Tracking the Past Along the Three Gorges

Chen Jinchang lives with two women, three coffins and the certainty that one day the Yangtze River will flood his simple mud-walled house. But to a barge-towman who spent most of his years in the westernmost of the Three Gorges in central China, straining against ships' ropes of braided bamboo, this looming disaster is relative. "I used to pull boats through there 25 times a month," says the 73-year-old, pointing from his doorway to Qutang Gorge, where the Yangtze rushes between towering limestone cliffs.

When the Three Gorges Dam is finished in 2009 and the reservoir fills his valley, all trace of...

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