Ancient city of Dujiangyan (都江堰)

I’m on vacation with my parents Sichuan Province, China. They love marauding for tales of the past and for delicious eats. I tag along for the surprise, and this visit to Dujiangyan definitely qualifies. We arrived from Sichuan’s main metropolis, Chengdu, via long-distance bus in less than an hour’s time. (You can actually also get there by subway but there are few scheduled runs.)

Though nearby, the environment feels totally different here. For one, nature abounds! The rivers that run through it are turbulent, alive, and the color of creamy jade. The bridges are richly adorned, oft bedecked with carved halls and terraces — clearly the residents’ ode to their relationship with the waters below.

View near the entrance of the Dujiangyan historical irrigation site.

Everyone here is super chill and nice: Smiles and patient advice are delivered generously. It is said that the taming of this river blessed all of the residents with a more relaxed outlook on life. The people here openly welcome domestic and international tourists who come alone or in caravans of tour buses to see Dujiangyan, this UNESCO World Heritage site. How did folks here turn out to be so exceptionally nice and knowledgeable?

It is said that this region had a significant transformation 2,250 years ago. Established before 250 BC, when China, was just getting consolidated into one empire (the Warring States Period), a notable example of irrigation infrastructure was brought into being by the then governor of the region, Li Bing (李冰), and his son.

map of Dujianyan site
Foldout of the tourist brochure, showing the entire irrigation system site.

The river that ran through this farming village would swell ferociously every year, wiping out everything beyond its banks. The floods hampered the village’s ability to grow into a productive agricultural and economic center, and stressed out everyone.

As the largest tributary of the Yangtze River, the Min River brought lots of silt and sediment each time it swelled, exacerbating its magnitude of damage in future occurrences. Attempts to mitigate it failed until finally, the Qin Dynasty King at the time, 秦昭襄王, awarded Governor Li this task of figuring out a way to control the floods. He also gave him a huge budget.

Li could’ve perfunctorily built a dam, which may or may not have worked, and, in fact, several unsuccessful dam designs preceded him. Having an engineering background, he conducted a thorough study of the local snowmelt phenomenon, which led him design a different solution: splicing the river and creating channels in specific locations that diverted the floodwater to other parts when they accumulate above a certain level. This way, the water was kept within its banks and the excess was used for irrigation. Creating this system was a monumental task because tools were pretty basic back then. There was only manual strength as gunpowder had not yet been invented. The river water is fresh snowmelt and therefore freezing cold. No one in China had ever created a flood control/irrigation system like this before.

But before he could even embark on the engineering, some “community outreach and engagement” issues had to be addressed. The Shu tribe who resided in the area saw the river as an omnipotent deity and lived in fear of it, even drowning two Shu girls in the river each year as human sacrifices. They would never dare to support an intervention of altering this sacred river. Such an attempt would not only be crushed by the river deity but would rile its immense and deadly rage.

Governor Li and his staff figured out a creative mythical performance and stunt to subdue this fear and earn the Shu people’s conviction that he was a sort of Chosen One. Steven Mithen, in his book, Thirst: For Water and Power in the Ancient World tells the full story.

Once the public confidence was earned and the crucial human workforce promised, innovative engineering methods had to be devised in order to realize this masterplan design. For example, a channel had to be carved out of the side of a mountain which was entirely of rock. How did they do it without dynamite? By exposing them to extreme heat and cold over and over again, they were able split these boulders and rocks. They would burn wood and grass into every crevice to heat up these big rocks, then subject them to the icy water, in repetitive succession. They fissured and the workers chiseled away the debris. It worked!

An artificial island needed to be built in the middle of the river with a pointed tip that would split the oncoming flow in two. At first, rocks thrown into the middle of the river, no matter how large, would just get washed away. Finally, they devised a successful means: tubes of river rocks bundled together with woven bamboo strips.

At the confronting tip is a massive concrete and stone protuberance named Fish head or Yutou (鱼头) and is quite the tourist site today at Dujiangyan. It is magnificent to see in action.

The Yutou is visible on the right from this view, taken from the tower balcony.

