(Columbia University Press, 2018)
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In 1994, workers broke ground on China’s Three Gorges Dam. By its completion in 2012, the dam had transformed the ecology of the Yangzi River, displaced over a million people, and forever altered a landscape immortalized in centuries of literature and art. The controversial history of the dam is well known; what this book uncovers are its unexpected connections to the cultural traditions it seems to sever. By reconsidering the dam in relation to the aesthetic history of the Three Gorges region over more than two millennia, Fixing Landscape offers radically new ways of thinking about cultural and spatial production in contemporary China.
Corey Byrnes argues that this monumental feat of engineering can only be understood by confronting its status as a techno-poetic act, a form of landscaping indebted to both the technical knowledge of engineers and to the poetic legacies of the Gorges as cultural site. Synthesizing methods drawn from premodern, modern, and contemporary Chinese studies, as well as from critical geography, art history and the environmental humanities, Byrnes offers innovative readings of eighth-century poetry, paintings from the twelfth through twenty-first centuries, contemporary film, nineteenth-century British travelogues, and Chinese and Western maps, among other sources. Fixing Landscape shows that premodern poetry and visual art have something urgent to tell us about a socialist experiment in spatial production. Poems and paintings may not build dams, but Byrnes argues that the Three Gorges Dam would not exist as we know it without them.
“Poems and paintings build dams. This simple but powerful insight informs Corey Byrnes’ impressive book Fixing Landscape, a wonderfully detailed study weaving together 1,200 years of Chinese environmental, cultural, and artistic history. Byrnes traces representations of the Yangzi River, its surrounding landscape, and visions for its future through poems, paintings, political discourse, maps, films, and photographs, from the eighth-century poetry of Li Bai up to the construction of the Three Gorges Dam in 2012. Lucid and lyrical at the same time, Fixing Landscape shows how visions of the river’s transformation have been a millennium in the making, and plans for its damming over a century. Poets, travel writers, and politicians have made and remade the Yangzi into an oscillating symbol of tradition, modernization, nation-building, and Chinese character, and their portrayals themselves have become technologies through which the landscape is perceived, understood, and physically transformed. Byrnes’ work will stand beside Richard White’s path-breaking The Organic Machine, a study of the Columbia River, in its brilliance. It rivals Raymond Williams’ The Country and the City in its theoretical and temporal sweep and Haruo Shirane’s Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons in its historical ambition. Fixing Landscape is a must-read not only for those interested in Chinese environmental and cultural history, but for all scholars in the environmental humanities.”
– Ursula K. Heise, University of California, Los Angeles
Corey Byrnes is assistant professor of Chinese culture at Northwestern University