The Three Gorges enjoy the reputation of being a world-famous art gallery, providing inexhaustible source material for poets, dramatists, and historians. Men of letters and famous calligraphers have frequented the region since earliest times. Many forms of classical poetry and drama have found expression in verse and tragedy about this region. To mention the Sanxia (Three Gorges) is to evoke awe in the Chinese. The myths associated with the gorges are compared with those of the Yellow, Min and others of China's great rivers. These epics are cultural DNA, the unconscious programs that influence the way many Chinese see "reality" and respond to it.
Venturing into the funnel-like gorges, the ancient Chinese claimed, is like entering "the dragon's mouth." Precarious and awesome, hidden in the caverns of inaccessible mountains or finally uncoiled in the depths of the sea, this Chinese dragon unpredictably breaks forth into a torrent of activity. He unfolds himself in the storm clouds and washes his mane in the blackness of seething whirlpools. His claws are bursts of lightning and his scales glisten in the bark of rain-swept pine trees. His voice is heard in wind howling through chasms, scattering the forest's withered leaves and so quickening a new spring.
From his first trip as a young child in 1946 through a succession of visits in the 1980s and 1990s, Ben Thomson Cowles charts the significance, the beauty, and the poetry of the Three Gorges, and describes what was lost in the construction of the colossal dam that now bears that name.
"Four hundred million Chinese live in proximity to, and are influenced by, the Yangzi River. Just after World War II [Cowles] traveled the gorges in junks, along with a missionary, a military pilot, and a Chinese university instructor. These were the days when trackers in harness pulled the boats upstream, straining along narrow riverside paths, chanting to the beats of drummers. In recent years, Cowles has returned several times, but on the now-popular tourist boats, to contrast his experiences. His descriptions are strong, as are his knowledgeable musings on Chinese history and culture. He writes alarmingly of the dam now under construction and the enormous toll it will take in human and ecological terms. Far more than a travel narrative, this is a major book on an important topic and is recommended for all libraries."
-- starred review in Library Journal
"Rivers - and water in general - possess properties that are both constant and constantly in flux. This paradox is certainly not lost on Cowles in his account of traveling along China's Yangzi River and, in particular, through its famous Three Gorges. His first excursion took place in 1946, and he took three subsequent trips half a century later. On the surface, the book features Cowles's impressions of the river's majestic beauty, essential links to Chinese culture, rugged denizens, and a controversial 'mega-dam' project that threatens to reshape them all...the philosophical conclusions he draws are earnestly argued, whether one is inclined to go against them or be swept away."
-- Publishers Weekly
"The present mega dam construction in the Yangzi's Gorges gives special timeliness to Ben Cowles' intrepid two-way journey by junk. Cowles weaves a rich tapestry, describing the lives of the common people who daily pit their frail craft against the river dragon. We learn much about China in 1946, when the ruling Guomindang seemed to falter and the prospect of civil war with the Communists loomed."
-- John S. Service, formerly U.S. State Department, China Desk
"Dr. Cowles' formative years were spent in China and he brings his intimate appreciation of Chinese customs to this acute understanding of the multifaceted Chinese psyche... The account of his 1946 journey occurs before the river was tamed by man. The book is rich in Chinese folklore and philosophy."
-- Audrey Ronning Topping, Photojournalist and author of Splendors and Sorrow of Tibet