stand in that equation.
Once dusk falls, there is little to do in Shibao Block. The dozen or so restaurants, which serve mostly the owners' family and friends anyway, close by seven. The movie house, with its steady run of Hong Kong martial arts films, is open only on weekends. A disco, which served the younger set of the town, was located in the second floor of an old warehouse and used to be open until ten, but that has been closed, supposedly for attracting a ruffian crowd. The Recreation Center for Retired Cadres however is still open until eight, and is filled with elderly party members and officials playing mahjong and cards underneath pictures of Mao, Lenin, and Stalin. Though the town has been electrified for a quarter of a century, most homes and shops are lighted by a single bulb or fluorescent tube and in the stifling heat of the summer there is little incentive to be at home awake. A few of the private shops that sell snacks and sundries have television sets which draw in passers-by to watch a fuzzy version of the latest soap opera broadcast in from Chongqing. Unlike many of the other river towns, or even some of the surrounding villages, there are no satellite dishes in downtown Shibao Block, and the scope of the outside rarely goes beyond the next few county seats.
There is a saying in Chinese which means "hard places breed hard people." Wushan is one of those places. With a population of seventy thousand, it is the largest city within the Three Gorges, one with a rough past and an uncertain future. Unlike Shibao Block, with its quaint cobblestone streets and traditional architecture, or thriving Fengjie, Wushan combines the harshness of Sichuan's rural poverty and its legacy of isolation, unemployment, and malnutrition with the squalor of a medieval port city. Located at the mouth of the Wu Gorge, the second of the three gorges, the town is far from anywhere, yet it has been important in history from time to time because of its position at the confluence of the Yangtze and the smaller Daning River. Known for its own set of three gorges, the Daning flows northward toward the interior of China and provides a route inland in a mountainous region largely accessible only by footpaths.
Wushan is ranked among the poorest counties in China by both the Chinese Ministry of Rural Development and the World Bank, a list which includes places with an annual per capita income of less than 500 yuan, or about 65 U.S. dollars. Along the river, being poor is not much of a distinction, but Wushan is known for other things, mainly for what the Chinese call being "luan," or chaotic and disorderly. This can mean many things, but here it includes the open prostitution and close-to-the-surface anger which manifests itself in constant street fights and tea room brawls. Wushan is the only town in the Gorges that can boast of several murders in recent years, and it is one of the rare ports where captains sometimes restrict their crew to the ship while docked.
Wushan's reputation as a harsh place extends to other spheres, including politics and economics. Many people have prospered here over the past fifteen years, but the divide between those who have and those who have not is deep and clear. In the mid-1980s, when passenger ships first began stopping on the edge of town, people from miles inland flocked to the riverbank to sell eggs, the only easily portable item of interest elsewhere. Local peasants with their heads wrapped in turbans made of dish towels instead of the traditional cotton strips stood listlessly on the shore with their baskets. Lethargic children with scabs and shaved heads hovered nearby, their eyes runny. At that time the price of eggs was ten fen a catty (about four US cents for around twenty eggs), a tenth of what they cost in Chongqing, but no one shouted out that prices were cheap or tried to undercut their neighbors. The peasants squatted silently on the shore, smoking and staring at the river, waiting for anyone who wanted eggs to come to them. Conversations were hard to start, as if the gulf between the villagers and anyone who came from the outside, even a few miles up the river, took just too much energy to bridge.
Wushan today bears little resemblance to the desolate spot it was then. These days it has the feel of a border town, a seedy place filled with men looking for something to do. The first thing you notice on the main street leading up from the harbor are the town's sixty-four hairdressing salons. Young girls and women sit on three-legged stools under twinkling Christmas lights in open front shops and call out, usually without much enthusiasm or interest, "Gentlemen, get your hair washed, have a massage, gentlemen, come in, come in. Wash your hair, ten yuan, ten yuan." Behind them, on the wall facing out to the street, are eight-by-eight-foot blow-ups of naked Caucasian women. Each shop has a different poster. There are reclining, standing, and coiling women, as well as a few having their clothes torn off by equally unclothed men, all of whom have massive amounts of coifed hair. The photos, which would not be allowed in public in much of the Western world (nor anywhere in China a few years back, when statues on bridges and Tibetan gods still had to wear skirts) seem to shock only visitors. When I asked local people what all this meant, were these all brothels or wasn't it a little strange to have the main street dominated by enormous naked women, the people I questioned looked blank. "The pictures are very fresh and modern," someone would finally say, occasionally adding as a well-meant compliment, "they look like you."
