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Sunday, 3 August 2014

on uprooting and transplanting….

Relief sculpture in the Three Gorges Dam Museum, Chongqing, China.

When I studied 20th century art in university, I was introduced to Socialist Realism, a style of art that developed in the newly-communist Soviet Union in the 20s and 30s. It was an art movement that glorified the common people; that exalted and ennobled the labourer and the work he/she did. It was narrative and figurative and literal, if not necessarily truthful. It was art in the service of the state's ideology. It was clear and unmitigated propaganda. 


Having recently returned from a trip to China, I have discovered that Socialist Realism is not dead. The recent construction of the Three Gorges Dam has created new opportunities for it.

Case in point: the relief sculpture above, one of many in the Three Gorges Dam Museum in Chongqing and at the dam site itself. It shows some of the 1.3 million people who were forced to leave their homes and their histories, their lands and their fruit trees, their lives and their livelihoods -- in order to promote The Greater Good. In order that the 1.35 billion people of China could have reliable and accessible sources of power. In order to minimize dependence on coal-based power plants; in order to improve the air quality. In order to control the flooding of the Yangtze River, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people in the past century. In order to make the river more navigable; to support shipping, trade and development.

The people in the sculpture all look proud; even heroic. Clutching their possessions and their family members, they march bravely into their new lives. The centre of attention is a young family; a man holding a sapling and a woman holding a baby. The image is one of transplanting. Of new beginnings. 

Except for the older man in the lower right corner. He is the only figure who is kneeling, close to the ground. His face is downturned, shrouded in shadow. He is clutching a small pile of dirt, the land he is leaving behind. His story is one of loss.

This is the narrative we heard from all of our tour guides along the Yangtze River. (Tourism as Socialist Realism.) That the young were happy to move, often to bigger cities and almost always to bigger homes. They were happy to seize the opportunities offered to them in the process of relocation.

But for the old, it was a difficult and bitter process. More a dislocation than a relocation. More an uprooting than a transplanting. Their new homes came with no farmable land and therefore no sources of income. In their new locations, they were separated from the friends and families they had known for generations; from their communities and from the graves of their ancestors and their loved ones.


Clockwise from top left: Sampan tour of the Shennong Stream,
a tributary of the Yangtze River in China. The boatsmen on their commute
home at the end of the day. The captain of one of the boats.
Sophie, our river guide. All of the people who live in this area
have been relocated due to the construction of the Three Gorges Dam.  

Along the Shennong Stream, a tributary of the Yangtze River, the men have worked as boatsmen for as long as anybody seems to be able to remember. We took a sampan tour there, and Sophie, a beautiful young Ba woman who was our river guide, pointed out to us that there were no rowers there under the age of 30. The young men have all moved to the cities. One of the rowers we met was 88 years old. Sophie speculated that in 50 to 60 years, there would be nobody living on the Shennong anymore.

Perhaps this would have happened even without the Three Gorges Dam.


This final picture is of Fengdu City, on the Yangtze. The new city is across the river. The remains of the highest reaches of the old city can be seen on the floodplain in the foreground. The view, perhaps ironically, is from Fengdu Ghost City -- a two-thousand-year-old temple believed to be a representation of hell and the site of judgement in the afterlife.

Fengdu, China -- the new city across the Yangtze River,
the old city in the foreground. In the very near foreground,
you see a piece of the architecture of the Fengdu Ghost City.

Statistics in this post come from the following sources:


For more thoughts on the Three Gorges Dam, click here.

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