The Valley of Peace sits just beyond our doorstep here in Chengdu, just an hour by high speed train from the city. Once there it is easy to imagine Po popping out from behind a pillar as he watches epic training battles ensue between the Furious Five. Wandering amid the ancient Daoist temples and through the heavily forested mountainside, it is a short leap of imagination to envisioning Tigress, Monkey, Mantis, Viper, and Crane studying under Shifu and competing to be the best marital artists in all the land, knowing that they must be prepared to defend their treasure from the wicked Tai Lung.
While this “Valley of Peace” may not exist anywhere but in Dreamworks’ Kung Fu Panda, the setting that served as inspiration for the film is just a short high-speed train ride away from our home here in Chengdu. DuJiang Yan, the inspiration for those awe-inspiring backgrounds detailed so thoroughly in the film, is not only a breathtaking bit of scenery in western China, but also home to a ground-breaking (literally) irrigation project undertaken in 250BC, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Before the DuJiang Yan irrigation system was built, the Chengdu plain was dry and infertile, but the area near the Min River flooded every spring, causing continual hardship for those farmers living nearby who relied on the river to nourish their crops. Li Bing, a local governor, is credited with noticing the annual adversity, although one would have to think the farmers were well aware of the issue long before anyone official decided to “notice” it. (I’ll refrain from drawing comparisons between Qin Dynasty bureaucracy and more modern-day political wrangling we will be forced to ingest over the next forty-three days.)
He knew the frigid water came from the melting snowpack in the distant mountains and realized that the river must stay open for trade via shipping and his army’s mobility, but also saw that something must change if the people were to continue to prosper in the Sichuan valley. (And prosper they must, as the world was waiting with baited breath for the introduction of the infamous, mouth-numbing Sichuan spices that invade my every meal!) Because restricting the water flow was out of the question, Li Bing knew a dam was not an option and had to move on to bigger and more inventive ways of creating a habitable region for his people. While the 1970’s overused the phrase “think outside the box” to the point where it is painfully cliché, Mr. Li might have been on that bandwagon long before corporate America’s management gurus thrust their geometrical jargon upon us.
With his son by his side, (and with some legends including a dragon, which just makes the whole story a whole lot cooler) eight years of toil by more than 100,000 laborers created a levee system like none the world had seen. Bamboo cages were filled with rocks, redirecting sections of the river away from the flood zone.(The current tourist attraction at DuJiang Yan shows some of these bamboo wrapped rocks, looking eerily similar to something upper-middle class American housewives would buy for a premium price at Pottery Barn!)
Unlike many of the things man makes today, Li Bing’s irrigation system has withstood the test of time.(This was definitely no IKEA, no tools needed, home improvement project!) Not only are his hand-dug river channels still funneling water throughout the Sichuan plains today, helping to irrigate thousands of acres of farmland, but the levees were flexible enough to withstand the rocking and rolling of the land when the area became the epicenter of a massive earthquake in 2008. (This being the same quake that made my newly built cement apartment building, 150 miles north in Gansu, split at the seams and crumble in the corners.)
Growing up in the midst of farms (potatoes, sugar beets, corn, wheat, mint…and the list goes on…), I was raised understanding the importance of having adequate water for the crops to prosper. And as a kid, I endured more than one lecture from a perturbed farmer who was unhappy with the McDaniel kids pulling his syphon tubes. (Our fiddling wasn’t malicious; we just wanted to know what agricultural magic made water flow uphill. And sadly, I still can’t explain it. Yes, I know the basic principles of physics that dictate the water’s movement, but much like I know the theoretical physics behind airplanes, I am still partially convinced that it all boils down to fairy dust and hocus-pocus.)
So, another CLO trip is in the books. A day out at an ancient irrigation system was the perfect foil to life in a giant city for this country girl. I may not have spotted Po and his evil leopard fighting crew, but I did enjoy a nearly perfect fall day in what was definitely a Valley of Peace.