The main paradox is that there is no Yangtze River. This name is unknown to most Chinese, who call it Ta Jiang, ‘Great River’, or Chang Jiang, ‘Long River’ unless they live above Chongqing – there the swift silt-filled waters are referred to as Chin-sha Jiang, ‘the river of Gold Sand’. A few decades ago, in the winter months when the level dropped, the Chinese squatted at its edge and panned for gold, sluicing the mud and gathering gold dust. European travellers reported seeing washerwomen wearing thick gold bangles, made of metal that had been carried from where the River Yangtze rises in Tibet. The river is almost 3,500 miles long.
Map showing course of River Yangtze
The Yangtze River has more moods than names. ‘I am careful to give the date of each day’s notes’, Archibald Little wrote in Through the Yangtze Gorges (1887). ‘The river varies so wonderfully at different seasons that any description must be carefully understood only to apply to the day upon which it is written.’ Captain Little compared the Yangtze to the Amazon and to the Mississippi; he said it was indescribable. It has in many stretches a violent magnificence. It causes murderous floods, and its winter levels create rapids of such turbulence that the river captain steers his ship through the foam and travels down the rapids, praying that no junk will lie in his path, as it is impossible for him to stop or reverse. But it is not all so dramatic. Its four divisions are like four separate rivers: above Chongqing, it is associated with gold and landslides; the Upper River ( Chongqing – Yichang), is the wildest – here are the gorges and the Chinese landscape of Walter Scott’s classic, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms; the Middle River (Yichang – Wuhan), is serene and a mile wide; the Lower River (Wuhan – Shanghai) is slow and sticky and populous.
One Chinese ship captain, when asked if he thought the Yangtze had a personality, said, ‘The mood of the Yangtze changes according to season. It changes every day. It is not easy. Navigating the Yangtze is always a struggle against nature. And there is only one way to pilot a ship well. It is necessary to see the river as an enemy. I worked my way to captain, starting at fifteen. I never went to school. You can’t learn about this river in a school. You can only learn it by being on the bridge.’ He added later that in the course of one afternoon not long ago, he had counted nine human corpses bobbing hideously down the river.
The Yangtze is China’s main artery, its major waterway, the source of many of its myths, the scene of its history. On its banks are some of its greatest cities. It begets many superstitions; it provides income and food to a large part of the population. It is one of the most dangerous rivers in the world, in some places one of the dirtiest, in others the most spectacular. The Chinese drink from it and bathe in it and wash clothes in it, and defecate in it. The Yangtze represents both life and death. It is a wellspring, a sewer and a tomb, depthless in the gorges, shallow at its rapids. The Chinese say if you haven’t been up the Great River, you haven’t been anywhere. They also say that in the winter, on the river, the days are so dark that when the sun comes out, the dogs bark at it. A thick sulphurus fog covers some of the towns upstream of the borders. The fog muffles morning noises and gives an air of solemnity. It also stinks like poison. Although China is now a modern power, the Yangtze has altered very little. The cities are bigger and more industrialised, the rapids had been dynamited, there are more ships, but the river today is the same river Archibald Little sailed on in 1886, Abbe David botanised on it in the 1860s, and Italian missionaries tried to convert the natives in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The river and the ways of many of the river dwellers are as old as China. There is a painting in the Shanghai Museum of junks and sampans on a river, by Zhang Zheduan. These vessels have the same sails, mast rigging, rudders, and oars as ones on the Yangtze today. But it is a Song Dynasty painting, 1000 years old.
The painting Along the River During the Qingming Festival by Zhang Zeduan
Just above Changshou, the Yangtze narrows to about seventy-five feet, and mottled hills appear in the mist on both sides of the river. Abbe David saw fortifications on the top of these hills. In his Diaries is a wonderful account of his Yangtze trip. He wrote, ‘These are refuges in time of trouble for the country people, where they can go with their possessions and be safe from the depredation of rebels and brigands.’ Banditry was widely spread on the Yangtze from the earliest times, and there was no peace on the river until 1949 when the government took over. Now, every inch of these hills is farmland. On the deepest slopes are terraces of vegetables. How was it possible to water the gardens on these cliff-faces? Here and there, you can see a man climbing up the hillside, carrying two buckets on a yoke. They tip the water into a ditch and without pausing further, they start down the hill. No one is idle on the Yangtze.
Terrace farmers irrigating their crops
Terrace farming along the Yangtze river
There are no birds on the Yangtze, indeed China is no place for a bird-watcher. It is hard to say if the absence of trees, the use of powerful insecticides or the plain hunger of the people who seem to kill anything that moves, is the reason for the scarceness of birds. The old beliefs changed with modern times. One was that if a fish jumped out of the water onto the deck of a ship, you could not eat it because such fish were regarded as demons. They were not thrown back into the water but taken ashore and buried in a hole. Now they are being eaten.
Silver Carp jumping
Many people come to the Yangtze to see the gorges alone. The gorges are wonderful, and it is impossible to exaggerate their splendour, but the river is long and complicated, and much greater than its gorges. The great gorges lie below Bai De (White King City), the lesser gorges just above Yichang. They are enormous limestone cliffs on each side of the river. There is no shore: the sheer cliffs plunge straight into the water. They were formed at the dawn of the world when the vast inland sea in western China began to drain east and wear the mountains away. As limestone occurs in blocks, it has cracks and corners; and so the flow zigzagged, controlled by the stone, and made right angles in the river. Looking ahead through the gorges you see no exit, only the end of what looks like a blind canyon. There is graffiti on the gorges. Some are political (Mankind Unite to Smash Capitalism), or poetic (Bamboos, flowers, and rain purify the traveller), while other scribbled characters explain that this is Wind Box Gorge, and those holes are where General Zhuge Liang made a ladder to scale the height and smash the Shu army on the top in the second century AD. The wind blows fiercely through the gorges, and it is a good thing, too, because the junks can thus sail upstream. Every rock and cliff has a name, ‘The Seated Woman and the Pouncing Lion’, ‘The Fairy Princess’. The Yangtze is a river of precise nomenclature.
Qutang Gorge on Changjiang
Below an example of ancient Chinese battle art.
At Wuhan the Yangtze becomes wider, the banks lower and flatter, but the cities grow more interesting. All over the river people are fishing, some with hooks and lines, others with circulating weighted nets; some are still fishing with trained cormorants and otters. The river widens again and it is seldom possible to see the far bank. It is difficult navigating on the Yangtze for two main reasons – from December to March, the water is very low and the channel is narrow. This makes things difficult because there is a lot of traffic on the river. The second is the weather. There are fog and mist from October to April, and it is impossible to see what lies ahead. Radar is often no help. To avoid accidents some nights the junks anchor until the weather clears.
At the Nanjing quays, the Yangtze is flowing to Shanghai. On the whole, very little has changed in China. People still fish in the old way, they sail and row and tow wooden junks; they water their fields carrying buckets on yokes, women wash clothes, clubbing together bundles of laundry and thrashing them in the muddy water. But Shanghai is different.
The Yangtze is China: seeing it, you are prepared for everything else. It seems to contain the whole of Chinese culture, the ineradicable past and the convulsed and sometimes contradictory present. It is a great river.