Thursday, January 17, 2008

Ghosts of the Yangtze

Our first stop on the cruise was the town of Fengdu. It's known as the City of Ghosts because it is to here that all Chinese must return when they die, even those living abroad (did you hear that, xiao Wang?), to be judged by the King of the Underworld. The good go to red heaven, and the bad go to blue hell.

There are ghosts aplenty here - some very recent ones. Almost all the temples in the Fengdu complex were destroyed by the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution. The fact that these officially sanctioned hooligans were scared of destroying the temple of the King of the Underworld himself, gives an idea of the amount of power that was handed - locally at least - to the ignorant and superstitious, all just for the sake of a powerplay back in the capital. The Red Guard was motivated by violence and petty power. Maoist principles were just a lick of red paint on the shithouse wall.

This wasn't a Chinese problem. The parallels are easily seen with the early SA in inter-war Germany, the blackshirts under Mussolini, and the pickup-driving, Kalashnikov-wielding Taliban. Ignorance and violence are a natural match. The repeating pattern of unholy alliances between destructive and arrogant youth and cynical manipulative experience makes me very angry - and very frightened too when I think of what kind of circumstances could bring about the same pattern for me or my daughters. Because despite what some bestsellers say, I don't think anyone can really believe that history is over.

The other ghost that haunts this part of the Yangtze lies a few hundred kilometers downstream - the Three Gorges Dam.

There is a background eeriness in the many references to what has already been submerged under the rising waters of the dam, and what awaits the final phase of the project in a few months time. Life around the Yangtze is coloured by numbers: 156 metres above sea level - the current height of the water here. 175 metres - the final dry season level. 13 cities, 140 towns, the homes of 1.4 million people - all under water when the project is complete. Everything that we look at has a question mark over it: Will it still be here in a year's time? Everything we see can be compared dramatically with pictures of 10 years ago or so. The river banks today are unnatural - their ecology needs time to adapt to the new reality.

The spell of numbers and levels is only broken when we finally move through the locks of the great dam itself. The landscape is once more fixed and reliable. No more disappearing towns. But just before that happened, there was time for one more moment of surreality. The the boat made its way through the 5 chambers of the shiplock, snow began to fall. Nina, Sara and I went uptop, along with the Australian/Indonesian family we shared the dinner table with, and had a snowball fight under the cold glow of the locks neon lights, while moving slowly through the belly of the largest dam in the world. If you ask the girls what they remember most about the cruise, they will probably say the snowball fight. Me too, actually.

Should the dam have been built or not? This is the question that was posed by Luther, our Yangtze Guide on the Victoria Star, after a powerpoint presentation on the pros and cons of the project. He left the question open, and left plenty of room for both sides of the argument in his talk. He raised negative consequences of the dam that I hadn't thought of or heard about before. Most importantly, he avoided the temptation to be didactic or propagandist on the matter.

My own impression is that although national pride is noted as one of the minor reasons for the project, it has at least as much to do with the decision to build as the three major ones: Flood control, Power generation and Improved navigability. I don't know what decision I would have made, but I'm uneasy with the knowledge that only a political system of almost absolute centralized power could decide to relocate 1.4 million souls, and that this very same monopoly on power has led to the kind of corruption that can jeopardise the safety and viability of a megaproject such as the Three Gorges Dam

See and (banned in China).

Make up your own mind.


Gianluigi said...

Megaproject? Here I am!
Hi, V.S. ( how is the english traslation? mah!)
My poor english made me a ghost of your blog: I read but I dont' write anything! But your adventure and your Irritant talent (!) are interesting! See ya in Australia (I hope)
( greetings for ichnusa, Blonde sardinia.. ah ah ah)

Yagiz said...

> the King of the Underworld

Oh my God! Bill Gates lives there?

Anonymous said...

National Geographic claims to shed light on remote places around the world but it insists on seeing these places through a western-centric view.

I find it annoying that it cannot display places of geographic interest without references to some cultural and political grudges. This is especially true for places like Asia and Africa.

This attitude, combined with the prejudiced nature of almost all media only cultivates attitudes like those of the original poster who cannot appreciate a place of interest without dragging in all the bad laundry associated with its culture or country.

Brendan Lawlor said...

Hi Anonymous and thanks for taking the time for posting,

I read the post again just now (it's been more than a year since I posted it), to see if there was anything particularly annoying or offensive in what I wrote. I've decided that there isn't, which is nice for me, isn't it?

I'm afraid that until I reach some point of enlightenment far beyond my current limited consciousness, whatever I observe and subsequently write about will always be coloured by my individual and cultural identity.

The good news is that I'm not the only individual out there who has an observation to make. If you don't like my interpretation, you can read another, or even better, publish your own.

On a more general point, I don't think there's anything prejudiced about pointing out what is accepted and documented fact (as explained to me by the Chinese guide). I've made it clear in the post that I don't believe there's anything uniquely Chinese about political violence (it would be absurd to suggest anything else). Should a visitor to Ireland avoid mentioning the Vikings when blogging on the round tower in Glendalough. Or should a tourist in Cusco marvel at the Spanish architecture without noticing the Inca stonework that it rests on?