Slums from the Qing Dynasty are Still Slums

In Yichang, in central China, the site of the infamous and globally reviled Three Gorges Project, something strange is happening. After five days travelling along the Yangtze River, your correspondent is beginning to think that in itself, the Three Gorges might not have been such a bad thing after all.

The project – designed primarily to control flooding, improve navigation, and generate power – consists of the world’s largest dam in the middle reaches of the world’s third longest river, and has become something of a cause célèbre, uprooting over a million residents on the banks of the Yangtze and causing untold environmental damage.

Just before our party reached the mountain that is supposed to resemble a prone Chairman Mao Zedong, our attention is drawn to a temple constructed to appease the elements responsible for so much carnage in the waters below. We are forced to admit that nature, and natural conditions, are – for the most part – utterly brutal, and that even as humanity seeks to tame it, as it now has done in the form of a 185 m dam, nature then somehow seeks to wreak revenge in the form of earthquakes and landslides.

This is, of course, philosophically flawed, for we remain a part of nature, the part that has contrived to create a species now capable of controlling and redirecting the brute force of the Yangtze, and potentially putting thousands of years of destruction and devastation to an end.

In 1954, the floods along the Yangtze River killed 30,000 people and left a million homeless. Chairman Mao decided to step up the efforts to build the dam. The fact that his likeness, on the mountain peak, is horizontal, is supposed to indicate that he is at rest, satisfied that his wishes have now been fulfilled. These are not the only superstitions that surround the Three Gorges Project.

Our tour organizers sought to put our minds at rest about the displaced migrants, the endangered artefacts, and the environmental damage caused by the project, but the overwhelming empirical presence of the Dam leads to other concerns, concerns that seem to bring into play all those superstitious notions about breaking the equilibrium of nature, and being forced – by building more dams, more power stations, more embankments – to consider thousands of new ways of restoring it. Throughout the visit, we were shown some of the temples that will either be relocated brick by brick or shored up and protected against the rising tide. Many of them were Taoist in origin, and Taoism teaches us, at least in its purest form, that the more you seek to interfere in nature, the more necessary it becomes to interfere. The more you do, the more you need to do, and the more laws you draft, the more laws you must continue to draft in order to support the first lot. There is something in this theory, but it sometimes rests on rather an archaic notion of what nature is, a notion that might be best described as pre-Nietzschean.

Nietzsche, excoriating the desire of the Stoics to live according to nature, wrote:

O you noble Stoics, what deceptive words these are! Imagine a being like nature, wasteful beyond measure, indifferent beyond measure, without purposes and consideration, without mercy and justice, fertile and desolate and uncertain at the same time; imagine indifference itself as a power – how could you live according to this indifference? Is that not precisely wanting to be other than this nature? Is not living – estimating, preferring, being unjust, being limited – wanting to be different? And supposing your imperative “live according to nature” meant at bottom as much as “live according to life” how could you not do that? Why make a principle of what you yourselves are and must be?

Thousands have lived according to nature in the Three Gorges region. Over the past century, 300,000 people were swept to their deaths by floods, and millions have been made destitute. “Indifferent beyond measure,” the Yangtze’s last great binge of terror took place in 1998. The death toll reached 4,000.

The success or failure of the dam will be judged on its ability to control the floods. I wasn’t as concerned about the old relics – the pagodas, the statues, the mausoleums – as some might have been. The human life scattered across the riverbanks seemed more significant. That life is one of pain and hard labour, in a different universe from the one I am used to. I could say that it is humbling, but such comments are always patronizing. Anger is probably a more worthy reaction, as you note the way their lives, and the aspirations therein, are summarily dismissed. This is not itself directly related to the dam, as such, and more to do with the way economic growth strategies in China have been skewed towards the eastern coast, or the way corruption and raw capital have allowed millions to fall by the wayside.

Nevertheless, there were pangs. Sailing towards the first of the Three Gorges you can see how many of the old inscriptions in the now-submerged rock have been gouged out and glued into position higher up along the bank. The difference in coloration is immediately apparent. The effort at preservation seems almost hapless.

Imagine, if you will, the remnants of a old and beautiful church lodged in the brick above a Starbucks logo. Imagine an ancient Roman ruin desecrated by the Golden Arches.

I recall, too, the spectacular vision of the Lesser Three Gorges, with the river’s spray hovering in the near distance, and the waters green with the imprint of the surrounding forest. “Ah, but you should have seen it before the water level rose from 2 m to 30 m,” said some of my travelling companions.

But imagine, if you can, the unspoilt scenery that might have existed in the city you are now living in. Imagine any other victim of economic progress in the West – the razed forests, the swarthy herdsmen, maybe the odd flock of dodos – and try to calculate the damage we have done to earn our way of life. “Natural beauty” is an awesome quality, especially for those of us who have been brought up in cities. Something instinctive tells us that, despite our mod-cons, our tap water and our TVs, our pavements and our power stations, something has gone wrong somewhere, that we took the wrong turning out of the jungle and are somehow paying the price. Somehow, we are all Prometheus waiting for the wrath of the Gods.

Those having to live in the vast majority of the world’s farming communities seem to have a different impression, however. Below one of the temples that have been constructed on the high hills along the Yangtze, a gang of withered little men with ropes of muscle on their arms and legs offer to carry my bloated Western body up to the top for just over a dollar, prompting a minor ethical dilemma: do we accept, and reinforce all the negative imagery of foreign imperialists exploiting the Chinese peasantry, or do we reject, and deprive him of a living?

Whatever. For them, it is difficult to get sentimental about the back-breaking labour and the pitiful annual income. And nor is it all that easy to get nostalgic in a puerile Lawrencian way about the violence of nature when a bloody great flood has just demolished your house and soiled your crops.

The fact that conservationists seek to preserve ways of life that need to be swept away – slums, whether they date from the Qing Dynasty or the Great Leap Forward, are still slums – seems to miss the point entirely. The fact that people are being driven out of subsistence farming and forced to participate in the urban spread is painful, but does not mean that their previous ways of life are worth keeping.

The Three Gorges Dam can be criticized, but not because it is devastating the natural balance in the region: the Yangtze itself has already done far too much of that.

For a free PDF copy of the the author’s five part Interfax-China special report on the Three Gorges, e-mail him at

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