Drowned World

It is almost dusk on the banks of the Yangtze River in lower Sichuan Province. But a team of local archeologists, excavating a ninth-century stone house, is working feverishly. Amid four gaping square holes in the earth, they dust, measure, trowel and videotape as the light fades. Team leader Yuan Dongshan, 33, has decided to rush through the site in 10 days, retrieving only loose objects, rather than spend months to study the house as a whole. Yuan snaps pictures of a skeleton they have neither time nor resources to identify. In less than three years, a giant dam under construction downriver will start to flood the entire region, thought to be the cradle of Chinese civilization. Archeologists are racing to save more than 1,200 largely untapped sites -- tombs, temples, relics and ruins -- holding the story of their civilization. They estimate they can save only 10 percent. "We don't take any holidays, we don't rest," says Yuan. "We don't have time."

Doomsday is approaching for more than the archeologists. The Three Gorges Dam has become the most controversial Chinese infrastructure project since the Great Wall. The government says the kilometer-long dam will provide badly needed energy and control flooding. But the project has met problems on every front. According to the People's Daily, corrupt officials have embezzled $600 million set aside to relocate valley dwellers who will be flooded out. Just last week a new report emerged of a senior official who disappeared after allegedly siphoning off $120 million. Critics estimate the cost of the dam has spiraled from the official estimate of $25 billion in 1992 to more than $70 billion. And the project has the makings of an environmental disaster. After the dam's completion in 2009, a lake 600 kilometers long will trap millions of tons of raw pollutants spewing from China's largest industrialized city, Chongqing. Incensed by financial and environmental problems, members of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, an official advisory board, have petitioned the government to slow the project.

Now the poorly funded archeologists have to compete with smugglers to uncover the region's irreplaceable relics. Scientists say the Three Gorges area contains the only complete record of successive dynasties dating back to pre-Chinese history. Construction of new cities for the millions who will be flooded out has also unearthed vast sites higher up that will be covered by new buildings. The digging has already revealed new details of ancient civilizations. In one tomb dating from the second century B.C., for example, experts found servants who had been buried alive with their master -- a practice thought to have been abandoned by that time. The tombs also contain clay figures and ceramics, which fetch huge sums on the international market. Local officials, corrupt Army officers, farmers and itinerant dealers from distant provinces all play a part in smuggling the relics out of China. "There is so much stuff coming out through official and unofficial channels from the region," says one Hong Kong dealer, "that dealers have never had access to so much Chinese antiquity."

The archeologists often arrive too late to stop the looting. Liu Yuchuan, the director of the Chongqing Museum, led a team to survey Han and Tang Dynasty tombs recently unearthed in Fengjie County. They were all looted. "The smugglers came first with flashlights at night," he says sadly. "There was a hole in every one." Yuan and his colleagues haven't been paid for months. Already impoverished, local cultural bureaus and museums are struggling to finance the excavations. "We are on our own," says one museum director. A senior dam official arrogantly told a group of scholars in Chongqing this year they might as well "just take a picture" of the relics and let them be submerged. "What good do they do for the common people?" he reportedly asked.

The smugglers appreciate history's value. Five farmers in a dirt-poor village along the Yangtze dug up a Han Dynasty bronze drinking vessel and sold it to a Chongqing smuggler for $25,000 in 1997. Police caught wind of the deal when the men went on a spending spree, buying motorcycles. One held an elaborate wedding (following story). A rare candelabra-like bronze statue called a "money tree," smuggled out several years ago, was sold in New York for $2.5 million. A similar one from the same region, now in the collection of the San Francisco Asian Art Museum, was rumored by some Chinese and Western archeologists to be the smuggled money tree. But the museum says its piece was bought from Kaikodo, a large and reputable New York dealer, which exported it legally from Hong Kong.

Often the officials handling antiquities are motivated by politics instead of preservation. Most county cultural officials are former Army officers. Hu Xiaoming, a 41-year-old former PLA officer in Tibet with a pencil-thin mustache and a martial swagger, is the deputy cultural chief of Fengjie. "Defending the country and saving its relics are the same," he says. "[They] are both serving the motherland." His bureau took out a $1 million commercial loan to carve up a slab of river rock -- essentially political graffiti dating from the 1930s -- transport it to a museum and reassemble it intact. Its value: it bears a patriotic slogan written by a Chinese general fighting the Japanese that reads, BEAT BACK THE EVIL DWARFS.

Officials often don't know what to do with their treasures. Archeologists sometimes send relics to the White Emperor Museum, a famous cultural site two hours downriver from Chongqing. But mysteriously, the museum has no important pieces on display -- just driftwood carvings by the former director. Museum officials are reluctant to show any antiques. "Only one person has the key and he's not here," says museum director Yuan Fuyuan, a former PLA officer. A local cultural official, asked why there were no antiquities in sight, stopped in front of a carved statue with one eye closed in a permanent wink. "You wink at my transgressions, and I'll wink at yours," he says. "And it will be easier for both of us."

Amid such cynicism, Huang Zhongmo is a local hero. A professor of classical Chinese poetry, he wrote tourist guidebooks for funds to preserve local culture. When a property developer threatened to bulldoze a paleolithic weapons site, Huang launched a media campaign and held town meetings. The developer eventually agreed to split his hotel into two parts, leaving a courtyard for the site. In Fengjie, the police have enlisted local officials to form "cultural patrols." Even some peasants have joined the fight to save the past. At an excavation just started along the Yangtze, farmers stand amid mustard fields, digging squares under the direction of archeologists, who pay them $1 a day. They take an oath not to steal any of their finds. "It's just the same as farming," says one woman, picking up a hoe.

Not always. At some sites, farmers have caught the young archeologists' spirit. "You must protect these tiles," says Li Zhitang, a 33-year-old farmer in a sweatshirt, flicking at a jumble of terra-cotta shards with a paintbrush. "Don't damage them; slowly, carefully sweep them clean." Wu Tianqing, a former high-school history teacher, was enlisted to help and has participated in the excavation of more than 200 tombs. Bouncing in the back seat of a Land Rover as it jolts along a dirt road, he says, smiling: "I picked it up as I went along." At the official level, nationalism has gotten in the way of funding.

Beijing has shunned offers of help from Japan and Canada. "The government doesn't want foreigners to help protect our culture," says Huang, the poetry professor. Since coming to power in 1949, communist leaders have sought to leapfrog their country into the modern world through huge, industrial projects like Three Gorges. The cost, both in human lives and in quality of life, has often been enormous. Many Chinese are no longer willing to make the sacrifice. "As we develop our country, we can't only do it through engineering," says Yu Weichao, retired director of Beijing's Chinese History Museum. "If we ignore the spiritual side, then we will never be able to satisfy the true cravings of people's hearts." The race to unearth the treasures at the Three Gorges is not only about saving China's relics. It's about saving the country's soul.