A few years ago, after my travel in China, I was looking for works that dealt with the impact of change on the Chinese people. What caught my eye was Up The Yangtze (沿江而上), a documentary about a few people whose way of life is impacted by the completion of the Three Gorges Dam. I was pleasantly surprised to rediscover this movie at the library recently.
In a mere 20 years, more people in China have been affected by economic change and migration than ever before in human history. Director Yung Chang, focuses on one peasant family that is forced to transition from Old China to the New China in just a few months. They are a poor family living off a patch of land, growing vegetables, by the Yangtze river. The New China has jobs and opportunities for the trained and literate, qualities that the parents in this household do not have. Their eldest daughter Yu Shui however, has finished middle school, and is sent off to work on a cruise ship to earn some money for the family.
Ironically, these cruise ships travel up and down the same Yangtze river with Western and foreign Chinese tourists, showing them a slice of Old China before it is gone when the dam is completed. The New China is already arriving in the new skyscraper-filled cities by the Yangtze that are throbbing with electricity. Yu Shui and the other rural teenagers on the ships are scrappy and ambitious, all eager to learn and earn as much money as possible.
As Yu Shui’s ship moves up and down the Yangtze, the dam is completed, the river rises, her parents’ home and lands slowly go underwater. Her parents relocate to a small home on higher ground. Like millions of other Chinese, change has been forcibly thrust upon Yu Shui and her family. Countless homes, villages, towns, ways of life and culture have been bulldozed in the promise of a better life. As Yu Shui and her friends learn their way on the ship, they experience the new consumerist life, with new jobs, higher salaries and modern amenities. Her parents, with no skills usable in the modern China, face a harder life ahead of them.
Up The Yangtze is a beautiful documentary that captures a tiny slice of what is happening in China. There is almost no production done on the content, everything comes off raw and truthful. I felt that it was a wonderful window to catch some of the fleeting moments of nameless and voiceless people who bear all the brunt of change.