Three Gorges Dam in Historical Context

From River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.), by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2010), Kindle pp. 108-110:

The truth is that the disruption of the dam, which seems massive to an outsider, is really nothing out of the ordinary when one considers recent history in the local context. Within the last fifty years, China has experienced Liberation, the radical (and disastrous) collectivization of the 1958–1961 Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and Reform and Opening.

Fuling and the other Yangtze River towns have the additional experience of being a focal point of Mao Zedong’s Third Line Project, which had an especially large influence on the region during the 1960s. The early preparations for this project started in 1950, when Mao sent Deng Xiaoping to the southwest so he could research the feasibility of moving Shanghai’s military industry to remote mountain areas in Sichuan and Guizhou provinces. The American atomic bomb triggered this plan, as Mao became increasingly concerned that China’s heavily concentrated defense industry was too susceptible to a U.S. attack. The Korean War accelerated the project, and eventually three-quarters of China’s nuclear weapons plants were incorporated into the Third Line, as well as more than half of its aeronautics industry. The project was, as Harrison Salisbury describes it in his book The New Emperors, “something like that of picking up the whole of California’s high-tech industry and moving it bodily to the wilds of Montana as they existed, say, in 1880.”

In comparison it seems a small matter to turn the river into a lake. Much of Fuling’s economy had originally come via the Third Line Project, which made the locals accustomed to massive changes. The local Hailing factory, which now produces combustion engines for civilian use, had formerly been a defense industry plant moved from Shanghai. A few miles upstream from Fuling is the Chuan Dong boat factory, which in the old days made parts for nuclear submarines. All of the local Chang’an-brand cabs—the name means Eternal Peace—are made by a Chongqing factory that originally produced firearms for the military.

Many of the old Third Line factories had been converted in this way since Deng Xiaoping came to power and started dismantling the project in 1980. With China’s foreign relations rapidly improving, the American threat seemed less serious (and, in any case, it was clear that there wasn’t much protection in putting factories in places like Fuling). The Third Line had always been a huge drain on the economy; in some years as much as 50 percent of China’s capital budget was spent on the project. Never before had such a massive country reorganized its economy on such a scale—even Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan couldn’t compare—and according to some estimates, the Third Line did more damage to China’s economy than the Cultural Revolution.

Despite its enormous scale, the project had been developed and dismantled in remarkable secrecy, as few locals in Fuling and the other Third Line towns ever had a clear notion of what was going on. They knew that commands were coming in from Beijing, and that these commands were bringing factories from Shanghai; and they also knew that all of this had a military sensitivity that required secrecy. It wasn’t something you asked questions about, and after four decades of that it seemed natural enough not to ask questions about the dam. These things just came and went—just as the Chuan Dong factory, which arrived to build nuclear submarines, was subsequently converted to a boat plant, and eventually would disappear forever beneath the waters of the new Yangtze.

But even with all of this history in mind, I still found the lack of interest and concern about the dam to be remarkable.

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When Chinese Was a State Secret

From God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan, by Jonathan D. Spence (W. W. Norton, 1996), Kindle Loc. 240f.

Language might seem a problem, since in all of Canton and the foreign hongs there is no Chinese who can read or write in English or other European languages, and only a few Westerners who know enough Chinese to write with even partial elegance. This has not always been the case. In the 1810s and 1820s, when the East India Company was at its peak of power, there were a dozen or more young men from England studying Chinese in the Canton factories. They translated Chinese novels and plays, and even the Chinese legal code, so they could assess the equity of the government’s rules more carefully. Though the local officials on occasion imprisoned Chinese for teaching their own language to foreigners, and even executed one, and Chinese teachers often had to shelter privately in their pupils’ lodgings, the East India Company representatives fought back. By tenacity, they won the right to submit commercial documents in Chinese translation, rather than in English, and to hire Chinese teachers, for study of classical texts as well as Cantonese colloquial dialect. And though the company directors never won official acknowledgment of their right to hire Chinese wood-carvers, they went ahead anyway and block printed an Anglo-Chinese dictionary using Chinese characters; in addition, they managed to accumulate a substantial library of four thousand books, many of them in Chinese, which they housed in their splendidly appointed hong, with the company’s senior physician doubling as the librarian.

With the termination by the British government in 1834 of the company’s monopoly of China trade, these glory days were over. Most of the language students and experts were reassigned to other countries; their finest teacher, Robert Morrison, died the same year; and the great library was scattered. Only three young men, who had been classified on the company’s roster as “proficient” enough to receive an annual student’s allowance, are left in Canton by 1836, and their main role is to be caretakers of the company’s former buildings and oversee their closing down. Nor are there any established bookshops to be found in the foreigners’ restricted zone of residence, for specific laws forbid the sale of Chinese books to foreigners, and even make it a crime to show them one of China’s local histories or regional gazettes. Those who wish to search out books must walk some distance to the west, where two bookshops on a side street (a street with gates locked and barred at night) will break the law to the extent of selling novels, romances, and “marvellous stories” to the foreigners, and sometimes arrange for purchases of other titles from the larger stores within the city.

