The Yangtze and My Father:
A Love Story

By Yuan Jinmei [1]

Translated by Paul E. Festa

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright August 2017)

Yuan Jinmei

When I was young, I never knew fish got sick, birds became poisoned, kids died. My father, however, was well aware. He was a biologist. After he died, I learned from his students that fish from the Yangtze River are inedible. Birds fly in the cogon grass of the Yangtze’s riparian zone; they flutter and fly, and plunge and die—it’s lead poisoning. Children raised near the river, young children, contract liver cancer.

Before people knew why, the great Yangtze—the legendary river that for so long flowed from the horizon into eternal poems and paintings—suddenly lost its halcyon aura as the carefree setting for the solitary swan under sunset clouds, suddenly found its expansive bosom heretofore unfailingly open to all and sundry sailing ships now closed. The Yangtze, suddenly, became our enemy.

On a recent trip to Jiangnan, the region south of the Yangtze’s lower reaches, I visited the River. The turbid water flowed silently, like a stubborn old man dragging a crooked walking stick and hobbling hatefully past his unworthy descendants without ever looking back.

At that moment, I felt I needed to tell the Yangtze and those unworthy descendants along its banks my father’s story. To the day he died, father’s attachment to the Yangtze could be described as ‘one step forward, three looks back’; for every step that carried him away from the river, he took three long hard looks back at it. My hope is that on the day when people finally realize they owe nature an apology, they will recall the following vignettes.

  1. The Fish Story

Father died in the U.S. state of Arizona. Before he died, my younger brother and I took him on vacation; this would be the last trip of his life. He took loads of pictures of things that appealed to him. After returning home, he gathered the pictures into a photo album and annotated each picture with a few sentences, turning the album into a photo essay. Each time I flip through the photo album, looking at the pictures he took and reading his annotations, the album becomes a palimpsest of faded photographs narrating the story of father’s life.

On the album’s first page are two pictures of fish that my father shot with an underwater camera in Hawaii’s Hanauma Bay. Those red-and-yellow dappled tropical fish are flat as Chinese fountain palm fans; their swimming thrusts churn out swirling dark blue ripples that, like a gently blowing breeze, quiver two adjacent stalks of brown seagrass

Beneath these two photographs, father wrote: “Fish, fish, Yangtze Gezhouba Dam fish need to swim upriver to spawn.”

Father wasn’t unlike other elderly Chinese parents who travel to America to visit their children. He missed my younger brother and me dearly. Merely a day after he arrived, however, he said, “I can stay for one month at most; I’ve a pile of important matters to attend to back home.” My brother and I responded in unison, “You’re retired. Have your grad students take care of those important matters.” Father shot back, “Graduate students haven’t enough status. Who’d listen to them?” My brother and I countered, again in concert, “You’ve plenty of status, but who listens to you?” Father followed up with a long sigh. A minute later, he reprised his point, “As soon as the Yangtze fish begin their migration, I definitely need to go.”

The Yangtze fish migration has always prompted father’s departure. He began this regimen in the 1970s, when the Gezhouba Dam was built. I recall father’s friend, Old Gu; he was sitting on my small writing stool, wearing puffy cloth shoes and wolfing down a bowl of fried rice, while father, bundled up in a tattered quilted cotton coat, paced back and forth vexedly in the guest room.

“So the dam’s fishway is futile?” Father queried.

“Useless,” replied Old Gu.

“The fish don’t use the fishway?” Father questioned further.

“Nope,” Old Gu affirmed.

“So the fish can’t make it upriver?” Father asked again, continuing his probe.

“I just came from Gezhouba Dam. The fish all stop right there,” Old Gu reported.

“Long before they built the dam I told them: fish don’t follow people’s directives; they play by their own rules,” Father protested with exasperation.

“The people of Gezhouba imagine that this year the local fishery is enjoying a bumper harvest. They’re snatching up the fish fry and filling their pickle jars,” Old Gu added, reproachfully.

“Hurry up with your meal,” snapped father, “we’re heading out as soon as you’re done.”

