Dujiangyan Irrigation Project

Written by ivana Updated Aug. 26, 2021

The Doujiangyan Irrigation Project, although completed over 2,000 years ago, is in perfect working order to this day. Presently it functions not only as a flood prevention mechanism but also as an immense source of irrigation as well as a means to facilitate shipping and wood drifting. It has contributed greatly to the accumulation of wealth in the Chengdu Plain and has helped it earn its reputation as "The Land of Affluence".

Erwang Temple

Located at the foot of Yulei Mountain, the Erwang Temple was built in memory of Li Bing and his son, who together constructed the Dujiangyan Irrigation Project. It was initially named the Wang Di (watching emperor) Temple to commemorate Duyu, the emperor of Shu. During the Northern and Southern Dynasties, when the Wang Di Temple was moved to Pi County, it was renamed Chongde Temple to show respect to Li Bing and his son. During the Song Dynasty when Li Bing and his son were granted the noble title, it was again renamed as the Wang (marquis) Temple. The present title of Erwang was not affixed until the Qing Dynasty.

Generally speaking, the buildings of the Erwang Temple have many unique features: they occupy as little land as possible, covering only 10,072 square meters; the buildings are incredibly dense allowing for maximum strength and resistance; the structures themselves use up around 60% of the temple ground it deviates architecturally from middle axial symmetry, which is against the basic character of most ancient buildings in China; there is a great difference in height amongst the buildings as the highest is over 63 meters taller than the shortest, and its grand scale is in high contrast to its compact arrangement.

If you walk down the mountain behind the temple, through a pavilion housing the ancient wood of the Shang Dynasty, and across a yard of low celestial pines, you will arrive at the exhibition room. The exhibition room is home to a stele with engravings of two authentic works by Zhang Dagian and Xu Beihong. The first is a series of figures of ladies by Dagian, while the other depicts the galloping horses of Beihong’s work.

Parallel to the exhibition room is the rear hall of the Erwang Temple, which is dedicated to the idols of Li Bing and his wife. Because of the great contributions made by Li Bing and his son, the family was deified by later generations.

The grand hall is called Li Bing Hall. It is in traditional Chinese courtyard style, opposite an opera building. During the Ming and Qing Dynasties on June 24th of the Chinese lunar calendar, a temple fair was held. Traditional opera would be on show and people would go to the fair to worship gods, pray for happiness, and enjoy the traditional operas. The custom of visiting the temple fair has resumed since 1992. Walking down further, besides the stairs covered by shade, visitors can see inscriptions on the cliffs. These sum up the maintenance experience of the Doujiangyan Project over the years. This kind of information is of great scientific value. When it comes to the maintenance of this ancient project, people follow the mnemonic rhyme consisting of six characters: "Shen Tao Tan, Di Zuo Yan" (dredging the sand deeper, building the dam lower). Among them, "Yan (dam)" refers in particular to the Feishayan and "Tan (shoal)" to the riverbed of Fengqiwo, a shoal opposite the Feishayan. During the dry season of each year, workers are encouraged to dredge silt deeply throughout the process of annual maintenance.

In ancient times, people buried 3 stone men and horses underwater to act as a gauge. The dredging depth was required to be no higher than their shoulder in flood season or lower than their feet in the dry season. Today, however, four lying irons have taken their place, the men and horses long since removed. The proper depth is achieved when the irons are in sight during the process of dredging. Dredging too deeply can force too much water to flow into the Baopingkou, and could possibly lead to flooding. This would also cause a shortage of water necessary for the irrigation system to work properly.

Another motto the local people subscribe to consists of 8 characters "Yu Wan Jie Jiao, Feng Zheng Chou Xin".These concern the method of harnessing the Minjiang River, transporting water to the irrigation area, and dredging the watercourse for proper drainage. It also serves as a general rule for harnessing and dredging rivers. The first four characters, "Yu Wan Jie Jiao" stipulate that during the process of annual maintenance, people should cut the acute angle of the bank at the curve of the river so as to straighten the watercourse and reduce the impulsive force of the mainstream to the bank. The latter four characters, "Feng Zheng Chou Xin" say that if the reach is straight, people should make the middle of the riverbed deeper to concentrate the current of the mainstream so that the river will not rise over the bank and submerge the fields.

