Nonfiction Contest Winner
Clouds and Rain over Three Gorges
It was near dusk when Bob and I gave up hope of finding a port, abandoning the plan to take a boat back upstream to our hotel at the county seat of Wushan. That morning, the undulating hills on the south bank had lured us to cross the Yangtze and hike downstream all day. To our surprise, we never encountered another port along the sparsely habitated riverside.
Where were we exactly? Even Bob’s omnipresent map could not give us a hint. Looking down to the left of the hilly riverside trail we’d been walking along, the vast Yangtze had unexpectedly become a thin belt. Its fast-moving waves calmed; the water appeared clear and shallow, as if one might simply paddle across. Ahead of us, amidst endless farm fields and wild vegetation, a small village could be faintly seen, our only hope of shelter for the night.
“Big brother Marx!”
At the crisp young voice, we turned. A boy of 12 or 13, pant legs rolled up to knees, mud-covered feet clad in plastic sandals, was gleefully shouting at Bob in the local vernacular similar to my own Chongqing dialect. The only connection I could think of between Bob and Karl Marx was that the former once read the latter while pursuing his Ph.D. in economics. I was pretty sure the boy knew just four foreigners, from wall pictures: Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, in that order, and Marx was the one who had a beard as big as Bob’s.
Bob obviously was fond of his new name—everything in China seemed to amuse him. He smiled broadly at the boy, though I doubted the child could see it through the fluffy blond beard. I asked him where we were.
“Goddess Peak,” the boy pointed to the other side of the river. Following his finger, I looked up at tall, slim cliffs shimmering ethereally in clouds and mists, like a Chinese ink painting. Bob, whose Chinese vocabulary was severely limited, saw the perplexed look on my face and asked what it was.
“That doesn’t look like a Goddess,” I said.
Bob understood right away. “The Goddess in Mao’s poem?”
Moreover, walls of stone will stand west of the river
Cutting off Wushan’s clouds and rain
In the high gorges appearing a placid lake
And should the Goddess weather the years
The changing world would certainly shock her
This poem, titled “Swimming,” is one of 37 that Mao Zedong published. They were printed in a pocket-size book with a red plastic cover, the sibling of the “little red book.” When I was ten or eleven, I ardently recited all of them. I can still recite most. My childhood reverence of Mao came largely from those majestic poems, long before my own experience taught me how the reality under his rule belied his poetry. This particular poem was regarded as a prescient blueprint for the Three Gorges Dam. Having become irreverent, I suspected that Mao got a huge kick out of writing the line “Cutting off Wushan’s clouds and rain,” because the phrase “Wushan’s clouds and rain” was an ancient allusion to having sex, almost as if Mao had in mind the image of cutting off some man’s genitals. But I did not say that to Bob, partly because it was indecent for a Chinese woman to speak such things, partly because my English was not up to the task.
I was upset by the government’s plan to build the Three Gorges Dam, not for the scientific reasons that concerned other, more erudite and environmentally conscious, protestors, but because of the area’s cultural significance. Three Gorges is the font of China’s ancient myths. Once the so-called “world’s number-one dam” was built, all the beauty and legends of the region would forever be drowned. It was a most destructive idea, all because some leader wanted to realize the lines of Mao’s poem from three decades earlier, or to have his own name carved in concrete.
“Please, do you have rooms?” I had to ask twice.
“We’ve never received a foreigner before,” he finally said. “Don’t know if we’re allowed to.”
He sent the boy, who jauntily bounced out, to get instructions from the village chief. A while later the chief, a dark-skinned old farmer with somber eyes, appeared. He and the innkeeper took turns grilling me with questions, and then huddled in a corner whispering.
“You two must sleep in separate rooms,” the innkeeper told us, “our chief said so.”
What he had said was at the same time absurd and alarming, since Bob and I had never planned to stay in the same room—more out of fear than for virtuous reasons. Among Chinese males I knew, one tireless topic was how police ambush and catch a pair in bed having an affair. A week earlier in Guizhou, a remote province, Bob and I had checked into two separate rooms at a state-run hotel. Moments after we entered Bob’s room together and closed the door, a middle-aged receptionist kicked it open and bolted in.
