Body-surfing with the Great Yu
Auspicious omens for the Year of the Tiger
The flow is strong this year. A ritual libation on New Years Eve (Western calendar) launched me on a path to the headwaters of Chinese history, to the myth and legend of the Great Yu, tamer of the flood, first king of the Xia Dynasty.
The Great Yu, it is said, encouraged dredging rivers and canal building and other techniques that helped water get where it wanted to go, a philosophy of flood control sometimes styled as “Daoist” in opposition to a “Confucian” impose-man’s-will-on-nature-with-dikes-and-dams strategy. Since The Cleaver and the Butterfly is all about submitting to the necessary and irresistible seduction of the flow, it feels right and appropriate, on this first day of the Year of the Water Tiger (Lunar calendar), to pay tribute to the ur-hydraulic engineer credited with bequeathing lasting prosperity to the people.
But there is no actual proof that Yu existed. We have no written records dating back to the Xia, the first of the “sandai” (“three dynasties”: Xia, Shang, Zhou) that bridged the gap between Neolithic China and the commencement of the imperial era. While there is convincing archaeological evidence associating the Xia with the “Erlitou culture,” Yu’s historical reality remains at present unknowable.
That doesn’t stop Li Min, a professor of archaeology at UCLA, from proposing a fascinating hypothesis in his 2018 masterwork, “Social Memory and State Formation in Early China.” Li Min speculates that the stories about Yu that ended up being recorded in Zhou-era texts are really the remnants of a set of religious beliefs common to widely dispersed communities that made up the “Longshan culture” -- China’s last major pre-Bronze age Neolithic society.
Li Min argues that foundational aspects of this prehistoric religion were likely forged in response to catastrophic tectonic and climate-related events that wrought havoc on one of the most advanced Neolithic societies prior to the Longshan and that continued imperiling Neolithic communities right up to the establishment of the Xia. Facing existential environmental challenges, Longshan society invented culture heroes to worship as saviors. Flood tamers were in high demand.
Readers of this newsletter will be hearing a lot more about Li Min’s larger arguments in the weeks to come, but for now, I’d like to zero in on one small part of his much larger story: his consideration of the claim, associated with several sites located in what is now the province of Sichuan, that the Great Yu was born in the mountains west of the Chengdu plain.
How could this be? As legend has it, Yu tamed the Yellow River that coursed through the great Central Plains, the land of the Xia, Zhou and Shang. Sichuan, a borderland of wild rivers that fed the Yangzi River, was way out on the periphery, far distant from the birthplace of classic Chinese civilization. What right does Sichuan have to claim the legacy of Yu?
Except, as Chinese archaeologists have known ever since the astonishing discoveries at Sanxingdui, there has been ample proof for decades that the region now known as Sichuan featured its own indigenous Bronze Age civilization. There is indisputable evidence that the people who lived on the Chengdu plain in the second millennium BC engaged in exchanges of goods with the Erlitou culture, and according to Li Min, they were also connected to the even earlier Longshan culture.
An archaeological investigation of deep history draws our attention to the close-knit religious and social network that linked the Sichuan Basin, the western highlands, and the loess highlands in the late third and through the second millennium BCE. More than 1,000 kilometers southwest of the major highland Longshan centers, the ritual dedication features at Sanxingdui and Jinsha revealed extensive use of the dark jade scepters as well as Liangzhu and Longshan style jade cong cylinders. The highland memory communities in Sichuan had apparently kept their prehistoric religious tradition alive for nearly a thousand years.
The societies that grew up on the volatile banks of the Yellow River (a. k. a. “China’s Sorrow,”) weren’t the only ones with reason to pray for relief from catastrophic flooding.