In the front of the hall stands a building named "Yue (music) Lou (building)", a typical imitation of a Taoist-style building from the Qing Dynasty. On Tomb-sweeping Day when the water recedes, people have always held a great ceremony and invited high officials from Chengdu to join. Music is often played as a ceremony to welcome guests.

Anlan Suspension Bridge

Spanning 320 meters, the Anlan Suspension Bridge is one of the great 5 ancient bridges in China. It was originally called Rope Bridge or Bamboo Rattan Bridge, as the materials used in the bridge construction were bamboo and rattan. During the Song Dynasty, people renamed it the Pingshi (affairs-observation) Bridge. During the last years of the Ming Dynasty, the bridge was destroyed during warfare. In the 8th Jiaqing year (1803) of the Qing Dynasty, He Xiande and his wife proposed the construction of a bamboo chain bridge with surface boards and side railings. The bridge’s main purpose was to allow people to safely get over the raging waves and was thus renamed the Anlan Suspension Bridge, or Couple's Bridge, to commemorate the two founders. It soon became, and still is, a vital communication passage across the river. In 1974, under State Council approval, the bridge was moved 100 meters away from its original location and rebuilt with steel wire. This was coordinated with the plan to build the sluice gate of the outer river. The Anlan Suspension Bridge is just one of many suspension bridge forms created by the ancient Chinese people using local materials such as bamboo and wood to conquer the high mountains, deep valleys, rip currents, and dangerous shoals.


Yuzui is the principal portion of the Dujiangyan Irrigation Project. Stand at the dam and you can see the Minjiang River surging forward and dividing into two streams, the inner river, and the outer river bordering the Yuzui. The Yuzui is the front part of the dividing dike. Its function is indicated by the six characters engraved in the cliff of the Erwang Temple; namely, "Fen (divide) Si (four) Liu (six), Ping (balance) Liao (flood) Han (drought)".This means to divide the water. During the construction of the Yuzui, in line with local geographic conditions, Li Bing decided to situate it on the base of the Hanjia Dam, which separated into two waterways, getting twice the result with half the effort. Then, the fish-mouth dam divided the Minjiang River into 2 streams, namely, the inner and the outer rivers. The riverbed is lower at the inner part but higher at the outer. In addition, there is a curve here. So, during the spring plowing season when the flow of the river is small, 60 percent of the water of the main stream flows to the inner river, which guarantees the water necessary for agricultural irrigation in the Chengdu Plain. However, during the flood season when flow increases sharply and water levels rise to a great extent, the effect of the curve on the water reduces greatly. Furthermore, the outer river is wider than the inner one. Therefore, the flow of the inner river will be automatically less than the outer. In fact, only 40 percent of the total current flows into the inner river, thus helping to solve the problem of flooding in the Chengdu Plain to a great degree. Besides, the Yuzui also has the function of discharging silt and stone. As one of the longest tributaries of the Yangtze River, the Minjiang River rises in Songpan County, Sichuan Province, with a total length of 700 kilometers. The reach from the fountainhead to the Yuzui is about 340 kilometers, which basically belongs to the upper and middle reaches of the river. There will be tons of silt and stone going downstream every year. Due to the principle of "curve circulation", the current produced at the curve will carry the stone and silt lying down to the upper layer, then, 80 percent of it will be carried into the outer river, which prevents the inner river from being choked. The Yuzui lies in a very ideal position where it can meet the water head-on and discharge the silt to the side.

Today, it has become a structure made of reinforced concrete. The former structure rested on a base of soil and stone, with bamboo cages filled with cobbles to protect the dike. The workers made long cages with bamboo (abundant in western Sichuan), placed them horizontally along the dam, and filled them with cobbles that were carried by waves and had accumulated on the bank. One cage on another, layer upon layer, they made a solid dike free from collected water. Making use of local materials, this easy method achieved excellent effect. In addition, the long dike connected to the Yuzui is called Jingang (diamond) Dike. Every year, people reinforced it with silt dredged from the inner river, which strengthened the embankment and tackled the silt accumulation in an efficient way. This method is depicted in the inscription of "Wa (dredge) Hesha (silt), Dui (pile) Dian (dike)".


