The city of Dujiangyan in Sichuan province is becoming a popular tourist destination these days, bristling as it is with both historic sites and natural beauty spots. We’ll be discussing the city and many of it’s attractions in some future installment, but a little background information on it’s most famous landmark is necessary to understand the significance of the water releasing festival.
Constructed around 256 BCE by a man named Li Bing (and presumably around 50,000 less famous peasants) the Dujiangyan Irrigation System is by far the oldest such system still in use today. Intended to alleviate the flooding that had plagued the region, and to provide fresh water to irrigate the then-dry Chengdu plain, Li Bing’s creation succeeded in both tasks to the extent that today, it is credited as the sole cause of the legendarily laid-back attitudes and lifestyles of Sichuan people. In a single stroke the project had removed the fear of floods, and created the most agriculturally productive region in China, ensuring there would always be safety at home and food on the table.
So if you find yourself in Sichuan and you’re wondering why people seem to start work at eleven, finish at four, and take a three hour lunch break somewhere in between, look to the statue of Mr Li Bing, and to his 2,200 year old engineering project.
The Dujiangyan Water-releasing festival is an annual event coinciding with the Qingming or ‘Tomb-Sweeping’ festival in early April. The city puts on an elaborate show to celebrate the success of the ancient irrigation system, and to give thanks for the life and prosperity that Li Bing’s hard work continues to breathe in to the region two millennia later. And it’s this show that the local tourism office had invited us to attend.
In spite of the spectacular display that we were ultimately treated to, the show itself got off to a somewhat inauspicious start. Mother Nature having apparently chosen to get in to the spirit of ‘water releasing’ with her own, not insignificant, aquatic contribution from above, a rather lengthy round of introductions and speeches from the great and important figures in attendance, and a somewhat underwhelming performance from the ‘International Talent Show’, all conspired to provide a gloomy first impression.
But first impressions can be wrong, and in this instance, gloriously so. The real show began with a bang, literally. And an explosion of colour, also literally, as a barrage of coloured smoke shells (far more impressive during daylight hours than mere fireworks) were thunderously fired aloft, the various hidden fountains and water features sprang in to life, and the first round of flamboyantly outfitted performers materialised to begin their act. In this instance, a stylized display of the workers constructing the irrigation system.
One thing the Beijing Olympics firmly cemented in the mind of the world, is that no one can match China when it comes to large scale choreographed displays. And here in Dujiangyan, we were treated to many. I’ve no idea how many actual performers took part in the various routines and displays that flashed before our eyes, it could have been a thousand, or it could have been the same 80 people effecting a dozen or more astonishingly swift wardrobe changes, but the overall effect was dazzling.
For over an hour the actors and dancers surged onwards, performing one colour laden parade after another, one minute you’re watching a hundred people doing perfectly synchronised tai-chi, or a traditional Ploughing Dance, the next minute an army of drummers and fire-breathers are dramatising scenes from history and mythology, all supplemented by impressive pyrotechnics, musical accompaniment, water displays, and an absurdly powerful artificial snow machine that briefly enveloped the entire performance and viewing areas in a foamy blizzard. Many of these special effects I regret to confess happened with such speed and unexpectedness that often one could ne’er point a camera at them before the action had moved on elsewhere. It’s possible this is by design, and if so, I approve. Stop staring at things through a viewfinder and stick to the Mk1 Eyeball, people.
Over the years we’ve seen our fair share of Chinese theatre, Opera, dance routines, and kung-fu shows, but, even in the grim weather of the day, this once-a-year event was a class act. Easy to understand why so many of the nations press turned out to record it.
Would we recommend Dujiangyan’s Water Releasing Festival ?
Definitely. If you’re in the area at the right time, and if you can track down the tickets, you won’t be disappointed.
A short warning though, don’t wear your favourite white clothes. The coloured smoke artillery bursting overhead looks deeply impressive, but all that airborne dye gets absorbed in to the rain and will quickly transform your white linen jacket in to Joseph’s Technicolour Dreamcoat.
Details regarding the Dujiangyan Water Releasing Festival
The Water Releasing Festival happens every year in Spring around the Qingming Festival. The show takes place near the irrigation system in Dujiangyan.
The city of Dujiangyan is close to Chengdu and is easily accessible. Trains and buses are available every day and should take between 30 minutes and an hour.
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