At that time, I had no idea where they were going. I only knew that they left with an anxious sense of urgency, like two firemen responding to an emergency call. Later I learned that, together with three graduate students, they headed straight to the Gezhouba Dam fishway, where they racked their brains trying to figure out a solution to the impeded fish migration. Alas, the fish could comprehend neither the people’s language nor their “fishway” road signs. They simply stopped, seemingly senselessly, below the dam, waiting for the giant sluicegate to open and mercifully permit them to pass through.

Yuan Chuanmi (1926-1994) discusses Yangtze River fish conservation with colleagues, circa 1986.

In the end, father and Lao Gu, two aquatic biology professors assisted by their graduate students, could do no more than use primitive water pails to carry the instinct-bound fish, one pail at a time, around the dam. Each year thereafter, as soon as the annual migration began, they headed out with their graduate students to give their fish brethren a helping hand, transporting them past the dam. This was called “scientific research.” Fish must migrate annually; consequently, father acquired a “scientific research” job from which he could never retire.

Father died before the Three Gorges Dam on the upper Yangtze River began to store water; otherwise he would have taken on yet another “scientific research” task from which he could never retire. He used to grouse, “We professors can do little more than ‘mend the fold after the sheep are gone.’ As long as the ‘sheep’ are still around, no matter how many times you speak up or sound the alarm, no one will listen.”

We’re an unwaveringly utilitarian nation; moreover, we see only the utility immediately before our eyes. We’re quick to squander or spoil resources that belong to future generations. We work and pray hard for an abundance of offspring, but our concerns come to a screeching halt at our grandchildren’s generation. As for our great-grandchildren, and their children, whether they will see the sun and moon, relish a fresh breeze and blue sky, we’ll be dead and gone, so ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ We casually ridicule those who, like the proverbial man of the ancient kingdom of Qi, worry lest the sky might fall. How could the heavens collapse? This is surely idle fear, unwarranted anxiety. Our bright outlook is baseless, springing forth from nowhere, but we embrace it with bold and righteous assurance.

As luck would have it, father was one of those fearful folks like the man of Qi. He even bested the man of Qi by his endowment of dogged perseverance, like the ‘foolish old man who moved the mountains.’ Year after year, father and his disciples unfailingly moved the fish.

  1. The Duck Story

On page two of father’s photo album is a picture of a raft of ducks. At that time, we noticed a place on the map called Swan Lake, and decided to take father there. We drove for three hours through boundless cornfields before finally entering the forest. There wasn’t a whisper of wind. Old vines draped listlessly from tree branches, like ancient unshaven whiskers; their low hanging shoots gently cloaked the fallen leaves rotting across the forest floor. We found Swan Lake. There were no swans on the lake. Parked there, instead, was an impressive paddling of ducks. The ducks were densely clustered, one brushing up against another; from a distance, they looked like a swarm of fleas. Our dog approached the edge of the lake for a drink. All of a sudden, the lake erupted in riotous quacking as the ducks, like a well-drilled battalion of soldiers, charged our dog to defend their territory. Father burst into laughter and snapped this duck photo.

Below the photo, he wrote: “Ducks, Shanghai Pudong ducks are a testimonial to Yangtze River pollution.”

Father and a graduate student studying fish, spring 1981.

In the late 1970’s, people first discovered that liver cancer incidence rates in the Pudong-Chongming Island area of Shanghai were unusually high. Father had an exceptional graduate student named Huang Cheng, who was an orphan. His parents both died of liver cancer. Father frequently gave him pocket money. They were a close-knit family of five siblings from Shanghai’s Pudong district. While Huang Cheng was still in graduate school, his older brother died, also of liver cancer. No one knew the reason. Together with a few graduate students, father began an investigation to ascertain why liver cancer rates were so high in the Pudong area.

Father chose to study the ducks of the Yangtze’s lower reaches. During that period, ducks were always being delivered to our home. Our tiny kitchen reeked of duck dung. Pinching our noses, my younger brother and I would tiptoe into the kitchen to grab a snack: our cruller or sesame pastry possessed the pong of duck poop. My mom quarreled with father, imploring him to get rid of the ducks. Father replied, “Where can I take them? I certainly can’t raise them in my campus office, can I?”