Apparently she had expected to catch us in bed so she could seize and deliver us to the police. I can still remember her eyes, covetous and menacing like a vigilant tiger, and her angry breathing at missing such a dramatic opportunity: Bob and I were doing nothing but chatting. A few days later in a crowded overnight train to Hubei, our seats hidden behind standing passengers jostling each other for position, I leaned on Bob’s shoulder to steal a quick nap. But the conductor patrolling the train spotted Bob’s big beard right away. He called me into his tiny office at the front of the car and scolded, “What were you doing leaning on a foreign man, young lady? Do you have no sense of shame?” His tone, however, was more that of a serious older brother teaching a naïve sister; it made me confess that the foreigner was my boyfriend. He paused a moment in disbelief, then said, “Even so, it’s improper for a Chinese girl to lean on a foreign man in public. Don’t you lose face for us Chinese!” and sent me back to my seat. For the rest of the train trip I maintained Chinese propriety. Later, the conductor came again to give preferential treatment to Bob the foreigner, selling us two sleeping-car tickets—which we had been told were “sold out.”
Sex had been a big taboo in 1970s China during the Cultural Revolution. That taboo was gradually fading in the 1980s, but the liberalization did not extend to a relationship involving a foreigner. Foreigners, especially Westerners, were clothed in a completely different set of rules, just as they deserved to pay much higher prices for airplanes and hotels. “Foreign” was a more persistent taboo, in whose context the sex taboo gained new strength.
Our reverie was cut short when the ever-present boy, sent by the village chief, came to summon us. Back at the inn, the chief had brought in a crowd of similarly dark-faced men. The village had no electricity. Next to the kitchen, in a large room where several oil lamps flickered, the men surrounded us and carried out an interrogation. Most of the time the chief was the sole speaker; the others just stared. Over and over he asked who Bob was and what relationship we had, and (rightly) refused to believe my claim that we were teacher and student. It did not take long for me to see all his beating-around-the-bush questions pointed to a single interest: whether the foreigner and I had had sex. The interrogation reached an impasse as I refused to answer any more questions, at which point Bob and I went upstairs to our rooms.
In the dimness of the crudely furnished room, a peasant woman sat on the cheap wooden bed across from mine, an oil lamp casting a grossly enlarged shadow of her on the wall. She did not look like a guest and she did not utter a single word. I stepped out to peek into Bob’s room, and saw a similar situation: a coarsely dressed man was sitting across the room staring at him.
“This is for your protection,” a turbid voice from behind startled me. It was the village chief. “What if the foreigner comes to your room in the middle of night?”
When I returned to my place, the peasant woman was already asleep, snoring loudly. It was still early for me, but there was nothing left to do. I blew out the lamp and went to bed.
I awoke to knocks on my door. Outside the window, the sky had only just started to turn white like a fish’s belly. The other woman was gone.
The innkeeper was standing at my door. “My wife has prepared breakfast for you two. Please eat quickly and run!” he said hastily.
His wife? The woman in my room?
“The chief called the county police last night,” he lowered his voice.
This was China in 1987: a remote village without electricity had a phone line and wire broadcasting. The inn housed the village’s only telephone.
“They are sending motorcycles here to arrest you. They will arrive between seven thirty and eight.”
I glanced at my wrist watch as I ran to find Bob. It was a little past six and his room was empty.
“Where’s the foreigner?” I heard panic in my voice.
Out of nowhere emerged the boy. “Big brother Marx is doing Tai-chi by the river!” he declared.
Grateful, my heart settled back in place. I couldn’t help but ask the innkeeper why he took the risk, telling us about the police. The man’s face flushed.
“You two don’t seem like bad people,” he murmured.
His voice became more urgent as he walked with me to the beach. “Don’t take the road. There’s a trail behind the inn, motorcycles can’t get onto it.”
I felt gratitude and warmth to this kind man whom I barely knew.
