At the southwest of Hubei Province, there is Badong County; in Badong, there is Gauze Cap Mountain; and on the west side of the mountain, there is a 2-m wide canal about 1,100 metres above sea level.

Who built this waterway into the formidable cliff face?

A Courageous Water Shortage Solution from Chinese Peasants

Located inland of China, Badong always has a water shortage problem, and the land could only produce drought-tolerant crops like corn and potatoes. Yet on Gauze Cap Mountain, there is a lake 4 km long and up to 300 m wide, which is the largest freshwater source in the province.

A lake on the mountain top 1,100 m above sea level
A lake on the mountain top 1,100 m above sea level

By then in the Lin County of the neighboring Henan Province, the Red Flag Canal project at Taihang Mountain was near completion, which inspired and encouraged the Badong peasants to do the same.

So in the middle of 1966, at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution when the People’s Commune system was in its heyday, a plan to build a channel to direct the water to the farmland on the plain fields got go-ahead permission, and after one year of preparation, the project formally launched on the Dragon Boat Festival day, the lunar fifth of May, in the blatant sound from cannons.

Aspiration and Sacrifice of Organised Chinese Peasants

Tan Zushun revisited the canal he helped built nearly 50 years ago
Tan Zushun revisited the canal he helped built nearly 50 years ago

Tan Zushun was one of the 10,000 local peasants participated in the construction of the canal, each of them lived and worked on the site for at least a month. By then Tan Zushun was in his twenties and went to work on the site four times.

Each day each peasant worker would transport 50 kg of sand or limes stones to the field, for which a reward of 0.2 yuan was granted per day, which could allow them to purchase 3 bowls of noodle soup with shallots, or 5 red bean ice blocks (Chinese commodity price was very stable between the early 50s and late 70s),

The peasants did everything with their hands using the most basic tools including drill rods and hammers. They made chestnut wood cages with ropes to send two or three people down the cliff to drill boreholes. One day a rock fell from the top and smashed two cages, 6 peasant workers plunged to the valley a thousand metres below and died.

Tunnel in the cliff face
A tunnel in the cliff face

In the cliff face about 150 m above the canal there is a cave biggest enough to accommodate a thousand people. It was where the workers slept, dined and extracted explosive materials from the stones, and the county leaders and village heads met and discussed daily to review the working progress and to make new decisions.

About 100 m away from the cave, the canal entered a tunnel about 200 m long, which was also produced by the peasants with drill rods, hammers and powders.

The canal is designed in a manner that permits water to flow down naturally around the body of the mountain and descends 30 cm per 1,000 m. For every 500 metres, a water gate or a water pipe was installed, to control the flow and to channel the water into the farmland and villages.

A World of Utopia

Freshwater in the canal on the cliff face
Freshwater in the canal on the cliff face

It took the peasants 11 years to construct a 2 m wide and 50 km long stone canal into the cliff face.

In September 1978, the entire project was completed. With the help of nearly everyone available in the region – teachers, students and government officials – all dry fields were converted into rice paddy. Next year, Badong County raised a bumper rice crop and the villagers in the lower reach of Dragon King Valley in a neighbouring county beat the drums and gongs and exploded firecrackers when they carried loads of freshly harvested rice to the people in the upper reach to express their gratitude.

United they stood tall. It is a testimony to what Chinese peasants could achieve when they were organized and inspired to work for the common good beyond their own family interests.

The Remains of the Utopia

Yet the utopia did not last long. Not entirely.

Ever since the peasants were forced to return to the old family-based farming system in the 1980s, the community spirit was once again lost; everywhere in China, the hydraulic projects established during the commune era are left without proper maintenance. Finally, a rock falling from the top of the cliff blocked the Badong canal halfway and the villages in the Dragon King Valley were once again denied access to the freshwater.

Yet the memory is still intact and fresh, the memory about how once upon a time Chinese peasants came to prove to the world they could unite to change human conditions and achieve something truly great.

