Minhang drama chronicles history of Huangpu River and city's founding
The Yangtze River, which forms a huge basin in south China that dominates its 49 major tributaries, meanders from Mount Geladandong on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau about 6,600 meters above sea level eastward to the East China Sea. When it spreads out in the lower reaches, its Huangpu River tributary in Shanghai bends abruptly in the center and runs all the way north.
A Minhang District local historic drama that won applause from the audience during its debut at Shangyin Opera House in downtown Shanghai on November 10 and 11 explains the reason why the river turns, with theatrical appeal.
The play "All the Way North" recalls a story on water control that happened in the administrated area of what is now the Minhang District more than 600 years ago.
The mighty Huangpu River of Shanghai used to be a small river. Together with Loujiang and Wusong rivers – the Wusong River is called Suzhou Creek now in its Shanghai section – it originated from the Taihu Lake in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River and headed to the East China Sea.
Birth of 'mother river'
Due to both natural and man-made causes, sand gradually silted on the three rivers from the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279) and the Taihu Lake flooded frequently due to poor drainage. The condition worsened during the early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
Whenever a severe downpour occurred, lowlands in Shanghai and its neighboring Jiaxing area in Zhejiang Province fell victim to the ravaging waves. Good harvests were ruined, residents plunged into misery and suffering and the ruling class were also affected due to a lower tax revenue.
The central government then made great efforts on water control and welcomed any constructive advice.
Ye Zongxing, a young scholar from the Yejiahang area in Songjiang Prefecture (now Pujiang Town of Minhang) proposed his water-control measures regardless of his grassroots identity and low social status.
He suggested officials give up draining the lower reaches of the Wusong River (now areas around Qiujiang Road) and instead try to broaden the Huangpu River, and through further draining the Fanjiabang River in the north section of the Huangpu River (now the section of the Huangpu River from the Bund to the Fuxing Island), to combine the Huangpu River with the Wusong River and allow the two rivers to run together into the sea.
The combined estuary had a better water flow and rapid torrents, and therefore reduced the possibility of silting once proper management was adopted.
Ever since the ancient Qin Dynasty (221 BC-207 BC), officials in Shanghai had followed the traditional water-control measures through draining the Wusong River in order to relieve the flooding of Taihu Lake, which solved the problem temporarily but not thoroughly.
Therefore Ye's belief that the Huangpu River, rather than the Wusong River, was the cure against the flood, was groundbreaking.
The plan, which at first was rebuffed by many due to its effects on many interest groups, finally solved the flood concern that had long troubled the Yangtze River Delta area. Shanghai with its bumper agricultural resources, advanced navigation system and commercial developments could not have been founded if not for this historic water-control project.
Extras from hometown
"I grew up watching the tides of Huangpu River ebb and flow, but never knew before that it had such a fascinating tale," said one audience member.
The local drama was co-authored by Li Shitao, deputy head of the Department of Theater and Literature of the Shanghai Theater Academy, and Xu Jingbo, associate professor with the History Department of Soochow University. The play has a solid historic background and rich imagination, and is also noted for its character portrayals.
Xia Yuanji, the minister of revenue, who received the proposal from Ye with an open heart, is portrayed as an official who cared about the people while bravely enduring the intrigues and insults of bureaucrats.
The character of Ye, the protagonist, impressed audiences with his youthful vitality, righteousness and talent.
"There is a particular stone along the bank of the Huangpu River in my hometown. I named it the 'Sorrow and Blessing Stone.' When the water level rises to caution against a flood, it triggers sorrow in my heart. And when it falls within a safe criteria, it blesses people in the area and also delights me," the character of Ye says during the drama.
"There are few historic records about Ye," said An Yixin, the actor playing the leading role. "But through countless rehearsals, it was like I had held a deep chat with his soul. He didn't mind his current well-being. He was misunderstood and even banished by his fellow countrymen at his age. It was his perseverance that paved the way for the current prosperity of Shanghai, with Huangpu as its mother river."
Eight residents from Pujiang were invited to be extras in the play.
"We were born in the same place as Ye," said Zhang Yongkang, one of the Pujiang extras. "In this play about our hometown, we were introducing this great man to more people."