I got Bob back to the inn for a home-style breakfast: rice porridge, steamed buns, and pickled vegetables. We were hungry – when you are young and traveling and in love nothing can dampen your appetite. But we ate a bit faster than usual. Bob doubted police would bother to come all the way from the county seat, getting out of bed before dawn, riding motorcycles over dirt roads in the dark. “Not much of interest here,” he said. The thinking of a foreigner. Apparently he had not learned his lesson a few weeks earlier—when he cycled across China, he and his American bike were both arrested in a small town near Chongqing. He never figured out the exact reason, other than that he was a foreigner “operating a foreign vehicle.” He was released after paying a two-hundred-yuan fine, one hundred for himself and one hundred
for his bike. Not a small sum at the time.
I had no doubt the police would arrive—arresting people was the thrilling part of their job, arresting a Chinese woman with a foreign man even more so—but I wondered what had made the village chief inform on us. It seemed that the improbable event of a foreigner in his village had stimulated all kinds of fantasy for him, one of those probably a promotion opportunity, a departure from the backwater.
Bob and I argued a bit about what to do, and decided to run in the end. We did not have much time to waste on the police nonsense: Bob’s visa was about to expire. The gleeful boy watched us eat the country food and argue in English, tilting his head with a cat-like curiosity. Bob asked him if he’d like to have a steamed bun. “Eaten,” he said.
The boy gladly took the innkeeper’s instruction, brought us to the back of the inn, and showed us the trail. We said goodbye, and I wondered when the police came if he would be showing them, with the same cheerfulness, the path we took to escape.
Bob and I walked quickly downstream, stamping on wild grass, the morning dew wetting our shoes. I didn’t feel the need to run; it was still early and, as the innkeeper had said, this trail was too narrow for motorcycles. When it passed eight and we hadn’t seen a single soul or heard any man-made sound other than our own footsteps and occasional conversation, it gave us the deceptive impression of safety.
For a long while Goddess Peak remained in sight, though the angle slowly changed. I kept looking up at the clouds that engulfed it; they were thinning out a bit.
Bob’s eyes were also on the mist. “Clouds and rain—a curious name for sex,” he said.
Thus the Goddess became symbolic of a chaste lover. The image of chastity had been steadfast in Wushan’s mountains for more than two thousand years, and only recently began to be challenged—by a female poet no less. Shu Ting, an older contemporary of mine, visited the Goddess Peak in 1981, six years before we did. Her widely cheered poem “Goddess Peak” ends with these two lines:
Either on the precipice displayed for a thousand years
Or better, one night’s good cry on a lover’s shoulder
Shu Ting’s poem broke a number of taboos: a woman openly alluding to a sexual relationship, placing love above chastity, valuing temporary pleasure more than the perpetual, and cherishing the human instead of the ideal.
But she did not have a foreign lover, and had not been writing about one.
“I’m a man; you are a woman,” he replied, apparently baffled by my line of reasoning. His words gave me pause. It did not occur to me he needed to say such an obvious thing, but then, it did not occur to me it was obvious before he said it. I’m talking about the position of the person versus the country.
As we hiked, and the rising August sun baked our hatless heads, Bob endured his thirst and let me drink most of the water. Of course, I was the one who was talking, telling him ancient myths about the Yangtze in choppy English. Despite the endless clouds and mist, the only drinkable water we had was in a one-and-a-half liter military canteen. The timeworn green vessel was a relic from the Cultural Revolution era, when every youngster, boy or girl, longed to be a soldier in the People’s Liberation Army, eager to liberate the three suffering quarters of the world, the material deficiencies of our own quarter notwithstanding. In those years of empty stores and barren shelves, when you couldn’t buy the things you needed, you could always find that canteen. This one, forgotten in my parents’ house for years, came in handy for our hiking trip.
I had filled the canteen with boiled water that morning at the Goddess Peak Inn, but it soon proved insufficient for two hikers under the scorching sun, and we had not found another supply. For several hours, walking along the mountain paths, we had passed only a few small villages, a handful of houses in each. So when we suddenly came upon a tiny port in early afternoon, I skipped and Bob whistled, anticipating a boat ride returning to Wushan. Alas, in order to go upstream we had to go further downstream, and a sampan landed us in the nearest civilization a couple of hours later.
