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Abeja Dispatch

Dragons, Temples, and Mighty Rivers - Where Legend and History Swirl Together
July 19, 2000

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It was one of those magical moments, when a chance meeting turns the day around, and it brought me dangerously close to ancient, evil dragons! It was hot and sticky, and I was arguing with the ticket seller over the price to enter Lijui Irrigation Park in Dujiangyan, China.

"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?

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"If you want, I will be your guide for free." He continued, undaunted by my bad attitude. "I am showing some friends of mine around today. You have to see these temples!"

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.

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I had no idea that all of this was here! "Peter" (whose real name -- Xian Yonghong -- is very difficult for foreigners to pronounce), led us through elaborate gardens with flowers, shrubs, and pools of fish, to a magnificent temple of carved wood and brightly painted with faces of mythological creatures and plants. "This is the 'Subdued Dragon Temple'," he explained. "It was build in 168 CE to honor Li Bing and his son, who defeated the evil dragon. The dragon is tied up in chains and buried under the river here.

"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!

The back of the temple overlooked a huge river with a long island in front of us, and a mountain to our right. Between the mountain and us, a branch of the river passed between two steep cliffs. Peter showed me a map of the irrigation project, and then took me to look over the river. I was beginning to understand why this place was such a big deal!

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?

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"Did the dragon do it?!!" I asked excitedly. Peter laughed and explained that actually, the people thought that the dragon would be angry with them for messing with the river, which is why the legend says he was subdued and buried in chains. He showed me two old statues, one of Li Bing and one of his son. "These were found in the river, where they were thrown in 168 CE, during the Han dynasty, to keep the dragon subdued."

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.

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"This island was made to create a side channel, for irrigation and drinking water." Peter explained. From this man made island, we could see the canal even better, and Peter explained how they dug it. First, they would start a huge fire on the mountain, and let it burn for a while, until the mountain was very hot. Then, they would suddenly pour water on it, causing it to cool off suddenly and crack. The workers would chip at it, and the process was repeated again and again and again.

"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.

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These locks were super-modern, though, and Peter explained that the entire project has been fixed up and modernized since "Liberation," when the Communists took over. "This project originally irrigated more than a million hectares of land, and since Liberation that has expanded to three million hectares!"

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.

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I guess the locals were pretty impressed by the guy, too. After climbing for some time, we reached the largest temple, half way up the mountain, called the Two Kings Temple. The two kings were Li Bing and his son, Li Er Long (which means "Li 2nd Son"). "Li Bing was the governor of Sichuan, but he lived in the barracks and worked with the workers on this project. So the people loved him very much," Peter told us. Li Bing was the one who engineered this massive irrigation project, and figured out how to maintain it by cleaning out the silt build up every year. It took them eight years to build the whole thing.

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.


undaunted - without fear
subdued - tamed or controlled
subtle - in a way that is not obvious
barracks - a building or group of buildings used to house workers
silt - a deposit of fine, sand-like dirt
sage - wise person
immortals - gods or deities

The temple had many floors that went up the side of the mountain, each filled with statues of great Sichuan leaders who had maintained or improved this project over the years. "There is an old Taoist saying," Peter explained as we walked among the statues. "'If you drink the water, you must know where the water comes from.' It is important to remember the men who made 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.

For more information on Li Bing and these early irrigation projects

Finally, we reached the top floor. We collapsed on the benches exhausted,, looking out over the entire river, the canals, and the islands below. Despite what the dragon may think, the mighty Min River seemed perfectly content with its new course. It, too, must be a Taoist!


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

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