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Insights & Inspirations | Rivers are the Cradle of Civilizations


Xiong Zhaozheng
Famous contemporary poet, writer and historiographer

Just before I came in, the media asked me to say to the camera the popular slogan of Linfen City: “All travels are about leaving home, but in Linfen you can always feel like home.” In fact, the City of Linfen is indeed the ancestral home of all southerners including me. For more than a decade, I have been travelling in the Northern China, and have depicted this region in my poem collection Embracing the Northern China. The collection also includes, of course, many rivers. For my part, my footprints almost cover all great rivers across China.

I remember when I was little, I found that there were so many poems about the Yellow River in the Tang Dynasty and before. “The Ballad of Mulan” among Yuefu poems, “Invitation to Wine” by Li Bai, the poetic genius in the Tang Dynasty, and “A Song of Liangzhou” by Wang Zhihuan, another famous Tang Dynasty poet, are all such examples. When I was a child, I wondered why there were so many poems about the Yellow River, instead of the Yangtze River in my hometown. As I grew up, I finally realized that it was due to the fact that it was in the Yellow River Basin that the development and utilization of the Yellow River and the first glorious chapter of the Chinese nation’s reproduction were initiated.

From the Tang Dynasty on, more and more poets began to write about the Yangtze River. One of the most famous poets was Bai Juyi, a poet from Shanxi Province in the Tang Dynasty, who wrote the well-known “Dreaming of the South”. The increasing emergence of poems about the Yangtze River owed to the fact that many people in the north immigrated southward during historical events such as the “Southward Movement of Han Civilization” after the Jin Dynasties and the three great migrations, which resulted in the southward migration of vigorous cultures of the Central Plain and the Yellow River, thereby driving the development in the south of the Yangtze River. By the time of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, especially after the Tang and Song Dynasties, the south of the Yangtze River was well developed, and the poems of the literati poets in the south of the Yangtze River became generous and solemn. Among these poets who wrote about the Yangtze River, the famous representatives are Su Dongpo, a literary giant in the Northern Song Dynasty, and Yang Shen, a famous literatus in the Ming Dynasty. But the desolation of their poetry was ultimately rooted in the Yellow River.

I thought of these two important rivers, the mighty Yellow River and the tender Yangtze River. The Shanxi–Shaanxi Grand Canyon in the middle reaches of the Yellow River looks like a soaring dragon, which starts from the bay in the main channel of the Yellow River. Each section of the Yellow River and the Yangtze River would surely give birth to a cultural giant after going through twists and turns, such as Sima Qian, the great historian of the Western Han Dynasty, whose hometown was Hancheng, a city loated in the middle reaches of the Yellow River after it passing Longmen Gate; as well as Qu Yuan, the patriotic poet, whose hometown was Zigui along the Yangtze River after it flows through Kuimen Gate.

When I wrote the play Sima Qian, I added a bit of time travel element. There’s a scene where Sima Qian expressed his worship for Qu Yuan. He said “Your Excellency the minister, I worship you so much.” Qu Yuan replied “Who do you worship?” “It’s you.” But a real literatus would never utter such a word as “worship”, instead, he should learn to look to the stars. For my part, I once looked to the starts from the embankment of the Yellow River, the Yellow River Bay, Laoniu Bay, Hukou Waterfall and other iconic places in the middle reaches of the Yellow River. I thought about how the river was utilized by the ancestors of our human being and the ancestors of the Chinese nation, and how it was shaped by nature. I thought a lot and wrote some works. In my historical novel The Great Jin Dynasty, I wrote about the battle in the middle and upper reaches of the Yellow River. In the Tang Dynasty, the then capital Chang’an City (now Xi’an City) was surrounded by eight rivers, all of which were tributaries of the Yellow River. From the five tributaries surrounding Luoyang City to the five tributaries surrounding Kaifeng City, the Yellow River has nurtured so many capitals and witnessed the succession of many dynasties. These dynasties have left us not only their ruins, but also their stories, way of life and splendid culture.

