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江源《閒坐書懷》 “Expressing thoughts while sitting leisurely” by Jiang Yuan





Thousands of years of the universe all occupy my mind,

Ten thousand miles across the cosmos: everywhere can be made home.

As [I] sit and watch the whole city bustling with [the music of] strings and pipes,

It seems that Songzhou is not yet the edge of the world. [1] Red characters rhyme.


Although I had heard about the world-renowned Jiuzhaigou 九寨溝, I hadn’t realised it would take about 7 to 10 hours to get there from Chengdu by coach until I started to plan for this trip. We first visited the pandas with overseas experience at the Dujiangyan Panda Base 都江堰熊貓基地, then passed by the new Wenchuan 汶川 that has been rebuilt after the 2008 earthquake, and had another stop in Songzhou.

“Songzhou is not yet the edge of the world”: indeed, there is still quite a distance from northwestern Sichuan (where Songzhou is located) to the western border of China. But as our coach left Chengdu and entered the Tibetan Qiang Autonomous Prefecture of Ngawa, the change in landscape spoke volumes for the region’s distinct identity. The road is flanked by endless gigantic ridges, dotted with houses marked by the colours, symbols and scripts of local ethnic groups. In the past, Songzhou was a strategic place and a hub of “tea-horse” trade for centuries, and it remains a portal to a different place today. In less than an hour’s drive, we arrived at the town next to the Jiuzhaigou National Park. We were treated to an opulent yak dinner and a dancing party at a Tibetan guest house.

The following day was all spent in the national park. Many say that Jiuzhaigou looks best in the colourful autumn. Even though it’s summertime now, Jiuzhaigou’s water is easily the best I’ve seen.

The water is so very clear that the small fish seem to be dancing in the air.

Not to forget the incredible colours of those landslide dams... What a fairy land!

Every trunk that keeps its shape intact thanks to the calcareous sinter in the clear water seems to have some stories that await your discovery. A view that prompts me to imagine the underwater palace of the Dragon King described in Journey to the West.

John Everett Millais' (1829-1896) Ophelia could be lying in a stream here, still singing her songs.

If you ever feel frustrated that words like gugu 汩汩, chanchan 潺潺, xiongxiong洶洶, pengpai 澎湃, etc. are all glossed as the appearance/sound of water, come listen to the water in the mountains. The diversity of words describing different sounds and states makes perfect sense!

I noticed that many trunks lying by the side of the paths and in the water had been cut down, and a video on the shuttle bus seems to have explained why. Between the introduction and guide to each scenic spot, the screen quietly plays an excellent documentary about the “discovery” of Jiuzhaigou.

“Why is such a beautiful place virtually non-existent in pre-modern literature?” I saw on the internet that some people posted the same question I had in my mind. Pre-modern Chinese writers seem to have perceived Songzhou more or less as a symbol of the edge of Chinese culture, and there are hardly any Chinese records of going beyond Songzhou until the republican period.

However, it is not true that Jiuzhaigou was unknown to all humans before the Chinese discovery of it. Just as Jiang Yuan writes: Songzhou is not yet the edge of the world. Several Tibetan villages had been here for generations. Archaeological findings have even suggested human inhabitants from as early as the Han dynasty.

This inaccessible yet amazing place had been isolated from most of China until some government personnel discovered its unbelievably rich forest resources in the 1950s. What followed was large-scale lumbering of well over 100 logging camps, stirring up serious conflicts between the workers and indigenous people whose religious beliefs forbid any harm to nature.

The lumbering came to a halt when the Cultural Revolution occupied the country. Around 1970, the beauty of Jiuzhaigou amazed the two Chinese who contributed to the documentary. But they didn’t dare to express their amazement openly, for overt appreciation of beauty would be labelled as a capitalistic inclination and a target of suppression at the time. They kept quiet and came back some ten years later, only to see Jiuzhaigou being destroyed by the resumed lumbering project.

As the Cultural Revolution had come to an end in the late 1970s, it was finally possible to propose a conservation plan for Jiuzhaigou. But the plan to stop the lumbering would mean cutting off the source of 75% the town’s revenue and going against the country’s overall construction plan that required massive amounts of timber. There was no way to get the conservation plan through.

The turning point came in 1978, when over a hundred pandas died of starvation due to large-scale flowering and dying of bamboo in Sichuan. Those who had been trying to protect Jiuzhaigou drafted a report about the protection and breeding of pandas, then a superstar in China’s international diplomatic scene, and named Jiuzhaigou as a natural conservation region. Finally, Jiuzhaigou was saved from further destruction before it was all too late.[2]

Having learned what it has taken to have Jiuzhaigou opened to the world outside, it seems even more impossible to make any complaints about not being here in the “best” season. After all, its beauty had remained undisturbed for centuries before its discovery, whereas I just happen to have had the opportunity given by history to catch a glimpse of that beauty...

[2] The complete guide to Jiuzhaigou I got in the souvenir shop also touched upon the history of Jiuzhaigou’s discovery, but the narrative is much simpler and plainer. For those who are interested to learn more perspectives from oral history, the video and the transcript of the documentary mentioned in this blog are available at the official website of the scenic area:


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