U.S. Water News Online
SHIBAOZHAI TEMPLE, China -- For 500 years, Shibaozhai has
sat on a hillside overlooking a crowded medieval village and the
terraced green fields of the narrow Yangtze River valley.
It has survived civil war and the relic-smashing fanatics of the
1966-76 Cultural Revolution. But now the 12-story Taoist temple faces
a new threat from the reservoir that will soon start to fill behind
the massive Three Gorges Dam.
Chinese government engineers have a novel protection plan: a
33-foot thick concrete dike that will turn the temple into a tiny
island within the vast manmade lake.
The plan is part of a $125 million push to save thousands of
relics threatened by the world's largest hydroelectric project.
Plans call for moving hundreds of old stone bridges, pagodas and
temples that sit along a river that was a major shipping route for
more than 2,000 years.
Ancient tombs and prehistoric campsites are also to be excavated
before the floodwaters arrive June 2003. These could hold clues into
the origins of one of the world's oldest civilizations -- and human
Beijing is calling it the biggest historical salvage operation
ever. But many experts still fret it is too little, too late.
The Chinese government didn't start paying for large-scale
preservation until 1999, after pressure from home and abroad.
Archaeologists say that hasn't given them enough time to excavate
even a tenth of about 800 known sites -- not to mention those yet
``It would take 500 years to find all the archaeological treasures
in the Three Gorges,'' said Sun Hua, a Peking University
archaeologist leading one of the digs.
Beijing has rejected requests to delay the reservoir's start date,
partly out of concern over the controversy that surrounds the $25
The government calls the dam necessary to prevent deadly floods
and generate clean power for economic development. But it will
displace 1.13 million people by the time its 411-mile-long reservoir
finishes filling in 2009.
Critics also fault it for doing irreparable damage to the
environment, and wiping out priceless clues into China's past.
For some of the objects that can't be moved, novel preservation
plans are afoot. One proposal calls for building an underwater museum
reached by an enclosed walkway to see ancient calligraphy carved into
cliffs by imperial poets.
At Shibaozhai temple, the reservoir will reach the first-story.
Planners say relocating the red-painted wooden structure is
impossible because of its unique construction directly into the hill.
The $10 million dike will keep the temple dry within a shallow
concrete well, but curators have misgivings about its new island
``It will never be the same,'' said Zheng Xiannong, deputy
director of the government office that now runs the temple, near the
city of Zhongxian in the central region of Chongqing.
At greater risk are the far more ancient objects on the Yangtze's
banks. Critics say too few of the people digging there have
professional training, leading to the damage or inadvertent
discarding of valuable artifacts.
And with China viewing the Three Gorges Dam as a symbol of
national prestige, few foreign experts have been allowed to help
Looting has also been a headache. Professional thieves armed with
cell phones and metal detectors found a 2,000-year-old suit of armor
and a bronze candelabra called the ``Spirit Tree'' that sold for $2.5
million at a New York auction in 1998.
Still, tens of thousands of relics have been saved, including
gold-plated tables and chairs, jade swords and bronze spear points
and daggers. Many artifacts date back to China's oldest dynasties,
and to long-vanished rival kingdoms.
Of particular interest is evidence about the Ba people, vanquished
by imperial Chinese armies more than 1,600 years ago. Archaeologists
hope to solve the riddle of how the Ba built the boat-shaped coffins
that still hang high in the gorges of Yangtze tributaries, and learn
the truth of ancient legends that they sacrificed humans to tigers.
Even more intriguing are the fragments of jaws and teeth first
found in 1985 near Wushan, a city sitting in the reservoir's path.
Some Chinese scientists claim they belonged to human ancestors who
lived along the Yangtze 2 million years ago. That has given rise to
theories -- rejected by non-Chinese scholars -- that homo sapiens
appeared in Asia at the same time or even before Africa.
``There are so many things we may never know now. It's a terrible,
terrible loss,'' said Deirdre Chetham, a Harvard University scholar
and author of an upcoming book about the area to be flooded by the
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