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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.