When darkness falls, vendors set up tables and sell dumplings and huoguo, a local chili-laden dish of vegetables, meat, fish, and fowl boiled in broth like fondue. With the lighted carts and hawkers' calls, the town has an almost festive air. There are new items on the street-dresses from Chongqing, sweaters from Wuhan, shoes from Shanghai, and, once, gerbils from San Francisco, via Wanxian. Imported by a young man with an eye for novelty, the strange-looking animals (advertised as pets and not dinner) drew a crowd that stopped traffic for a block. The mix of money and strangers on the street does not always go smoothly though, and the carnival atmosphere sometimes gets surly, mostly a result of disputes between local people and transients over prices of food, drink, hotel rooms, women, and anything else one might pay for. A government complaint bureau set up in 1997 received over 800 letters and phone calls within the first three months, reporting hundreds of ways of being cheated.
Wushan's main streets are named after the twelve fairies who helped the mythical Emperor Yu stop a great flood somewhere around the time of Noah's ark. After helping sweep the waters into a deep crevice the legendary emperor had made for this purpose, the exhausted fairies turned to stone and became the twelve peaks of the Wu Gorge. Since that early battle with nature, the elements have never let up. The county archives record six kinds of disaster-droughts, floods, fires, famines, avalanches, and ice storms-beginning in 200 BC and continuing until the present with dismal regularity. Fire destroyed the city three times, the townspeople starved to death or were eaten by wolves eight times, and the town has had scores of floods, great floods, and catastrophic floods.
The struggle to cope with such events and to earn a living still dominates the lives of the people here. Men and boys congregate every morning by the steps to the pool hall, where the road starts to slope toward the river, to wait for day jobs hauling cargo. Passenger and freight ships make over four thousand stops in Wushan each year, so there is a steady demand for people to carry things, but there is also no shortage of young men without regular work. Laborers may stand around for hours before they are hired, and will earn little. On the riverbank below, men who have come in from the countryside load coal shipments from the interior onto the transport barges that go to Chongqing and Wuhan. Like the group outside the pool hall, they have few choices, but they are older, from poorer villages, and need work more. By five AM, hundreds of coolies form a chain circling from the heaps of coal toward the waiting boats. (The word ku means bitter or hard, li is strength, and together kuli or coolie means bitter strength, and is the term widely used in China for laborers.) Each man carries two wicker baskets filled with soft coal suspended from his shoulder pole, a weight of 150 pounds or more.
After the men empty their load onto the barge, they run back to the mountain of coal on shore, put down their empty baskets and hoist up two more already filled with coal by other workers whose task it is to shovel all day. They then lift the baskets back up, run toward the river again keeping pace with the men ahead of them, and will do the same thing over and over until the morning is gone. A day's hard labor guarantees five or six yuan needed for building materials and clothing and other things that do not grow on a farm. Women and girls also carry coal along the Yangtze, but not here. Great speed and stamina are required, and the women neither desire the work nor are they welcomed by the men. Instead, they stay in the fields, which they care for alone when it is not planting or harvest time.
