Searching for the sources of China’s great rivers.
When Confucius described water as “twisting around ten thousand times but always going eastward,” he seemed to imply that the eastbound flow of rivers was tantamount to a law of nature, almost a moral precept. There is no clearer illustration of how a culture’s geography may affect its worldview. Why would anyone who had never stepped foot outside China have any reason to doubt that this was how the world was made?
In China the symmetry of east and west is broken by tectonic forces. Westward lie the mountains, the great Tibetan plateau at the roof of the world, pushed upward where the Indo-Australian plate crashes into and plunges beneath the Eurasian. Eastward lies the ocean: only Taiwan and Japan block the way to the Pacific’s expanse, which might as well be endless. The flow, the pull, the tilt of the world, is from mountains to water, from shan to shui.
This is the direction of the mighty waterways that have dominated the country’s topographic consciousness. “A great man,” wrote the Ming scholar and explorer Xu Xiake, “should in the morning be at the blue sea, and in the evening at Mount Cangwu,” a sacred peak in southern Hunan province. To the perplexity of Western observers (not least when confronted with Chinese maps), the innate mental compass of the Chinese points not north–south, but east–west. The Chinese people articulate and imagine space differently from Westerners—and no wonder.
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