After the Flood

By Christine Yunn-Yu Sun

Published by The GoodWeekend magazine, December 6, 1997


It has been an inspiration for poets and painters and the source of legends. But soon the carvings and temples, farms and cities of the spectacular Three Gorges region will disappear under the waters of the Yangtze River in China's biggest construction project since the Great Wall.

The figures are astonishing. Building the controversial Three Gorges Dam, the largest hydro-electric dam in history, on China's Yangtze River will force the resettlement of some 1.2 million people and submerge forever 828 historical and cultural sites.

When completed, the dam will create a reservoir about 640 kilometers long, permanently submerging about 60,000 hectares of land, including two major cities, 11 regional cities, 140 towns, 1,352 villages and 1,500 factories. Requiring more than 200 billion renmimbi ($35 billion) worth of local and international investment, the whole project will take at least 17 years to complete.

The scale of the Three Gorges Project has captured the attention of academics, environmentalists and governments internationally. Support, critiques and attacks are flowing from all parts of the world, even from within China. The optimistic Chinese Government claims that, despite the withdrawal of financial and technical support by various countries, China has the faith and capability to realize the project.

In 1994, the United States-based International Rivers Network launched the Three Gorges Campaign to encourage governments worldwide, as well as environmental and human rights groups, to adopt and maintain a tough stand against the project.

Despite this opposition, the scheme is already under way. Last month, the 800-meter-wide Yangtze River, site of the controversial dam, was formally intercepted so that construction of the dam and its power plants could begin. From now on, until 2003, shipping will use the 3,726-meter-long, 350-meter-wide diversion channel built along the south coast of the river, with the aid of locks where necessary. The Yangtze has a strong current (14,000 to 19,000 cubic meters a second) to an amazing depth of 60 meters. Whether such a powerful flow can be intercepted will determine the success or failure of the project.

Some months before the first stage of the damming of the Yangtze began, I journeyed to the river and the Three Gorges. As the plane landed in Chongqing, where the western end of the dam will be, I found myself wondering about the impact of the construction on this city and its people. Were they really as happy about, and proud of, this dam as most Chinese media reports claimed? Or had they been ordered by the Government to sacrifice their homes and land against their inner wisdom, feeling saddened about all the historical and natural resources that are going to be submerged, but unable to do anything about it?

* * * * *

Three thousand years ago, Chongqing was a major city of the Ba Kingdom, then called Jiangzhou. Its name changed some 800 years ago. In Chinese, Chongqing means "double celebrations". Located about 2,500 kilometers from the coast, Chongqing is now the largest city on the upper reaches of the Yangtze and an industrial base in south-west China. With a population of 30 million people, this mountain city has unique natural resources and historic sites.

Its most famous tourist spot, Da Zu Stone Sculptures, is 162 kilometers from the city center. Meaning "Big Foot" in Chinese, Da Zu has been famous since the Southern Sung Dynasty (1127-1279), when a Buddhist monk and his followers spent 70 years engraving Buddhist images into the rocks. A mature Buddhist culture is established here, with figures of Buddha, various kinds of bodhisattva, immortals, human beings, spirits and ghosts on hills, slopes, walls and caves everywhere. The 31-meter-long Sakyamuni lies on his side, sleeping peacefully, with a smile on his face.

Also in Chongqing is Feng Du, the well-known "Ghost City", where both heaven and hell are represented.

According to legend, to go to heaven, I have to climb 33 steps in one breath and without looking back, so that my spirit can be successfully lifted to heaven. Then I must stand on one foot on a slippery rock for 30 seconds to prove to the Jade Emperor, the Lord of Heaven and Chief of the Gods, that I am a good person. Finally, in the large, dark temple, I worship the Jade Emperor with candles and incense. Heaven's generals and soldiers, with their strange-shaped weapons, are watching me. In one corner, a legendary dragon roars from a tall red pillar, ready to fly away.