In summer, hot pink is the favored color for men's undershirts. From a distance the brown riverbank is dotted with tiny brilliant specks. Looking at the shore from the harbor, behind these dots one sees a maze of red, white, and blue striped shacks winding across the rocky beach and onto the steep and wide staircases that lead to the road above. A climb of hundreds of steps is the only way to reach most of the towns along the Yangtze. The normal difference between high and low water can be as much as 250 feet in the course of a year, and more when it floods, so the towns are built as high above the river. The stairs provide the only route up other than clambering over rocks and bramble or deep mud and slime, and, like the streets of the town, are lined with food stalls, repairmen, and souvenir stands for arriving passengers. As people have left the land over the past few years, families whose plans have not worked out and out-of-town laborers have taken to living on the steps to the river. Along the riverbank, the building material of choice and necessity has become the striped plastic sheeting used in Hong Kong for the cheap and indestructible bags into which emigrants and shoppers can fit a lifetime's belongings. Sheets of plastic are draped over a basic bamboo frame and secured with river rocks. A house, or at least a lean-to, can be put up in less than a day.
The people who live by the docks are the poor but not yet destitute, the enterprising of the down-and-out of Wushan who have set up tiny businesses of their own. The six families who have settled on the steps to dock number three, slightly away from the center of the harbor, are typical of many others who cater to travelers and boat crews. The man with the best spot on the steps, at the top by the road, is a middle-aged shopkeeper whose wife and children still farm somewhere else. He is doing well for himself with his concrete floor, VCR, and wooden lounge chairs, but aside from him, everyone else who lives and works on this set of stairs seems to have ended up here through some major or minor tragedy. On the top left of the stone steps is a couple whose farmhouse burned down. They did not have the money to rebuild and came to the dock in hopes of earning a cash income to save for a new house. The man across the way lost his temporary factory job and does not want to go back to his home village. Another family has a story of unaffordable fines to pay, one for a truck accident and another for a second child, burdens both equally resented.
The couple saving for a new house runs a small restaurant. The wife cooks on a coal burner and her husband sells soft drinks. The family has a small table, a bench and a stool on the packed earth floor, and some cots in the back. Most of the day they sit on the steps, fanning themselves and snapping beans, talking to the neighbors, and moving back inside their shelter when it gets too hot or rains too hard. The Sichuan climate is a harsh one, good for growing crops because of the heavy rain and strong sun in summer and the relatively warm, damp winters, but it is not a pleasant one for humans without heat or windows. In a tarp house, the water leaks in when it rains and the dirt floor turns to mud. Despite the lack of amenities, the children in the house are doing well. The son graduated from senior high school last year, not easy to do here, and is going to the prefectural capital of Wanxian for a year-long accounting course. His ten-year-old sister also plans to go to Wanxian some day. She studies hard, already knowing that this is probably the only good way out.
The boat builder and his wife live a few yards below. The wife serves me hot sugar water boiled with iodine to guarantee it is safe to drink. As we sit underneath the wooden skeleton of a small fishing boat, she offers me her seven-year-old daughter to take to America to educate. I am not sure if she is serious, but the child looks panic-stricken. Her mother asks how much it costs a foreigner to get a baby girl from an orphanage, a question brought up by almost every woman in Wushan, all of whom are aware of the number of baby girls now in Chinese orphanages as a result of the one child per family rule. When I ask them what they think about foreigners adopting these Chinese children, they tell me, somewhat to my surprise, that it is a good thing. One woman mentions a baby left at a crossroads just outside the town a few months ago, someone else talks about another found in a basket on market day. Everyone here is aware of the problem of extra little girls. Almost half the town is paying for their second daughter, and no one discusses whether there was a third.
Far above the riverbank, also visible from the river, is the new town of Wushan, where the city residents will move when the Yangtze waters rise. Located on the highest hill in the city, it shimmers in the distance, a brilliant white in a town where almost everything is gray and brown. In Wushan, when people talk about the future, they point upward, gesturing vaguely in the direction of what will be left when everything else is underwater. Construction of the new town began in 1995, earlier than in most of the cities being flooded. Funded by different agencies with competing goals at the local, provincial, and national levels, the building of the new town has brought out tensions and conflicts that have existed within the community for decades. The new homes and offices, which look better than anything else that currently exists in the Three Gorges, are not for everyone. The apartments here are being assigned the old way-by work unit-which means that each institution decides where its employees will live within the housing assigned to it by the government. This gives rise not only to fears of favoritism on an individual level, but to unending negotiations and scheming about which places will receive which housing blocks.
