On the Yangtze: a review of Simon Winchester’s The River at the Centre of the World

IMG_2151I returned to this book after a recent work trip to China and Malaysia, and without any question or doubt, got much more out of this book on my second reading because of having some recognisable points of reference to Winchester’s narrative, notably in having visited Shanghai and Ningbo. Having enjoyed the book the first time round, I also benefited from reading the book with a good map of China nearby as for all the great narrative, better maps are sorely needed, certainly in my old, battered 1996 paperback edition of The River at the Centre of the World.

This book, first published in 1996, needs to be introduced by quoting its full title; Winchester called it ‘The River at the Centre of the World. A Journey up the Yangtze, and back in Chinese time’, which clearly establishes the dual narrative focus of this book. On the one hand, Winchester, geologist and writer for such publications as the National Geographic, follows the course of the Yangtze River upstream, by travelling from the river delta at Shanghai westwards towards its headwaters on the Tibetan plateau, in an epic 3,900 mile journey largely undertaken by boat. OK, occasionally there are sections travelled by road or by plane, but all in all, Winchester follows the course of the river by boat, travelling against the course of the river and away from the big cities of the Eastern seaboard towards the comparative isolation of Tibet.

The second strand of the book seeks to capture a snapshot of China at the end of the Twentieth Century (remember that the book was originally published 18 years ago) and Winchester sets out on an explanation of where China was then, and where he thinks the country might be going, by picking out key moments of the Middle Kingdom’s history as he moves along- and backwards in time- along the river. So, a typical chapter might outline some observations about travelling on the river, before making land at a key site, for example Shanghai or Wuhan. Winchester will then spend a few days in the city, looking for remnants of the city’s past, before embarking on the river again and moving westwards and backwards. Its a beautiful and elegant narrative conceit that allows the author to stop at key moments of China’s Twentieth-Century History, looking at the Cultural Revolution, the Great Swim, Tea, The Treaty of Nanjing to name just a few of the themes that are woven through the narrative. He also introduces a few Western river pioneers along the way, such as Cornell Plant and Joseph Rock, demonstrating the very deep interest the Yangtze has held for visitors to China for a long time.

And there is a third strand that takes its cue from Winchester’s theme of history being expressed through the people who occupy the land, and this final strand looks at the changing relationship between the Chinese and the land and the environment of the Middle Kingdom. Winchester suggests that one of the characteristics of China has long been a sensitive, functional and also aesthetic relationship with the country, its rivers, its gorges, and that what is so striking about much of more modern China is ugliness, large-scale building, but building at a scale and pace hitherto not seen and that no longer maps on to the landscape but instead dominates and alters the very context of a settlement, often with surprising disregard for what has gone before. Winchester questions the aethetics of modernity and laments much that has been lost. In particular, he speaks of the fear of a loss of memory if the markers of history, its buildings and ultimately the very people who remember, change and disappear. Cue- the debates surrounding the building of the Three Gorges Dam. Winchester’s book predates the completion of the building of the Dam, which is largely complete now, and has been for a couple of years as it started operating in phases (hence the date for when the Dam opened will vary on what source one consults). The issues Winchester raises- ecological concerns, effectiveness of hydroelectric hyper dams, the consequences of mass displacement of population (in the case of the Three Gorges Dam, upwards of 1.3 million people have been displaced. The long-term effects reman to be seen but the Dam remains as controversial as ever, as just a quick look at some of the articles below shows:

Jim Yardley, ‘Chinese Dam Projects Criticized for their human costs’, The New York Times, 19 November, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/19/world/asia/19dam.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

David Biello, ‘Damming the Yangtze:Are a ew big hydropower projects better than a lot of small ones?’, Scientific American, 13 October 2009,  http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/damming-the-yangtze/

Jonathan Watts,’Chinese engineers propose world’s biggest hydro-electric project in Tibet’,  The Guardian, 24 May 2010, http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2010/may/24/chinese-hydroengineers-propose-tibet-dam

Jonathan Watts, ‘China warns of ‘urgent problems’ facing Three Gorges Dam’, The Guardian, 20 May 2011, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/may/20/three-gorges-dam-china-warning

‘The Politics of dam building: opening the flood gates’. The Economist, 21 September, 2013, http://www.economist.com/news/china/21586538-great-rivers-china-are-being-dammed-regardless-consequences-opening-floodgates

Charlton Lewis, ‘China’s Dam Boom is an assault on its great rivers’, The Guardian, 4 November 2013 , http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/nov/04/china-dam-hydropower-boom-rivers

For me, part of the enduring appeal of Winchester’s book lies in the fact that it is an amazing (factual) adventure story beautifully told. Travelling 3,900 miles along a river is a riveting tale at the best of times, but if this is a story told by a consummate wordsmith whose compassion and curiosity breathe life into every page, then a merely compelling story becomes a page turner. My very limited first-hand experience of visiting China on two separate occasions- however briefly-  has made me all the more curious about a country whose history fascinates me and whose culture I only partially understand, so Winchester  for me is an effective guide at this stage of my attempts to learn more. He’s accessible and readable, and this won’t be the last of his books I read.



One thought on “On the Yangtze: a review of Simon Winchester’s The River at the Centre of the World

  1. Pingback: Isabella Bird Bishop’s The Yangtze Valley and Beyond | renaissanceissues

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