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Speaking Latin in Sichuan

From River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.), by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2010), Kindle p. 330:

We met Father Li and chatted in his sitting room. Politely he spoke to my father, with me serving as the translator, and I mentioned that the priest still used Latin during weekday Masses.

“Tell him that I used to be an altar boy for Latin Mass,” my father said. Father Li nodded and said that nobody else in Fuling still understood the language. I asked my father if he still remembered the traditional service, and he nodded.

“In nomine Patris,” he said, “et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.”

“Introibo ad altare Dei,” responded the priest. “I will go in to the altar of God.”

“Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam,” my father said. “To God, Who giveth joy to my youth.”

For a few minutes they went through the beginning of the service. I had been translating for nearly a week, and now it was strange to sit silent, listening and not understanding a word between these two men that I knew so well. The priest’s Latin was tinged with Sichuanese; my father spoke with an American accent. Theirs was a rote, formal dialogue in a rusty old language, but it was clear that something about the conversation changed the way the two men saw each other. After they were finished, Father Li kept forgetting himself, addressing my father directly in Sichuanese, as if he would understand. But as we left he used Latin once more. “Dominus vobiscum,” he said. “The Lord be with you.”

“Et cum spiritu tuo,” my father said.

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Female Suicides in China

From River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.), by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2010), Kindle pp. 273-274, 281:

DURING OUR FIRST YEAR IN FULING, Adam’s best freshman student had been a girl named Janelle. She was so far ahead of the others that there was no comparison, and something about this intellectual distance also set her apart socially. She had no friends in the class and spent her time alone, often talking with Adam or me to practice her English. At the end of the school year, she seemed depressed, and then for some unknown reason she went home early, missing her final exams.

At the start of the second year, Adam had class for the first time and called roll. Everybody was there except for Janelle, and Adam asked if she was sick. A few students shook their heads. Nobody said anything.

“Will she be here later?” Adam asked.

“No,” said Shannon, who was the class monitor.

“She will not come back this year.”

“Why not?”

“She is dead,” Shannon said, and then he laughed. It was a nervous and humorless sound, the sort of Chinese laugh that was simply a reaction to an uncomfortable situation. It wasn’t difficult to distinguish these laughs from normal ones, but nevertheless they always sent shivers down a waiguoren’s spine. The students had their heads down and Adam quickly changed the topic. On that day class was a long two hours.

The subject was difficult to broach and we never heard much about it, because none of the students had known Janelle well. All they could tell us was that during the summer she had jumped off a bridge in her hometown. When the Chinese commit suicide, it’s common for them to jump off things—bridges, buildings, cliffs. Sometimes in the countryside they eat pesticide. They tend to do a much more thorough job of killing themselves than Americas do, especially American women, who often take pills and are saved by having their stomachs pumped.

Chinese women are more likely to commit suicide than Chinese men. More than half of the female suicides in the world take place in China, where the suicide rate for women is nearly five times the world average. China is the only country on earth in which more women kill themselves than men.

Fuling women lived under complicated expectations, and the economic pressures of Reform and Opening seemed to weigh particularly heavily on them. In the countryside, many of the men had left to work in urban areas, and for every stick-stick soldier or construction worker in the city, there was a peasant wife back at home, tending the farm alone. A total of 66 percent of China’s agricultural workers are female. Social scientists believe that this imbalance is partly responsible for the high female suicide rate, which occurs predominantly in the countryside. Rarely do these rural deaths seem to be the result of poverty; in fact, most happen within a relatively affluent and well-educated class of peasants. Adam’s student Janelle was a textbook example of this trend: she wasn’t poor, and she had academic opportunities that were unusual for peasant girls. But Janelle’s career path most likely would have involved returning to her hometown to teach, which probably had been a depressing prospect for somebody so bright. I suspected that she had recognized clearly her own potential, as well as the bleakness of her future: to become a rural schoolteacher, marry young, raise a child. In the end it was more—or less—than she could bear.

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Two Major River Projects in China

From River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.), by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2010), Kindle pp. 115-116:

The history of such projects in China has two different aspects. The country has been controlling and harnessing water for centuries—no other civilization on earth has such a long and successful history of turning rivers to man’s use. The development of central Sichuan province was originally sparked by the construction of Dujiangyan, a brilliantly designed irrigation project that was constructed twenty-three centuries ago and even today still functions perfectly, turning the Chengdu Basin into one of the most fertile rice-growing regions in the country. Even the Yangtze has been tamed before, albeit on a much smaller scale; the Gezhou Dam was completed in 1981 on a site downstream from the location of the current project.

