A granite footbridge built nearly 400 years ago in the late Ming Dynasty has been exposed by the record low waters of Poyang Lake in China’s central Jiangxi province. Lengthening dry seasons, low rainfall and the impact of the Three Gorges Dam reservoir upstream have dramatically reduced the lake’s area, shrinking it from an average high point of 3,500 square kilometers (1,400 square miles) to a two hundred square kilometers (77 square miles) at worst. Right now it is almost 10 meters (32 feet) below the average depth for this time of year. It’s an environmental and economic disaster, devastating for the fish, endangered porpoises, migratory birds, microorganisms and humans that depend on the lake for their lives/livelihoods.
So it’s not exactly a bright side because there really isn’t any, but it is neat to see the bridge again. It is an impressive 2,930 meters (1.8 miles) long which earned it the title of the longest lake bridge in China. Also known as the “thousand-eye bridge” because it was reputed to have 1,100 holes along its length, it was built by the Chongzhen Emperor in 1631, the fourth year of his reign. For the people who lived around the lake in the 17th century, the granite bridge was the main traffic artery. Since the lake has long reputed to be haunted, garnering the moniker of the “Bermuda Triangle of the East” for the number of ships that disappeared in its waters never to be seen again even during the dry season, and since the waters, haunted or not, are treacherous and subject to sudden squalls, the bridge was an important resource for residents, giving them the ability to cross the lake without boating.
It is fitting that the last Ming emperor left his mark on Poyang Lake as that’s where the future first emperor had the great victory that launched his dynasty. In 1363, as the Mongol Yuan Dynasty founded by Kublai Khan weakened and local warlords grew in strength and ambition, the three most powerful lords in the Yangtze River area clashed at Poyang Lake. Chen Youliang of the Han brought hundreds of tower ships, massive multi-storey troop carriers, and hundreds of thousands soldiers and sailors to besiege the Ming-controlled city of Nanchang on the south side of the lake. Zhu Yuanzhang, commander of the Ming fleet and founder of the dynasty, was fighting the army of the Zhang Shicheng, the self-style King of Wu, when the siege began. Zhu dispatched a fleet to the lake to support Nanchang which was holding steadfastly against the Han.
Over three days of direct conflict (there was a month of blockade and attrition between the first two days and the last) in which the Ming sent fire ships to demolish the Han towers and used their smaller, more nimble ships to run the Han fleet aground in the shallows, Zhu’s forces decisively defeated the numerically superior Han. Chen Youliang was killed by an enemy arrow through his skull, and only a few Han ships managed to make it up the Yangtze intact.
Zhu claimed hundreds of surrendered and disabled Han ships and with his reinforced navy and victorious army, he became the strongest of the contenders for the throne. In 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang conquered the Yuan capital (today’s Beijing) and proclaimed himself Emperor of China, first of the Ming Dynasty. The Mongols retreated to their homeland in the central Asian steppe and Yunnan, the last Yuan-controlled area of China, fell to the Ming in 1381.
The dynasty he founded lasted for nearly 300 years until the suicide of the Chongzhen Emperor in 1644, 13 years after he had the granite bridge built over the lake that saw the founder of his dynasty’s seminal victory.