Water shortage solution from Chinese peasants: build a canal into cliff face to direct water from a mountain lake to the plainfield (photo:
Water shortage solution from Chinese peasants: build a canal into cliff face to direct water from a mountain lake to the plainfield (photo:

This is a song from the 1960s praising the peasant organization the People’s Commune:

The People’s Commune Is Like A Vine

“The People’s Commune is like a vine, we peasant members are like melons. When the vine is strong, melons grow big.”

The song celebrates a community spirit and can be summarised as the following:

China’s problem ultimately is a peasant problem. For thousands of years, Chinese history alternates between order and chaos, and nearly all the chaoses and the changes of dynasties were the results of unfair land distribution, as over the years the farmland had been concentrated in the hand of a small number of rich and powerful, while the majority of peasants became landless labourers. It is a hotbed for violent revolution aiming at land redistribution.

The collectively owned Commune system is a unique Chinese invention based on a particular China situation. For the first time in history, Chinese peasants had been organized with the hope to help the nation to deviate from that fateful loop.

However, while the Commune system can help nurture a community spirit, to make it work in the first place a certain degree of community spirit must have already existed. It was the case in most Chinese rural, but not all. In some parts of Anhui, like Fengyang County, where Little Hill Village (Xiaogangcun) is located, community spirit is completely lacking and selfishness rules. In these places, the commune system is destined to fail.

China in 1965: members from a peasant commune unit working together in shared farmland.


Working together. This is what we seem to have lost.

I probably have stated this before. Because of my work I interact with several people based in China and they are the most helpful and courteous people I know. It what started my interest in China.

Eric Horrobin:
Isn’t that what communism is about, or meant to be.

All Things Chinese:
It is part of it. However, in practice, it has its strengths and weaknesses.

The Communist system envisaged by Marx, first implemented in the Soviet Union with a twist and then practiced as Socialism in China, has experienced some success and many failures.

It stresses fairness which can galvanize people together working towards a common good, but at this stage of human history when individualism and tribalism are in dominance, it can also bring society to stand still in economic and cultural development as few are willing to do more than others without extra reward.

Today “communism” is more used as a political term than an actual reference to a certain social/economic system. In fact, there is no country in human history that ever really implemented communism as it is defined or fancied by Marx.

But at the moment socialism is widely practiced in the so-called “developed nations” in the world, and the social/economic system in northern and western European countries is actually more socialist than that in China.

Whether a state has one party (China) or two parties (the US) or more than two parties (Australia), whether the top head of the state is directly elected (the US) or indirectly elected (Australia) or appointed by a small circle of power brokers (China and Australia), it only affects who will be on the power but does not determine the nature of the country’s social/economic system.

The current Chinese system is shaped more by its tradition than imported socialism practice or communism ideology.

It is only because communism has been demonized by the mainstream Western media as the result of the cold war, so it becomes convenient for some petty politicians and shallow journalists to label the Chinese government as “Communist regime” whenever they are in the mood for a China-bashing.

As for the future trend of human civilization, yes, it will be closer to communism than capitalism. However, it will not be the communism we know from Marx.

Very well said. Though I’m not sure about the communism verse capitalism but you might be right. Guess it depends on how the current power struggles play out.

Mile HsiangYang Lee:
This is What TEAMWORK is All About, Many in AMERICA have Forgotten or Discarded for INDIVIDUAL PURSUIT 😩😩😩😩😩 In INDONESIA, This is Still WELL + ALIVE. Due to LACK of SKILLED FARM WORKERS, Many Farmers Band Together to WORK on 1 PLOT at 1 Time. It Doesn’t Matter Whose PLOT That is. Once Completed, All FARMERS Move On to The Next + So On & So Forth Until All The Land Have Been Worked On 😉😉😉😉😉 At HARVEST TIME, The Same Process is REPEATED, 1 PLOT at A Time till All is Done 😉😉😉😉😉 This Might Look like COMMUNISM but It is JUST NOT According to Those Farmers. It is Just COMMON SENSE + TEAM WORK of VILLAGE FOLKS. What They Can’t Do INDIVIDUALLY, They Do It as A TEAM. WORK + HARVESTING Get Done with NO EXTRA HANDS Needed + All Get Paid for Their HARVEST. NO FARMERS Go Under + Everybody is Happy to be Able to Help Their Neighbors 😇😇😇😇😇

