The film is a powerful reminder of the social and economic inequalities that persist within rapidly developing nations like China. It exposes the profound implications of such income disparities: limited access to education, healthcare, and economic mobility for those living in poverty.

"Up the Yangtze," directed by Yung Chang, is a compelling documentary that offers a glimpse into the effects of the Three Gorges Dam project on the lives of people along China's Yangtze River. It explores themes of societal change, economic disparity, and the impact of globalization on ordinary people. With its poignant storytelling and thought-provoking analysis, "Up the Yangtze" provides a powerful critique of the challenges posed by rapid development in China and highlights the human cost of economic progress.

The documentary depicts how the Three Gorges Dam causes the displacement and upheaval experienced by numerous families along the Yangtze River. It captures the profound impact of the world’s largest dam project on the lives of the displaced families, particularly those who relied on farming as their primary livelihood. The challenges they encounter after they are forced to abandon farming, which was not only a source of income but also deeply tied to their identity, leaves them grappling with feelings of loss, displacement, and uncertainty. The film is narrated from the point of view of two individuals’ experiences and hardships. A young girl, Yu Shui, and her family are forced to relocate after the rising waters of the Yangtze leave her with no choice but to seek employment on a luxury cruise ship catering to wealthy tourists. Meanwhile Chen Bo Yu, an ambitious young man who also joins the cruise ship as a staff member undergoes a transformation as he adapts to the demands of the tourism industry.

One of the central themes explored in "Up the Yangtze" is the profound economic disparity created by the Three Gorges Dam. The film showcases the contrasting realities faced by those directly affected by the dam's construction: the indulgence of wealthy tourists who enjoy lavish accommodations, fine dining, and leisure activities on the cruise ships and struggles of families like Yu Shui's, who are displaced from their ancestral lands, traditional ways of life and are forced to find work in the service industry catering to tourists. This stark juxtaposition underscores the widening gap between the rich and the poor, illustrating the unequal distribution of wealth and opportunities in the region and in China. The film is a powerful reminder of the social and economic inequalities that persist within rapidly developing nations like China. It exposes the profound implications of such income disparities: limited access to education, healthcare, and economic mobility for those living in poverty.

The documentary also sheds light on the difficulties these families face in transitioning from rural to urban life. Lacking the necessary skills and education to secure stable employment in the cities, the transition creates heightened vulnerability and a reliance on low-paying jobs. The film exposes the harsh realities of their new living conditions, including crowded living spaces and exploitative working environments. By bringing attention to the harsh transition from rural to urban life, "Up the Yangtze" calls for a critical examination of the role of economic policies and development projects that exacerbate wealth inequality. It prompts viewers to reflect on the ethical implications of prioritizing economic growth at the expense of marginalized communities, emphasizing the urgent need for more equitable and inclusive approaches to development.

Moreover, "Up the Yangtze" highlights the unequal distribution of benefits resulting from the dam project. While the Chinese government touts the economic development and increased energy production brought about by the dam, it is the marginalized families who bear the brunt of the social and economic costs. Even though the government allocates funds for families forced to relocate due to the construction of the dam, the corruption that persists within local government result in the poor receiving nothing. The film raises important questions about the ethical implications of development projects that prioritize economic growth at the expense of the livelihoods and well-being of vulnerable communities.

"Up the Yangtze," also exposes the exploitative labor practices within the tourism industry, particularly through the lens of young workers like Chen Bo Yu. The film highlights the grueling working conditions characterized by long hours and paltry wages. Through the experiences of workers like Chen Bo Yu, the film highlights the harsh reality of the tourism industry, where labor rights are often overlooked in the pursuit of profit. The documentary challenges the notion that tourism is solely a source of economic growth and development, instead shedding light on the hidden costs and human toll behind the glossy façade. It underscores the stark contrast between the luxurious experiences of the wealthy tourists aboard the cruise ships and the hardships endured by the workers who serve them. The story of Chen Bo Yu prompts viewers to critically examine power dynamics within a globalized economy. It reveals the extent of labor exploitation and absence of protections for vulnerable workers, particularly in the tourism industry.

"Up the Yangtze" draws attention to the human consequences of large-scale infrastructure projects and prompts viewers to contemplate the need for more inclusive and equitable approaches to development. It serves as a powerful reminder of the complex challenges faced by those affected by forced displacement and the urgent need for sustainable and socially responsible development practices. In this context, the documentary subtly hints at the role of government policies in shaping economic development and income distribution. Although the focus is on personal stories, the film underlines the government's role in facilitating and regulating the tourism industry, land acquisition, and employment opportunities. Examining government policies more extensively in the documentary could have provided a deeper understanding of the socio-economic dynamics at play, specifically the government's efforts to address income inequality and alleviate the hardships faced by displaced communities.

While the narration of the film through personal life stories elicit a more emotional response from the viewers, providing a broader view of the societal and environmental issues that rose form the construction of the dam along with including perspectives from a wider range of stakeholders, such as government officials, policymakers, or representatives from the tourism industry, could have added depth and provided a more comprehensive understanding of the dynamics.

In conclusion, "Up the Yangtze" is a profound exploration of economic issues and their human consequences created by the Three Gorges dam.  The film presents the stark income disparities between wealthy tourists and impoverished families affected by the dam project, shedding light on the glaring wealth gap and unequal distribution of opportunities. Moreover, the documentary exposes the exploitative labor practices within the tourism industry, captured by the plight of workers like Chen Bo Yu, and raises important questions about globalization's impact on worker rights and the treatment of laborers.

"Up the Yangtze" prompts viewers to critically examine the social and economic complexities that arise from rapid development and globalization. It challenges prevailing narratives of progress by asking questions about the hidden costs and human toll of economic progress in China. Ultimately, "Up the Yangtze" offers an emotionally resonant portrayal of economic realities faced by individuals and communities in the midst of profound societal and environmental changes caused by the Three Gorges dam.


Nehantha Sathesh is third year student at FLAME University, majoring in economics. Her academic interests point towards understanding the economic interaction between countries and how it impacts the development of a country. In her spare time, you can find her unwinding through music and books. She did her FLAME Summer Internship Program (SIP) at ORCA.

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