It was a languid summer afternoon in a good-sized town called Badong. Children played on the dusty streets, men and women chatted at storefronts. A teenage boy spotted us first and shouted “Mister! Mister!” in imitated English. Before we knew it, a crowd of men had formed our entourage. We entered a store through one door then exited from another, but our followers waited right at our exit to resume their pursuit.
Unexpectedly, Bob turned around, throwing both arms into the air and making a devil face. “Rawr!” he bellowed. It was so loud and sudden that the startled men fled in all directions, like birds at a gunshot.
“Stop it!” I yelled at Bob. He grinned sheepishly like a small boy, his teeth white and neat. He thought it was funny. I was embarrassed by both my foreign companion and my isolated countrymen. A moment later I looked back—the crowd had gathered again and resumed their pursuit. They had figured out that the foreign devil was unthreatening after all.
In the evening, we finally boarded an overnight ferry upstream back to the county seat of Wushan. The small ferry had benches along its walls, all occupied, leaving the middle of
its cabin open for standing or squatting passengers. We sat on the filthy floor and dozed off like the locals.
We arrived in the early morning. Despite having hardly slept, and ignorant of what awaited our return, we jumped right onto a tourist boat going up the Da’ning River.
I believe my mother and I are decedents of Ba. In my childhood I read a story written by a historian, of how the intrepid and dance-loving people mysteriously disappeared toward the end of China’s Warring State Period, about 300 years B.C.. Their last traces were found in a cave on the cliffs of the Da’ning River. Some historians say it was the Chu Kingdom that exterminated Ba.
In my mother’s hometown Zhong County, along the Yangtze between Chongqing and Wushan, one hero’s name has been handed down from generation to generation. The small kingdom of Ba was once caught in strife—whether it was an uprising or an invasion from another kingdom is unclear—which Ba’s tiny army was unable to quell. To get help from a powerful neighboring kingdom, Chu, Ba general Manzi offered them three towns to restore order. Chu’s army came and quelled the internecine war, after which Chu’s king sent an envoy to receive the three promised towns. Manzi said to the envoy, “My head may be given, our land may not. Because I can’t give you our land, to keep my promise I’ll give you my head.” He drew out his sword and cut off his own head to hand over. The envoy brought Manzi’s head back to Chu. The king of Chu was so moved that he held a grand burial for the head, while the Ba Kingdom gave an equally grand burial to the body. Since then, a number of tombs claimed to belong to Ba Manzi have been discovered along the Yangtze, one in Zhong County, my mother’s hometown, one in Chongqing, my birthplace, and others elsewhere.
For two thousand years, every spring, on the third day of the third lunar month, Zhong County held a grand temple fair called “the third moon festival” commemorating their hero. “Zhong” means “fidelity”; the county’s name was bestowed by Tang Dynasty emperor Li Shiming to memorialize Ba Manzi. In middle school, my mother had heartily sung and danced in each year’s “third moon festival” parade.
Ba Manzi was my mother’s hero, and mine. But once, years after I’d moved to America, a disturbing thought surfaced. I was reading the news that in Chengdu, the neighboring city of Chongqing, a 47-year-old woman Tang Fuzhen immolated herself trying to stop the government’s demolition of her house. Her death did not halt the forced demolition, a widespread practice nowadays. There would be no Ba Manzi to defend his people’s land in this situation, because the line is clear: one who resists a foreign power is always the hero; one who resists the domestic government is always the bandit.
Bob and I saw the Jeep, and the two men in pressed pants and collared long-sleeve shirts leaning upon it, as we got off the boat returning from the Da’ning River about noon. Seeing Bob, they suddenly rose and walked toward us.
“Are you …?” The thinner of the two asked my name in Chinese. I nodded hesitantly. “Are you Robert?” He then asked Bob in accented English. After verification he said, “Please get in our car. We are from Wushan Foreign Affair Office. We invite you to go with us.”
“What’s the problem?” I asked, not moving.