It’s Not PRIVATE ENTERPRISE. It’s Termed SOCIAL ENTERPRISE 😉😉😉😉😉 PROFIT is Still A GOAL but Not at The EXPENSE of SOCIETY, COMMUNITY, NEIGHBORS + FRIENDS. The CONCEPT is – PROSPER THY NEIGHBOR & NOT PROFIT at ALL COST. It’s A WIN WIN WIN SITUATION for All Concern. Definitely Not A Zero Sum Game like You Know Who, The Name Which Cannot Be Uttered 😂😂😂😂😂

Ummm! Common sense. There is a unique approach. We should try that here.

I work with so many people that have 1 interest. Themselves.

All Things Chinese:
Capitalism and Socialism are two major social-economic models practiced today. The former could be more efficient but often less fair while the latter could achieve better fairness but often lacks efficiency.

The key is to maintain a good balance at a certain time under certain social-economic conditions.

At the moment we see a trend of privatization of state-own companies in many developed countries. How can they be privatized if they had not been nationalized under state-control in the first place?

Capitalism is based on competition which frequently leads to wars, while socialism/communism is based on cooperation which is the foundation of the higher civilization. But at this stage, it can also be misused by dictators.

Mile HsiangYang Lee:
COMMUNISM is A UTOPIAN CONCEPT, Probably Hard to Carry Out + Achieve 😐😐😐😐😐 SOCIALISM is A Form of EGALITARIANISM 😐😐😐😐😐CAPITALISM is An INCENTIVE CONCEPT, Where The WEAK Fades Away due to ECONOMIC ATTRITION + Only The FITTEST Survives 😐😐😐😐😐 How to Balance NATIONAL, COMMUNAL, COMMUNITY, SOCIETAL + INDIVIDUAL INTEREST is The Responsibility of A GOOD GOVT 😐😐😐😐😐 No 1 Particular System is PERFECT. PERFECTION Does Not Exist. It is Always A GOOD COMBINATION That Would TRIUMPH, Provided The GOVT Knows How to BALANCE + MANAGE It Well 😉😉😉😉😉

7 thought on “Chinese Villagers’ Water Shortage Solutions”
  1. Totally amazing it reminds me of “pillars of earth” the building of a cathedral in the middle ages. So much effort and sweat making something “impossible” with just basic tools. In this case an aqueduct running along a cliff, imagining the project alone is a work of human destiny . Building it is just incredible. Sadly like many works of man they fall into disrepair. Are there any plans to repair it?

    1. For a people to rise to the change, they need to be inspired by an insightful and courageous leader — the rise and fall of the mountain canals are its testimony.

  2. Just “wow”…!!! It’s amazing what people can do with even the most basic of tools. It’s fascinating to think that these people actually slept and ate in a cave on the cliff face! And such a shame that people had to die from rock falls when all they wanted was one of the most basic human rights of access to clear water. I’d love to know that this community-built canal is still running but it’s so sad that it isn’t. Would it be so difficult for, say, an army helicopter to remove the boulder blocking it…? Great article. Educational. I love this sort of thing. Great work 🙂

    1. There are some water canals built by the peasants still in use today (like Red Flag Canal), but most abandoned, like many state-built hydraulic infrastructures, because few young people stay in the land to grow food — they prefer to work in the construction fields or factories in the cities. The Chinese government in the recent decades is severely shortsighted, all that they want are the big projects to show the world how great China looks under their leadership.

  3. Hi Awen, this was a very touching article but very inspiring to see how the locals came together to find a solution to their water shortage in the face of adversity. It took a lot of hard work but they eventually built the canal for fresh water and even though the story doesn’t have a good ending it still showed how determination can achieve results, something we all need to be reminded of from time to time! thanks for sharing this!

    1. Hi Jay, your comment is a great abstract that summarises the whole story and the lessons coming with it. I had a heavy heart when I researched and wrote this post which was promoted by the news of the death of a retired Chinese official who is the symbol of a destructive force to this community spirit. But I believe the high human aspiration will triumph again.

You are welcome to share your thoughts here