Inside The Forgotten Chinese Cities Destroyed By The Three Gorges Dam

A designer gathers and displays the artifacts of ancient towns now flooded by a massive dam as a reminder of what China loses as it develops at breakneck speed.

The Three Gorges Dam, a giant hydroelectric dam located along China’s Yangtze River, has the biggest installed capacity of any power station in the world. But the project, finished in 2012, hasn’t exactly been a triumph over dirtier forms of energy like coal power. Concerns about pollution, landslides, earthquakes, and biodiversity abound. And for about 4 million people, the dam project was mostly a disaster, as it flooded 13 cities, 140 towns, and 1,352 villages. (Everyone was relocated to new settlements built on higher ground, which in an Orwellian feat, were given the same names as their former communities.)


In 2013, Spanish designer and TED Fellow Jorge Manes Rubio set out on a quest to see the destroyed areas for himself. He ultimately emerged with Normal Pool Level, a project that consists of “souvenirs” from the flooded locations. The objects represent China’s identity crisis as it continues to develop at a breakneck speed, and the consequences it faces if it continues to do so without regard for residents.

“I found all these dilapidated cities. Officially, they don’t exist,” says Rubio. “I thought, ‘I should do something about this.’ I wanted to gather materials, stories.” Rubio traveled through fully and partially flooded cities for three weeks, collecting materials along the way. They are a reaction to the Three Gorges Dam’s emergence as a major tourist attraction.

In Fengdu, a flooded city with over 2,000 years of history, Rubio collected water from the river using two jerry cans. He painted the cans with traditional Chinese designs, inspired by a man he met in the new version of Fengdu who painted grapes. “I asked, ‘Why do you paint grapes?’ He said, ‘I paint grapes, my master painted grapes, my master’s master painted grapes,'” Rubio explains. The grapes painted on the jerry can represent the tension between industrial progress and tradition.

While in Fengdu, Rubio also came upon a pair of former farmers, Mr. Zou and Mrs. Qian, who took jobs manufacturing furniture in a nearby workshop after their land was flooded. Fearful of what their boss would think, Zou and Qian wouldn’t let Rubio buy furniture directly from them. So the artist instead took four pieces of scrap wood from the workshop and assembled them into a stool using nail-less carpentry–a method that’s popular in rural China, but is in decline because of the rise of mass-produced items.

One of the more heartbreaking items created by Rubio is a series of firecrackers, inspired by Zhang Fei’s Temple. The temple, built over 1,700 years ago, was flooded along with the town of Yunyang. A new temple was created on higher ground about 35 kilometers away, but it’s more of a tourist center–a “theme park,” as Rubio puts it–than a true center of worship. The ticket prices to get in are too high for locals to afford, so instead, they have begun setting off firecrackers and burning incense outside the building, creating their own makeshift worship space.

Normal Pool Level–a term defined on Rubio’s website as “The height in meters above sea level at which a section of the river is to be maintained behind a dam,” was first presented at an exhibition in Chongqing, China, a city along the Yangtze. Visitors had mixed reactions. “Some people didn’t really understand a thing, some said I was focusing too much on the negative, some other people loved it,” says Rubio. “The curator said, ‘You’ve told us a story we all knew in a completely different way.”


Normal Pool Level is showing at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art in Manchester, U.K., from July 3 until September 7. For more of Rubio’s artifacts, and his journey through the abandoned cities, check out the slide show above.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.