YIBIN, China - Kindergartners in inline skates wobbled along the concrete edge of the Yangtze.
Well-dressed parents fussed behind them, within sight of but decades away from the docks and squalor where their forebears toiled.
Today, only the river itself matches the description given a century ago by Edwin Dingle after he splashed ashore from a wretched boat “stiff and hungry, and mad with rage.”
He was no famous explorer or scientist, just a young Englishman naive enough to think he could cross half of China on foot, with revolution brewing and warlords fighting for control of an uncertain nation. He succeeded.
To retrace 200 miles of his route today is to traverse a landscape roiling again, as change catapults some into a promising future and maroons others in enduring hardship.
The social and economic rules imposed by communism have been overturned, leaving a nation of radical contrasts: upbeat entrepreneurs and embittered farmers, those who have capitalized on new freedoms, and those who suffer under persistent corruption.
In the century since Dingle walked here, China has weathered war, upheaval, political mania and mind-boggling growth. Yet, China in the early 21st Century faces similar pressures to those it confronted 100 years ago: to employ, control and satisfy the world’s largest population.
The parents enjoying a day at the river’s edge know they are fortunate; they can do things because they want to, not because they have to. That power to choose defines the line between those who have broken free of China’s past and those still struggling to do so.
“My grandmother had 10 children and worked on the docks carrying sacks of rice,” said 32-year-old stay-at-home mom Li Jing. She watched her tiny daughter, in an oversized red helmet and kneepads, skate effortless curves across the concrete, and added: “Her life was bitter.”
Edwin John Dingle was a 28-year-old journalist working in Singapore in 1909 when he got the urge to see China in as much detail as possible. He resolved to walk. Friends declared the idea suicidal - “my last long voyage to a last long rest,” as they put it to him.
He had never visited China. He spoke not a word of the language. Nevertheless, he planned a route through China’s heartland, from the city of Chongqing to the border with Burma, 1,000 miles to the southwest. He estimated it would take six months. He did not see home for nearly two years.
Today, the yellowing, leather-bound volume that he published, “Across China on Foot,” is among the only outside accounts of crossing China’s interior in the moments that gave birth to the modern China we know today.
Dressed in a flannel suit and trailed by three porters and an assistant carrying his typewriter, Dingle discovered a China on the brink of chaos. The nation of 430 million people was awash in cries of “China for the Chinese,” as popular movements struggled to expel colonial powers and topple the imperial regime.
He had entered a nation divided by privilege and decayed to the breaking point. On the road, he passed silk-clad Mandarins riding overhead in sedan chairs on the shoulders of their countrymen, while the masses faced “the same life of disease, distress and dirt, of official, social, and moral degradation as they lived when the Westerner remained still in the primeval forest stage.”
Exhausted and limping from blisters, Dingle soon reached the city of Luzhou, a hardscrabble port on the banks of the Yangtze. What he did not know was that the city, like others across the region, already was fated for revolution; two years earlier, Sun Yat-sen, the revolutionary who would become the father of modern China, had dispatched a trio of agents and bombmakers to Luzhou to foment insurrection.
Indeed, by 1912, revolutionaries had overthrown the Qing dynasty and established the Republic of China. But political change alone did little to rescue China from poverty.
Poor was all that Xiao Zezhen ever expected to be.
“I was the youngest of 10 children, only five of whom survived,” said Xiao, who has lived in Luzhou all of her 50 years.
If China’s turbulent 20th Century produced winners and losers, Xiao hit the jackpot. She was raised by a single mother who earned less than $3 a week peddling soy sauce and vinegar. Xiao grew up, left home and by the grim standards of the 1980s, she found a plum job: making leather in a factory where employees were permitted to gather the discarded scraps of hog fat and bring them home for dinner.
“It made you very popular in the neighborhood,” she recalled.
But free-market fever was spreading, and, by 1990, Xiao saw her opening. She quit the job that was the envy of her neighbors and took a chance on running one of the city’s first karaoke clubs. Today she is an entertainment tycoon, clad in designer jeans and a T-shirt with a Warhol-style print.
“At the time, my neighbors could not imagine that I was breaking the `iron rice bowl,’” she said of her fateful decision to quit her staid state job. “But it was the beginning of my new life.”
Along Dingle’s route lie the stories of a century that convey the breadth of China’s transformation. When he walked, he followed an ancient caravan route tiled in broad, flat flagstones. The stones are almost gone today, replaced by vast rivers of asphalt, part of an extensive road-building spree that has helped open China’s interior to economic growth and migration.
Those roads and the growth they symbolize have also brought new strains. One village after another is hollowing out, as able-bodied workers seek city jobs and leave aging parents to care for school-age children. Roads also have brought urban sprawl and chugging smokestacks, leaving only scattered remnants of what Dingle marveled was “the never-ending pictures of green and purple and brown and yellow and gold.”
Of course, there is continuity as well. A lone farmer still wades hip-deep through rice paddies behind a snorting water buffalo that splashes the water with a fly-swatter tail. Women by the roadside still shuck peanuts by hand for pennies a bushel, and toddlers still squeal with curious delight at the rare foreigner who wanders by.
And, of course, Dingle’s domain is riven once again by struggles over justice and leadership.
In the hills over Chongqing, a seething village believes the government has failed it. Pan Daikuan, a 73-year-old father of six, stooped in the mud and lifted the end of a narrow white tube. Brown water spat into his hand: the village drinking water.
“We don’t know what the color comes from. We don’t know what the effects are,” he said. “But the people no longer feel safe.”
The leaders of Huang Sha village say a nearby mining operation has ravaged their water supply, and nobody seems able to help. The village has sought compensation from the mine, Tianqing Sihua, for five years, without results. Two weeks ago, the dispute boiled over.
In a scene repeated with growing frequency across the Chinese countryside, scores of village men and women marched up the hill to the mining compound to stop it from working, witnesses say. But security guards and local police intervened. Four protesters were injured, said organizers. A company official, in an interview, denied any conflict with the village or any effect on its water supply. But the village is enraged.
“We have no other options,” said Zhou Quanyi, a tall, slim 31-year-old farmer and former soldier. “We tried the court. It didn’t work. The local government just protects business.”
The particular challenge facing China’s Communist Party is that angry farmers like these are not dissidents or rabble-rousers. On the contrary, they were once true believers. Zhou joined the Communist Party while in the army and now finds himself in the unexpected position of leading a challenge against his own government.
“As a party member, I am supposed to walk in front and lead the people,” he said while neighbors crowded into his home to listen. “Many years from now, when they finish mining, we will have nothing more than a hole in the ground. What will be left for us?”
The future was very much on Dingle’s mind as well when he set off on his journey. “(I)n China we shall see arising a Government whose power will be paramount in the East,” he wrote, and he felt compelled to understand that increasingly powerful country. Someday, he predicted, our lives would be more entwined with China than ever.
“We shall not see it,” he wrote in 1911, “but our children will.”