China Geography

The Romance of the Three Gorges

China Geography

The Three Gorges of the Yangtze (or Yangzi) River are well known because of the controversial construction of the huge dam. The dam necessitated the relocation of about a million people, which was severely criticised in the West. The dam is now fully operational and the many benefits include flood control, allowing ocean sized vessels to reach Chongqing to power the development of the whole south-west of China and also the generation of clean electricity, equivalent to 18 nuclear power stations. The author toured the 'Three Gorges' area in May 2002 and these aspects were discussed in an earlier edition of China Eye, Number 10, Summer 2006.
This present article by Walter Fung relates some of the myths, legends and historical events associated with this section of the river.
It was first printed in SACU's China Eye magazine 2010.

The Heroes of the Three Kingdoms

The Three Gorges region has inspired poets, writers and painters over the centuries. The Yangtze River has been the scene of historic deeds as well as mythological ones. One of the most famous books in Chinese folklore - actually said to be 70% truth and 30% fiction is the 'Romance of the Three Kingdoms'. This is an epic written in the late 14th Century by Luo Guanzhong and tells of the struggle for power of the three kingdoms, Wu, Shu and Wei during a period of Chinese history termed, The Three Kingdoms (220-265AD). The Han Dynasty had just fallen and three states fought to overcome each other.

The story revolves around Liu Bei, the ruler of the Kingdom of Shu, and his allies, the three blood brothers, Zhu Geliang, Zhang Fei and Guan Yu. All have become heroes of Chinese folklore. Zhu Geliang was the State of Shu's prime minister and a noted master of war strategy. The novel has been said to embody the Chinese Confucian values of loyalty, virtue, patriotism, courage, wisdom and upright behaviour together with military skill. The struggle stemmed from a peasants' revolt, which made the novel popular with Chairman Mao and other communist leaders. The novel's heroes are renowned for their unswerving loyalty to their cause and to each other, their bravery, virtue and skill in martial arts. All along this river are sites associated with this epic saga which is said to cover the political and military events from 184-280 AD.

Yangzi gorge
Yangzi Gorge

Our guide on the cruise boat, a young Chinese lady called Nancy did not tell us anything about these folk heroes. I suspect that Simon our tour leader may have told her not to. He did on at least two occasions say to us that he found stories identifying unusual rock formations with people too much to believe and digest. I doubt if any of our party had heard of the 'Three Kingdoms' so perhaps he was correct in instructing Nancy not to mention it. However Nancy did spend much more time with the Taiwanese and Japanese parties and I saw her pointing to the scenery whilst explaining various things in Mandarin.

About 30 miles from the first of the gorges, on a cliff top not very clearly visible was the temple dedicated to Zhang Fei. This famous temple is being dismantled and set up on higher ground about 20 miles away.

Several hours after leaving Chongqing, the river became narrower as we reached Kui Men gate, just before we entered the first of the three gorges, the Qutang Gorge. The Three Gorges do not actually run continuously one into the other but they are separated by many miles of 'ordinary' river and they vary quite significantly in length.

Qutang Gorge

Some say that this is the most spectacular of the Three Gorges even though it is only about six miles long. It is also called the 'windbox gorge' because wooden boxes resembling Chinese wind boxes (bellows-rectangular with a plunger at one end) were discovered high up, fixed to a cliff face. One was brought down and was in fact found to contain human remains. They are in fact coffins, believed to be of the Ba People who lived around here around 200 BC.

Just inside the Qutang Gorge is a hilltop walled village, Baidi Cheng which was once a fortress held by Liu Bei. There is a temple complex originally built for The White Emperor but since the Ming Dynasty have housed statues of the four heroes, Liu Bei, Zhu Geliang, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei.