The dialogue between the Yangtze River and the Yellow River did not really begin until after the Ming Dynasty. In a year in the 1070s, Shao Yong, a great scholar of Henan Province, was walking along the Luoyang Bridge with his disciples when he suddenly turned back and chose to stay in the hotel for a day during the Qingming Festival, a great day for sightseeing. In the evening, his disciples anxiously asked him why he suddenly left Luoyang Bridge. Luoyang Bridge here is the very big red bridge that you can see in the famous painting Riverside Scene at Qingming Festival. “What did you hear on the bridge?” Shao Yong asked his disciples. Some said they heard the sound of rocking boats, some heard the sound of horses’ hooves, some heard peddler’s yo-heave-ho. “Did you hear the birds?” he asked. The disciples felt uneasy. He continued “I heard the cuckoo. As we know, cuckoos should have lived in the south of the Huaihe River, however, we can hear them now in Kaifeng City in the north of the Huaihe River. This shows that the climate in the south has gradually affected the Central Plains. The climatic change would bring about the change of geography, grains, plants and so on, which would lead to the change of the world. I can assure you that there would be a prime minister (in feudal China) here in the near future.” Later, this person really appeared, he was Wang Anshi. Shao Yong perceived the omen of the rise and fall of a dynasty and the change of geography and climate from a bird chirp. This perception is more keen than the ability to detect changes in the river. Later, during the tenure of Zhang Juzheng, a prime minister of the Ming Dynasty, the Grand Canal was re-dredged, which crossed the Yangtze River and the Yellow River, and connected the Chaohe River and Baihe River in Beijing at Tongzhou. The Chaobai River, as Beijing calls it today, was actually two rivers at that time. It was this vast river system that connected the Yangtze River, the Yellow River, and canals, including the Chaohe River and the Baihe River, tributaries in Beijing. It can be seen that China’s water conservancy system has begun to improve as early as in the Ming Dynasty. Therefore, the Yellow River Dialogue consists of three aspects, namely the dialogue between the Yellow River and the Yangtze River, the dialogue between man and the Yellow River, and the dialogue between the culture and economy of the Yellow River. Each dialogue may bring us endless treasures and stories.

Last October, I visited the Heihe River. Besides the Yangtze River and the Yellow River, there are many other rivers in China, which are also part of the mother river of the Chinese people, such as the Liaohe River, the Songhua River, the Haihe River, and the Heihe River which I have just mentioned. The Heihe River is the only river that flows into the heart of the desert and disappears. The part of the river in the desert is called Juyan Lake. The scenery of Juyan Lake and Hehei River can also be found in certain famous poem, such as “On Mission to the Frontier” by Wang Wei of Tang Dynasty. As you walk through these rivers one by one, you will experience different civilizations, different ways of life and different ethnic customs. So Chinese culture is complex, magnificent, magical and rich, which does not only include the culture of the Han people, whose territory is mainly limited to the Central Plains. Covering the Great Wall and beyond, China is a place where farming people are the majority and nomads the minority. Later, “China” becomes a blend of three cultures, namely, the marine culture, the farming culture and the nomadic culture. And the rivers that gave birth to the three cultures are completely different. You may find, for example, that the culture along the rivers on the prairie, such as the Argun River, the Xar Moron River and the Mo’ergele River, are quite different from that along the Pearl River and the Lijiang River, and the cultures along the rivers of the south, the rivers of the Central Plains, and the rivers of the north are also entirely different from each other. But no single river can replace the Yellow River in the Chinese nation.

It’s hard to summarize the traits of the Yellow River and the Yangtze River in a few words. But we can compare the Yellow River to a dragon and the Yangtze River to a phoenix. In traditional Chinese culture, the dragon and phoenix are considered a perfect couple, which symbolizes the blend of the northern and southern cultures and the integration of different forms of ethnic groups. Therefore, the exploration of the Yellow River Dialogue is a long-lasting process, which will be beneficial to the culture. Thank you.