July 19, 2000
"Hello! Can I help you?" a smiling young man came up and asked me.
"No, that's OK. Thanks." I replied grumpily. The fee was now 15 times what my guidebook quoted, so I figured I'd just take a few pictures from the outside and go back to Chengdu. Who really wants to see a muddy old river, anyway?
I could have chosen to stay grumpy and walked away, but this guy just seemed so happy and fun, my mood was already changing. "Peter" helped me get a ticket at the student rate, and soon we were passing through the huge iron gate into a beautiful, magical world of ancient dynasties and evil dragons, where legend and history cannot be separated.
"Whoa! I just came here to see some ancient irrigation project that is supposed to be extremely technologically advanced for its time. No one mentioned any "evil dragon" to me!
In ancient times, the mighty Min River brought life -- and death -- to the people of the Sichuan region. In times of flood, it would overflow its banks and wash away anything in its path. In times of drought, the land would dry up and people faced starvation. "The ancient people believed that dragons lived in the rivers, and that dragons controlled the weather. They worshipped the dragons and feared them."Lijui Park comes out to a point, with the temple at the very tip. "Lijui means 'detached part,'" Peter explained. "This used to be a part of that mountain, until Li Bing dug this canal, back in 256 BC." How on earth did he manage to take out a whole section of the mountain over 2200 years ago, without the aid of dynamite (a Chinese invention, but not until a later date) or bulldozers?
We followed his friends Jia Jun-wei, Song Liang, Gao fuang, and Boyu as they ran out of the temple, acting goofy and taking a million pictures. Suddenly, Song Liang ran right out into the water...only he didn't sink. The part of the river on that side of the island was so shallow there that we could easily cross it without getting our feet very wet.
"They not only took out a whole section of the mountain, but they also built this island?!" I asked, amazed.
"Yes, they built two islands, so that the river could be channeled into three sections, and the flooding and irrigation could be controlled. Let's go to the big one!" he said, and led us across a bridge onto a long, tree-filled island. It was huge! There were examples of the rocks, tied up in basket-like woven straw, that the workers used to build this island, and large wooden tripods that held up things to temporarily block the river's flow while they did the building.
The river rushed violently past us on one side of the island, but was calm enough to swim in on the other. Tree lined-paths were busy with people walking, lovers holding hands, and cyclists whizzing past. It felt like San Francisco's Golden Gate Park - only on an island. At the very end, huge locks controlled the water flow into the main section, helping to store up water in dry times, and letting it go quickly downstream in times of flood.
From the island we could see that the mountain was dotted with colorful temples. A fancy swinging bridge took us to the temple at the base. A sign, in English and Chinese, told us not to sway the bridge, so we had to be subtle. If several of us walked in unison, the bridge started to sway more and more with each step, until everyone else on it was stumbling and grabbing the railings, but we looked totally innocent! Don't tell, OK?
After cuddling up to the nice stone dragons at the gateway, we made burnt offerings to a Taoist statue of the "King of Heaven," before heading up to see the other temples.
As I climbed up the mountain side, I thought about how amazing this Li Bing man was. As a Taoist , he had worked with the natural flow of the river, and used the same devices to save water in times of drought that he used to make the floods less damaging.
Li Bing lived at the very end of the Zhou Dynasty (1122-221BCE), during what historians call the "Warring States Period" (481-221 BCE) because the Empire had broken into seven different states that were all fighting each other.
Still, people consider that dynasty to be the height of ancient Chinese civilization. The great sage Confucius, who lived just a few hundred years before,had taught the code of ethics for rulers that enabled men like Li Bing to organize massive civil projects like this.
The 5th floor was more like a temple. Above the main altar loomed a giant statue of Li Bing -- a handsome, proud man in flowing robes, standing, one arm raised as if making an important statement, with a long beard and "sideburns" down to his waist. Both Li Bing and his son are now worshipped as immortals in Taoism.
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