by Emily McAlesse
We floated atop the Yangtze River alongside cliffs where monkeys run wild and goats trek up their faces. The blue water reflected the rusty colored cliffs of this magnificent wonder. The air was so fresh that one breath in and you feel the energy filling your lungs and your soul.
Nine River Stewards joined Chinese tourists in viewing this natural wonder of China, one of the waterways that helped us learn more about social, cultural, political and economic forces that shape this country.
China conveys a culture that wants to do things big. And when I say big, I mean BIG. That thinking can be seen in the design and planning of the Three Gorges Dam across the Yangtze. It is the largest hydroelectric dam in the world, but it can also be described as the most controversial dam in the world. Completed in 2003, this dam forced 1.3 million people to move because of rising water levels and flooded 13 cities, 140 towns and 1,350 villages.
Along with us on our floating classroom was professor Wang Yipei from Renmim University of China, who for 17 years has been documenting life in the river valley. He stressed to us to dig deeper into what the people have lost. It wasn’t just their homes; they lost their spiritual connection to the land where they lived and their ancestors are buried.
The boat stopped at a cultural site called Fengdu Ghost City, advertised as one of the few remaining religious sites along The Three Gorges. After we were grouped with the other English speakers, our guide walked us to the entrance where 7-foot statues stood guard. The guide described how these warriors protect the ghost city. Some of the statues there had been relocated here from places now under water; others were recreations. Dr. Dan later challenged the group to consider how the scene has been adapted for tourism.
Our tour guides talked of the damming and flooding with pride for this grand innovation. But we learned that within China, there is not widespread knowledge of the environmental impacts or the challenges people faced. Some people had to swap rural lives for homes in skyscrapers. I began thinking of all the ways that waterways impact a society. As a sociology major, I help research Dayton’s immigrant population, but I had never stopped to consider internal displacement. As a River Steward, I also thought about our push for renewable energies. As China is becoming a leader in renewable energy, part of that is from hydropower, which initially sounded good to me. Now I know there are pros and cons to each development decision, which will make me look more closely at the projects happening to my neighbors upstream and downstream as I paddle along the Great Miami River watershed.
My study abroad experience in China smashed all the preconceptions I’d had about the country. Everything I read and heard had told me China was crowded and polluted, that I wouldn’t like the food or understand the traditions. Still, I cautiously accepted the invitation to apply to study there. This was an opportunity to compare how China and the United States manage waterways and regulate the governments and industries that use them. After meeting the country’s citizens, floating on its canals and visiting its temples, I learned my preconceptions were wrong.
Like so many other UD students who have studied in China, the River Stewards used the University of Dayton China Institute in Suzhou as our base. This was a great advantage for us. We took orientation classes and got acclimated to the city. In class, we presented on the books we had read prior to traveling to China, including on China’s green revolution and the economy of water.
One of the greatest assets of the institute is its staff, who work with our faculty to ensure we feel welcome. They are also there to help those of us unaccustomed to international travel. When the money machine ate my bank card, Dong Zhang, the institute’s director of student programming, responded to my plea over WeChat and picked me up at 7 a.m. to help retrieve it.
While in Suzhou, we stayed in apartments where UD students attending the China Institute typically stay, as well as students attending other universities around the area. I became friends with students from England, Germany, France and other places around the world. I learned about their studies and their perspectives on China. And it was really awesome to have those apartments as a home base that we could return to after long days of venturing out.
One weekend, we traveled with the other students from the China Institute to a place that would become my favorite town. It was a water town, one of many ancient places built along the waterways around Suzhou. Our first glimpse of Zhouzhuang revealed rows and rows of colored windmills hanging from clothes line throughout the town. Every two or three streets would be separated by a canal, along which you could visit silk shops, jewelry makers and ice cream vendors. It was breathtaking.
Before going to China, I didn’t have any desire to go to China. Now that I’m back, I want to speak out and encourage every student to go. How can you not be passionate about the culture, the institute staff, the fashion trends? I’d go back in a heartbeat. China not only left a lasting impression but also proved to be a beautiful, green country filled with kind and generous people.
The Grand Canal is so long, we flew from one end to see the other. It begins in Beijing, where we saw a stagnant body of water walled in by stone upstaged by the bustle of Tiananmen Square. It ends in Hangzhou, where smaller waterways branch off among neighborhoods and people still travel and trade by water.
