-by Ernie Diaz
When it comes to leaders, you have your poet warriors, and then you have your philosopher kings. Chairman Mao was both. And by 1956, when he wrote Swimming, he was a complete madman:
Walls of stone will stand upstream to the west
To hold back Wushan’s clouds and rain
Till a smooth lake rises in the narrow gorges
The mountain goddess if she is still there
Will marvel at the world so changed
But hey, getting treated like a god turns the best of us loony – look at what happened to Frank Sinatra, or Marlon Brando. Mao, with his pocket full of miracles, had even more reason to believe he was a contender for divinity, fit to re-mold heaven and earth in the image of dialectical-materialism. Naturally, the verse above refers to the Three Gorges Dam.
For all that the hand-wringing over China’s biggest masonry project since the Great Wall has been well-intended, it is also largely hypocritical posturing. So easy to chastise for lost relics and environmental impact, when flipping a switch is as natural as drawing a breath. And who in the western public eye ever had to contend with floods driving him from home and hearth – Johnny Cash? (‘How high is the water papa? – Five feet high and risin.’)
This is no apologia for the Three Gorges Dam, and our customary plea to view China through the other guy’s eyepiece once in a while is herewith concluded. We can be grateful that there is still plenty to see, if not to do, on a cruise through the Three Gorges. Recent studies show that cultivating gratitude makes for more happiness even than being right all the time. Much more.
The TGD sits at the end of Xiling Gorge, thus does Xiling grow to resemble a reservoir more than a canyon quicker than its two brothers. Many a slag heap and boat carcass sit along its tortuous 80 kilometer course, yet hints of the karst majesty of yore hide around the bend.
Lost to the ages, however, are Military Books and Precious Sword Gorge. This stretch of Xiling was nature’s tribute to Zhuge Liang, China’s legendary Three Kingdoms strategist, what DaVinci and MacArthur’s love child would have been, were he raised by Confucius. Canny enough to know that the Reaper would soon be coming for him, he wrote down his best stratagems, pearls of martial advice.
At the end he out-thought himself, reasoning that generals were already far too fond of dogma, and that his book would therefore do more harm than good. On a cliff side in Xiling he stored the book, and his best sword, that some future hero would use the former as a bible and the latter as Excalibur. Mao never admitted to having got hold of them.
Yes, the story is largely anecdotal, but the supposed relics are a wonder in themselves. The arks for Zhuge Liang’s legacy are the hanging coffins. A little-known people called the Bo chose to give their deceased eternal river views. Now all but a few of the departed sleep with the fishes.
Many physical links to ancient history have been washed away in Wu Gorge, as well. Gone is the birthplace of Qu Yuan, the rebellious, principled soul who threw himself in the river and launched the Dragon Boat Festival, when admirers came out to feed the fish so that they’d respect his corpse. Baoping Village, home of concubine/peacemaker Zhaojun, is still on view, however. Emperor Yuandi had so many wives he didn’t even know of Zhaojun’s unique beauty until after he’d agreed to let her marry the Chief of the Huns. And it will take forty days and nights of deluge for the Yangtze to even start approaching the twelve peaks of the Wushan mountains.
But the Three Gorges are schizophrenic, turning fair to fey with each turn. Badong once embodied the thriving, mercantile nature of the Upper Yangtze. There were seldom fewer than a score’s score naked coolies dragging barges over her shores. Now she looks as though she burned and the river rose to quench, a char heap that should have sluiced away long since. Few who cross the Yangtze by national highway bridge over Badong pause to reflect on the former glory, and the tourists are waiting to hit ancient cities dragged uphill, such as Fengjie Town, 2,300 years-old, drowned by the dam, its corpse touched up and put on view at higher elevation.
Qutang Gorge, although a mere eight miles, crams a lot into that short space, the more intense for it. The cliffs rise as high as 1,200 meters on either side, racing through switchbacks that provide new vistas as rapidly as a 1970s Viewfinder. Tourist must-stop Baidicheng has been reincarnated uphill in Qutang, and some of the ancient calligraphy on the white chalk cliffs is still above the waterline, much having been removed to the Three Gorges Museum.
But yes, the Yangtze has drunk many of Qutang’s clues to China’s illustrious past as well, Meng Liang’s Staircase, hanging coffins. Also submerged is the narrow, hazardous ancient walkway, along which countless laborers through the ages dragged barges all day for starvling wages. No more dragging now; 10,000 ton craft can make it from Shanghai to Chongqing under their own steam. Peasants across the Yangtze Basin have juice for TVs to watch and Internet to surf. Bye bye river dolphin, bye bye relics of obsolete history. Hello progress.