The topographic characteristics and geological vulnerability of the Minshan mountain range on the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau help explain the purpose of these ritual dedications from the communities inhabiting the alluvial fan of the Min River. All three places claiming to be Yu’s legendary birthplace, i.e. Wenchuan, Beichuan, and Qingchuan, were located along the Longmenshan fault along the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau, where the tectonic movement of the plateau against the Eurasian plate resulted in a high degree of stress accumulation. Motion along this fault was responsible for the uplift of the Minshan mountain range, where elevations rise from circa 600 meters on the western edge of the Sichuan Basin to peaks exceeding 6,500 meters over a horizontal distance of less than 50 kilometers. As earthquakes strike, major landslides in steep valleys in the Minshan mountain range would block river channels and create quake lakes, sometimes with natural dams up to 100 meters high. These suspended lakes would eventually crumble under the weight of an increasing water table and unleash a massive volume of floodwater on communities of the Chengdu Plain downstream. On the Chengdu Plain, all prehistoric walled enclosures were oriented along the direction of the stream flow, indicating that protecting their occupants from flood threats was the primary purpose of their wall construction.
The illustration pictured above jolted me. Just about three years ago I was standing at its central point -- where the Min river emerges from the mountains and starts to spread its “alluvial fan.” I was there to marvel at the famous Dujiangyan water control system, the incredible flood control and irrigation operation built by Li Bing in the third century BC and remaining in constant operation ever since. We may not ever know if Yu existed, much less whether he was a Qiang tribesman born in the Min mountain range, but it is no accident legends of Yu share a geographical proximity to Dujiangyan. Where mountains, rivers, and plain met proved the crucial pressure point. Li Bing’s taming of the Min unlocked the prosperity of the Chengdu plain. In a very pragmatic way, he was Yu made flesh.
Li Bing’s own guiding motto: “Dig the channels deep, keep the dikes low” is as pithy a distillation of Daoist hydraulic engineering principles as one could want. (And could there be a more terrifying example of the inherent fragility of over-reliance on dams and dikes than a “quake lake” poised to explode? When the levee breaks...)
So. I have been to the Min river, and I have witnessed its flow. In doing so I connected myself to an intersection of humanity and nature dating back at least 5000 years, an intersection that is a primal lesson in how to coexist and prosper via smart, environmentally sensitive engineering. The bounty of the Sichuan plain is enjoyed now all over the world. In my refrigerator today I have jars of doubanjiang and pickled mustard greens whose ingredients were grown on the land watered by that flow. When I cook Sichuan, I am giving tribute to the memory of Yu, the reality of Li Bing, and the power of the water that rushes down from the Tibetan Plateau.
I can feel that water all around me. In my evenings I continue to read the Sichuanese writer Li Jieren’s “River Trilogy” -- Ripple on Stagnant Water, Before the Storm, and The Great Wave, -- a chronicle whose titles alone are testament to how fundamental flow -- or the lack of it -- are to telling the story of Sichuan. In my mornings I sit in front of my computer and try to find ways to channel that flow through my finger tips. Where do the words want to go?
The way of the flow is mysterious, but it seems to be getting easier, or maybe the potency of its grasp is getting stronger. One month ago, a chance comment on a Facebook Group devoted to Sinology led me to Li Min’s book. That in turn, precipitated an alluvial fan of further research and possible story lines that will keep me occupied for months. I am tantalized by the possibility that like the Min, which eventually drains out of the Chengdu plain and into the Yangzi, my wanderings will come together in the form of their own mighty and coherent river. Is this is all going somewhere? Or is that absolutely the wrong way to think about it? Haven’t I already figured out that there is no endpoint, that there is only the journey?
In any case, I am exhilarated. And not just because today marks the beginning of the Year of the Water Tiger, which is the year I was born, sixty years ago. I am about to mark the momentous completion of the sixty-year Chinese zodiac cycle. There can be no denying it: this is my year.
There will be much feasting.
But birthdays are just a numbers game. There are deeper wellsprings fueling my glee. As I feel the current getting stronger, my willingness to submit to it grows and my ability to channel it surges. I feel like Zhuangzi’s swimmer, body surfing effortlessly in the white water. No harm can possibly come of this.
Happy Year of the Tiger, everyone.