For balance, I take a stroll through hell as well. In front of the Ghost Gate, 18 ghostly statues welcome me. Two in particular attract my attention: one has wide-open, angry eyes all over its strong, bright-yellow body. It holds another huge eye in its hands, perhaps to see clearly all the good and evil deeds in the world. The other ghost, sitting on a tree trunk, has a muscular, glistening, blue-colored body. Carved human skulls and bones lie under its feet, while its hands hold a partly eaten arm. One has to wonder who has been to hell and back so that they are able to remember and then portray these weird figures.

The Ruler of the Dead and his wife sit in the darkness of their temple, accompanied by Ox Head and Horse Face. The Ruler is said to punish men who stare at his wife, while the wife is said to be jealous and to harm good-looking women. Erring on the side of caution, I leave this temple quickly.

In different sections of hell, I see how souls are treated after going through the revolving wheel of the Law: good souls cross gold and silver bridges to positions of nobility in their future incarnation, while evil-doers are cruelly punished and reborn into either the deprived classes or the animal kingdom. Either way, all are fed strong liquor which washes away all memory of their former life.

* * * * *

At 6,300 kilometers, the Yangtze is China's longest river, and the third greatest river in the world after the Nile and the Amazon. It has played such a central role in nurturing the country that it is often seen as the "mother" of the people and the land.

One of the reasons the Yangtze and the Three Gorges are so important to Chinese people is that they have inspired so much literature, art and folklore, and are linked to many historical events, customs and myths. Visitors who sail the Yangtze can never easily draw a line between imagination and reality. Throughout the country's long history, famous writers and generals have laid down their stories here, like layers of deep silt.

The Three Gorges Dam is going to change all that. When completed, the water level of the Yangtze from Chongqing to Wuhan will be as high as 175 meters. It means that the sleepy Sakyamuni in Da Zu will probably have no more sweet dreams. The ghosts in the distinguished Ghost City will no longer be able to jump upon tourists during their trip at night, as the legends say they do, since half of the city will be underwater. Let's hope the ghosts know how to swim.

The dam will flood more important historical and cultural relics. The charming 11-story Stone Treasure Storehouse (Shibaozhai) in the Qutang Gorge, whose sloping tile roof, spiral staircase and delicate classical entrance, long considered an architectural miracle, will become simply an island. Both the famed Temple of Zhang Fei in the Qutang Gorge, where the brave but bad-tempered general's head is buried, and the Qu Yuan Shrine in the Wu Gorge, where people pay their highest respects to the earliest poet-in-exile in Chinese history, will be visited only by fish after the waters rise.

Baidicheng, the City of the Bai Emperor, is where Emperor Liu Bei of the Han Kingdom gave away his son and died miserably after being defeated by his enemies. It is also where the most talented Chinese poet, Li Bai, wrote his well-remembered poet, Sailing down the River to Jianglin. The city will be half-submerged. Wang Zhaojun, one of the four fabled beauties in Chinese history, will no longer be able to look back to her home town. The Fragrant Stream where she once bathed will no longer be scented.

Among the 828 historical and cultural relics to be submerged are two important landmarks. The White Crane Ridge and the Dragon Bone Rock have marked the river's position and water level for 1,200 years. They have provided much important information about the historical changes of climate as well as the development of navigation and water management along the river. Carved on them are countless valuable examples of calligraphy created by more than 300 of the most famous writers, poets and artists in Chinese history.

Although the Chinese Government plans to build a museum in order to preserve the images of these masterpieces of art, the two famous Under-Water Forests of Calligraphic Tablets will never again see the sunlight.

Among the 445 underground cultural and historical relics to be flooded, 226 are remains from the Neolithic Period, while 179 are tombs of previous dynasties spanning 3,000 years. These relics contain important links for anthropologists studying not only the ancient development of Chinese people but also the human race in general. It is hoped they can be well preserved or studied rapidly before being flooded. Among the other 383 cultural and historical sites are buildings and edifices that contribute to the study of ancient architecture. Others are stone sculptures deep in caves and high on cliffs.