Feishayan is the second principal project of the Dujiangyan Irrigation Project. Located beside the Li Pile, it is very low with a distance of only 2.5 meters from its top to the riverbed. Its main function is to discharge floodwater and silt. The water of the inner river bifurcated from the Yuzui rotates when meeting the obstruction of the Li Pile. In summer and autumn when the discharge of the river exceeds the flow capacity of the Baopingkou, the water that cannot get through, together with the silt aroused by the rotational flow, is mainly discharged here. The inscription "Fei (fly) Sha (silt)" depicts this process. Statistics show that the greater the discharge of silt from the inner river is, the higher the Feishayan's ability to discharge the floodwater becomes. When confronting a catastrophic flood, the discharge of the inner river may be up to 4 times the flow capacity of the Baopingkou. Then, 75 percent of the water can be drained off through it. During the dry season, when the water level is below the weir, it will turn into a natural controlling sluice and lose the function of discharging floodwater, which guarantees the controlled irrigation of the Chengdu Plain. Also, the principle of "curve circulation" (used in the Yuzui) is used here also with a total of 15 percent of the silt content drained from the water. The Yuzui discharges yet another 80 percent of the silt from the river. Therefore, only 5 percent of the total silt content makes it through and flows toward the Chengdu plain.


Baopingkou is a key link to the irrigation system. As a strategic passage between the inner river and the Chengdu Plain, it is like a bottle, strictly controlling the volume of the water flowing into the Chengdu Plain. When the water reaches a saturation point of about 700 cubic meters per second, no matter how serious the flood in the Minjiang River is, it will be kept out of the "mouth". This kind of stable intake of water greatly benefits the Chengdu Plain with respect to agriculture, irrigation, flood prevention, and transportation. Besides the passage stands a small hill named Li Pile. The hill itself was chosen to act as a current director and was reconstructed to be more efficient. After flowing the system, the water of the inner river becomes cleaner and easier to control. Then, standing alone, the Li Pile pushes the water head-on, which makes it possible for the Feishayan to discharge the floodwater and silt and realizes the bottleneck effectiveness of the Baopingkou. This all ensures flood prevention and controlled irrigation in the Chengdu Plain. It can be said that hewing the Li Pile at this position determined the arrangement of the whole project. How extraordinary Li Bing was to work out, according to the conditions of the Minjiang River and Yulei Mountain, such a unique key water control project over 2,000 years ago.

Li Pile Park

Walking forward from the Feishayan, visitors will see Li Pile Park, which is the entrance to the most beautiful garden in Dujiangyan City. Visitors tend to linger in the park, appreciating the sights and scents of the exotic flowers, rare trees, thick jungles, and remote pathways. The Dragon-Taming Temple stands inside Li Pile Park alongside its predecessor, Fan Xian House. Fan Xian House was built in the 4th century in memory of Fan Changsheng, the leader of Tianshi Dao (a prefecture in the Han Dynasty), next to Mt. Qingcheng. During the period of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms, Li Bing was granted the title of "Daanwang" and "Yingshenglingganwang", and Ligong Temple was constructed to celebrate his achievements. Ligong Temple was later renamed the Dragon-Taming Temple to symbolize the legend of two men who had tamed a dragon during the Song Dynasty. After climbing 24 steps, visitors can see a stele with the inscription "Li Dui (pile)" on the right. Looking to the right, there is a panoramic view of Yulei Mountain. When Li Bing was directing the construction of the Dujiangyan Irrigation Project, he excavated next to the mountain to draw water and irrigate the farmland. Therefore, the small hill under the viewing post was separated from the highest peak and stood alone like a pile, thus the origin of Li Pile. On the left, there are 11 steles of Taoist symbols and Buddhist Sanskrit writings. The group is usually referred to as the Zhenshui (suppressing water) Steles because people had hoped to suppress the water with the religious power of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Some have said that the object steles were not really suppressing water, but an evil dragon, who would sporadically stir up trouble without the repression of the powerful steles.