The headquarters of the Communist party, still an important force in the city, has an impressive compound on the main street and will be moved to an equally central location. The Catholic church, on the other hand, is repeating the battles it has fought for the last half-century. The massive cathedral which once stood overlooking the river was torn down in 1954 at the height of the land redistribution movement and was replaced by an electric light bulb factory, which has served as the church since its property rights were restored in 1982. Locked in a series of disputes with the local government, no one is sure where the Catholic church is going except higher up. School teachers, already badly paid, fret about where they will end up, and jumin, or ordinary citizens, who have taken the risk of leaving a job that provided housing or who never had one in the first place, shrug their shoulders and say they'll see.
For what might be called the middle-class of Wushan, the people who work for the government, man the hospitals, write the newspapers, and run the hotels, the new city on the hill represents a future they want. It means that change in China is not just something that they see in a snowy TV newscast from Beijing but, they hope, an apartment with indoor plumbing and jobs for their children to stop the exodus to Wanxian and factories in the South. It means, the wheeler-dealers think, a time when the houses they build will be sold on a private market and when there will be people who can afford to buy them, and an express bus to Chongqing.
Fengjie, one of the few intact walled cities along the upper Yangtze, is doing well again. It is a place with a vivid history, which has moved on from poverty to the ordinariness of small-town prosperity. Rich in salt and coal, commodities important for both political and economic reasons, Fengjie has been an important commercial center since as early as the fourth century BC, its early growth spurred mainly by the salt trade. Sichuan was once an inland sea and when the waters receded during the Triassic era 250 million years ago, underground brine wells and solid salt deposits formed along with large pockets of natural gas and coal from millions of years of rotting vegetation. In the nineteenth century, the hundreds of brine wells in Fengjie each produced an average of 132 pounds of salt per day. During the winter months, when the level of the river was low, hundreds of men dug deep wells along the banks of the river and then boiled the brackish water over coal stoves. This cottage industry was one of the main sources of revenue for the region, bringing in, by some estimates, as much as two million pounds sterling per year. Coal and industrial products are still the mainstays of life in Fengjie. Huge clouds of white smoke burst forth from gray factories while sickly yellow foam comes from others. The riverbank is coated with white lime, and clusters of men shoveling white hills of powder alternate with men shoveling coal.
As in other river towns, long stone steps lead up to Fengjie, but here they are in better condition, wider and more elegant, and end at the main gates of the city. Farther from the center, smaller gates open up on winding steps and back alleys. In the 1960s and 1970s, when private shops were prohibited, the narrow lane just behind the city wall stood empty. The alleyway is now as packed with shops and peddlers as it was in Fengjie's heyday a hundred years ago. In the late nineteenth century, Fengjie was a raucous transshipment port where all merchants had to pay taxes before proceeding further in either direction. Located at the mouth of the Qutang Gorge, the middle of the three gorges, the town was a resting place for travelers who had made it part way through the upper Yangtze. Trackers who would pull cargo and passenger ships through the rapids of the next gorge waited for hire, and captains restocked and battled over prices and taxes.
Like Wushan, Fengjie is a county seat, but an orderly one. People speak glowingly, if perhaps not altogether accurately, of the cooperation between the Communist party, with its shiny new headquarters high on the hill, and the companies working with foreign firms to build small power plants and new chemical factories. The Ming Dynasty wall circling the city has been transformed into a massive advertising billboard with twenty-foot posters for Panasonic washing machines and Sanyo rice cookers. Small shops and restaurants are flourishing, their windows filled with Western-style birthday cakes and wedding gowns, symbols of luxuries that are now commonplace in the city. Japanese gadgets and appliances sell quickly in the department stores, while outside on the streets there is no lack of supply or demand for more traditional items. Mountains of ground chili are available on every corner in a spectrum ranging from brilliant red and orange to deep green, each powder of a slightly different hue, smell, texture, and taste. In the large public square, children and parents circle in hired electric bumper cars shaped like panda bears, lions, and other animals. Boys play kickball, women repair handbags, the blind offer massages.
