Up The Yangtze

| June 27, 2010 | 4 Comments
uptheyangtze Up The Yangtze

The human cost behind the Three Gorges Dam project

The cultural origins of southern China are deeply rooted in the Yangtze River—and it has long been the backbone of China. The Yangtze, or Chang Jiang (literally “The Long River”), is the longest river in Asia—and the third-longest in the world. But the Yangtze—and all of the life that surrounds it—has undergone a truly astonishing transformation wrought by the largest hydroelectric project in history—the Three Gorges Dam.

41HJBmLKyxL  SL160  Up The Yangtze

Up The Yangtze

In Up the Yangtze, Canadian documentary filmmaker Yung Chang returns to the gorgeous landscape of his grandfather’s youth to trace the surreal life aboard a ‘farewell cruise’. Just a few minutes in and Chang’s film began to resonate with me. Back in 2002, I too had the opportunity to travel on one of the farewell tours up the Yangtze, and was able to witness the past as it disappeared into the future. My three-day cruise was indescribably beautiful; however, the ship on which I travelled was not nearly as luxurious as the liner featured in Chang’s documentary. Change’s film brought me back to what I saw on that cruise—a last glance of a country in dramatic flux. This is a moving depiction of life in China—and coupled with the cinematically breathtaking images of the river region—is a powerful record of the difficult transition facing a China rushing headlong into the future. In the summer of 2002—at around the same time Yung Chang began recording footage for his film—I arrived in Chengdu and moved eastward up the Yangtze towards Yichang, an area of the river often eulogized for its apricot flowers and spring rain in poetry and painting.

I found instead a culture in transition—and a landscape preparing to be annihilated. China’s old, agrarian world was vanishing. Fishing villages dissolved in the river’s mud. The government, harnessing the power of the world’s third largest river, was violently displacing more than one million people.

yangtzeshot Up The Yangtze

Taken in 2002, this picture is of Fengdu—also known as the Ghost City. It is now completely submerged by the waters of the Yangtze.

I found the geography greatly affecting—as much for its natural beauty as for its impending destruction. Of course, the government has since flooded the gorges, destroying innumerable archaeological and cultural sites and displacing some 1.3 million people— as well as causing significant ecological damage. This was the China that I tried to capture—one that seemed to be trading its cultural and ecological heritage for the promise of a prosperous future, albeit a modern, more plasticized existence. One morning on the deck of my riverboat I wrote: 

We set sail at dawn.  The red sun,
a paper lantern, set fire
to the open sky of Chu.
Turning east, the sun between stacks
swung in the dawn. 

The big machines of government
pulled back the hems of mountains
revealing flesh and clay.
Birds wheeled in the morning,
under a ceiling of broken clouds,
through sunlight strung at
curious angles,
like the faces of
Chinese tourists
opening fanwise from below deck.
Emerging from the shadows,
into the bright Yangtze morning
to witness the boundless falling away
of a million people. 

Loneliness chooses its language
in the syncopation
of feet
winding up through the gorge,
the familiar track
linking futures over the vanished ridge.
Walls of stone, upstream to the west
will come, presently, tomorrow,
to hold back Wushan’s clouds and rain
until a smooth lake rises in the narrow gorges. 

We stay above deck
until the heavy sky lies over the river,
growing black in the late light and
arc lights lick out empty windows
of vacant skyscrapers. 

Like Chang, I tried to resist the temptation to descend into editorial; preferring to simply present the tragedy. He does an admirable job of documenting the human cost of a country in economic and social flux—and provides a window into the sociological changes wrought by world’s largest civil engineering project —the astounding Three Gorges Dam. Now complete, the Three Gorges Dam is 1.3 miles wide and 610 feet tall. The artificial lake above the dam is over 400 miles long, stretching from Yichang to Chongqing. It’s a gut-wrenching piece of engineering might. 

What I liked most about the film was the way in which Chang portrayed the riverboat as a microcosm of China itself. Rich western passengers take in the panoramas of the Three Gorges above decks while the staff toils and sleep in the galleys below. Meanwhile, the riverboat travels upriver through a landscape of unprecedented upheaval, as the region’s inhabitants assemble their humble possessions as the floodwaters rise. 

Yung Chang handles the subject with insight and poise—he crafts a compassionate account of life on the Yangtze and a powerful documentary narrative of contemporary China. This documentary is a must-see for anybody contemplating a trip to the mainland. 

About Up The Yangtze

After taking a “farewell cruise” up the Yangzte, Yung Chang returned to document the experience before time ran out. What the Chinese-Canadian filmmaker saw in 2002 will disappear in subsequent years as the rising waters of the Three Gorges Dam submerge the villages along the riverbanks. Chang takes a two-pronged approach in shadowing a pair of luxury liner workers. To survive in modern-day China, it appears, Westernization is inevitable, which Chang (third-generation Canadian) neither celebrates nor condemns. Instead, he questions the ways in which economic progress erodes—sometimes even destroys—personal and cultural values. Purchase this film from Amazon.

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About the Author ()

For nearly ten years now, Daniel of Two Go Round-The-World has explored how travel captures our imagination and engages our deepest emotions. One half of the duo that maintains the widely read Two Go Round-The-World blog, Daniel treats his subjects not only as works of art but also as symbols of the cultural and political forces that inspire them. His latest book, The Physics of Flocking, gathers his favourite writing featured over the past two years on Two Go Round-The-World in columns like 'Looking Back' and 'The Whole Picture'—along with new reflections.

Comments (4)

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  1. Sasha says:

    Great story, interesting food for thought!!! I’m cruising the Yangtze in about 6 weeks, it’s going to be very interesting as all the images in my head are based on a pre-flooded river. Oh how it will have changed!

    • Daniel says:

      Thank you, Sasha. We’re looking forward to returning to the Yangtze during our forthcoming travels. Methinks it’ll be sobering to see how things have changed. It was difficult just watching the documentary as the river climbed its banks in time-lapse.

  2. JoAnna says:

    If you’re interested in learning more about the Yangtze, I highly recommend the books by Peter Hessler, who served as a Peace Corps volunteer in this area before moving there full time. His writing is fantastic and he really digs into the controversy surrounding the river.

  3. Jonny Blair says:

    Nice story with some great poetry. I recently visited Chongqing a colossal city and was enchanted by the Yangtze River. I’d love to do a long cruise up it some day! Safe Travels, Jonny

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