For me, a dweller in the city of Chongqing, where the Jialing River runs through, this river is something I would shy away from. If it weren’t necessary.
That’s because I was born with a fear of water, though my father picked a name readily associated with it for me.
But I’m well aware that the river means a great deal to all Chongqing born-and-breds. Yu, former name of the Chongqing section of the Jialing River, now becomes an abbreviation for this city.
So, it is quite justified to hail the Jialing River as the “Mother River” of the Chongqing people.
Back in the 1920s, water transportation started to boom on the Jialing River. With time, a bustling street was built along the riverside, and it was always filled with boat dwellers, porters, bearers, hawkers, beggars, and travelers.
Later, a shantytown formed around it, and then a market.
There were inns, diners, teahouses, taverns, rice shops, noodle shops, grocery stores, drugstores, tailor’s shops and more. These shops, made of wooden and bamboo planks, were somewhat makeshift creations.
When flooding occurred, they would be moved higher up. When flooding subsided, they would be moved back. On higher ground sat theaters, joints, and brothels.
If we look back at how the regional culture around the Jialing River and the Yangtze River formed and blossomed, we still see that cultural progress has accompanied every single change of the times.
Until today, about a century later, the riversides, either Jialing River or the Yangtze River sloped upward very gently towards the urban world, with some greenery in between.
It is quite a relief to know that along the western border line of the New North Zone, naturally formed by the Jialing River, still exists an unspoiled stretch of nature. Better still, it enjoys a superb sense of feng shui.
For this reason, the New North Zone has worked out a special plan to develop the Jialing riverside landscape, making an exciting proclamation of creating a “Grand Spectacle along the Jialing River”.
No doubt this will bring enormous changes to the river. The waters of the Jialing River have rolled on and on for thousands of centuries and will continue to surge forward, so will the stories around it. But, how to maintain the features that define the Jialing River is a theme that we, and everyone, should focus on.
There are no prizes for assuming this, but whenever the water is calm, the Jialing River becomes a paradise for many diving enthusiasts. And there is a wonderful story that surrounds this love of diving, an actual love story that I’d like to tell you.
Back in the day, the youth used to gather in groups, stripped bare to the waist, to dive from the high precipice of the cliff to the Jialing River below.
Some just plummeted straight down without any showing off, while others preferred to flaunt stunts like nosedives or twists. They were, as we might say today, “showing off”—it was a kind of softer “show of power” competition.
But in those times, there were two boys, Chen and Li, who secretly liked the same girl, Xiang. Neither of them could thwart the other’s romantic intentions, so the conflict hung unresolved between them.
Thus, under the direction of a young Liu (myself, that is), a diving match was organized to settle the matter once and for all. Chen and Li agreed that the better diver could continue pursuing Xiang, while the diver of lesser skills would voluntarily stand aside.
A “jury” was organized from the girls of my class—naturally led by Xiang herself.
Chen went first. Being more the straight-laced and restrained sort of guy, he went with a traditional “cannonball”: head up, feet down, limbs tucked in, he met the water’s surface like a falling boulder.
A jump like this indeed makes an impressive sound, but its degree of safety is dangerously low. Then it was Li’s turn. Immediately upon take-off, his performance was met with a chorus of excited screams.
This is because he chose to go head-first. Within our circle of purely amateur divers, the nosedive was considered an extremely dangerous maneuver.
On a whim, though perhaps stimulated by the girls’ screams, Li decided to add a half-turn mid-dive, hoping to seal Chen’s defeat more decisively. But something went wrong in the execution.
Li’s imperfect form caused him to enter the water horizontally rather than vertically. The resulting splash wasn’t so percussive—muffled, actually, like a deep sigh—but the spray it sent up was at least twice as big as Chen’s.
As I rushed over to the riverbank, Li was standing there, staring blankly. He asked just one question: “Who won?”
After a brief pause, the “jury” shouted in chorus: “You, of course!”
Li beamed upon hearing the verdict, while simultaneously giving out a mouthful of blood. The shine of its brilliant redness impressed me with its honest purity.
Another agitating matter is that the Jialing River is due to be fully made into a canal. Designated as China’s first river to undergo complete canalization, sixteen cascade navigation-power junctions are to be built and interconnected along its Guangyuan-Chongqing section.
This means all those stories of daring and grit, all the boat trackers whose labor bore witness to the river’s last century of ebbs and flows, all will be relegated to the realm of history.
At the thought of it, I can almost hear the soul-stirring haozi song of the boat trackers fading into the distance.
Just like a human life, every river has its own fate. Over long years, the boat trackers of the Jialing River forged a connection from Chongqing to the outside world by virtue of their own relentlessness and sheer strength.
But those men, those stories, and those work songs will all disappear under the call of cascade development.
And there is nothing we can do but resign ourselves to letting it happen.
Personally, I always found this old profession of the Jialing River to present a rather quaint sight, calling to mind the equally simplistic but stirring oil painting, Barge Haulers on the Volga.
In many ways, the boat trackers’ disappearance can be considered a sign of historical progress.
But there is one thought that plagues me: is this really the only way to achieve so-called progress? Is this the only way for history to advance? Through such cruel measures as these?
A writer once put it this way, making it hard for me to forget: “Pulling their towlines on the banks of the river, the boat haulers certainly present a moving scene.
But if your own aged father was among their ranks, would you still feel such a sense of cultural appreciation? Or would you then be able to accept the sight of tanker ships and mega-vessels?”
Ah, it’s true! Those men hauling the boats—could they not all be our fathers?!