Near the city gate, large banners with pictures of dead rats lead the way to the poison stall in an open-air market overlooking the river. The proprietor explains his products carefully, demonstrating a poison much better than anything you could buy in Chongqing, certainly better than anything available in the United States, because it kills rats very quickly, very dead. He has a wide range of traps, some cleverly designed in the shapes of mice or cats. Throughout the market thermos bottles, high-heel shoes, clothing, pomellos, pears, and other items are spread out on the ground. Prices are high here, clothing somewhat more fashionable than farther into town. This is where travelers shop while their boats are in port, at least those who have the stamina to climb the 300 steps to get here.
On the main, or southern gate, are inscribed the words "Looking far and wide," a quote from poem by Dufu (712-770 AD), the Tang Dynasty poet who served as an official in Fengjie from 765 to 768. Though miserable in exile and distressed at the state of political affairs which brought him up there, he wrote nearly a quarter of his life's work, or about 400 poems, during his three years in Fengjie. Many of his poems drew on local history, particularly the battles of the Three Kingdoms period (220-265 AD), when the military commanders of the kingdom of Shu were based in Fengjie. Near the city gate is a terrace lined with wooden lawn chairs and tables overlooking the mouth of Qutang Gorge and Kui Men, the massive walls of rock shaped like gate doors at the entrance of the gorge. The wooden chairs are rented out by the hour and offer a serenity rarely available in transit in a place where travelers customarily crowd together in the heat and rain on the dock until they stampede to the gangplank. Though the fee is low, only the seemingly well-to-do are willing to pay it. A few young businessmen, in black leather jackets despite the heat, pour out glasses of grain alcohol and toast one another, snapping their fingers for emphasis. Three ancient brothers, the eldest of whom ended up in Taiwan with the KMT Nationalist Party, repeat the current hour and the expected arrival and departure times of their ship like a mantra and nervously tie and re-tie their bundles with pink plastic string. The men tell me which of them is first born, who second and third, and then ask me to guess their ages. I try seventy-five for the oldest, but he is seventy-nine and looks like a hundred. They tell me that when Lao Da (literally, "old big," as all oldest siblings are called) came back to visit from Taiwan for the first time a few years ago, he brought them a television set, but it did not work in their village, a three-hour bus ride from Fengjie. After not seeing them for forty years, all he could bring was a broken TV! Now they have a satellite dish and the television works after all. They chortle at this, and tell me once again to guess the ages of brothers number two and three.
Inside the city wall, the center of the town winds upward, the streets crowded with neighborhood markets and restaurants. Fortune tellers, mainly palmists and numerologists, have made a comeback and cluster by the main gate. The hospital is another favored location for fortune tellers and masseuses. Using the date and hour of my birth, a man with an abacus, his head wrapped in the traditional cotton turban once common in this area, calculates my good and bad years to come. The chart spikes up and down like a cardiogram, finally indicating that I should last until about eighty-five, a good age to die, which is what he tells everyone. I asked him if predicting the future was a family trade and he snorted at the idea. Hardly, he said, he was a peasant and had worked in a small factory where he studied fortune telling in a book in his spare time. It was more interesting than being cooped up inside and not so hard as fieldwork. What's more, you could set your own hours and help people with their lives. The numerologist, addressed by people on the street as "shifu," or "master," the polite terms for drivers, cooks, tradesmen, and some teachers, explained that every day he had at least a dozen or so clients, two or three times that many when the tourist boats came in. Most of the sightseers who stopped had their fortunes told for fun, but here in town, he performed a real service, advising his regular customers or people worried about their children or their money what to do or what they should avoid.
