The River at the Center of the World — A Journey up the Yangtze and Back in Chinese Time. That’s the name of a strange and at times magical book by Simon Winchester that I recently finished. Magical, but not fictional.
It is a sort-of travelogue of Winchester’s trip along the Yangtze River from the point where it veers northward in Yunnan to where it empties out into the East China Sea at Shanghai. But it is much more than that. The book is rich with history of the cities and peoples its author encounters on the way, and of China in general. As one reviewer writes, “It is history in the round, political and economic, liberally laced with archaeology, anthropology, sociology and geology.”
The greatest moment of the book takes place on the very first page of its preface, where Winchester explains the miracle of the river’s course, in language that can only be described as mesmerizing. The point he makes here is incredible: that thanks to a freakish cluster of limestone mountains, a river roaring southwards suddenly swerves in exactly the opposite direction and then veers eastward, dividing China in two and altering for all time the destiny of Asia.
About a thousand miles downstream from the Yangtze’s source — after it has performed nearly a quarter of its journey from the mountains to the sea — the river executes a most remarkable hairpin bend. Within the space of a few hundred yards, a river that for hundreds of miles has been pouring relentlessly and indisputably southward slams head-on into a massif of limestone, ricochets and canonnades off it and then promptly thunders headlong back up to the north.
The sheer sharpness of the turn is what is so peculiarly dramatic about it — the sudden whirl-on-a-sixpence, turn-on-a-dime, now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t kind of a back flip, a riparian volte-facie of epic dimensions. It is so dramatically obvious that it shows up on even the smallest-scale maps….it shows up as a strange notch, a kink, a curious indentation in the passage of great waters….what Shigu should be remembered for is the miracle of geography that took place there, and that allowed China to be watered by and divided by and unified by the most important river in the world
Without this little crook, this geological freak, the Yangtze would have “dribbled lazily and insignificantly” into the Gulf of Tonkin. Go take a look at a map (see below); it’s right there. I had never known of this phenomenon before, and it totally captured my imagination (as you can probably yell).
Winchester is a trained geologist and editor of Conde Nast, a spinner of yarns and a good enough writer to conjure up with words the full force and fury of the world’s most treacherous river and make us feel that we are right there with him.
It isn’t just the river. He takes us from city to city along the journey, describing his often hilarious, always fascinating encounters with a host of characters too strange to be fictional.
He wrote the book in 1996, a few years before the world’s hugest dam would block the Yangtze’s path and flood the Three Gorges, affecting the lives of hundreds of millions and altering the environment on a scale that can scarcely be imagined. Here Winchester’s expertise as a geologist comes into play as he explains just how dangerous, just how idiotic the Three Gorges Dam is. Suffice it to say that he views it as nothing less than a calamity, one for which the Chinese in the future will pay dearly.
What I especially appreciated is how every page reflects Wincherster’s fascination with what he calls “the delicious strangeness of China.” This is something I relate to deeply, and the book brought back all of my own amazements, surprises, shocks and curiosities. If I hadn’t lived there myself, I would have thought some of these stories were made up, they are so preposterous.
It’s not perfect, and it’s quite long at more than 400 pages. But I was definitely spellbound. It’s just too bad that Winchester gives us the most dramatic part of the story — the kink of the river at Shigu — right on the first page, after which nearly everything else can only be an anti-climax.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.