The former hall of the Dragon-Taming Temple worships a joss (Chinese idol) of Li Bing, a stone statue made in the last years of the Eastern Han Dynasty. It is 2.9 meters high and weighs 4.5 tons. When building the sluice gate of the outer river in 1974, the workers fished it out from the riverbed. The statue lay in the river and the characters on his chest were still visible. The writings indicate that it was made during the Ling Emperor’s reign of the Eastern Han Dynasty on the 25th day of March, during the first year of Jianning (168). This means it is around 1800 years old. Its age and unique history make it a necessary sight for anyone visiting the Park.

On the other side of the former hall, some stone sculptures excavated from tombs of the Han Dynasty are on display. Among them, there are stone figures, horses, and a stone pool. It is interesting to note that the tomb figures have anchors in their hands. The stone horses are short and strong, placing their origin in Sichuan. The hundreds of stone figures and horses were made during the Han Dynasty by imitating the cultural relics used by Li Bing for water control. According to ancient books, people made these stone figures and horses and put them in the middle of the inner river. When dredging the riverbed, the depth must be in the range of the ankle to the shoulder, so as to guarantee that the Minjiang River could benefit the people and irrigate the fields without bringing about a catastrophic flood. Of course, nowadays the lying irons have taken the place of the stone figures and horses, thus relegating them to the Hall interior.

As for the stone pool, it reveals the prosperous vision of gravity irrigation with the aid of the Dujiangyan Irrigation Project and the life of the manor masters. In the stone pool, there are grooves with sluice gates, which are used to control the inflowing water. Representing the gravity irrigation of the Dujiangyan, the stone pool is an artistic treasure of stone sculpture concerning water conservancy during the Han Dynasty.

The latter hall is called Yuhuang Hall. Visitors can enjoy another panoramic view and take in the beautiful scenery of hills and water, which keep changing as time goes on. A pavilion named Guanlan (wave-watching) Pavilion stands at an open space to the left. From here, visitors can see the inner river raging and howling against the Li Pile.

The Li Pile was excavated by Li Bing to let the water through. Over 2,000 years ago at the State of Qin, when there was no powder or ironware used widely, it was incredibly difficult to excavate the Yulei Mountain with its hard sedimentary rock. The ancient people had a unique way of excavation, however. Their method made use of fire. The workers would burn the rocks with firewood to make them very hot, then pour vinegar on them and cut the rock layer. After repeating the process again and again over eight years, they finally made a gap 20 meters wide, 40 meters high, and 80 meters long. The gap separated the Li Pile from Yulei Mountain and the Baopingkou came into being. Legend has it that Li Bing took the lead in excavating the Baopingkou, and, his daughter named Binger heroically died for it. At that time, there was only one rock layer left before opening the Baopingkou, and everyone knew that the person who opened it would meet certain death. However, Binger sought the task with great determination. When the Baopingkou was finally opened by her, the rolling water devoured her instantly. It is said that she became a fairy after her death, leaving her soul on Yulei Mountain. Looking from a distance, people say you can see her serenely lying on her back atop Yulei Mountain, guarding the ancient dam day in and day out.

How to Get There?

Dujiangyan Irrigation Project is at the west of the Dujiangyan city, 60 kilometers northwest of Chengdu, where the Minjiang River rushes down to the Chengdu plain from the mountainous area.

Tourist coaches to Dujiangyan run every 10 minutes from Chengdu railway station plaza and Ximen bus station every day. Ticket price: air-conditioning bus: 15 yuan; normal bus: 10 yuan. The air-conditioning bus doesn't stop on the way and is faster than the normal one.

After getting off at the Dujiangyan Bus Station,  you can get to Qinyan Lou by bus No.1 (RMB 20 by taxi), or the gate of the Li Pile Park by bus No. 4 (RMB 15 by taxi).

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