In addition to traditional trades such as boat making, for which Fengjie has long been known, the town has become a regional industrial center producing pharmaceuticals, electronic goods, and petrochemicals. Not far from here, smaller dams are under construction on the tributaries of the Yangtze, projects in isolated spots in the interior of Sichuan which evoke no controversy and are paid little attention within China and almost none internationally. Fengjie was one of the first cities along the river to build its new town. Most of it stands high on a hill to the east of the original site, the rest across the river. Here, like everywhere, there has been controversy over who will go where, but within the city at least, most residents and institutes initially seemed relatively satisfied with the process, a fact that city officials attribute to having enough space and beginning planning early. This orderly progress was thrown into chaos in late 1998 with the discovery that a nearly completed section of the new town was built on sandstone too soft to support the construction and was dangerously unstable. The housing and office buildings, which cost an estimated fifty million yuan (approximately 5.5 million U.S. dollars) have been abandoned and are slated for destruction. Meanwhile, a site almost six miles away has been chosen, one far higher on the mountainside, and the sense of ease and security about a city rising just across the river and on time is gone. Construction is now two years behind schedule. Though the entire population will still be moved by 2006, the interim moves, originally scheduled for 2000 and 2002, have been delayed.
While they wait to go, the townspeople are making the most of what is there now that will not be later. Baidi Cheng (White King City), an important historical site from the Three Kingdoms' Period, is adjacent to Fengjie. Accessible until recently only by boat, the mountainside is now connected to Fengjie by a long suspension bridge, built just before the beginning of construction of the Three Gorges Dam to make transportation for townspeople and tourists easier. One of the local ironies is that the graceful bridge, which stretches into the open air hundreds of feet above the river, will be under about twenty feet of water when the reservoir rises to its full depth in 2009. This, like all other structures, will have to be demolished to clear the way for navigation. The top of Baidi Cheng, with its temple and commemorative halls, will be an island. A short trip across the river is a cave, once used as a shelter from Japanese bombs, which today is a "modern camp site" run by the Fengjie branch of the China International Travel Service. Red and blue pup tents are pitched on the flat exterior ledge. Inside, about forty feet away, are pool tables and a snack bar, and in the darkness of the interior cave is a karaoke hall. Renovation began on this in 1995, at the same time the impressive pagoda-shaped tea house was built on the opposite shore as a viewing station for high-ranking observers when a Canadian tight rope walker crossed the Yangtze on a 2000-foot steel wire strung 1250 feet in the air. Invited by the Ministry of Culture, Jay Cochrane set a record for the highest and longest tightrope walk, an attraction which as intended brought in over twenty thousand visitors, including Zhu Rongji, later appointed premier of China. The next such event was supposed to be Chinese twins bicycling across the river, but according to one young employee of the travel service, the arrangements have proved more difficult than expected, and the spectacle has been postponed indefinitely.
"Fengjie is still pretty boring," she added, "but there are lots of ways to make money." This, more than anything, is the driving force of the young people who stay in the city. The countryside is still poor and state-run factories have laid off employees, but unemployment is still low in contrast to most other small river cities. Government work units and a few entrepreneurs continue to build hotels and restaurants below the new high-water mark, calculating that they will more than make back their investment before the final flooding in 2009. The planners of the karaoke cave estimate that between camping fees for local and Hong Kong tourists, banquets for Japanese businessmen, and the occasional wedding, they will make a tidy profit in the nine years that the cave and campsite will operate.