But there is also the history of Henan province, where heavy rains in 1975 caused sixty-two modern dams to fall like dominoes, one after another, and 230,000 people died. Although the scale of that particular disaster was unique, the poor engineering was less unusual: 3,200 Chinese dams have burst since 1949. In this [= 20th] century, the failure rate of Chinese dams is 3.7 percent, compared to 0.6 percent in the rest of the world.

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Grendel the Revolutionary

From River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.), by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2010), Kindle pp. 35-36:

Other days I gave them writing assignments; for Beowulf we talked about point of view, and they wrote about the story from the perspective of Grendel, the monster. Almost without exception the boys wrote about what it was like to eat people, and how to do it properly; while the girls wrote about how cold and dark the moor was, and how monsters have feelings too. One student named Grace wrote:

The warriors said I am a monster, I can’t agree with them, but on the contrary I think the warriors and the king are indeed monsters.

You see, they eat delicious foods and drinking every day. Where the foods and drinking come from? They must deprive these things from peasants.

The king and the warriors do nothing but eat delicious foods; the peasants work hard every day, but have bad foods, even many of them have no house to live, like me just live in the moor. So I think the world is unfair, I must change it.

The warriors, I hate them. I will punish them for the poor people. I will ask the warriors build a large room and invited the poor people to live with me.

In college I had been taught by a few Marxist critics, most of whom were tenured, with upper-class backgrounds and good salaries. They turned out plenty of commentary—often about the Body, and Money, and Exchange—but somehow it didn’t have quite the same bite as Grace’s vision of Grendel as Marxist revolutionary. There was honesty, too—this wasn’t tweed Marxism; Grace, after all, was the daughter of peasants. She didn’t have tenure, and I had always felt that it was better if people who spoke feelingly of Revolution and Class Struggle were not tenured. And I figured that if you have to listen to Marxist interpretations of literature, you might as well hear them at a college where the students clean the classrooms.

The truth was that politics were unavoidable at a Chinese college, even if the course was foreign literature, and in the end I taught English Literature with Chinese Characteristics.

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Fuling: City of Steps

From River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.), by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2010), Kindle pp. 27-28:

THERE ARE NO BICYCLES in Fuling. Otherwise it is similar to any other small Chinese city—loud, busy, dirty, crowded; the traffic twisted, the pedestrians jostling each other; shops overstaffed and full of goods, streets covered with propaganda signs; no traffic lights, drivers honking constantly; televisions blaring, people bickering over prices; and along the main streets rows of frightened-looking trees, their leaves gray with coal dust, the same gray dust that covers everything in the city.

There are no bicycles because Fuling is full of steps, and the city is full of steps because it is squeezed close on the mountains that press against the junction of the Wu and Yangtze Rivers. Narrow streets also rise from the riverbanks, switchbacking up the hills, but they are cramped and indirect and too steep for bicycles. Automobile traffic tangles on the sharp corners. And so the long stone staircases are the true boulevards of Fuling, carrying most of its traffic—shoppers descending the stairs, pausing to browse in stores; porters climbing up, shoulders bowed under the weight of crates and bundles.

Virtually every necessary good or service can be found along these stairways and their landings. There are shops and restaurants, cobblers and barbers. One of the lower stairways is lined with Daoist fortune-tellers. Another staircase is home to a group of three dentists who work at a table covered with rusty tools, syringes in mysterious fluids, and pans of cruelly defeated teeth—a sort of crude advertisement. Sometimes a peasant will stop to have his tooth pulled, after haggling over the price, and a crowd will gather to watch. Everything is public. A haircut comes with an audience. The price of any purchase is commented on by the other shoppers who pause as they pass. For medical problems one can sit in the open air and see a traditional Chinese physician, who has a regular stand near the top of one of the stairways. His stand consists of a stool, a box of bottles, and a white sheet with big characters that say:

To Help You Relieve Worries and Solve Problems! Particular Treatments: Corns, Sluggishness, Black Moles, Ear Checks. Surgery—No Pain, No Itching, No Bloodletting, No Effects on Your Job!

Fuling is not an easy city. Old people rest on the staircases, panting. To carry anything up the hills is backbreaking work, and so the city is full of porters. They haul their loads on bamboo poles balanced across their shoulders, the same way freight was carried in the south of China in the 1800s, when the English referred to such laborers as “coolies”—from the Chinese kuli, or “bitter strength.” Here in Fuling, as in all of the eastern Sichuan river towns, the porters are called Bang-Bang Jun—the Stick-Stick Army. They have uniforms (the simple blue clothes of the Chinese peasantry), and the weapons of their trade (bamboo poles and loops of cheap rope), and they tend to gather in packs, in companies, in battalions. To bargain with one stick-stick soldier is to bargain with a regiment. Their jobs are difficult enough without cutthroat competition, and they look out for each other; there is no formal union but the informal bond of hard labor is much closer. During midday, when most people rest, the stick-stick soldiers can be seen along the midtown streets, sitting on their poles, smoking, chatting, playing cards; and in their leisure there is an air not so much of relaxation as of a lull in the battle.

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