Corey Byrnes. Fixing Landscape: A Techno-Poetic History of China’s Three Gorges. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018. 344 pp.
9 December 2020
Review by Christian Sorace
Although the structure only became fully operational in 2012, China’s Three Gorges Dam was first imagined in the early Republican period by Sun Yat-Sen (1866–1925), poetically invoked by Mao Zedong (1893–1976) at the height of socialism, and proudly lauded by Jiang Zemin (1926–) as a promise of infrastructural modernity and technological prowess. Underneath these modernizing dreams, however, lies a palimpsest of poetic traces and aesthetic reveries which Byrnes excavates in part 1 of this book. For Byrnes, the Three Gorges landscape is not an unchanging natural background but a surface of poetic inscription. As Byrnes puts it, “to ignore the possibility that dams and poems have something in common, or more especially that the latter might help make the former possible, would be to disregard the material force of representation” (p. 20). In the first chapter, Byrnes engages Du Fu’s (712–770) poems written during his exile in Kuizhou, located near the mouth of the Gorges at the frontier of the Tang imperium. The landscape evoked in these poems is one of shifting affective and atmospheric states, such as Du Fu’s homesickness. In the second chapter, Byrnes shows how Du Fu’s ephemeral relationship with his surroundings became memorialized in his readers’ search for his former residences as historical landmarks. Thus the Three Gorges are inscribed in the collective imagination.
Part 2 focuses on the modern reinscriptions of the Three Gorges “as a national landscape integral to the economic and political development of the modern Chinese state” (p. 95). This landscape was rewritten according to nineteenth century colonial fantasies of accessing China’s interior, imperial epistemologies of nature as an exploitable resource, racialized representations, and debates over Chineseness. Chapter 3 examines how knowledge was produced, mainly in English, about the Three Gorges landscape for the purpose of colonial and commercial exploitation. In chapter 4, Byrnes shows how the laboring bodies of the Yangzi river trackers—men who hauled boats over the river’s shoals and through its treacherous rapids before steamships put them out of work—became a site of inscription for Western anxieties, pseudo-scientific explanations for China’s lack of development, and fetishistic accounts of sympathy. Linguistically inaccessible to most Western travelers were the dirges sang by the river trackers, songs of romantic longing, lament, and refusal to be reduced to suffering flesh.
The third part of the book is about ways of retracing the worlds erased by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, which has resulted in the displacement of nearly 1.5 million people and inundation of thirteen cities along with more than one thousand towns and villages. These are events on a sublime and dystopic scale. Byrnes finds in the films of Jia Zhangke (chapter 5) and monumental scrolls painted by Yun-Fei Ji (chapter 6) aesthetic composites of the debris of time, transitional worlds, porous structures, bodies on the move, their everyday objects, trash heaps, watermarks, insignias of power, and underwater landscapes. Landscapes, in such a perspective, are never solid ground or stable referent. The crying gibbons from Li Bai’s poetry, a migrant worker exhaling cigarette smoke, and paeans to development haunt the space of the Three Gorges. As Byrnes puts it, “There are few places where the past and the present, the aesthetic and the material, have come together so intimately and violently as in the Three Gorges; this requires new ways of thinking and writing” (p. 7). This genre-bending book lives up to its promise.