Nonfiction Contest Winner*

*”Clouds and Rain over Three Gorges” was listed as a Notable essay in the Best American Essays of 2015

Xujun Eberlein

Clouds and Rain over Three Gorges 

The man I’m now married to was a foreigner in 1987, when he and I took a heretical hike along the Yangtze. We went to the mountains of Wushan through which the renowned Three Gorges are carved. According to a Tang Dynasty poem,Water is hardly water after experiencing oceans / Clouds are no longer clouds apart from Wushan’s mountains. Until a dam—said to be the world’s largest—cut the Yangtze into two halves at the waist, those damned words were so poignant that they could make the stoic sentimental. As rumors of the Three Gorges Dam gathered momentum, I increasingly worried its construction might invalidate the clouds before I saw them with my own eyes. I was a graduate student living in my birthplace of Chongqing at the time. Bob, a 28-year-old visiting American scholar, had cycled across China to see me, only to be expelled by my good old compliant father, who feared it was illegal for a Chinese family to host a foreign visitor. When in doubt, kick out. For love, I chose to go with Bob, and on one August evening the two of us found ourselves at an uncharted point in Wushan’s mountains, unwary of the drama ahead.

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?”

Hours earlier in the hiking, I had roughly translated for Bob a 1956 Mao poem that ends with these lines:

     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.

The village the boy led us to had stone steps running up between some dirt-walled single-story houses, all built into the hill.  Above them stood the “Goddess Peak Inn,” the only two-story wooden house.  The middle-aged innkeeper, with clothes cleaner than those of the farmers,