Lake Dongting, located in the northeastern corner of Hunan Province, is an enormous shallow lake that expands and contracts depending on the floodwater conditions in this part of the Yangtze River flood basin.* Since the flood basin conditions fluctuate with the seasons, the size of Lake Donting is a seasonal phenomenon. By mid-summer, enough run-off water from melting snow and spring rains has entered the Yangtze that its flood waters begin to fill Lake Dongting, via a number of backed-up feeder rivers to the Yangtze, and this condition continues until autumn, or the end of September. Satellite photos of "before and after" images of the lake (late winter/ early spring versus midsummer and onwards) are quite dramatic, as these NASA images indicate).
Lake Dongting is the remnants of what was once a vast wetland area consisting of lakes and swamps. Although upwards of 50% of the wetland has been reduced, due perhaps partly to climate change and partly to the water needs of an increasingly industrialized/ urbanized society, Lake Dongting is still a very, very big body of water. It functions as a natural reservoir, where several rivers, both large and small, spill over into the lake, a phenomenon without which cites, towns, and villages farther downstream would be hopelessly flooded each year. The principal feeder river to the lake is the Chang Jiang, but also the Xiang, the Zi, the Yuan, and the Li - all major rivers - spill over into Lake Dongting. The Chang Jiang deposits not only vast amounts of water in Lake Dongting each year, but also massive amounts of rich sediments.
There are as well a number of smaller rivers that contribute to Lake Dongting's seasonal swelling, among these, the Miluo River, where the famous Kingdom of Chu poet of the Warring States (BCE 475-221) Period of the Eastern Zhou (BCE 770-221) Dynasty, Qu Yuan, committed suicide as a protest against the general corruption of his era (his death is commemorated during the annual Dragon Boat Festival). There are two areas of the lake worthy of particular mention. These are:
Junshan Island is referred to alternately as 'the pearl of Dongting Lake' and 'a green snail on a silvery plate'. The island faces a lake within Lake Dongting, namely Lake Yueyang. The island houses the tomb of two wives of the legendary (i.e., pre- Xia (BCE ca 2000-1500) Dynasty period) Emperor Shun, it inspired the mountain seal of Emperor Qin Shi Huang of the Qin (BCE 221-207) Dynasty, it was the stage where Emperor Wu of the Western Han (BCE 206 - BC 009) Dynasty, who reigned from BCE 140 - 87, killed the dragon, and it houses the pavilion where the famous Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty Taoist Immortal (according to Taoism, there exist Eight Immortals), Lu Dongbin, recited poems to an eager public.
The island is also home to a number of rare plants such as the tropical/ subtropical evergreen tree - the Elaeocarpus (Elaeocarpus hainanensis) - the mottled bamboo, the square bamboo and the plum blossom bamboo, as well as 30 different kinds of birds, including the gull, the cuckoo and the swan.
Kindness Tower is located southwest of Yueyang City, the eastern lakefront of Lake Dongting. It was built during the Kaiyuan (CE 712-741) period of the reign (CE 712-756) of Emperor Xuan Zong of the Tang Dynasty. The present-day seven-storey, octagonal replacement tower of brick and stone stems from the Song (CE 960-1279) Dynasty.
From the second storey upwards of this 39-meter-high structure is a small Buddha figure in a recess on each storey. It is one of the most ancient towers in Hunan Province. There are many anecdotes regarding the origin of the tower. One such anecdote is as follows...
In ancient times, a girl whose father died of illness and whose family were too poor to pay for the man's burial, decided to sell herself as a bride in order to acquire the wherewithal to bury her father. The girl's filial piety greatly moved a local elderly scholar, who took pity on the girl and paid for the burial of her father. The scholar brought the poor girl to live at his house with his own daughters. Later, the girl married a man of good family, and became quite wealthy. To show her gratitude for the kindness shown her by the elderly scholar, the girl had a fine tower built in the scholar's honor, and it is this tower, albeit, not the original, that stands on the eastern lakefront of Lake Dongting, and which came to be known as the Kindness Tower.
* Those of you who have read the article on Shanghai (and if you haven't yet, you will surely soon read about the city on the new ChinaTravel webpages dedicated to World Expo 2010 in Shanghai) will know that "east" is rendered dong in Pinyin (as in Pudong, the part of Shanghai located to the east of the "Pu" (Huangpu) River) and "west" is rendered xi (as in Puxi, the part of Shanghai located to the west of the Huangpu River). To complete the picture, as it were, Lake Dongting gives rise to two names that contain the directions north and south, namely, Hubei (Province) and Hunan (Province), where bei means "north" and nan means south, and where the "Hu" (Lake) in question is none other than Lake Dongting, which gives one an idea of just how large this lake is, given that an entire province would be said to either lie "North of the Lake" or "South of the Lake".