In the Daning River, the biggest tributary of the Yangtze, seven sections of an ancient walkway on the cliffs will be lost. These walkways were built 1,800 years ago by people who dug holes in solid rock several hundred meters above the water, plugged in sticks and then placed planks of wood upon them to pave the road.

* * * * *

Aware of the significant cultural and historical losses to come, local and international tourists have been rushing to make the so-called "Farewell Journey to the Three Gorges". In 1992, the year the Chinese People's Congress decided to build the dam, some 130,000 overseas visitors made the journey. Last year, more than 150,000 took a last look.

The Government is happy about the increase in tourist-derived income (about $14 billion in 1996). However, it also has its worries. On the one hand, China is trying hard to improve the quality of its tourism industry. Both Hubei and Sichuan provinces, in which the Three Gorges are located, have launched special tourism policies and projects. The Hubei provincial government focuses on the combination of travelling and trading, encouraging international businessmen to visit its various festivals throughout the year, and to experience the investment environment along the Yangtze River. The Sichuan provincial government concentrates on enhancing its transportation channels, promoting well-designed tourism products and making sure visitors receive the best travel services.

On the other hand, the Chinese Government has had understandable difficulties in persuading both international and local tourists that the construction of the Three Gorges Dam will not significantly damage the beauty of the Yangtze River and the Three Gorges. Worldwide environmental groups have been even more sceptical.

As I sail through the Three Gorges, my eyes are drawn not to the wide, wild, brown water of the river but to the temples, pagodas, markets and the stone niches where trackers once pulled boats against the current of the Qutang Gorge. Here are the 12 beautiful mountain peaks in the Wu Gorge and the countless sharp, deep gorges with their strange names (one is The Gorge of the Ox's Liver and the Horse's Lung). I feel deeply sorry.

At the same time, I realize what the Three Gorges Dam will bring to the Chinese people and their future generations. The world's largest hydro-electric dam will not only generate more than 18,000 megawatts of electricity a year, but will provide flood management and improved navigation for the upper Yangtze. As such, it may save millions of lives otherwise lost to the river.

Both Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of the Republic of China and a pioneer in introducing democracy to Asia, and Mao Zedong, the late chairman of the People's Republic of China and a notable swimmer of China's great rivers, were inspired by the notion of controlling the Yangtze River.

The "mother" who nurtured the land and its people has also claimed 500,000 lives during this century alone. In June and July last year, its floodwaters spread over seven provinces. Millions of people fought desperately to save their land and property. It is estimated that about $7 billion worth of damage was caused by the 1996 floods.

In Wuhan, for instance, the most seriously flood-threatened city along the Yangtze, the inhabitants have been preparing for their near-annual fight against the floods since May. It would be understandable that the people of Wuhan are much more eager to see the accomplishment of the great Three Gorges Dam than anyone else in China. Perhaps some of their notable citizens even played a part in getting the Three Gorges Project accepted.

I am told that if the Three Gorges Dam can be completed successfully, it will be able to control the Yangtze River's floods, promising safety for 15 million people and 9 million hectares of land. This greatest of Chinese man-made structures since the Great Wall will aid shipping and furnish clean hydro-electric power to meet increasing demand.

Perhaps this is why, according to a Chinese news article published on the Internet, all those who give away their homes and land to make way for construction of the dam have the same sentiment: "Sacrificing what we have in order to help our country's achievement, it's worth it!" Do China's demans simply reflect the needs of its citizens en masse?

I am almost certain there will be more mega-scale hydro-electric projects in China after this one. By conquering and utilizing Mother Nature, the Chinese people and country can prosper. This has long been a tradition in China, and will probably also be a major national policy in the future.

As Chairman Mao wrote in a poem in 1956, so it is coming to pass: one of the most beautiful natural wonders of the Three Gorges, the Goddest Peak, is being asked to simply step aside as great human beings fulfill their own wills:

Walls of stone will stand upstream to the west
To hold back Mt Wu's clouds and rain
Till a smooth lake rises in the narrow gorges
The mountain goddess if she is still there
Will marvel at a world so changed.

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