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Ancient Pathways ( Gu Zhan Dao)

Acient Pathway

On the northern bank of the Yangtze River, all along Qutang Gorge from Baidicheng to Daixi, can be found traces of the ancient footpath, carved into the gorge's cliff face, that was used by laborers – called "haulers", but in essence, boat tuggers, as in "human tug boats" – whose job it was to pull the watercraft that plied the Yangtze River upstreams through passages where the current was too strong to navigate any other way. The first haulers – from the time of the Xia (BCE ca.2000-1500) and Shang (BCE 1700-1027) Dynasties, but also from subsequent dynastic periods – were of course slaves, and accompanying the haulers was an overseer with a whip whose job it was to discourage "slacker" behavior.

But whether the haulers were slaves or free men, the job of a hauler was inevitably gruelling, as the size of the boats as well as the amount and weight of their cargo continually increased, "at the cost of profound anguish and of excessive toil" one is tempted to say, to borrow an apt phrase from Joseph Conrad's novel, Heart of Darkness, even if the number of haulers on each boat was accordingly increased. On some stretches of some rivers in China, they still make use of haulers, though the plight of today's hauler is much less miserable than it was in former times.

With the construction of the Three Gorges Dam project, i.e., as a result of the significant rise in the water level through these nature-made sluices, most of the pathways of the haulers are now underwater. However, similar footpaths – designed for bearers, or porters – were carved into mountainsides in many places for the purpose of transporting goods by foot, and the traces of these footpaths can still be seen.

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