The other man, much bigger in size, jumped at me. “Are you going with us or not?” He yelled. “If you don’t want to take our invitation, would you like the police’s invitation better?”
Bob and I looked at each other. We got into the car.
We were brought to an office building five or six stories high. They handed Bob over to a young man downstairs and escorted me upstairs. Walking up, I asked how they found us.
The fatter man kept his stern face and ignored me. The thinner man said, “The eyes of our masses are snow bright! Around the time the Goddess Peak Inn called the police bureau, we also got a call from Wushan Hotel. You two checked in to two rooms and left your luggage there, but did not return for the night.” He gave me a meaningful glance with apparent implication. My feeble attempt to explain was disregarded as he continued to brag. “We knew you would come back for the luggage. We knew you went to Da’ning River. A foreign face is easy to distinguish for our enlightened masses, you know.” He smiled.
In a small office on the fourth floor, sitting across two wide desks that were joined together, the men took turns interrogating me. Though like the peasants, they were also interested in our sexual relationship, they had some higher concepts in mind. They kept asking, “Is the American a CIA spy? What is his mission coming here?”
“To bomb the uninhabited mountains? To cut off the clouds and rain?” I offered a few possibilities, which resulted in the fatter man smashing his fist on the desk.
Thousands of years ago, there was a horrible flood caused by two gods fighting for the crown of heaven, for even among the gods there is an emperor. The loser, in his fury, smashed his head into Buzhou Mountain, one of the four pillars holding up the sky; the mountain snapped and the northwest corner of the sky collapsed. Endless water poured onto the earth from the Sky River, the folklore na
me for the Milky Way. The lands were inundated, villages and crops drowned.
As a child I read the above tale in footnotes of Selected Works of Mao Zedong. There were four thick volumes of them. It was a time when all books other than Mao’s were prohibited. The unsettling thing is, in spite of his misconduct, Mao was a learned man in literature. He collated and alluded expansively, and historians had to write tremendous numbers of footnotes explaining his allusions in those volumes. I soon found the footnotes much more interesting than the war-time telegrams Mao wrote to his generals. In the several years that all schools ceased classes, I spent days and nights reading those footnotes. That began my life-long love for ancient Chinese writings, one of them Shi Ji, or Records of the Grand Historian, which I got my hands on as soon as the city library – and schools – gingerly reopened.
In that immense flood crisis of antiquity, Shi Ji says, Emperor Shun, one of the first five emperors in China’s history, ordered a capable tribal chief Guen to stop the flood. Guen worked hard for nine years trying everywhere to block water with no success. Frustrated, Emperor Shun used lightning to execute him. (When I told Bob the story, he asked, “Is it history or myth?” A question beyond me. I’d love to learn a method that could distinguish the two.)
Emperor Shun then asked Guen’s son, Yu, to carry on his father’s quest. Yu and his colleague Boyi—who is the earliest known ancestor of the Xu lineage, the lineage of my father—scaled mountains and forded rivers over nine continents for thirteen years. Changing Guen’s “blocking” strategy to “dredging,” Yu eventually brought the grand flood under control. Since then, the study of forceful “blocking” versus accommodative redirection through “dredging” has become a metaphorical necessity for every generation of China’s rulers, in treating social issues as well as floods. Mao, and other Chinese leaders after him, also promoted “dredging” in theory, but not necessarily in practice. The largest engineering of “blocking” in today’s China is none other than the Three Gorges Dam.
It was in that ancient flood the Goddess and Yu crossed paths. Interestingly, in folklore, the Goddess is a heroine trying to save the human race, not at all the chaste lover of written literature that developed much later. She first descended from her heavenly palace because she was bored of immortal life and craved earthly excitement—the typical plot line of Chinese legends involving a goddess. In her descent she ran into Yu, who was struggling with the flood in the Three Gorges. Moved by Yu’s effort, the Goddess stole a book on flood treatment from the heavens—whence the water had originated—and gave it to Yu. Then she stayed in Wushan’s mountains to help navigate ships to safety, until one day she petrified into an eternal presence.
I argued, I ridiculed, no use. They threatened, they wooed, no result. We entered a deadlock.