Guan Yu, who was killed in 219 became the Chinese 'God of War' in 1594, and is worshipped all over China and other countries such as Korea and Vietnam and in Hong Kong. He is known as Guan Gong, Guan Di, as well as Guan Yu and is usually shown with a red face. In fact, the 'God of War' is not an accurate title, because he has nothing to do with promoting war or waging war. He has been identified as a martial hero and a protector against evil spirits. In addition he has become a patron saint of literature and of commerce. Guan Yu is popular with overseas Chinese in Australia and other parts of the world. Thousands of temples have been built in his honour. Guan Yu is especially worshipped in Korea, because he is believed to have saved the country from the Japanese invasion in the 17th Century. Articles in the popular press will tell you that Guan Yu is the 'patron saint' of both Hong Kong policemen and organised criminal gangs!

Near to Baidi Cheng is a pavilion believed to have been occupied by the Tang Dynasty poet, Du Fu (712-770). He was one of China's greatest poets and is said to have composed 470 poems whilst serving as an official in this area of the Yangtze River.

Wuxia Gorge

Wuxia Gorge is about 30 miles long and its peaks are 4,000 feet above the water. In the Wuxia Gorge are the 12 'fairy peaks' and other mountain forms resembling mythical figures. The mountain formations have been associated with figures from Chinese myths and legends, such as 'Climbing Dragon', Flying Phoenix, Assembled Cranes, and Goddesses etc. Our guide Simon thought that this was stretching the imagination too much! However the most famous peak is the Shennu Feng or Goddess Peak which resembles a young girl kneeling in front of a pillar. She is believed to represent Yao Ji, a daughter of the Queen Mother of the West who saved the inhabitants of the area from the flooding caused by 12 dragons. Eleven of the other prominent peaks represent her handmaidens.

Qutang Gorge
Qutang gorge.

Qu Yuan

Just after the Wuxia gorge is the town of Zigui, where Dragon Boat Racing is said to have originated. This was a home town of Qu Yuan, the first poet in Chinese history to be named. Qu Yuan (338-278 BC) was a civil servant in the Kingdom of Chu, one of the seven 'Warring States'. He warned his king that the state of Qin was about to invade, but the king did not listen to him. When Qu heard that Qin had indeed begun to attack, he did not want to outlive his country and therefore threw himself in the river. When the people heard about this, they raced in their boats to save him. When it was clear that they were too late, they threw food into the river, so the fish would eat the food instead of his body.

These events are commemorated in the Duan Wu Jie Festival, the fifth day of the fifth month, by racing Dragon boats. This is now a spectator sport enjoyed all over the world. In the UK it seems to be associated especially with fund raising for charities. The food which people threw into the river is commemorated by eating dumplings made of sticky rice, wrapped up in bamboo leaves and tied with string. You see them in dim sum restaurants but they are now eaten at anytime of the year. A temple built to Qu Yuan is being moved to a location not far from the dam at a place called Maoping.

Lady Wang Zhaojun

Near to Zigui is the home village of Lady Wang Zhaojun. She was a lady in waiting at the court of an emperor of the Han Dynasty. The imperial courts were invariably so large that the emperor did not actually see many of his ladies but the best way for them to improve their position was to somehow catch the attention of the emperor and perhaps become a concubine. If a concubine presented the emperor with a son, she could expect rapid promotion within the court and could even become an empress. All the other ladies paid the court painter a bribe to make them better looking than they actually were, hence improving their chances.

Lady Wang however was virtuous and incorruptible and refused to pay the bribe money. In revenge, the court painter made her look very ugly. When the emperor had to send a lady as bride to one of the Xiongnu tribes, (about 22 BC) beyond the Great Wall, she was therefore considered dispensable because the emperor did not want her. However, just as she was preparing to leave, the emperor did actually see her and became immediately captivated by her beauty. However it was too late, she was committed to go. He was so angry that he had the court painter beheaded.

Before Lady Wang left China to join her husband, she visited her home village, not far from Zigui and it is said that when she was bathing, a pearl earring fell into the pool, which instantly became clear and fragrant. When she had been married and was in her new country, she managed to improve its relations with China. She became respected both in her new country and also in China. She is one of the recognised famous beauties of Chinese history. For the construction of the Tree Gorges Dam, the city of Zigui was dynamited on 1 March 2002 and the residents moved to nearby Maoping.

