Slow Boat to China: With Some of the World's Largest Rivers Forming a Network across Its Landscape, It's Little Wonder That China's Past, Present and Future Are Intimately Tied to the Water. Octavia Lamb Explores the World's Most Populous Nation's Love Affair with the River through a Collection of Images from the RGS-IBG Archives

Article excerpt

China's rivers have played a major role in the shaping of both the country's history and its identity. Some of the world's longest rivers form an important network across this vast country, and they have long represented an important part of the daily lives of many Chinese. Junks and sampans still ply the rivers, but with the Chinese government pursuing an ambitious dam-building programme, landscapes and lifestyles have been changing, often irreparably.

Cities have grown and thrived through trade on the waterways, most notably Shanghai, a vast, sprawling metropolis on the Yangtze. But the rivers weren't only used for trade; many Han Chinese, for example, lived permanently on the water, squeezing entire families into one small sampan. Today, more than 450 million people depend on China's two longest rivers--the Huang (Yellow) and the Yangtze--for water, agriculture, fishing and other uses.

As China has become more industrialised, the role of its rivers has been evolving. Since the 1950s, China has been damming its rivers to provide power to feed its ever-growing industry. The latest project is the largest of its kind ever undertaken. By the end of the decade, the huge Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze--which stands more than 300 metres high and will create a lake almost 1,000 kilometres in length--will change China's appearance forever.

Top: a sampan owner and his family in 1929. Entire extended families lived permanently on these 4-5-metre houseboats, moored on inland waters; Above left: two boys guide a raft of Foochow pine poles down a river in Kiangsu (Jiangsu) province in eastern China, 1929. Foochow pine is the main wood used in the construction of sampans; Above right: a fishery on the Yangtze in the 1930s. People living by the banks of the river typically made half their living from fishing and half their living from farming; Opposite above: a view of Shanghai from the Garden Bridge taken during the 1930s. …