The four-meter-tall gate that dominates the atrium of the new Three Gorges Museum has come a long way--through time, rather than over distance. Carved during the Han dynasty (206 B.C.- A.D. 220), it was erected among farmers' fields along the Yangtze River just west of the fabled Three Gorges, the ravines that tower over the once turbulent waters. A general probably commissioned the work to commemorate his ancestors, following the country's Confucian tradition, says Wang Chuanping, vice director of Chong-qing's Ministry of Culture. During the Tang dynasty, the pillars collapsed and were slowly buried in the soft earth. Only in 2002, when archeologists were making a last-ditch effort to save artifacts about to be inundated by the 508-kilometer-long lake backing up behind the Three Gorges Dam, were they discovered. Wang points to a well-preserved dragon carved onto the face of one pillar. "The quality is amazing," he says. "It is one of the best Han dynasty relics ever found."
The gate is just one of thousands of artifacts with equally long histories to be found in Chongqing's new $7 million museum, a testament to the region's rich past. The Yangtze, Asia's longest river, has been a conduit of travel and trade for thousands of years. In 1987 scientists working in the Wu Gorge, the middlemost of the Three Gorges, found 2 million-year-old teeth, the oldest human remains ever discovered in Asia. Buddhism spread east into China along the Yangtze, and two early tribes met near present-day Chongqing some 4,500 years ago--two millenniums before Julius Caesar was born--and merged to become the Ba culture, a society that developed a pictographic language that researchers are only beginning to decipher. Chinese often refer to the Yellow River as the cradle of Chinese civilization, but the Yangtze is just as important. Says Wang: "Both hold our history."
Now Beijing is scrambling to preserve its Yangtze heritage. The government has earmarked $120 million for the preservation of relics in the Three Gorges region. Wang says that archeologists have examined some 700,000 square meters of land, turning up hundreds of thousands of artifacts and moving dozens of historical buildings and bridges to higher ground. The effort's crown jewel is the Three Gorges Museum. Made of sweeping sandstone and glass, the 42,000-square-meter building holds a collection of 350,000 relics, from celadon teapots to ancient coins to intricate statues of Buddhist saints. Roughly 10,000 pieces will be displayed in 10 permanent exhibition halls.
In Magnificent Three Gorges, one of the largest halls, visitors can tour a Ching dynasty home with hand-carved wooden windows and beautiful curving eaves. Also on display are three sampans, small wooden fishing boats that once plied the Yangtze but are now rare. One of the older pieces is a 900-character-long tribute to a Sung dynasty (960- 1279) emperor that was carved into a cliff in the Qutang Gorge, the shortest of the three. To move the two-meter-tall tablet to Chongqing, craftsmen chiseled the stones from the wall without damaging the flowing calligraphy.
Like most Chinese exhibitions, the Three Gorges Museum contains its share of eccentricities. In the lobby, named the Eco-hall, a dead "10,000-year-old tree" stands among living plants. Given the environmental havoc wreaked by the Three Gorges Dam (the World Wildlife Fund calls the Yangtze the world's "river most at risk" due to excessive damming), the stump is a potent--though unintended--reminder of the costs of China's rise. The museum also highlights Japan's World War II bombing campaign against Chongqing, then China's capital: visitors pass through a rendition of a bomb shelter before watching a movie recounting wartime atrocities.
Most foreign visitors, however, will find the region's ancient history more interesting. Beyond a wall-size painting of the Yangtze by Chinese artist Xu Shihu in the Magnificent Three Gorges hall, stone carvings taken from the White Crane Ridge, a 220-meter-long limestone slab several hours' drive east of Chongqing, offer a glimpse of a millennium of river history: hundreds of Chinese dignitaries commissioned poems to be carved into the rock. Beyond the stones is a collection of 2,000-year-old Buddha statues and an intricate carving of fish, birds and simple homes dating from the New Stone Age. In China's modern era, marked by steel and glass, they are poignant symbols of a past already flooded by the future.