The vast amounts of money that have come into the area to rebuild the towns and relocate the population have brought opportunities, legitimate and otherwise, for fast thinking, clever people. After the quick money is gone, the question for Fengjie and other towns and villages along the upper Yangtze will be whether the abrupt transition from past to future can bring development and a better life without destroying the physical environment and cultural heritage. Fuling, the capital of the ancient Ba Kingdom, Fengdu with its ghosts, hideous and crumbling concrete Badong, and all the other towns and cities between the dam site and Chongqing share a similar past and face a comparable loss. The Three Gorges Dam will result in new roads and airports, high-rise buildings and factories, but it will bring new ugly places as well, and the river will be a long ago memory no more real than the city wall of Beijing and other lost monuments. The government travel service along the river, which necessarily takes a positive view of what is to come, says the flooding will not diminish the beauty of the Three Gorges, it will make them bigger and better. Instead of a narrow river, there will be a great lake. Temples once too high in the mountains to get to will be accessible and tributaries too shallow for tourist boats to navigate will be broad and deep enough for cruise ships. Thousands of people will be able to lunch in new restaurants in the interior, and the guides will explain what used to be there. From Before the Deluge by Deirdre Chetham. (c) 2001, Palgrave USA used by permission
Table of ContentsIntroduction
• The Towns: Shibao Block, Wushan, and Fengjie
• History and Myth
• Traditional Life
• Outsiders on the River
• War Along the Yangtze
• Taming and Exploiting the River
• New Life Along the River
• The Coming Flood: The Three Gorges Dam and the Future
During daylight hours the noise on the ship never stopped. The young cleaning staff liked to work to orchestral versions of the "Wedding March" and "Old Black Joe," blasted repeatedly from the central loudspeaker. A favorite for late afternoon mahjong sessions was the Boney M song, "Ra Ra Rasputin," popular in China in the early 1980s, if possibly nowhere else. Someone else would play the piano, usually a classical Western piece, while nearby the girls with the vacuum cleaner that sounded like an airplane hummed the latest Teresa Deng song from Taiwan or the Chinese version of "Red River Valley." Every so often the political commissar would call a meeting to discourage this unhealthy interest in decadent culture and for a day or two only the loud and constant arguments about the price of green beans and fish from the deck below would echo through the ship, and then the Taiwanese songs would begin again.
At night the river was enveloped in darkness broken only by the dim green fluorescent glimmer of distant villages and the sudden, blinding arc of searchlights circling eerily across the water. The cacophony of the day was replaced by the slurping sounds of the river, the sharp blast of ship horns, and the occasional sing-song shouts of a harbormaster from his dock, yelling out the name of his dock, yelling out the name of his town or village through the heavy fog. On the shores behind the blackness of the night river were hundreds of villages and monstrous cities of concrete and foul-smelling smoke. They emerged in daylight, chaotic collections of stucco and sod houses in the hills, grim gray apartment blocks next to factories spewing unrecognizable, boiling liquids into the river, throngs of peasants laden with baskets of green beans and eggplant, and laborers carrying coal on shoulder poles.
The Yangtze is one of the longest rivers in the world, flowing 3,900 miles eastward from its source at about 20,000 feet on the Tibetan-Qinghai Plateau, where the Mekong and Salween also make their start, to Shanghai and the East China Sea. Like Gaul, it is divided into three parts: the upper, middle, and lower reaches. These encompass the 1,640-mile stretch of the river between Shanghai and Chongqing navigable for large commercial craft, as well as the nearly two thousand miles beyond Chongqing to the source. The lower and middle reaches, from Shanghai to Nanjing and from Nanjing to Yichang, are generally broad and calm, the traditional rice basket of China.
In the upper reaches, the river narrows and the countryside roughens until the spectacular and sometimes violent beauty of the Three Gorges, where the mountains rise into sheer cliffs and peaks above what were once treacherous shoals and rapids, now mostly blasted away. Drunken poets, Taoists visionaries, and painters have retreated into this remote and beautiful landscape for over fifteen hundred years, as have invading and fleeing armies who have struggled against the river and the impassable terrain from the earliest times until the Second World War. The isolated and hard-to-reach towns within and beyond the Gorges were places where officials were sent into exile to wait for the political tide to turn.
As far back as the sixth century, poets both elegized the beauty of the region and lamented being stuck there, usually focusing on the unkindness of fate and their loneliness and boredom. Over a thousand years ago, Bai Juyi, a scholar-official banished to what is now the county town of Zhongxian, complained in his poems about the local conditions and people. He wrote:
Henceforward, I am relegated to deep seclusion
In a bottomless gorge flanked by precipitous mountains . . .
