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May 8, 2007

The River at the Center of the World

(A journey up the Yangtze and back)
Simon Winchester – ISBN – 9780312423377

Well researched and well written, as are all of Winchester’s books, I didn’t like it as well as Krakatoa. The narrative follows his trip from the mouth of the river nearly to its headwaters, with sketches and discussions of the towns, cities, natural and geological interstices along the way.

As with geologic considerations in Krakatoa, he explains why the Yangtze happens to drain as it does onto coastal China, instead of the Mekong Delta, and how important is that fact to the entire history of China. Indeed, his conjecture is that China would not be the China we know if it were not for the Yangtze.

Coursing West to East thru the entire breadth of China, falling from over 16,000 feet (in Tibet) to sea level, and navigable for almost half of its nearly 4000 mile length, it hosts about one twelfth of the world’s population, and half of China’s. These people live along the banks and cliffs which border it or within its 695 thousand square mile watershed. Five of her major cities are on or near the river.

It is the third largest/longest river in the world (Nile longer; Amazon greater watershed and volume) and delivers 244 cubic miles of water into the China Sea annually, along with 500 million tons of alluvium. A “planet of water,” and debris which adds 25 meters of tillable soil annually to its mouth as it gradually extends itself to the East. Even now, after centuries of exploration, there are regular arguments about which of the 300 tributaries actually begins this mighty river.

Along his course of travel Winchester reviews the history and development of the river and its people, discussing the varietal cultures and behaviors which characterize the half-billion people who depend upon the Yangtze in one way or another (excluding those of us who are unknowingly served by it.) Myriad anecdotes add interest to the account. In the remote reaches are village cultures of ancient origin, while cities are increasingly affluent and progressive . . . Shanghai being the largest, wealthiest and most sophisticated, and likely to replace Hong Kong in the near term as the premier commercial city in China; the former “China’s New York” and the latter her New Orleans.

A thousand vessels pass in and out daily, and an enormous trade volume is managed thereby. Ships from tiny junks and sampans to massive seagoing vessels and cargo container ships ply this dangerous area with numerous groundings and shipwrecks annually, despite the best efforts of skilled pilots. Hundreds of people die each year and are carried out to sea. Catastrophic floods occur nearly every decade, killing thousands with massive proper despoliation. Industrialization but adds to the risk.

The enormous Three Gorges dam now under construction (with its 610 ft. head and 1.3 mile breadth, is estimated to cost in excess of $36 billion) is described in detail, along with the preposterous cost of the electricity which will be generated. He posits that it is more of an exercise in Chinese arrogance than it is of value (one of the problems with dictatorship—and not all that dissimilar to Aswan, except for the relatively diminutive cost of Aswan.) Millions of people will be displaced and archaeological sites submerged in a vain and likely futile attempt to “permanently control” the river, create electricity and prove to the world that China is a world-class power. While disasters occur far too frequently it is unclear that the dam will much change that.

Overall it is a quite fascinating discussion of the history of China, ancient to present, and its progressive commercialization as she emerges as a world power; as well the problems attendant--predictable and unpredictable. The book does offer food for thought and analysis.

Recommended, if not a rave review.

Posted by respeto at May 8, 2007 1:45 PM