Few rivers around the world possess a thousand-year hydrological record except the Baiheliang on the Yangtze River. Baiheliang (White Crane Ridge), now submerged under Three Gorges Reservoir water, carries the earliest and lowest water hydrological inscriptions, which record 1,200 consecutive years of water level changes.
It's a 1,600-meter-long and 15-meter-wide rock ridge in the Yangtze River to the north of Fuling District of Chongqing Municipality. It was given the name because of the white cranes that used to gather on it.
A collection of Chinese sculpture and calligraphy
Before the Three Gorges Reservoir was filled, the rock ridge was concealed underwater during summer and autumn periods. As winter came and the water level dropped, the ridge would be revealed.
Stone fish carvings, which were used for measuring water levels from the Tang Dynasty (618-907) on could be seen when it appeared in the dry season. The most attractive of them was a 2.8-meter-long, 0.95-meter-wide stone carp sculpture-in-the-round. It used to be a long rock broken from the ridge. By the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), an unknown sculptor carved out a fish on it with drill, knife and hammer. The fish was vividly depicted. Its oval eyes, slightly opened lips, palpus, as well as its cheek, fin, tail and even scales, were engraved in a subtle way. However, the stiff tail made the fish not so dynamic.
To the east of the stone carp, there is a poem carved in a straightforward and uninhibited way, reading "Since the stone carp took its shape, it has jumped into the river where the flood dragon lives. Continuous rains it has brought to people, and the moat ridge it exposes." It could have been written in the Qing Dynasty. To its west, there is a couplet: "White cranes perch on the ridge creating a famous historical site, and stone fish jump out of the water, predicting a good harvest year." This was done at the time of the Republic of China (1912-1949). If one is lucky, you can see the statue of Bodhisattva, who was said to be able to make an unfortunate couple pregnant. In the western part of Baiheliang, three paragraphs of inscriptions can be seen, which were carved in 1963 and the writer and calligrapher are still living today. In the northern part of Baiheliang, inscriptions can be seen everywhere.
The large inscription is about two meters square, while the little one is no larger than 0.09 square meters. The inscription records not only water level changes of the Yangtze River from the 1st year of Guangde of the Tang Dynasty to present, but also crop harvests and failures, as well as official posts, situations of the people and society and folk customs. More than 300 people have left their names on the ridge. Famous historical figures such as Huang Tingjian, Zhu Ang, Chao Gongsu, all left ink marks on the stone ridge. The calligraphy covers all kinds of writing styles of China, including official script, seal character, running script and characters executed swiftly and with strokes flowing together; and in different genres: the Yan style (modeled after Yan Zhenqing), the Liu style (modeled after Liu Gongquan), the Ou style (modeled after Ouyang Xun), all from the Tang Dynasty, and many others.
A favorite destination for visitors
Fuling is an ancient city with a long history. As early as 2,000 years ago, the Ba people set up their own state there.
Since the Three Gorges project started, Baiheliang has become the focus of world attention. An old boatman said that in low water season, one year, the ridge received 2,000 visitors a day. The 20-odd boats sailing between Baiheliang and the river bank had no time to rest at all. All the boaters felt exhausted. "My arms ached for days," the old boatman smiled while thinking of the generous income that year.
Fuling city is famous for its preserved pickle. The Three Gorges project helps people better understand the city. In fact, Baiheliang was approved as a cultural relic under Sichuan provincial protection in 1980. Eight years later, it became a key unit under state protection.
In this gorgeous project, the Three Gorges area turned into the largest archaeological site of the country and field of cultural relic protection. Numerous cultural ruins above or below ground were found to form a historical route on the development of the Chinese nation in this area. The passage linked the Paleolithic period to the present.
Earliest hydrological record
There are two stone carp carved out by a Tang Dynasty person who didn't leave his name. The two fish are hard to see because only in a very dry year do they appear above water. Fan Xipeng, a surveyor at the end of the Qing Dynasty, in his "Notes of Watching Stone Fish", told of the hardship in seeing the two fish: "The fish appear when the river is shallow and dry, and the water may rise and fall suddenly. And it disappears as quickly. For this reason, some officials stationed here will never see the fish through their post. Even elders living here for generations have never had the chance to see them. As the fish appear, the elders haven't left home, but when they get to the site, the fish sink again." In a long period of time, it has been a great event in Fuling to see the stone fish coming out of the water. Those who came to Baiheliang not only wrote of the event, but also engraved the water level at that time. The records increased with the ages, thus forming a systematic note about low water levels in history.
