FILM REVIEW: UP THE YANGTZE: ANOTHER GREAT LEAP FORWARD BY CHINA? RATED A.

May 19, 2008 by
Filed under: Uncategorized 

The Chongqing Metropolitan Area, Midway Up the Yangtze, Is Home To 30.9 Million People.
chongchig3-1.jpg picture by edsopinion

In 1958 Mao Zedong initiated the Great Leap Forward wherein he conceived that China could advance economically by making the communes responsible for economic development. Thus we saw peasants trying to increase steel production in back yard foundries. The plan failed.

Another economic plan which Mao supported was the Three Gorges Hydroelectric Project which will be the largest in the World when completed in 2011. The dam will be five times larger than Hoover Dam. This film deals with the consequences of the project on the people and environment along the Yangtze.

First this film is beautifully photographed and if you thought the Three Gorges area of the Yangtze and its surrounding areas were rural and agricultural think again. The river is a super highway for industrial barges and ships ferrying commerce up and down the river from the many factories and industries along its 6300 kilometer length. Numerous excursion boats, ships and other boats are also seen navigating the river. There is very little sunlight in this film as pollution blots out the direct rays of the sun most of the time.

I am not sure whether to call this film a documentary, a docudrama or by some new designation because it also depicts a sixteen year old Chinese girl, Yu Shui, born of illiterate, peasant squatters who farm a marginal plot of land at the rivers edge. The jerry built shack that houses her mother, father and younger brother and sister looks to be well below the lowest flood level.

The Yangtze has flooded its banks on numerous occasions. Most recently, in the summer of 1998, it over flowed its banks causing 3,004 deaths, 14 million homeless and $24 billion in economic loss.

Yu Shui has finished middle school and she wants to go to high school but the family has no money for her education. In fact she needs to work to help support the family. To this end she reluctantly takes a job on the river cruise ship Victoria as a dish washer. The cruise line caters to western tourists who are on an oxymoranic “Farewell Cruise” before the new dam raises the Yangtze 175 meters. Yu Shui is assigned the name Cindy apparently for the convenience of the tourists. Her family’s life and her life are intimately photographed and so we are not sure how much is staged for the camera and how much is real and spontaneous.

We learn from Yu Shui’s father that he was the son of a minor bureaucrat before the revolution and that after the fall of the Nationalist Government his father was denounced as a counter revolutionary. As to the father’s ultimate fate we are left in the dark other than to learn that his wife starved to death in the famine of 1960. The year the Great Leap Forward ended in failure.

We never learn why Yu Shui’s parents are illiterate in a communist state where education is supposed to be available to all unless they were excluded because of the grandfather’s politics. Another thing that is not explained is why there are three children in Yu Shui’s family when China has a policy of one child per family. Does this fact account for the family’s economic status? We also learn that the father was a “coolie” working on the Fengdu docks before he took up subsistence farming and that his job was lost because of the rising river. Later in the film we see the father working as a laborer on the river’s embankments.

There is another person featured in this film named Chen Bo Yu who is given the name “Jerry”. He is nineteen, handsome, self centered and speaks English. He is a male “little emperor” from a one child middleclass family who can afford to educate him. He is assigned to work directly with the tourists on the cruise which means he receives tips. He also runs afoul of the management when it is learned that he solicits tips from the passengers.

Later in the film Jerry gives and impromptu speech for the camera that all he cares about is money and that he doesn’t want work for the older passengers as they don’t tip as well as the middle aged tourists on the boat. Still, later he is let go at the end of the trip for his attitude but he doesn’t care because his family will send him to college. Why both he and Yu Shui must pay for their education in a socialist state is left unstated. It may be that education is based on competitive testing or political connections and that those who fail to be accepted in a state school can buy an education at a private school.

In the end we see Yu Shui’s family laboriously drag their shabby belongings by hand and push cart to a run down apartment where they have been resettled. The river rises and their small plot and shack disappears. Yu Shui returns to her lowly position as a dish washer on the cruise ship. The best she can hope for is to learn enough English so she can be assigned to the dinning room as a waitress and earn tips.


This film is about the monumental changes that have and are taking place in China and the social consequences to the people. The film is ambivalent as to whether it is a good thing to inundate the Three Gorges Area, an area of greater significance in cultural and environmental terms than our Grand Canyon.

The film is prefaced by this quote from Confucius: “By 3 methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection which is noblest; second, by imitation which is easiest; and third, by experience which is the bitterest.”

Thus we will have to wait and see whether the destruction of the natural beauty of the Three Gorges area and the dislocation of two million people is worth the electricity and flood control the dam will bring.

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