The Many and Amphibious Lives of China’s Historical Wetlands

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This post by Yan Gao is the twelfth post in the Wetland Wednesday series, edited by Gabrielle McLaren


Steam hovering the Yunmeng wetlands, waves shaking up the Yueyang City.

–Meng Haoran (689-740CE)

These are the words Tang poet Meng Haoran (689-740 CE) wrote in the eighth century about the water landscape around the Dongting Lake (south of the Yangzi in its middle reaches). This description was infused with romantic sentiments towards the Yunmeng wetlands, where the present-day central Yangzi valley evolved from. Meng’s poem forever imprinted the ancient wetlands in people’s minds. 

More than a millennium ago, the ancient Yunmeng wetlands was a royal hunting ground for the Kingdom of Chu (8th-3rd century BCE) on the southern frontier of the Zhou state. The rich fauna and flora in the wetlands were vividly described in various folk songs and poems, the most famous among which was written by Chu statesman and poet Qu Yuan (339-278BCE). Qu Yuan went into exile in the wilderness and eventually drowned himself in the Miluo river, forever becoming part of the wetlands and its culture. Though an official whose political dreams could not be fulfilled, Qu Yuan left a rich literary legacy. In one of his verses, Nine Songs: the Lady of Xiang (Jiuge: Xiang furen), he depicted the entangled relationships of human living and wetland biodiversity—aquatic plants were flourishing; houses were surrounded by water and roofed with lotus leaves. Waterfowl rested on top of the houses while other birds sought food in the muddy waters; deer wandered into the courtyards, and alligators (jiao) crawled onto the river banks, soaking in the sun. 

Qu Yuan as depicted in the Nine Songs (Jiu Ge), imprint of presumably the 14th century. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, via Wikicommons.

During imperial times, these romantic descriptions became rarer as the ancient wetlands shrank away. We now only see vestiges of the ancient wetlands—a series of lakes and marshlands—scattering around the central Yangzi valley. In addition to population growth and a thirst for cultivable lands, the massive land reclamation was also driven by the ideas of wetlands being the “yin” space full of unsettling energy and the breeding grounds for chaos. However, my research shows that the opposite could also be true as wetlands provided resources and a space for local communities to thrive in. This in turn profoundly shaped their cultures. Situated at the confluence between the Yangzi River and its biggest tributary the Han River, the wetlands witnessed the everlasting fluid lifestyle of the local communities. 

Because of the very fluid nature of wetlands, people in the valley developed lifestyles that shifted between land and water. Due to the seasonal floods and drainage conditions in the region despite the increasing number of dikes being built, people’s lives were often spent half farming and half fishing. In the spring and summer, when water rose, people cultivated crops. In the fall and winter, when the water receded, people moved closer to lakes to fish. During big floods, the reverse was also true—if land and houses were flooded, people switched to fishing for additional life resources. The best illustration of the amphibious lifestyle in the region was jiaopai, a type of houseboat for families to live on the waters. By living on such houseboats, people were no longer bound to their homes on land; they lived through wetlands by catching fish or harvesting aquatic plants. 

Households also developed community-based collaborations on house-building, crop cultivation, and dike construction and maintenance to live in the wetlands. Specific gender and seasonal labour patterns distinct from the traditional pattern in which “men cultivated and women weaved”—emerged from these collaborations. Records show that in some counties, women planted seedlings in the fields while men cheered by playing drums beside the fields or preparing food for them. 

Map of the Middle Yangzi Region circa 1950s, via WikiCommons.

Specific social institutions developed and practised to govern activities on the wetlands. For example, rules of rotation were established to make sure that families shared the lakefront and accessed lake resources on a rotational basis. Rights for using the lake surface and lake bottom were also separated, so some people could harvest aquatic plants while others could make profits from fishing. Self-governance institutions managed the construction and upkeep of dikes to ensure the safety of communities in water-menacing situations. People even allegedly relied on the crane—which lived in the wetlands—to draw dividing lines between dike sections while mediating conflicts over who was responsible for parts of the dike. 

In addition to providing means of subsistence, wetlands and their abundance were ingrained into various local beliefs. A closer look at the historical records shows that people in different communities worshipped a wide variety of deities, such as the Great Yu, the bodhisattva Guanyin, the Dragon King and the Lord Guan (Guandi). Local gazetteers recorded numerous stories of stressful flooding events in which people resorted to various deities for protection and rescue. The degree of religiosity among communities in this region was to a large extent derived from these amphibious communities’ consciousness that they needed to adapt to their wetland environments.  

As the wetlands shaped the local people’s amphibious lifestyle, gender patterns, and community cultures; people’s lives were manifestations of productive, fluid wetland ecosystems in the central Yangzi valley. Because of the population growth and massive land reclamations, the historical wetlands have drastically decreased, especially over the past two centuries. So have the communities of fishing folks. But, many of the hydroagricultural practices discovered in historical wetlands are still used in the region today, such as fishing and the cultivation of aquatic plants. The vestiges of historical wetlands were increasingly turned into urban wetland parks that were engineered for leisure, ecotourism, and conservation in urban environments. The efforts of reimaging and redesigning the wetlands have transformed urban living spaces as well as people’s lifestyle. In the megacity of Wuhan, several newly designed urban wetland parks have become an essential part of the city infrastructure, revealing a new kind of wetland culture. In addition, education about the wetlands is integrated into the school activities, in which students learn about the wetland ecologies and shape ideas for future wetlands.

A view of the Chuidi Scenic Area at the Donghu National Wetland Park, via Wikicommons.

 Strolling through the wetland parks today, we see billboards explaining the functioning of wetland ecosystems, small tags identifying aquatic plants and animals in the wetlands, families camping, and social events such as the dragon boat competitions. Perhaps by seeing the beauty of wetlands, we may recall Meng Haoran’s verses on the Yunmeng wetlands. From the rowing dragon boats, we can still sense the pulse of the ancient wetlands, and the lingering soul of the poet Qu Yuan in the waters. One may wonder if these wetland parks are the heritage of the ancient Yunmeng wetlands in the Anthropocene. 

Wetlands through the eyes of a Chinese student involved in a wetland education program, via Tencent.

Further reading: Gao, Yan. Yangzi Waters: Transforming the Water Regime of the Jianghan Plain in Late Imperial China. Leiden: Brill. 2022. 

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Yan Gao

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