Yangtse Gorge
Yangzi Gorges. 1986.

Xiling Gorge

This gorge is about 50 miles long and the Dam is in the middle of it. Just near the start of this gorge, high on a cliff face are the 'Military Books and Precious Sword Rocks'. They are said to represent the Military Manual and sword of Zhu Geliang. He put them up here when he was seriously ill and said that only a person worthy enough to make good use of them would be brave enough to retrieve them!

The Yuxiang

Our cruise boat was called the Yuxiang named after Feng Yuxiang . He was a warlord but a very different one in that he was progressive, altruistic and patriotic. He was born in 1880 into a very poor family in Anhui Province. It is said that five of his six brothers and sisters died of starvation and an uncle brought him up because his parents were opium addicts. He joined the army when he was 11 years old and eventually rose to lead his own army.

Feng Yuxiang was six feet four inches tall and was one of the Northern group of warlords that Sun Yatsen travelled north to meet just before he died. He eventually joined Chiang Kai-shek's government and it was his troops who expelled the 'Last Emperor' from the Forbidden City in 1924.

There are many traditional stories about his life - some may or may not be true. He became a Christian and one of the conditions of recruitment for his troops was that they also became Christians-although he denied the myth that he baptised them with a fire hose! Before battles, he addressed his troops with Christian sermons and they went off singing, 'Onward Christian Soldiers'

Feng Yuxiang lived very simply and never wore an officer's uniform, preferring peasant clothing. It is said that when he became a minister in the Nationalist government, he did not live in a ministerial mansion but preferred a mud hut! He did not use the ministerial limousine but travelled an army jeep and when he entertained Generalissimo and Madam Chiang Kaishek to dinner-he gave them rice and black beans! He taught his troops skills and trades so that they could find employment to earn their own living when they left the army. In other circumstances, many troops became outlaws and bandits after they left the army-in fact many warlords' troops behaved no better than outlaws and bandits!

Feng Yuxiang became acquainted with the young Deng Xiaoping in Moscow in the late 1920s when Deng was studying military theory, Russian and Marxist theory in Russia. Later, during the period of cooperation between the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communists, Feng established a military training academy in Shanxi Province and named Deng as the dean.

After the end of World War 2, Feng Yuxiang went on a lecture tour of the USA but died in mysterious circumstances on a Soviet ship in the Black Sea on his way home in 1946. He was likely to have stayed on the mainland after the Communist revolution as he disapproved of the corruption and other aspects of Chiang's government. He is buried on Mount Tai Shan, one of the sacred Taoist mountains of China in Shandong province and his descendents live in Beijing.

The Wanxian Incident

Wanxian is a city about 60 miles west of the Qutang Gorge which was made a foreign treaty port in 1902. This incident is far from 'romantic', infamous is probably more appropriate. During the 'Warlord Period' of Chinese history, warlords were in the habit of commandeering vessels on the river to carry their troops. Apparently the French and Japanese allowed this, but the British and the Americans did not.

In August 1926 the local warlord, Yang Sen tried to do this to two British cargo vessels which resisted and summoned help. Two Royal Navy gunboats were despatched to 'sort them out'. In the skirmish which occurred seven British sailors were killed but as a reprisal, the gunboats opened fire on the Chinese town with their six inch guns. An eyewitness was amazed when fragile timber built buildings collapsed in the slipstream of six inch shells as they whistled down the streets of the town. Huge fires were caused and it is estimated that three thousand Chinese civilians were killed.

This was a disgraceful example of 'gunboat diplomacy,' which resulted in the boycott of the loading and unloading of British ships in the area for several years after.


1) Yangzi, The Yangtze River and the Three Gorges by Judy Bonavia & Richard Hayman, Odyssey, Hong Kong 2004
2) The River at the Centre of the World by Simon Winchester, Penguin Books, London 1998
3) Inside China by John Gunther, Hamish Hamilton, London 1939
4) Deng Xiaoping by Wendy Lubetkin, Chelsea House Publishers, New York 1988.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2010 reprinted from SACU's China Eye magazine Issue 25, 2010

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