The duck study results eventually came out. More than half the Pudong-Chongming Island area ducks that lived for two years or longer contracted liver cancer. The conclusion was clear: the water of the lower Yangtze River was severely polluted.

In 1989, toting a black leather suitcase, father set off for America to participate in the “International Aquatic Resources Conservation Conference.” Huang Cheng and I accompanied him to the airport. His black leather suitcase was stuffed with the detailed report and accompanying evidence of the lower Yangtze basin water pollution situation. He wore a brand new Western-style suit with the pant legs rolled up to his knees. On his feet he had a pair of olive drab PLA sneakers. Huang Cheng and I entreated him to let down his pant legs and swap the army sneaks for leather shoes. He refused to relent: “I spend all day knee-deep in the Yangtze River; this is what I’m used to.” This was how he boarded the airplane. He looked nothing at all like a professor. He resembled more a typical Yangtze River fisherman. For half his lifetime, father devoted himself to investigating the Yangtze, pouring his heart and soul into that river, his home away from home. Like the legendary ‘heroes of the rivers and lakes’ in martial arts novels, he was a champion of the weak and helpless, defending the Yangtze River and its natural inhabitants against injury and injustice.

Father was unhappy when he returned from the conference. He explained disconsolately: “Reports from other countries and regions not only examine the pollution problem but also move on to explore measures to manage and resolve it. After I finished my pollution analysis, participants asked me, ‘What remedies are being pursued in your country?’ I couldn’t respond; we’ve none.” This conference took place over ten years ago. At that time, Chinese hadn’t yet come to view environmental protection as an important issue. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, making money was all that mattered. People were preoccupied with beautifying the interior of their own nests. Their front sidewalk could be crumbling and they wouldn’t notice. Who, then, would take the trouble to figure out how to clean up the filth flowing into the Yangtze and causing ducks to contract liver cancer?

Last year, I bumped into Huang Cheng, who was on a short visit to the States. I asked him how he was doing. He said he had just come from Shanghai; his younger sister had died of liver cancer. We both thereupon thought of father. Huang Cheng recalled the many papers and reports father had written. In these writings, father early on issued strident wake-up calls concerning the Yangtze’s pollution crisis. Unfortunately, during his lifetime, Chinese society was at first embroiled in struggle with heaven and earth; people parlayed their ignorance about nature into dominion over nature. Thereafter, society shifted its obsession toward extracting money from heaven and earth; people misperceived their reckless exploitation of nature as extracting wealth from nature. Father was a Don Quixote; together with his “Sancho Panzas”—a few loyal and devoted graduate students—they declared war on this society whose churning wheels are as difficult to stop as the sails of a windmill. Until father died, they battled bravely, like a lone battalion without backup.

  1. The Boat Story

On page three of father’s photo album is a picture of us on the Colorado River. My younger brother and I feared that father might feel lonely in America and miss his life’s passion of exploration on the Yangtze, so we decided to take him boating on the Colorado River. The water was emerald green; our small motorboat was ivory colored. Father was overjoyed, wearing his straw fisherman’s hat and dress pants rolled above his knees. With the boat’s helm in hand, he was all smiles, as if he had returned home. Our small ivory motorboat skimmed through the water, spraying fine water pearls in all directions. It was like a fluent figure skate cutting a white crystalline groove in the translucent ice surface. I recall a small bird that looked like a sparrow alighting on our boat’s bow; my younger brother fed it some bread. This bird hadn’t the slightest fear of people. Indeed, it went so far as to hop leisurely over to the chair on which we had set our food and help itself to a snack. Father was much moved and sighed, “I can’t imagine how many generations will have to pass before we can establish this kind of trusting animal-human relationship in China. A Jiangnan sparrow usually recoils from the sight of a person as if seeing a demon.” I understood father’s point, of course. A few scientists alone couldn’t be relied upon to resolve China’s wildlife crisis and environmental pollution problem. From the helm, father asked me to snap a photo of him, the small bird, and the boat.

Under the picture, he wrote: “We must educate the common folk of the Yangtze River Valley.”

