The River Tells Its Story; China Aims to Preserve Its Yangtze Heritage with a Compelling New Museum Showcasing Relics from the Three Gorges

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Byline: Craig Simons

The four-meter-tall gate that dominates the atrium of the new Three Gorges Museum has come a long way--through time, rather than over distance. Carved during the Han dynasty (206 B.C.- A.D. 220), it was erected among farmers' fields along the Yangtze River just west of the fabled Three Gorges, the ravines that tower over the once turbulent waters. A general probably commissioned the work to commemorate his ancestors, following the country's Confucian tradition, says Wang Chuanping, vice director of Chong-qing's Ministry of Culture. During the Tang dynasty, the pillars collapsed and were slowly buried in the soft earth. Only in 2002, when archeologists were making a last-ditch effort to save artifacts about to be inundated by the 508-kilometer-long lake backing up behind the Three Gorges Dam, were they discovered. Wang points to a well-preserved dragon carved onto the face of one pillar. "The quality is amazing," he says. "It is one of the best Han dynasty relics ever found."

The gate is just one of thousands of artifacts with equally long histories to be found in Chongqing's new $7 million museum, a testament to the region's rich past. The Yangtze, Asia's longest river, has been a conduit of travel and trade for thousands of years. In 1987 scientists working in the Wu Gorge, the middlemost of the Three Gorges, found 2 million-year-old teeth, the oldest human remains ever discovered in Asia. Buddhism spread east into China along the Yangtze, and two early tribes met near present-day Chongqing some 4,500 years ago--two millenniums before Julius Caesar was born--and merged to become the Ba culture, a society that developed a pictographic language that researchers are only beginning to decipher. Chinese often refer to the Yellow River as the cradle of Chinese civilization, but the Yangtze is just as important. Says Wang: "Both hold our history."

Now Beijing is scrambling to preserve its Yangtze heritage. The government has earmarked $120 million for the preservation of relics in the Three Gorges region. Wang says that archeologists have examined some 700,000 square meters of land, turning up hundreds of thousands of artifacts and moving dozens of historical buildings and bridges to higher ground. The effort's crown jewel is the Three Gorges Museum. …