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Upriver, Downmarket: Luzhou, Sichuan, China

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.
(Photo: Zhang Kechun)

(Photo: Zhang Kechun)

Sichuan province is one of the most agriculturally abundant regions in China, known to locals as “heaven’s storehouse.” The third longest river in the world, the Yangtze stretches 3,900 miles across China, from the glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau through Luzhou to its mouth on the East China Sea near Shanghai. “If you haven’t traveled up the great Yangtze, you haven’t been anywhere,” a Chinese saying goes.

  • Mao Zedong went for a swim in the Yangtze in the summer of 1966, during nationwide famine and unrest. Communist Party propagandists said he went nearly 10 miles in 65 minutes, a world record. He was 72. Riots broke out in the town by the bridge where he started, in a province neighboring Sichuan, so the military intervened and leveled the place.
  • Deng Xiaoping, China’s leader in 1978 when market-oriented reforms began altering the country’s economy and kickstarted decades of GDP and income growth, once said: “We permit some people and some regions to become prosperous first, for the purpose of achieving common prosperity faster.” A famous misquoting of Deng: “To get rich is glorious.”
  • A survey found that the top five percent accounted for 23 percent of total household income in China in 2012. In 2011, the average per capita income for rural regions like Sichuan was $1,123; it was $3,862 in urban areas.
  • For centuries, folding chairs were considered a luxury in China; emperors, judges, and landowners had servants transport the chairs on journeys. Folding chairs are commonly found as decorative miniature pottery in ancient tombs, often conferring status on the deceased beyond what they had achieved in life.
  • A 2010 study found that consuming tea was linked with better cognitive performance in older, community-living Chinese adults. (Chinese proverb: “Better to be deprived of food for three days than tea for one.”) China consumes more tea than any other country in the world.
  • The Three Gorges Dam, upriver from Luzhou, is the largest dam in the world and supplies water to the largest hydroelectric plant in the world. To produce as much electricity as Three Gorges does annually, a coal-fired power plant would have to burn 49 million tons of coal, and emit at least 100 million tons of carbon dioxide.
  • The idea for a dam in the Three Gorges area—a stretch of lush, narrow cliffs abutting the Yangtze—was first proposed in 1919. In the 1940s, American engineers put together some of the first mock-ups. The dam’s 18-year construction, which concluded in 2012, involved flooding 13 cities and 140 towns, and re-locating some 1.3 million people. China’s ruling State Council admitted in 2011 that “urgent problems must be resolved” to prevent social upheaval and ecological disaster.
  • Another Chinese saying goes, “Point at the mulberry and abuse the pagoda tree.” Chinese companies and banks are involved in constructing an estimated 330 dams in dozens of Asian and African countries, many of them modeled after the Three Gorges.
  • The Yangtze River is home to several endemic and endangered species, including the Chinese alligator; the finless porpoise; the Chinese paddlefish; the (probably extinct) Yangtze River dolphin, or baiji; and the Yangtze sturgeon.
  • When thinking about endangered species in Chinese rivers, note that a study published earlier this year, which the Guardian described as “deliberately conservative,” estimated that global mammal extinction rates have been 55 times higher than normal since 1900. Contemporary extinction rates across mammals and other vertebrates appear to be higher than at any time since the dinosaur kill-off 65 million years ago.

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