In 1685, the pair of stone fish jumped out of the water. Xiao Xinggong, then magistrate of the Fuzhou Prefecture, led his fellow officials to watch. Seeing the carp had been blurred, he asked stonecutters to carve and renew them. Hundreds of years later, workers at the Chongqing Hydrological Station under the Yangtze River Valley Planning Office measured the carp and found the elevation of their eyes was 137.91 meters, almost the same as that of the zero point of the modern water level gauge.
China's first water gauge was erected in Jianghan Pass of Wuhan in 1865, but this pair of carp were under water for at least 1,100 year earlier.
At an international hydrological symposium held in Britain in 1970s, Chinese experts brought with them photos of these two fish and hydrological data of Fuling for the past 1,200 years, which shocked the participating hydrological masters from around the world. Experts pointed out it was impossible for them today to obtain experimental materials under national conditions for such a long time no matter with what kind of simulated method.
Thanks should be given to cultural relic workers and hydrological experts from Sichuan Province and Chongqing Municipality, who made strenuous efforts in collecting all the inscriptions on the Baiheliang. From these inscriptions, 114 were to be hydrological data. Then they converted different units used in different dynasties to mark the water level into what we now use: the meter. As the two carp were carved on a slope with a 14.5 degrees angle, experts needed to turn the oblique distances into vertical ones. When all this work was completed, cultural relic and hydrological experts had a cycle period of low water on the upper reaches of the Yangtze River for the past 1,200 years. They concluded that every 3-5 years, there was a low water season, every 10 or 12 years, there was a dry season, and every 600 years there was an extremely low water level.
These conclusions form the most systematic hydrological data of the Yangtze River, and therefore, Baiheliang is called "the oldest hydrological station in the world."
The two largest water conservancy projects of China: the Gezhouba Hydropower Station and the Three Gorges Reservoir, both consulted the hydrological data inscribed at Baiheliang.
Stone carp jumping out of water promises a good harvest
There are many stone carvings in Three Gorges area to mark dry seasons in the Yangtze River. Among the well-known ones are the Ling (clever) stone of Chongqing, Longji (dragon ridge) stone of Yunyang, Longchuang (dragon bed) stone of Fengdu, Yingchun (greeting spring) stone of Baxian and Lianhua (lotus) stone of Jiangjin. None of them compare with Baiheliang in artistic and scientific value, for Baiheliang has the most complete and systematic inscriptions.
About the old saying that "stone carp jumping out of water promises a good harvest", some expert's research concludes it has a scientific basis.
Analysis of relevant departments on hydrological data of the trunk of the Yangtze River shows that the river experiences low water and floods about every 10 years, which is identical with the record of Baiheliang. The water level change is closely related with annual rainfall. Sichuan Province saw severe drought years before the stone carp appeared because the fish marked the lowest water level. The year they came out signified the end of the dry season. From then on, the water level would gradually rise. The rising water level was largely contributed to by the increase in rainfall, which certainly created favorable conditions for agriculture.
Our ancestors were unaware of the scientific reason, just thinking the stone carp brought to them a good harvest. They called the carp "auspicious fish".
However, the emergence of the stone carp did not always bring people happiness. Sometimes the river continued to be dry, and sometimes it saw flood havoc. Therefore, Baiheliang also carried poems to tell of the ominousness the fish might foretell.
Plan to protect Baiheliang discussed for 10 years
Since 1994, China's cultural relic protection departments have researched how to protect Baiheliang. Experts have raised several solutions, such as building an underwater museum, or reproducing it and laying it on the bank but submerging the original one. Finally, the solution issued by Prof. Ge Xiurun, academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, was accepted.
He suggested the covering of the Baiheliang reef by a water pressure-free container with an arch shape. Fresh water will be instilled in the container, making the inside and outside water pressure balanced. Two underwater channels will be built from the riverbanks, so visitors can see the stone inscriptions on Baiheliang by walking through the underwater channel.
Due to capital and technology limitations, however, the container will be only 70 meters long and 25 meters wide. But it includes the most valuable stone inscriptions of the eastern section of Baiheliang. The relevant departments have also decided to take underwater natural protection measures on a few inscriptions in the western section. They will daub a layer of protective chemical material on them first and then seal them with a reinforcing steel bar, cement and mortar after.
The Baiheliang will no longer threaten navigation in the Yangtze River as it is being submerged in the vast Three Gorges Reservoir. As the Baiheliang ridge reaches 138 meters at its peak height, it will be 30 meters below the final water surface of 175 meters when the entire project is finished by 2009.
(Beijing Youth Daily translated by Li Jinhui for China.org.cn, October 17, 2003)