To prepare the secondary “alternate route” for the river, Li’s team had to create dykes and levees to block and contain the water during this process. Again, the invented river stone bundles were implemented and held in place by three-legged bamboo “easels.” Some are on display today.

an image of the bamboo tripods and stone bundles
Example of the structures actually used for dyke and levee construction.
They were installed by the hundreds.

To allow foot-traffic access to and from the island, a rope bridge connected it to north and south banks. The suspension bridge has been reconstructed numerous times over hundreds of years. Walking across the clacking wooden planks held together by thick rope, you’d think it was the original but this one is only the latest rendition of a few decades ago. True to spirit, crossing it feels ancient and unlike any modern bridge.

The moist fog and the dense forest setting made the setting so pleasant and the scenery so atmospheric and romantic. You can see nearly the entire levee system. Only the irrigation channel that was dug into the facing mountains was nestled out of sight. I wanted to see this too but the Anlan Bridge access to that side has not been restored, preventing pedestrian access.

On the other hand, once onto the south bank, you can hike to several temples, towers, and monuments, including the stately Erwong Taoist Temple.

One of two major temples at Dujiangyan.
A field of marigolds with temple in the distance.
We only reached Qinyan Tower.

Being that my parents are both in their 70s, we didn’t venture all the way to the temples. Instead, we zigzagged our way up steep stone stairs for 20 minutes to the Qinyan Tower and contented ourselves with this feat by admiring the views from its balconies.

To this day, Governor Li remains the hero of Dujiangyan. My parents and I strolled across the South Bridge (南桥) to the Old Town streets chock full of eateries and shops and graced with distinctive water channels.

The entrance to the South Bridge (南桥 or “Nan Qiao”), completed in 1878, severely damaged in the Wenchuan earthquake of 2008, and subsequently restored.
The South Bridge is an arcade structure with brush paintings and poetry in calligraphy written on the ceilings and walls inside. At night, colored lights transform its appearance.
Here I am, on the bridge. Famous traditional poems, paintings, and motifs are on the interior surfaces. The flooring is hard dense wood.

On the other side of the bridge is a historical shopping center. Roads, sidewalks and buildings remain largely true to the past.

exposed gutter system of riverwater overflow looks beautiful
When the rivers rise to a certain point, water is siphoned off in a myriad ways, including through exposed channels along streets. They are beautiful to see. The channel beds are of sand and stone, allowing for irrigation and permeability into the soil below.

The city has installed wall etchings of old photos of this same street 100 years ago. They were mesmerizing to stumble upon.

Illustrated walls like this one are hidden and scattered throughout the old town, ready to surprise and intrigue pedestrians. In this one, you see the Tibetan trader with his yaks coming into town (on the left) and merchants conducting trade on the right. Everyone looks so thin! Life must’ve been harder back then.

Among these surprise visual accounts of history were reliefs, carved narratives, depicting Li Bing and his teams subduing the Min River.

carved stone relief of men digging into the water.
The throwing of numerous bundles of rock into the water to create an island.
The throwing of numerous bundles of rock into the water to create an island.
Carved stone relief of men digging into the water

I noticed the stain of grid on the artwork and suspected that it was the result of being boarded up for its protection during the Chairman Mao years. At that time, citizens and Red Guard destroyed as much evidence as they could of ancient and imperial China as part of the Cultural Revolution. This beautiful stonework record would’ve fallen victim to the rash tempers of history had not earnest hands swiftly shielded them. Today, the blemishes only augment impressions of past dramas and triumphs that have swept through Dujiangyan, with promises of more to come.

After much walking and hiking, we took advantage of the eateries in the nearby Old Town. Condiments (such as Sichuan peppercorn and all kinds of mushrooms and root vegetables preserved with it) as well as ready-to-eat foods abounded. It was both a tourist and local hotspot. A great way to refuel.

Different foods but all spicy.
Steamed buns made from various coarse grains, fresh hard-boiled eggs, and steamed dumplings.
Steamed buns, corn cobs, sweet potato, and sausage links.
My parents enjoying Dan Dan Noodles, a local classic.
Fresh tofu being made right before your eyes.
Chicken wrapped and fired in clay. The clay also keeps it warm until you are ready to eat it by cracking it open with a metal spoon. Very juicy.
foggy view of Dujiangyan
Mysterious and exciting, as I will remember Dujiangyan.

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