Southwest China: mighty rivers run through it
15 October 2020
In landlocked southwest China, the Yangtze River looms larger than life. The Yangtze and its tributaries that originate in the Tibetan plateau sustain life for hundreds of millions of people in the southern half of the nation. Without this complex river system and its valuable water, the political, economic and cultural prowess of the region that spans from Sichuan to Shanghai would not exist.
Sichuan’s very name (“Four Rivers” 四川), Chengdu’s food bowl reputation (“Land of Abundance” 天府之国) and Chongqing’s prominence as a strategically significant river port are based on their relationship with rivers that eventually form the mighty Yangtze. But the Yangtze is not alone. Some of Southeast Asia’s most important rivers – the Irrawaddy, Mekong and Salween – also emanate from the Tibetan plateau.
Several of Asia’s key rivers originate from the Tibetan highlands. Credit: DFAT
As a vital resource, water has also brought political, economic and social power. Chengdu owes its centuries-old prosperity to the development of an extraordinary water conservancy masterpiece called Dujiangyan. Built over 2200 years ago, Dujiangyan is an irrigation and flood control system built to tame the Min River and divert water to the Chengdu plain for irrigation. With enhanced agricultural capacity came economic and political strength, Chengdu coalesced as a centre of power and a prize of war for centuries. Dujiangyan is still in use and now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Built over 2,200 years ago, the Dujiangyan Irrigation System is a UNESCO World Heritage site which still plays a crucial role in draining floodwater, irrigating farms and providing water to more than 50 cities in Sichuan. Credit: DFAT
The Yangtze’s navigability at Chongqing saw it become the most important river port in the river’s upper reaches. Little wonder Chongqing became a Treaty Port in 1891, and then the wartime capital from 1937-46. It was designated as a municipality under the direct control of the Chinese Central Government in 1997 when it became the site of the colossal Three Gorges Dam.
A bird’s eye view of the Yangtze River meeting the Jialing River in Chongqing. Credit: DFAT
Every major leader in China has put their stamp on water issues, not just the First Emperor Qin Shihuang who commissioned Dujiangyan, but recent ones such Sun Yat Sen, Mao Zedong and even Deng Xiaoping, who was a hydraulic engineer by training. Deng’s famous saying “crossing the river by feeling the stones” about the country finding its way from isolation to openness is particularly poignant.
While water gives life, it also has the power to destroy. Hence, rivers and their waters are measured, diverted, dammed, tamed, respected, venerated and their power is feared. The recent floods in southern China are a reminder that the torrential power of rivers are still a force to reckon with, despite the numerous ways to tame this powerful force for centuries.
Leshan Giant Buddha is carved out of a sandstone cliff face. The Buddha sits on the confluence of the Min River and Dadu River in Leshan, Sichuan province. Credit: DFAT
Water plays a central role in local culture, literature and legends, from the most sophisticated art to the prosaic. At one end of the spectrum, famous Tang Dynasty poets, who once lived in Sichuan – Du Fu and Li Bai – used the river as a primary metaphoric device to describe the vicissitudes of life. Whether it be to evoke the flow of life, deep melancholy, yearning for home, or drunken stupor, these luminaries of Chinese culture used water to full effect. So much so that their reported cause of death – by drowning – is nod to the importance of water to wash their souls away.
I was intrigued to learn from Phillip Ball’s The Water Kingdom that Chinese mythology associates rivers with dragons – “indeed, rivers are dragons” sent down by the Jade Emperor to give life to the land. The Emperor dispatched four dragons – Long, Yellow, Black and Pearl – which became the Yangtze, Yellow, Heilong (Amur) and Pearl Rivers respectively.
Water plays a central role in the culture, literature and legends in China. Credit: DFAT
Near where I live is an old narrow lane named Longwangmiao Zheng Jie (Dragon King Temple Main Street 龙王庙正街). While it looks like an ordinary residential street, its name suggests that there had been a major flood sometime in its history. Hence a temple was erected to pacify the Dragon King who controls all the waters – sea, rivers, rain and floods.
Water continues to play a central role in the political, economic and social life of the country today. Whereas in the past, rivers were seen more as channels for transport and fishing resources, the new emphasis is on ecological and tourism development. The Chinese Government’s Yangtze River Economic Belt Development Plan prioritises environmental protection on the world’s most congested waterway. China has instituted a “river chief" system at each level of government to control river pollution and environmental damage. Ambitious plans to divert even more water from the Yangtze and its tributaries in southern China, where water is plentiful, to the Yellow River in the north which is scarce of water, continues to be considered.
Chengdu has made its rivers a key feature of the city’s appeal. Credit: DFAT
For me, wading into the Chinese people’s relationship with water allows me to appreciate the extraordinary quantity of Chinese history, thought and ambition.
Rivers give expression to the Chinese people’s inner most thoughts and feelings. I particularly like poet Li Bai’s using the Yangtze as an allegory for friendship.
“Go and ask the Yangtze, which of these two sooner ends:
Its waters flowing east, or the love of parting friends.”