ALONG THE RIVERS: KPF TRAVELLING FELLOWSHIP 2016Profile

by Anthony Shung You Ko, Jonathan Cheng, Lorenzo Luzzi, and Zipu Zhu, AA Fifth year students

16 September 2016
Yangtze River, China

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Mao Zedong swimming in the Yangtze River, China, 1966

On 16 July, 1966 Mao Zedong, then aged 73, disrobed on the bank of the Yangtze in Wuhan and swam, briskly and gracefully, for a reported 15km. Being the revolutionary man that he was, the physical exertion of swimming was more than a summertime leisure, it was a thumbing of his nose to the old Confucian notions of physical reserve. Furthermore, it was a symbolic attempt to tame rumours and political jeering that his own health – and thus his party’s solidarity – was deteriorating; washing them away as he back-stroked through the river. For Mao, there could be no better place to reassure the public of his ability, his acute political prowess, than wrapped in the body of China’s greatest river. China’s rivers have been a source of livelihoods and mythology long before the Great Leap Forward, but it was by his vision that they would be mobilized for launching China into a 20th century superpower. Today two of his most notable prophesies can be witnessed in full operation- the Three Gorges Dam and South-North Water Transfer Project.

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Lanzhou inner city

Chinese civilisation has always had an intimate relationship with the rivers, both dependent and symbolic. With the KPF Travelling Fellowship 2016 this year, our trip was framed by observing the shifting relationship between the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers after a period of rapid urbanisation and economic expansion that has seen the country evolve well beyond those initial visions half a century ago when Mao swam the Yangtze. Our route originated in the deep-water ports of Shanghai, the mouth of the Yangtze River. Heading west to reach Qinghai Province – the plateaued lake source region – we would trace the many faces of the rivers from the rice terraces of Kunming, the artificial lake of Danjiang, numerous dams and canals, and newly re-housed communities before reaching Dongying, where the Yellow River meets the sea.

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A fishing family living at Danjiang at the beginning of the south north water project

The anchor of China’s river developments, the Three Gorges Dam, is championed as one of the key infrastructural projects in recent years. It is the largest power station of its kind in terms of installed capacity, but has faced sharp criticism for the displacement of 1.3 million local residents in the wake of its construction, with dozens of villages and hundreds archaeological sites flooded along the upstream section of the river. Today, a cruise down the Three Gorges features the dam as a highlight of the journey, serving a secondary purpose to the hydroelectric power generation, attracting tourists from around China and the world, even touting a new hotel overlooking the site.

Guided tours show visitors around various viewing points, with particular emphasis on the symbolic victory for national progress. Now several years after completion, the logistical and environmental questions that continue to bombard politicians, developers, and scientists highlight, for us, China’s love-hate relationship with the depth of dealing with such an unprecedented scale of projects and saving face among competing global nations.

 

Tourism as a model to double down on infrastructure revenue has made an impact beyond the Three Gorges Dam. The South-North Water Transfer Project has also left many hoping that these new projects will draw curious visitors. The project is designed as a series of canals that bring water to Beijing, and surrounding northern areas prone to drought, from Danjiang, an artificial lake in the south where water is plentiful.

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The Three Gorges dam

In certain moments, however, we still observed ways of living on the river, which had remained unchanged despite the country’s rapid development. Having travelled to Qinghai Province to Sanjiangyuan National Park, where the beginnings of the Yellow and Yangtze River can be found, nomadic people continue to live their lives dependent on the river, moving their camps and herds in order to follow the natural flows as their ancestors have for centuries. However, government regulation now limits the sizes of their herds for fear that overgrazing will permanently scar the landscape. Despite this, massive road building efforts are now being implements across the province in order to boost tourism, with a series of yurts placed alongside the certain areas of the roads, reducing the culture of the nomadic people to mere ‘decoration’.

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The road heading west from Xining to the Yellow River source

The Hani people, who live to the south of Kunming in Yunnan Province, also continue to live off the land as they have for generations. Described as the ‘Skillful Sculptors’ by a Ming dynasty emperor for their ornate yet functional landscape terraces that efficiently transported water down hilled terraces, many young people choose to leave the village to larger cities. One farmer told us that the majority of them do, however, choose to return, finding that a simpler life of self-sufficiency on the land provides a better life for them as opposed to being unskilled labourers in the cities.

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The Dongying marshland where the Yellow River meets the sea

Interestingly, the locals have resisted government intervention for organisation of tourism, insisting that it would impede on their way of life, and are not willing to be reduced to a mere tourist attraction.

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The Yuanyang rice terraces

The relationship between China’s rivers and tourism can be seen to be one of cultural manipulation in a way. The tourism industry is still young, and largely monetarily driven. At sites such as the Hukou Falls, China’s second largest waterfall which we visited, daily tours are conducted in such a way that after a bumpy two hour bus journey, a tourist is given a mere 45 minutes to snap selfies and take photos on a horse, before getting on a bus to head back to the city. We saw many of these tours across China, where sites of historical grandeur, described in poems and paintings, are reduced to a short stop in a huge touristic machine that has become the main source of income for many cities. The impulse to take advantage of many of these historical sites often lead to their destruction, seen by the fact that several UNESCO World Heritage sites have been delisted in recent years due to poor management and a general lack of care.

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Hukou falls

Despite this, the river remains a core to life in many Chinese cities. Something we observed across China is how rivers, banks, and bridges are some of the main informal public spaces, with everything from restaurant boats lit in neon and families gathering to spend the evening. It was interesting to note, however, that property prices grow exponentially based on their relative distance to the river. This attractive draw to water is also reflected in the number of large scale high rise residential complexes that are currently under construction around the country which base themselves around an artificial river, seen by developers as one of the main ‘tickboxes’ to be fulfilled to create a successful and high end residential project.

 

China’s relationship with the rivers has always been complex. They have been called China’s Pride – the cradle of civilisation, and a lifeline for agricultural communities – as well as China’s Sorrow, with their unpredictability sometimes leading to entire villages being destroyed by floods. However, since China’s rapid development, this relationship has become much more multifaceted. At certain moments, it remains a lifeline for nomadic or agriculturally based communities, while at others it is a source of pride and great feats of infrastructure and power, and at others a point of mass tourism. While we continue to sift through the volumes of documentation accumulated during our trip, these themes have been very apparent in each destination and will form the basis for the material we plan to produce in the coming months.

 

For more information:

 

Along The Rivers Site

Anthony Ko Instagram

Jonathan Cheng Instagram

Lorenzo Luzzi Instagram

Zipu Zhu Instagram

The KPF Travelling Fellowship