River Deep, Mountain High
Before the Deluge by Deirdre Chetham and Tibet: The Secret Continent by Michel Peissel
The Washington Post Book World
February 9, 2003
Passing through the city of Wushan on one of her many recent visits to the Three Gorges region of China's storied Yangtze river, Deirdre Chetham sat for a spell with an extended family, chatted, watched TV and drank tea with them. The family enjoyed her company so much that they invited her back the next time she came to town. And immediately after proffering the invitation, the house matriarch corrected herself. "But we'll all be gone," she said. "You won't be able to find us."
Gone, that is, to higher ground. Chetham's hosts -- plus about 1.2 million of their compatriots -- are being uprooted to make way for the controversial Three Gorges Dam, a massive (1.45 mile-long), costly (about $24.6 billion) and mind-bogglingly disruptive enterprise scheduled for completion in 2009. When all is said and done, Chetham writes, the project will submerge "at least thirteen cities, 140 towns, 1,350 villages, 657 factories, and approximately 74,000 acres of cultivated land under about 300 feet of water." With statistics like that, one hopes that the Chinese government, the project's official sponsor, knows what it's saying when it claims the benefits will outweigh the costs.
Many people, of course, believe that the government does not. The slow-motion destruction of the Yangtze river towns, the environmental consequences of stopping up one of the world's longest rivers and questions about the dam's viability have preoccupied activists both in and out of China for years. Writers such as Simon Winchester and Peter Hessler have penned pre-mortem eulogies to the gorges of the Chang Jiang, or "Long River," as the Chinese call the Yangtze. And while Chetham's academic-flavored prose (she directs Harvard University's Fairbank Center for East Asian Research and the university's Asia Center) doesn't begin to stack up to her predecessors' for sheer readability, she has nevertheless written a timely study of a condemned place.
And a subtle indictment of the dam. Chetham notes that cracks have been detected in the dam as recently as 2002 and points out the spotty dam-building record of the People's Republic. She also goes to ample length to elucidate various Chinese officials' reservations about the project, as well as the misgivings of activists like Dai Qing, the journalist imprisoned in 1989 for speaking out against the project. Chetham herself is no polemicist, though, and her book stands as a quiet epitaph to a river and region that she loves.
Still, she gamely lays out the expected benefits of the project: that the dam will stanch flooding on the Yangtze and generate much-needed electricity (10 percent of China's total power by 2009.) But in the end, her work's textbook feel makes it useful as an à la carte reference -- on Yangtze myths, sociology, politics, economics -- that doesn't quite add up to a satisfying literary meal.
In any case, this and other Yangtze books -- whether celebratory or sad -- will soon be yesterday's news. By last September, about 70 percent of the concrete for the dam's 60-story-high wall had been poured. The first big water increase is scheduled for early summer 2003, by which time most of the river towns will be dismantled. As Chetham writes, "Inevitably, the dam wins out."
The fatalism of Three Gorges residents vis à vis the dam ("Whatever does happen . . . everyone agrees that it will be out of their control") might strike a note of sympathy in Tibet, the subject of a text-and-photo valentine by French explorer extraordinaire Michel Peissel. After all, "the roof of the world" has been living under the Chinese boot for decades: Beijing continues to spurn the exiled Dalai Lama and shows zero signs of permitting his return -- let alone that of Tibetan independence. On that point, Peissel himself is optimistic -- he suggests that the loss of self-governance is "temporary" -- but to approach his book as a political treatise is to miss the point. It is instead an emphatic, loving tribute to a land and people that have enchanted the author for 40 years.
Beautifully illustrated with 250 photographs, Peissel's book displays an inviting tableau of brilliant, gold-leafed Tibetan Buddhist temple architecture and sculpture; diverse Himalayan animal and plant life (including the dremo, or Tibetan grizzly); and the sunburned faces of industrious workers, studious monks and craggy nomads. The landscape shots, as well, are magnificent: The towering, snow-capped mountains bear testament to Tibet's staggering altitude, and the photos of the Changtang, Tibet's northern plains, linger with the viewer. The accompanying text is erudite but accessible, and amounts to a splendid introduction to a distinct culture.
Which is not to say that the author doesn't get a bit tendentious. "Tibet is not like any other land," Peissel writes. "It is more than a country, it is a complex and unique civilization, a world apart with its own language and dialects, a vast literature and sophisticated customs." Time and again he refers to "Greater Tibet," the one-time "single, great nation" encompassing parts of India, China, Nepal, Bhutan and Pakistan. That nation, of course, is long gone, and what we are left with today is the Tibetan Autonomous Region, as the Chinese renamed it. Citing the now-independent former Soviet republics of Central Asia, Peissel concludes by claiming that there is "hope yet for Tibet" -- hope, in other words, that the Chinese will pack up and leave. Perhaps. But sentimentality about tradition and culture would appear to be the last thing on Beijing's mind these days. Just ask a Yangtze boatman.