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Yangtze    by Philip Wilkinson order for
by Philip Wilkinson
Order:  USA  Can
BBC Books, 2006 (2006)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

This lovely coffee table book on the Yangtze flows fluidly through 3915 miles of Chinese scenery from the Tibetan highlands to Eastern China's lush lowlands and the sea, via glorious photographs in sections on the river's Upper Reaches, Three Gorges, Middle Reaches, and Lower Reaches. A timeline and map precede an Introduction that tells us the Yangtze is the third longest (after the Amazon and the Nile) world river. It speaks of the region's richness in flora and fauna, of species (including the Chinese sturgeon and river dolphin) at risk, of the river's long history, and of the few foreign explorers who navigated it.

The reader's journey begins: 'For the ancient Chinese, the source of the Yangtze was in heaven', in the Tanggula Mountains 'in the border country of Tibet and Qinghai, at Mount Geladandong.' Photos of icy mountain scenery are spectacular, while the text documents impacts on the region and its wildlife from human activity and climate change. Here, there are 'murmuring marshes', white-lipped deer, snow leopards, pink rhododendron, and steep cascades. There are also nomads, small settlements, colorful prayer flags, the scholarly Tibetan monks of Dege, the matriarchal Naxi, and the lyrically named Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Next comes 'the stunning, mountain-flanked reaches known as the Three Gorges', a landscape dramatically changed by the construction of the dam (whose history is described here). This 'biggest civil engineering project in the world' also resulted in a huge relocation of people (officially 1.25 million), and the disappearance of a traditional riverside life. The golden eagle and mandarin ducks can be seen in this region, whose town of Zigui was the home of one of China's best-loved poets, Qu Yuan.

In the river's Middle Reaches, seasonal floods 'have dominated the lives of the people and the wildlife here for as long as anyone can remember.' There are embankments and ramparts, dykes and sluices everywhere. But silt from the floods has also made the plain a fertile one. This part of the river is known for the Siberian crane and for research into the endangered Chinese sturgeon - around for 140 million years, it can grow as long as thirteen feet! The area also boasts the city Wuhan, once a major opium and tea trading center, and more recently renowned for Mao's dangerous, symbolic swim across the river.

Finally, the reader reaches the lush Lower Reaches, where 'the river basin produces about 70 per cent of China's paddy rice.' The region boasts some of the country's greatest cities, like Nanjing and the once notorious Shanghai, and is 'the beating heart of China'. Fishing is big, mainly with nets, and rarely now with trained cormorants. Old-style junks can occasionally be seen. The ancient Grand Canal meets the Yangtze in Zhenjiang, and is still in use today. This section includes a superb photo of one of the region's elegant arched bridges.

Finally, the sea is reached and 'the voyager leaves behind at last the seemingly eternal presence of the Long River.' In Yangtze, Philip Wilkinson combines wonderful, varied photographs with an interesting and informative presentation of history and legend, modern environmental concerns and politics, villages and cities - as the river slices through the country, its surroundings offer an intriguing sampling of China as a whole.

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