Thirsty Dragon at the Olympics

The picture on this page was taken by a People’s Pictorial photographer in 1953. The sixty-year-old Mao Zedong had just finished writing a calligraphic inscription that read “Celebrate the successful completion of the Guanting Reservoir Project.” The man sitting next to him was my father-in-law, Wang Sen, the project manager for the dam.

The photograph was probably published in some newspaper or other around that time. Even if I’d seen it, I wouldn’t have paid any attention to it. I certainly never imagined that fifteen years later I’d marry the project manager’s son, Wang Dejia, thereby becoming the daughter-in-law of a man once shown relaxing on the bank of the dam, chatting and laughing with the “Great Leader.”

The first time I saw this photograph was in 1968, during the Cultural Revolution. I found it at the bottom of a pile of discarded documents beneath some quilts. At that time most people would treasure a picture taken with Mao as if it were a family heirloom, a talismanic charm, something to be carefully framed and hung in a prominent place at home. They prized such things even though in the picture they themselves might only have a head the size of a pea.

I shouted out with surprise: “When was this picture of you with Chairman Mao taken?” My father-in-law was sitting holding his favorite deck of cards—they were so worn that only he could tell them apart. He looked up but said nothing. My husband, Dejia, didn’t say a word either. It was obvious that neither of them wanted to see the thing brought out for display. Only many years later did Dejia tell me that his father—a man who had overseen the building of a number of major dams and who “struggled throughout his life for the Party’s cause”—once whispered to him, “Build a dam, bleed a river dry.” By then it was the late 1980s and I myself was involved with an environmental group opposed to the Three Gorges Dam being planned for the Yangtze River. My environmental group was investigating what had happened to the earlier Sanmen Gorge Dam Project on the Yellow River, and we had publicly started lobbying to protect China’s rivers and water sources.

I didn’t ask Dejia when his father had made the remark. Even if it wasn’t as early as 1968, the year I discovered that old photograph, he must have been thinking along those lines by then. China had been through the calamitous famine created by the Great Leap Forward in the 1950s. One of the slogans of the Great Leap had encouraged people everywhere to “put maximum effort into building hydrology projects.” As a result, cadres—or officials—in the People’s Communes had ordered the construction of countless small dams. The wild enthusiasm of the “Great Leap into communism” passed, leaving disaster, agricultural dislocation, and mass starvation in its wake. Unstable embankments and leaking dams littered the countryside.

By the late 1960s, the Ministry of Hydrology in which my father-in-law…

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