River at the Center of the World: A Journey Up the Yangtze, and Back in Chinese Time
It is the symbolic heart of China. Rising in the mountains of the Tibetan border, it pierces 3,900 miles of rugged country before debouching into the oily swells of the East China Sea. Its path embraces every geographic feature and almost every ethnic group, and its banks are home to both scenic splendor and foul industrial pollution. Connecting China’s heartland cities with that volatile coastal giant Shanghai, it has also historically connected China to the outside world through its nearly one thousand miles of navigable waters. And to travel up those waters is to travel back in history, to sense the soul of China. Long off-limits to foreigners, the far reaches of the Yangtze are still off-limits to most tourists and travelers simply by dint of the difficulty in traversing the terrain. But, for Simon Winchester, traveling the length of this mighty river was a lifelong dream and, together with a Chinese companion, he set out to do just that. The result is this unforgettable portrait of China. Endlessly curious, urbane, witty, and knowledgeable, Winchester introduces us to a world we might otherwise have missed. To follow him on his adventures up the Yangtze is to experience the essence of China - to absorb its flavors as well as learn its history and politics, to feel its geography and climate as well as engage in its culture, and to meet up en route with uncommon people in remote and almost inaccessible places. This is travel writing at its best: lively and informative, amusing and thoroughly engaging. (from book cover)
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geography, history, and politics as viewed from the perspective of the Yangtze
This particular book piqued my interest for several reasons: I have a great appreciation and respect for water in general, rivers in particular. This description of a 1995 Yangtze trip did not disappoint. Simon Winchester takes his readers through a historical, geographical, political and geological analysis of China as we accompany him from the river's mouth to its headwaters.Winchester notes that the Yangtze "river-waist" divides China in two, the heart and mind of the country to the north, with the country's muscles and sinews to the south. One twelfth of the world's population lives in the valley of the third longest river on the planet.
The Yangtze is connected to Chinese origin stories and is a part of the national psyche. This is contrasted to how we in the U.S. view the Mississippi. Yes, the Mississippi does cut through the middle of the country but it is not a part of our national spirit like the Yangtze. We are treated to a story of how Mao swam the river to unequivocally demonstrate his strength to the nation. As of 1995, his countrymen and women continued to replicate the feat.
This trip occurred before the dam at the Three River Gorge. Winchester describes regular devastating floods with crests as high as 275 feet above normal. The steep gorges along the river and tidal flows to the east create a "typical" annual differential of 70 feet during the summer season when a combination of snow melt and rain swell the waters. The regular flooding is taken as a fact of life for those who live in the area. It is noted that the loss of life due to regular flooding is probably significantly underestimated. I wonder what change the dam has created for the flooding situation.
The river, its eddies, falls and whirlpools were attentively described. When Winchester described the brown froth near the mouth of the river, I wasn't certain whether the river was brown from pollution, silt, or some combination of the two. When he described impassable runs, falls and challenges along the river, I couldn't wait to see some of them for myself. As a former river canoe guide, I enjoyed the description of some stretches of water that I would choose to appreciate from the banks rather than attempt to paddle.
Almost as interesting as the description of the river was Winchester's description of his jeep ride to the headwaters. Not only the water but the land around the water present major challenges for travel. I am deeply grateful to Winchester for his descriptive prose as he shared his beloved Yangtze.
There are several highlights. First, on a personal level, the description of the water and its movement held me with every rapid and eddy. Second, this book was deeply researched - river heights and the challenges to neighboring communities was detailed at various locations along the way (not EVERY location saw a 275' crest). Winchester used the frequent and devastating floods to describe a stoicism that Chinese have to natural disasters.
While my personal interest in this book was on the water itself, what is more likely to influence my teaching is an understanding of the north/south dynamics within China.