The Grand Canal, which became unified during the Sui dynasty of the seventh century, is the longest canal in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was originally built to connect the emperor’s city to others for trading and communication. Cities along its more than 1,100 miles have recently become tourist destinations, bringing business to its residents. Just north of Hangzhou, where the canal meets the Yangtze River, the waterway runs wide and barges still haul coal and other goods.
As River Stewards, our mission is to educate the community about the importance of our watershed and natural resources. When we went to China, we wanted to observe the Grand Canal at several locations to see how the people there interact with their water systems and resources and compare that to what we see in Dayton.
Chinese people have developed a unique and beautiful relationship with the canal, building water towns along the edges. In Old Suzhou, which has been called the Venice of the East, its residents hang laundry from lines above the waterways and vendors serve stinky tofu. To connect with the water, its citizens just open their doors or sit along their terraces. Old Suzhou is also a popular tourist destination. When you take a ride in an old-fashioned gondola-shaped boat, you can hear the people singing ancient songs and observe diners sitting in cafes under the light of red lanterns.
In Dayton, we have a very different relationship with the Great Miami River. Much of the shoreline is paved with bike trails and public parks, as well as business and industry. People must travel from their homes to experience all that the river has to offer. As a River Steward, I strive to connect the residents of Dayton with their aquatic neighborhood by providing opportunities to paddle, learn and grow.
As Stewards, we explain the history of our watershed through exhibits in the RiverMobile. So we were excited to learn about a special project at the University of Dayton China Institute in Suzhou, which is along the Grand Canal. Chen Jing, a professor at Nanjing University teaching at the China Institute, is working with UD and other universities to preserve and display the history of the Grand Canal. She showed us ancient maps of the canal that had been painted onto scrolls. CJ and her photographers recreated these maps with current photographs of the sites to demonstrate the development and modernization of China’s cities. I’m excited we’ll get to help with this interactive presentation to be featured on campus in Roesch Library this October. It’s one of the ways we can bring the lessons we learned back from China to share.
I first went to China in spring 2016 to spend a semester at the UD China Institute. As a computer engineering major, I was there to take mostly engineering classes. But I had also just completed my first semester as a River Steward, which really shaped how I viewed my study abroad experience. In Suzhou, you pass waterways everywhere, including on your walk from the student apartments to the China Institute. They are hard to miss. As a River Steward, I wanted to learn more about how the Chinese use their water systems and protect their water.
I decided to focus my study on Lake Tai, the third largest lake in China. It borders large cities like Suzhou and dozens of smaller cities and villages that are home to chemical processing factories that use lake water. Pollution gets dumped back in the lake, as does agricultural runoff from the lowlands that stretch to the South China Sea. Both contribute to blooms of blue-green algae that kill fish and make the lake smell.
This summer, I got to return to Lake Tai. When the Rivers Institute bus stopped by a bridge near Wuxi on the northeastern edge of the lake, we saw Lake Tai’s vivid green water that smelled of dead fish and sewage on one side of the bridge. On the other side was Lihu Bay, with bright blue waters and natural vegetation. At one time, it had also looked green and sickly. Dr. Dan and Dr. Wang arranged for government officials to tell us how they cleaned the bay. First, they walled it off from the lake with the bridge. Then they required industry to relocate away from the water’s edge and planted natural vegetation to slow and filter runoff. Dredging cleaned pollutants from the muddy bottom, while the existing water was cleaned and flushed with water from cleaner sources.
After the presentation, the Stewards wondered, “What’s next?” We were skeptical that the intensive and costly
cleanup of this one bay could be replicated along more than 200 miles of shoreline through multiple jurisdictions.
But we also wondered what was next for us. What role and responsibility do we have as River Stewards? As with any challenge, we apply the breadth of knowledge and experience present in our interdisciplinary cohort. And we listen to the community to determine how our resources can contribute to a community-based solution.
Along with our director Leslie King, Dr. Dan and Dr. Wang, we are now discussing how the Stewards might participate in water quality monitoring at Wuxi. Having the China Institute as a base opens up the possibilities for participation in a variety of projects, whose results we could apply in our own backyard. I know if any one of those projects offers a way for me to combine my computer engineering education with
water quality, I’ll happily head back to China for the third time.