The Red Flag Canal

The Chinese provinces of Hebei, Henan, and Shanxi meet in a rugged region where the Zhang River cuts through the Taihang mountains. Far off the beaten track for most tourists, especially those from outside China, a two-hour drive west from Henan’s northernmost city of Anyang, adventurous travelers will come across the exhibition center for the Red Flag Canal, at Linzhou.

Constructed in the 1960s, the Red Flag Canal consists of a 71-km long main canal that feeds an extensive irrigation network measuring 1,500 km in total. The system includes 134 tunnels cut through 24 km of mountain, and 150 aqueducts spanning 6.5 km of ravines and crevices.

The impressive nature of this feat of engineering becomes even more apparent when you learn that the work was not done with machinery or jack hammers, but by laborers using long steel chisels and heavy sledge hammers. Holes were bored into the rock and then dynamite was used to blast away the cliff face. Fuses were lit by hand by brave souls dangling from ropes, putting their life in the hands of fellow workers responsible for hurriedly hoisting them out of harm’s way. Debris was then collected and removed using baskets and shoulder poles. A 1970 Chinese government film provides a vivid portrayal of the physical intensity and danger of the work involved.

But, why was it built?

On one level, the answer is quite simple. The people of the area had been subjected to a long history of drought, as evidenced by this account engraved on a stone tablet from an ancient temple excavated during construction:

During a severe drought, people kept alive on persimmon leaves and red soil. They sold their daughters for a mere pittance. With men eating human flesh, disorder was rampant. What life was like during this natural calamity is engraved here in stone for all to remember.

There was no groundwater, so wells were supplied by run-off from rain and melting snow. Many inhabitants had to leave the area for part of the year in order to stay alive. Possession of a good well not only meant prosperity, but it meant being able to marry well, as well as having access to a ready workforce of less fortunate individuals willing to trade labor for water.

On another level, part of the answer can be found in the name of the project itself. Among the goals of the Great Leap Forward (1958–1962) was “going all out, aiming high and achieving greater, faster, better and more economical results in building socialism.” This statement was referred to as the Three Red Banners, and the locals used it to capture the spirit of their initiative.

Construction began on February 10, 1960, with the intention of employing more than 100,000 workers to complete the main canal by May 1st of that year. The logistics associated with that large of a workforce proved too difficult, so the decision was made to proceed with 30,000 of the best workers. The main canal was completed on April 5, 1965, and by April 20, 1966, the three main trunk canals were also complete. Water was released from a series of dams upstream, and local inhabitants gained reliable access to life’s most precious natural resource for the first time in history.

The key role that the project played in promoting the hard work and hardship rhetoric of the communists is well illustrated in this remark from then premier Zhou Enlai, who told a group of international visitors in the early 1970s that “there are two great miracles in China, one is the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge, and the other is the Red Flag Canal in Lin County.”

Originally, the expected lifespan of the project was 20 years. Today, the water level in the canal has dropped significantly, and the water is heavily polluted from upstream industrial and agricultural run-off. While it still plays a role with respect to the local water supply, perhaps its greater current significance is with regards to red tourism.

As a consequence of recent economic growth, Chinese citizens now have more disposable income that they can spend on activities such as travel. The Chinese government has been taking advantage of this fact to encourage people to get back in touch with their sense of class struggle and proletarian values. Several locations around the country associated with Mao Tse-tung and various events in the development of communism are being actively promoted as desirable tourist destinations. Interestingly, many of the promoted sites are in poorer areas of the country, and thus the initiative can be viewed as potentially having a positive socioeconomic effect.

The area around Linzhou is clearly benefiting from this initiative. New roads are being constructed, and several small motels and restaurants have opened up. Beyond making life better for local residents, the Red Flag Canal has a new role nourishing the nationalist spirit. I wonder how many visitors take time to reflect on what the story of this canal might mean in light of China’s growing national water crisis.