Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.28.6: THE RIVER AT THE CENTER OF THE WORLD, by Simon Winchester, 1996 [BR]

V028-06_river-center-worldAs a rule, I prefer hanging out in cities rather than the natural environment.   But I make an exception for rivers.   It may be because rivers are so profoundly associated with cities.   Cities began in the fertile river plains around twelve thousand years ago; rivers supplied these first permanent settlements with irrigation for crops, and a cheap highway to other cities, the sea and beyond.   There are very few great cities that do not have a river running through them, often a river of commensurate greatness.


Having been fortunate enough to be on several great rivers—the Nile, Mississippi, Pearl, Thames, Plate, Seine, Mekong, Rhine, Hudson, and Yangtse, among them—but yet lacking the Yellow, Amazon and Volga, among others, I have had occasion to enter many cities in what is almost always the most dramatic way, buy water.   The next best thing is to sail on a river with fine writer and intrepid traveler.


Like Simon Winchester.


It’s a apt title for this book.   China has historically believed it is the center of the world.   The character for zhongguo, what the Chinese cal their country is a square with a line down the middle of it.   China is the “middle kingdom.”   Just about in the middle, but stretched across China from west to east, the main part of it from Chongqing to Shanghai, is the Yangtse (theChiang Jiang , or “long river” to the Chinese).  


It is long: nearly ten thousand li , in Chinese terms, or just under four thousand miles.   Winchester is determined to every li of it.   A Mandarin speaker and a former Asian correspondent, he has a reporter’s knack for   getting deeper into the fascinating stories that a river that has figured so significantly into the equally long history of China.   Escorted by Lily, a tall guide from Manchuria who several times talks and stares down border guards, and difficult officials, Winchester decided to do it the hard way, going upstream from Shanghai all the way to the river’s (somewhat disputed) source near Tibet.


I know upstream is the “hard way” from a couple of cruises downstream from Chongqing to Wuhan.   The Yangtse has roughly three segments: the relatively placid part eastern third when there river flattens out over the plain (and where much of the flooding can occur), the (barely) navigable middle part between Wuhan and Chongqing, where the water races, roils, and speeds through gorges, and the upper part which is scarcely navigable with outright deadly reaches.   Even the most populated central section can be frightening where the café au lait colored water looks like there is a battle of river dragons taking place underneath.   It flows so fast that from my narrow cabin balcony one day I spotted a bloated, dead body in the current a hundred yards up ahead.   By the time turned around to get my camera it was already racing away astern.   How could that be when we were going downstream with the current ?   The body was in a parallel opposite current.


The currents help to explain why, until the invention of powerful steam engines, the only way boats could get upstream through gorges and rapids, where the river runs fastest, was to be hauled by teams of straining, naked “trackers”. [1]   The navigability of the river also helps to explain part of the rational for the controversial Three Gorges Dam project which will create a deep, navigable “lake” from Xiling to Chongquing, making the latter city an ocean port for freighters and tankers and open western China to economic development.   Like so much in China the magnitude of the dam is mind boggling, and its putative benefits (hydroelectric power and flood control as well) are barbed with environmental threats and paid for with a cultural price.   Winchester delves into the gorges and the dam that will forever change them in considerable detail after Lily manages to talk authorities into issuing them permits to visit various parts of it under construction.


But the final chapter on the am is yet to be written.   Soon enough it will begin to halt the flow of the Yangtse, after millions of people will have been moved to new towns on higher ground, and many cultural sites will be inundated, the Three Gorges will lose their grandeur, and some of those who are rushing to make a cruise on it will be able to say they said the Yangtse “when”.


But this book is at its best when Winchester’s reporter’s instincts are at their best.   Always alert for a story the author is adept at pulling from the river’s long past to finding a good tale or vignette on one bank or another.   He tells, for example, of Mao Zedong’s swim across the river at Wuhan. [2]   Mao’s retinue tried to dissuade him, not only because the waters are quite turbulent there, and the river wide, but because there are also very poisonous water snakes in the vicinity.   This was after Mao had led the beginning of the famous Long March when his army crossed the upper reaches of the river many years before.


There’s a story nearly every li of the way up (or down) the Yangtse.   Near the end of his quest Winchester in the lands of China’s “minorities” (non-Han population), the lands of the Yi, Bai, Moso and other peoples, who do not even speak Mandarin.   He recounts seeing a large dead pig being carried by a couple of boys in one of the villages in these remote parts.   The story goes that these pigs are gutted and de-boned, and then used as a mattress for as long as a dozen years, after which they are cooked and eaten.   That’s the great thing about great rivers, they seem to be rivers through time as well.   The Nile and Amazon have some great tales to tell, [3] but they have to go some to beat a river that reaches from a city where this computer was assembled, to a place where people eat their own mattresses.

©2006, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 1.18.2006)

[1] Winchester gives some historical description of trackers, but they are the central focus of John Hersey’s novel of a western engineer going upstream, A Single Pebble (1956).

[2] I remember seeing the photo of The Great Helmsman swimming in a weekly news magazine.   Some thought the photo was re-touched because of the way the water looked around his head and shoulders.   It was 1966, when he was 73 years old.

[3] See Alan Moorehead’s The White Nile   (1966) and The Blue Nile (1962), and Joe Kane,Running the Amazon (1986), a downriver journey by kayak.