After the Shanghai Pudong duck study evidenced that the Yangtze was heavily polluted, father busied himself year round working on the Yangtze. He and his graduate students lived for long stretches on fishermen’s boats collecting materials. My younger brother and I were still small, but we desperately wanted to tag along on the fishing boat and take a tour of the Yangtze and Lake Tai. One summer, after the school year ended, father took me along. The boat was tiny. I slept in the stern cabin, which was so cramped I couldn’t straighten out my legs. I held my bladder until after dark; not until then did I dare to project my butt high over the gunwale and pee. It was the middle of the fishing season; day and night the boat jolted and bounced on the water. Father and his team woke before dawn to rummage through the pile of captured fish. They sliced the fish into thin sections and examined each section under a microscope. They found that some fish developed a crooked spine, others had blood spots on their bodies. They also discovered that the populations of some species had declined. I was bored stiff on the boat. For a whole week, I ate only boiled rice with fish, without salt and oil. Finally back on shore, even walking was awkward; I felt like a frog, lurching and stumbling. After that I no longer had any interest in tagging along on the boat. My younger brother also went along once. That time they went to Lake Tai, and the boat was a bit bigger. Upon returning, he cried: “We darn near drowned, almost died. Never again.” But father and his team never missed a trip; year after year, as soon as the fishing season opened, off they went. They worked together to monitor closely any change occurring to aquatic resources and creatures throughout the Yangtze River Valley. Eventually, they began chartering a fishing boat; this enabled them to follow the fish wherever they might go: from the lower Yangtze all the way to Chongqing; from Lake Tai all the way to Poyang Lake, Jiangxi. They motored all over the Yangtze, year after year, wind or rain. They also collected deformed birds; one bird, a kind of sparrow, had grown a third wing, which was undersized and looked like a pocket torn away from a child’s clothes. My younger brother and I found this amusing, but father reminded us that this mutation was likely a byproduct of pollution.

Later, father filled his N University office with fish and other Yangtze Valley animal specimens, large and small, bearing mutations caused by water pollution. I occasionally visited my father’s office; seeing so many pollution plagued fish and animal specimens left me at a loss for words. Discussing these polluted creatures, father, his colleagues, and his graduate students wore grave faces, as if the enemy’s army had reached the city gate. The paper mills and printing factories along the Yangtze were still discharging lead-contaminated water into the river. The tuberculosis and psychiatric hospitals still discarded unwanted medicines into the river. What could powerless intellectuals like father and his colleagues possibly do about this? I needled father: “As long as your contaminated creatures don’t threaten the political stability of the nation, no one will pay heed to your countermeasures.”

Following the fish on Lake Tai, July 1986. On the back of this photo, Father wrote: “The tide of my heart swells with the waves” (心潮逐浪高).

Father remained, as always, busy as a bee on the Yangtze. I eventually came to realize that driving him was a kind of vital spirit, one that endowed his life with significance. “Sacrifice” or “passion” falls short of describing it. This vital spirit was animated by a cool-headed rationality, a reasoned sense of responsibility toward not just himself, but also future generations; not just growth and development today, but also the future of the planet on which human beings exist. This vital spirit was simultaneously scientific and humanist. Father and his generation of intellectuals suffered in silence; during an era devoid of this scientific and humanist spirit, they accomplished a great deal, the importance of which the people of today are just beginning to recognize.

  1. Father’s Memorial Story

The final picture in father’s photo album is from his own memorial. Father, of course, didn’t make this contribution; my mother did. Below the picture, mother wrote: “Rather than moisten each other with spittle as the lake runs dry, it’s better to forget about each other while swimming freely in vast rivers and lakes.” This epigram is from the parable of two fish in Zhuangzi’s “The Grandmaster.” As a small pond runs dry, two fish spit at each other, desperately trying to keep each other moist. People lament admiringly over this touching spectacle of true affection and devotion! As for the fish, however, they would much prefer to return to their natural state, swimming merrily in mighty rivers and great lakes without worrying a morsel about each other’s welfare. At death, father returned to nature.

