But not one single mile of its relentless eastward downflow would ever have happened had Cloud Mountain not given the river its almighty shove toward the east at Shigu Town. A glance at any topographical map will show exactly what would have occurred instead. Just like the Mekong and the Salween, the Yangtze would have continued to thrust its way south. It would have merged with a tributary called the Yuan River in southern Yunnan, crossed the border into Vietnam, swept grandly through the city of Hanoi, and finally entered the ocean in the Gulf of Tonkin. It would have enjoyed a total length of around fifteen hundred miles. It would have been a great river, true, but not very different in either aspect or effect from any of the other immense streams that flow into the sea between Calcutta and Hong Kong.
And it could have happened. Research published in 2002 by a Beijing geophysicist named Zeng Pusheng has shown incontrovertibly that it was a sudden eruption of Eocene volcanoes, around forty-two million years ago, that pushed lava out in front of the stream where Cloud Mountain now stands and promptly created an immense upriver lake. At the same time pressure from the ever-rising Himalayas lifted this lake up and up, tilting the landscape upward from the west to a point where the waters could only spill out eastward—which they finally did, escaping in an unimaginably fierce torrent that carved its way majestically through the Tiger Leaping Gorge and eventually out into the center of China.
Here then is the eminently plausible what-if. For it is entirely possible that this small Eocene volcano could have erupted as little as a mile from where it did. Had it done so, thereby leaving the passage of the proto-Yangtze unblocked, the river would have been quite unable to avoid the fate of its neighboring streams and would have wound south to Hanoi. Such a counterfactual falls readily within the realm of the geologically believable. And had it happened, the consequences would be utterly profound.
For without the Yangtze, there would be, quite simply, no China.
Such an impact on the building of nations can be said of very few rivers in the world. It is entirely reasonable, for instance, to imagine France without the Seine, the United Kingdom without the Thames, Brazil without the Amazon. It is even arguable that there could be America without the Mississippi. The countries would all be the poorer for the absences, but not devastatingly so.
There are, however, a few rivers that are so central to the birth of a nation, are so much keystones of national identity or economy, that it is difficult to imagine the one without the other. Egypt without the Nile, to take an obvious instance, would simply not be Egypt—it would in almost all certainty be dusty and barren, and thus likely uninhabited, a mere extension of the Sinai or the Western desert. No Abu Simbel. No Karnak. No Saqqara and certainly no Sphinx or pyramids at Giza. Then again, an India with neither the Indus nor the Ganges would be the palest shadow of herself, probably no more than a satrapy of Persia.
China without the Yangtze would be similarly reduced—probably even more so. Her northern part might survive as a distinct entity, confined by the valley of the Yellow River, but her south, her west, and most tellingly of all, her east, would all lie riverless—a series of wildernesses stifled in disparate and unarable confusion.
It is not just a question of reduction. A Yangtze-less China would not be China at all, and there are two reasons why.
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