The inhabitants of Pa [i.e. Sichuan] resemble wild apes
Fierce and lusty, they fill the mountains and the prairies.
Among such as these I cannot hope for friends
And am pleased with anyone who is even remotely human.
Much later, nineteenth- and twentieth- century Western merchants, missionaries, and novelists chronicled the harsh river journey inland and the extraordinary work of the trackers, naked men with harnesses and ropes attached to their bodies, who were responsible for guiding the steamships and large sailing ships through the Gorges. This was a dangerous art and one of the few ways to earn a living in a region with poor soil and no transportation.
The steep banks of the Yangtze, though of enormous cultural and historical significance, have never been an easy place to live. The soil near the river is rich and good for cultivating wheat, sorghum, rice, and vegetables, but vulnerable to floods. The hillsides are famous throughout China fore their tangerines, but these grow only at a narrow altitude band, neither higher nor lower. In villages only an hour or two's walk over the slippery narrow paths that wind through the high terraced fields, the mountains are higher and the soil poorer. Crops do less well, and it is almost impossible to transport anything more than you can carry on your back on a mountain path.
Despite improvements in navigation and transportation, the area within and beyond the Gorges remains remote in many ways. This is China's interior, home of historical and mythical kings, monsters like the yeren of Sichuan (the wild man, a half-man, half-ape creature somewhat similar to the abominable snowman), a region of conservative traditions and persistent independence from the rest of the country in which economic innovation and worsening poverty have existed side by side throughout the reforms of the past twenty years. Now, as a result of what will be the largest dam in the world, already well under construction at the mouth of the Gorges, it is also in the midst of social upheaval and massive change and may undergo more of a transformation in the next few decades than it has in most of the past two thousand years combined. Though many travelers have depicted the hardships and frustrations of Yangtze voyages, there are few accounts of the experience of the people who live in the towns or work on the river. The population displacement and flooding resulting from the Three Gorges Dam will largely eliminate the opportunity to record the memories and history of this region.
The Three Gorges Dam will raise the water level almost 500 feet in a 100-mile stretch of the river, and create a 320-mile-long reservoir there and further up the river. The water will submerge over a dozen large cities, 900 villages and towns, and innumerable historical and cultural sites. Over a million people are being moved, voluntarily or otherwise, altering not only their lives, but those of a multitude of others whose existence is intertwined with the river. Age-old communities are being disrupted or dispersed, and a region already struggling with the impact of widespread rural migration is facing a greater need for labor to rebuild, yet has even fewer incentives to keep its youth in an area many already wish to flee.
The communities on which this book focuses, Shibao Block, Fengjie, and Wushan, are all located in Sichuan Province on the upper Yangtze, within or beyond the Three Gorges. They typify the river towns of this area, rural communities with a sudden urban growth spurt, places which have remained largely isolated from and neglected by the outside world, but were nonetheless deeply affected by it. From the Sino-Japanese War to the Cultural Revolution and on to the present, local residents have witnessed political changes that disrupted or changed all of China and have had to cope with the outsiders who arrived as a consequence. At the same time, local customs and traditions have in many cases survived relatively intact. People still explain the origins of local mountains and rocks with the stories their grandparents told, and girls marry into the same villages they did two generations ago. Historical sites, which are key to the identity of almost every river town, continue to draw people in and provide a boost to local economies.
The river towns have much in common, but their size, location, resources, and luck also have made their experiences unique. Shibao Block is a village of two thousand people, while Fengjie and Wushan are ancient walled cities. Fengjie is a traditionally prosperous commercial center, Wushan a port city of seventy thousand contending with terrible poverty and sudden wealth. In the following pages I have attempted as much as possible to tell the history of these communities and the river which connects them through the stories and historical records of the people who have lived there. Included here, for it reveals much about the interaction between this area and the outside world, is also the story of how I sought out this information, and of my interaction with the local people. The book concludes with what may be the final chapter in the history of these towns, a chronicle of their dispersal and a glimpse of their uncertain future.