Someone came in and interrupted us; it was the young man who was with Bob. He whispered something to the skinny man’s ear and it made me concerned. When he was leaving, I asked, “Where’s the foreigner? What’s he doing?”
“The foreigner,” he pursed his lips toward downstairs, “is doing Tai-chi in the courtyard.”
I believe that was what broke the impasse. No one could help but grin, even the choleric man.
Later I asked Bob why he was doing Tai-chi in such a place, at such a time; was he making a scene again? He said he was baffled by his freedom and my detainment: “I was in the dark, didn’t know what they were doing to you. Tai-chi calms me.”
I was finally released under the condition that we cease traveling and return to Chongqing immediately. There were a lot more things I wanted to see along the Three Gorges, but I never got the chance. The next morning, the foreign affair officials made sure that Bob and I boarded an upstream passenger ship. Two mornings later, as our ship approached Chongqing’s Chaotianmen port, Bob asked if I’d consider going to America with him.
“Why don’t you live in China with me?” I asked hopefully.
“You know I love you deeply, but I don’t want to live in China. I love America.”
It was so strange to hear a man say he loved his country when he was not under a mandatory requirement to do so. It was so strange to hear a man say he loved a country that had been the enemy of your own. The words hurt my ears.
The dam took 16 years to complete. By October 2010 the water had risen to the designated 175 meters above sea level. More than a million residents in the flooded areas were relocated to places all over the country; the Goddess Peak Inn where we once stayed was long drowned, along with numerous archaeological and cultural sites. We never went to the Three Gorges again. A recent photo of the Goddess Peak I found on the internet shows a bare, much lower mountaintop with no clouds around it.
Sometimes, when the name “Three Gorges” comes up in conversation or reading, I briefly wonder about that curious-eyed boy who called Bob “big brother Marx.” He should be in his mid-thirties by now. Where has he been relocated to? Did he ever go to college? He would have made an excellent student with his insatiable curiosity.
In May 2011, for the first time the Chinese government admitted that the Three Gorges Dam is causing “urgent problems,” citing pollution, geologic, and migration issues that now require
“disaster prevention.” These problems, and more, had long been warned of by scientists and writers in China, from even before the dam was started. China’s renowned hydropower expert Huang Wanli, for example, once predicted, “if the Three Gorges dam is built, we will eventually be forced to dynamite it.” Huang spent the last twenty years of his life, until he died in 2001, doing everything to stop the project, to no avail.
Though scuffles occasionally occur among tourists and photographers vying for a better view, Maple wouldn’t have been so upset if the man were Chinese. Her mood echoed the Chinese public’s sentiment toward Japanese then. After all, Iris Chang, the author of The Rape of Nanking, had recently taken her own life, while Chinese news reports kept coming in about Japan’s history textbooks teaching school children a distorted view of its WWII invasion of China.
The Japanese tourist, who did not seem to understand Chinese, appeared surprised: my sister’s anger was unmistakable. The man’s hands dropped from the camera hanging on his neck, and he quietly walked away.
The next morning, Maple and I got up at 5 a.m. to try to catch the sunrise. The sun never showed on that chilly winter day. Instead, in the rift between two mountain peaks, immense milky clouds rolled toward us in waves. It was like Goddess Peak all over. I was speechless.
A luxury tour bus arrived with a full load of Japanese tourists before dawn. When daylight broke, I saw a spunky old Japanese man standing beside me, an expensive-looking camera hanging around his neck. As our eyes met, he smiled and said something in Chinese. We chatted. It turned out he was second generation Japan-Chinese, in his mid-70s.
Perhaps because his Chinese ethnicity caught me off guard, I attempted the topic of WWII and criticized Japan’s alleged denial of its historical crime. “Japanese did lots of terrible things to the Chinese during the war,” I said at one point, in a clumsy effort to stress my point.
“People do terrible things everywhere,” he replied in a politely dissenting tone, “Chinese did lots of terrible things to Chinese, too.”
I was pissed off by his claim. I wanted to refute it, and wanted that badly, yet I could not find one good word.