Like too many of China’s poor but persevering middle-aged intellectuals, father died too early, in the prime of his life. He had only recently returned from his last trip. With the Yangtze fish migration season approaching, he had purchased his plane ticket back to China. But he never made that flight. For a few days prior to his death, he suffered terrible itching from head to toe. Later, he suddenly began violently spitting up blood. By the time the ambulance arrived, he was gone. Other than this photo album and the unforgettable annotations about the Yangtze River he composed below each picture, he left no last words.

The doctor informed us that the likely cause of father’s death was lead poisoning. Mother never said a word. Just prior to the Yangtze fish migration season, she returned to China with father’s ashes, right on schedule. This is how father returned to the Yangtze River.

In America, father pined for the Yangtze; clinging tightly to his memories of his beloved river, he never took a step away without thrice looking back. Jiangnan was the obvious site for his memorial. After mother returned to Nanjing with his ashes, father’s department head explained to her remorsefully that the party branch secretary had secretly used department money to speculate on futures contracts, and lost it all there. The department couldn’t even pay faculty bonuses that year, and had no money to host father’s memorial. In the end, father’s graduate student Huang Cheng showed up, contributing 300 yuan for father’s memorial. Lao Gu also made a contribution, as did a number of father’s colleagues and students. Mother couldn’t help but cry.

Father’s memorial was held on the bank of the Yangtze River. In addition to his colleagues and students, a number of local fishermen also attended. At the memorial, father’s life story was retold:

Father’s name was Yuan Chuanmi. He was born to a well-to-do Jiangnan landlord family. He graduated from Jinling University and went on to teach in the Biology Department of N University till retirement. As a youngster, he followed foreign fashions: he wore a necktie and spoke English. He was absolutely not that latter-day “fisherman” looking uncouth in a Western suit. Behind mother’s back, he would sneak my younger brother and me off to the Jiming Western Restaurant for a steak dinner. Later, during the Cultural Revolution, he was sent to the countryside, where for a few years he raised pigs. Like all successfully “reformed” intellectuals, father diligently cleansed from his head the detritus of non-proletarian consciousness passed down from his class forebears. Thereafter, he closely identified with the workers and peasants. In the 1970’s, after landing a normal job, he wholly committed himself to environmental protection on the Yangtze River, and remained dedicated to this cause till the day he died. This is father’s life story in a nutshell—quite uncomplicated. Father’s generation of intellectuals forswore an inner lifeworld, which they were compelled to lay bare for all to see. Distinctively their own was only that scientific and humanist spirit deeply rooted in the noble Chinese intellectual conscience. This vital spirit was the fulcrum of father’s life.

This concludes father’s story. But the Yangtze’s story isn’t over, and likely never will be. Recently, Lao Gu sent me a local newspaper featuring a report of a fisherman who caught a rare Yangtze creature—a Chinese paddlefish. The report describes how the fisherman and scientists spared no effort to save the paddlefish. Lao Gu, after reading this article, just had to have his son take the article to father’s grave and burn it, in order to console father’s spirit. It was father, after all, who discovered and named the first Yangtze paddlefish. The newspaper had asked me to discuss how father would feel were he to witness such care and concern extended toward a rare animal. At the time, father had already been dead for nine years. That scientific and humanist spirit preserved by father’s generation of intellectuals had finally become part of the common people’s consciousness. I wonder how father would feel about that?

I imagine father might say, “Rather than moisten each other with spittle as the lake runs dry, it’s better to forget about each other while swimming freely in vast rivers and lakes.”

Father’s scientific vocation gave him the foresight lacking in other people. Rather than praise mankind’s concern for creatures on the cusp of a crisis, it’s preferable to allow animals to go undisturbed, to occupy their own niche on the planet where, like humans, they can lead a peaceful existence. Earth is not ours to dominate or control. Yangtze River fish have the right to reject mankind’s commands and concerns. Animals should be allowed to live freely, each species according to its own instincts. On behalf of fish, birds, ducks, and paddlefish, father would issue, I believe, this declaration of independence.

Translator’s Note:

[1] This essay, by Yuan Jinmei 袁劲梅, was originally published on February 12, 2005 in《侨报》under the title《一步三回头》. The essay was awarded the 五大道文學獎 for nonfiction and is collected in 袁劲梅《父亲到死,一步三回头》(长江文艺出版社,2013).