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  • Documenting Three Gorges Migrants: Gendered Voices of (Dis)placement and Citizenship in Rediscovering the Yangtze River and Bingai
  • Daisy Yan Du (bio)

What is displaced—dispersed, deferred, repressed, pushed aside—is, significantly, still there: Displaced but not replaced, it remains a source of trouble, the shifting ground of signification that makes meanings tremble.

Angelika Bammer, introduction to Displacements: Cultural Identities in Question

First envisioned by Sun Zhongshan in 1919 and later supported by Jiang Jieshi and Mao Zedong, the Three Gorges Dam—dubbed “the Great Wall across the Yangtze River”—has always been a controversial project among Chinese citizens. After the 1989 Tiananmen demonstration, Li Peng, the hardliner who quelled that movement, also stifled the dam’s opponents and finally managed to get the project approved by the National People’s Congress in 1992. The construction of the dam began in 1994 and was fully completed by 2009. It is the world’s largest hydroelectric dam, serving the functions of electricity generation, flood control, and navigation control. As a megadam, it has provoked criticism worldwide. Besides its environmental costs, the dam’s most controversial consequence is the resettlement of more than two million citizens displaced from their hometowns along the six-hundred-kilometer reservoir area in Hubei Province and Chongqing Municipality (formerly in Sichuan Province). There are essentially three ways these citizens can be relocated: through vertical migration up the mountain slope above the submersion line, through migration to nearby villages, or through distant migration to other counties or provinces along the lower reaches of the Yangtze River. While Hubei Province has adopted a policy of intraprovincial resettlement, Chongqing has opted [End Page 27] for interprovincial resettlement, because of its already large population (Padovani 2006, 101–2).

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Fig. 1.

The Yangtze River and the Three Gorges Dam site. Courtesy of Alex Jianzhong Chen.

Numerous studies have charted the Three Gorges Dam resettlement, but most of them were conducted from a social science perspective, which centered primarily on macrosocioeconomic factors. In contrast, in this essay I pay particular attention to aesthetic representations of the dam and resettlement, focusing on two documentary accounts of the dam’s impact on rural migrant citizens. Rediscovering the Yangtze River (CCTV 2006) is a state-sponsored documentary produced by China Central Television (CCTV), and Bingai (Yan Feng 2007) is an “underground/independent” documentary film (Pickowicz 2006).1 Because the documentary is a unique artistic form that oscillates “between the recognition of historical reality and the recognition of a representation about it” (Nichols 2001, 39), I firmly locate my analysis of these representations in their larger sociohistorical context, which includes the dam’s distinct repercussions for female citizens and the very concept of citizenship in China. Citizenship, which is [End Page 28] materialized in identity cards and passports, is usually understood in legal, political, and social terms according to the politics of inclusion and exclusion. In contrast to this traditional understanding of citizenship as a fixed identity status in relation to the state, my study approaches citizenship as a fluid identification. A citizen may or may not fully identify with the state and feel like a citizen despite his or her legal citizenship. Thus I emphasize the cultural, symbolic, emotional, and psychological dimension of citizenship, based on the politics of recognition and belonging.

The issue of citizenship becomes especially contested when it intersects with migration, because “migration and especially forced migration, is a conceptual disruption of citizenship in the historical nation-state system” (Dobrowolsky and Tastsoglou 2006, 23). Forced migration not only affects the legal citizenship of migrants, but also has a tremendous impact on the cultural and psychological dimension of citizenship as a result of migrants’ experience of dislocation. My discussion of the disruption of citizenship caused by the Three Gorges Dam resettlement revolves around the key word “(dis)placement,” which refers not only to physical deterritorialization, but also to migrants’ sense of placement or displacement in relation to the state.

Because gender plays a significant role in how one experiences (dis) placement, in this essay I seek to unravel the intertwined relationship between gender, the cultural and psychological dimension of citizenship, and resettlement as represented in the two...


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