The Three Gorges dam will be completed this year and its reservoir water level will reach a maximum height of 175 meters. Physical aspects of the ancient yangtze river culture in the region have been rescued, but intangible ones have gone underwater.
For Wen Guanglin, losing even a single inch of his ancestral home is the worst disrespect to his forefathers. In an interview with Xinhua in 2003, the then 60-year-old Wen admitted going through a lot of sleepless nights after he learned the centuries old house he inherited, as well as the rest of his ancient town, Dachang, would be submerged when the Three Gorges Dam reservoir starts storing water.
The Wen compound was said to be the most beautiful and well preserved residence in the 1,700 year-old town. Its blue-bricked walls, black-tiled roof, and hand-carved beams showcased architectural styles from the Ming and Qing dynasties, which can be seen throughout Dachang.
But all is not lost. In a project planned by experts from the China Research Institute of Cultural Relics and the China Construction Prospecting and Design Institute, ancient town walls and 38 residential structures will be moved brick by brick, wood by wood, tile by tile, and reconstructed some five kilometers away from the original location.
Wen entrusted his house to this project and hoped to return to live in it at its new location. Unfortunately, he won’t be able to do this. Dachang Town wasn’t rebuilt for homeowners to live in. It was rebuilt as a tourist attraction.
There are thousands of tourist attractions in China, both natural and historical. But the Three Gorges of the Yangtze River is one of the earliest. With its breathtaking scenery, lush ecological system, and rich cultural history, it has been the inspiration for numerous ancient paintings, poems, and legends. It was also the focus of Sun Yat-Sen and Mao Zedong’s visions of 21st century China.
From those visions emerged the Three Gorges Project, which was considered one of China’s most
important undertakings for a sustainable economic development. Its primary task was building the world’s largest hydropower plant and water conservation facility. This boosted China’s power and water supply, reducing carbon emissions and deadly floods, and improving navigation down the Yangtze River.
With the water deeper, wider, and slower, river transport becomes much easier and less costly. The new cost efficiency ensured that tourism along the Yangtze would surge—despite rising water levels. According to project authorities, the changing water levels will have an insignificant effect on the scenery around the Three Gorges. The Wuxia, Qutang, and Xiling gorges are elevated by around 1,000 meters above sea level so a rise in water level by even 100 meters, they say, will not diminish their beauty.
What’s more, authorities boast the project offers new sites, offshoots of building a dam. The large lake and spectacular waterfalls are undeniable tourist attractions—nevermind if both are artificial. Perhaps,these vast man-made creations somewhat compensate for the loss of smaller, but authentic places of interest in the region.
The reservoir region of the Three Gorges Dam lost 632 square kilometers of land with water rising to an estimated 175 meters at its highest. When the dam’s sluice gate was closed in 2003, over 7,000 Chinese archaeological experts and scholars scrambled to save all the cultural artifacts they could. They worked first on the area below the 135-meter height, the new water mark once the sluice gate closed.
Armed with spades and brushes, archaeologists dug and turned the reservoir region into the world’s
largest archaeological work site. Planning for the grand excavation of the reservoir region started in 1993, the same year the Three Gorges Dam construction was launched. Four years later, archaeological investigations began.
Before 2001 ended, nearly 600,000 square meters of land had been excavated. This area, covered in only five years, was 60 times more extensive than the total area dug up from 1930 to 1996. Prehistoric artifacts dating back to the Paleolithic Age, such as fossils and stone-tool-making devices, were found at this stage.
By April 2003, an area of about nine square kilometers had been covered, producing more than 6,000 precious items and 600,000 miscellaneous artifacts. All historical and cultural structures that would have been inundated were allegedly removed and reconstructed on new sites. But a complete list isn’t available. Reserved by the state for preservation are the Shibao Castle of Zhong County, White Crane Beam in the Fuling Region of Chongqing, and carved inscriptions on cliffs.
Meanwhile, subsidized for reconstruction in new sites by the state are the General Zhang Fei Temple of Yunyang County, Yong An Palace of Fengjie County, Jiangdu Temple and Xintan residential houses of Zigui County, Dingfang and Wuming stone engravings of Zhong County, ancient bridges, and the big Wen Family courtyard of Dachang, Wushan County.
Down and Out
Unlike the Dachang houses of Wushan and the Xintan houses of Zigui, other ancient houses endangered by rising water levels were not so lucky as to get preferential treatment from the state. Due to unspecified reasons, government financing never came to save the Great East Gate or the Dadongmen houses of Fengjie County. A few citizens took it upon themselves to move parts of houses and recreate them in new locations.
But whether these ancient houses were reconstructed by the state or not, they will all meet the same fate: People will no longer live in them. The house replicas were turned into private museums and gift shops where souvenirs are sold. This means their multigenerational, centuries-old heritage will not be passed on. At best, they may only be looked at.
More than 34 square kilometers of residential buildings would be totally submerged. Around 1.3 million people have been displaced, most transferred to modern tenements—but most will not be able to carry on with their old way of life.
For thousands of years, the native people of the Three Gorges live on farming, fishing, shipping, and shipping-related trades, such as boat-tracking. Due to the dam, 310 square kilometers of farmland and 601 docks will be gone. Not all relocated farmers will be given new lands to plow. Many will have to take on big city jobs.
As for the boat people, the Yangtze River is still there. The dangerous rapids were eliminated and the risk of flash floods was lessened. But a larger river makes it harder for small boats to cross or sail through.
The good news is tourism is booming. Aside from the Three Gorges, visitors can still visit the Ghost City of Fengdu and Shibao Castle. Myriad cultural relics will also be displayed in several museums. But you won’t see the ancient towns where they once were, nor used by the people who kept the culture alive. Then again, the world’s largest dam will produce 84.7 billion kilowatt-hours worth of power.
print ed: 08/08