Beijing Water

Oral History: Magic Water Village of Mentougou District

Below is the fifth in a series of oral histories about Beijing water, as told to Wang Jian and A.H. by 52-year-old Tan Julin of Lingshui Cun (Magic Water Village) in Mentougou District. Mentougou is 70 kilometres due west of downtown Beijing.

Wang Jian and A.H.Translated By: Madeleine Ross and Fang Li

Download the report here.

Tan Julin (male, 52 years old)

Our village, Magic Water Village, is right next to a mountain, which doesn’t belong to any of the surrounding mountain ranges, so we call it Solitary Mountain or Dushan. Looking down from a plane, it looks similar to a lotus petal, so we also call it Lotus Flower Mountain or Lianhua Shan. It is made of really hard rock, quite unlike limestone and because it has never weathered over the years, the mountain is called “Inspired Volcanic Rock.” How this rock could be put to use in the future, no one knows yet.

In the past there were interconnected ponds all over the village and 72 wells, so the village was also called “Seventy-Two Wells.” Water flowed year round in the two creeks that ran through the village. You might ask where all this water came from. Well, it was from the mountain, as water gurgled down the mountain all year long. In the past, when there was a lot of rain, all the surface water collected in places where there were channels.

There also used to be big trees on the mountain, but later because of drought, they all died for lack of water.

About 300 households or 1200 people live in the village, on about 20,000 mu (1 mu = 1/15 hectares) of mountainous land. The 72 wells meant that there were enough of them for three or four households to share one between them. Some wells were very shallow and you could just scoop up the water with a bucket on the end of your carrying pole. For others you had to use a winch and lower a bucket down by winding the handle, then wind the water up. It depended on the lie of the land whether or not a well needed a winch or not. What about the wells these days? A water exploration team came and said that if you dug down to the aquifer here, you’d have to go 1,800 metres. But if the base were limestone, you’d only need to go 800 metres to get to water.

Right here there used to be a spring, and when I was young (in 1965) we’d water the horses at it. The mouth of it wasn’t very deep, and we used stones to build a sort of square box. When we wanted water, we just had to dip the buckets in – the surface of the water was only about 10 centimetres from the bottom, but once we had scooped out all the water, we only had to wait a little while and it came up again. No matter how dry the weather had been, the water in the spring was always at the same level and you’d never see it overflowing, even in heavy rain.

In this area here there used to be an octagonal pool, built in the time of the Qing Dynasty. In those days it was enclosed by a wooden railing, so people could enjoy looking at it. You can see that the hole in this stone was made for a railing. The pool filled with water from that spring over there, which kept flowing throughout the year.

There were a lot of geniuses in our village, and many candidates were successful in the imperial examinations of the past (according to the records there were 22 of them). The octagonal pool was part of the residence of candidate Liu who was successful in the provincial examinations at the time. His estate had five courtyards, and the outer wall was built to keep the water out. Later, when agrarian reform (tugai) took place, his estate was given to the people, and twenty or more households started living in it. The residents divided the estate up into a number of smaller compounds, and it changed so much that you wouldn’t have recognized what it originally looked like. The small lane we are walking along now used to be the river bed, and when the water was in flow, it gurgled down from over there.

In our village, it’s those men of letters, not local officials such as the village head or party secretary, who have real influence in villagers’ conduct and discipline.[1] So they drew up some stipulations about how to use the octagonal pool. In fact, environmental awareness really began in those days. Have a look at the “Tablet of Three Prohibitions”: “Killing chickens and slaughtering sheep is not allowed on the edge of the pool, beasts of burden are not allowed to drink directly from the pool, women are not allowed to wash and starch clothes, and children are not allowed to jump in and bathe.”

In 1969, during the time of the people’s communes, the villagers opened a mine behind the mountain. Then about 10 years ago, just overnight, all of the 72 wells in the village dried up. There wasn’t enough water and people had to queue up with their water buckets to get any. These days our drinking water is well water, but it’s not from wells in the village. It’s from down there where you turn a corner on the highway, where the government sank a motor-pumped well. That water has had to be raised in two stages to be brought to our village, a distance of 800 metres in total.

The water in Magic Water Village just disappeared, firstly, because of the drought and secondly, because of mining. In the last 20 years or so it has only poured with rain a couple of times.

In the last two or three years, the authorities have said that we aren’t allowed to mine coal any more, and all the small scale mines have closed. We’ve been to look, but we couldn’t see them as they’ve all been filled in and covered over. Ordinary people used to pay a bit over 200 yuan a ton for coal to cook with, but now it’s over 700 yuan a ton. The quality is very good; it’s just that it’s too expensive. What can we do? We can only go up the mountain to cut firewood.

No water anymore. At the end of the 60s and in the early 70s, educated youth were sent to the countryside, and when they got to the village they filled in the octagonal pool. They had nowhere to live, so they built a house on that spot. Later, they returned to the city and the place reverted to the production brigade again. After the 1978 National Communist Party Assembly, which disbanded the production brigades, the house was sold to villagers. The expansion of the tourism industry has brought antiquities back into fashion now. So the authorities have bought the old place back in order to restore it to its original splendor.

Have a look: this well has a hand winch. In the past if you lowered it just a few turns you used to be able to get water. Now check out this two metre high wall, it was built to keep out the water that flowed past here all year round. Over there is a creek; that’s the Jade Emperor Temple; then looking further up, next to that walnut tree there’s a well. “The water is as high as the mountain!”[2]

Now we’re “returning grain growing land to forestry,” and we’ve planted some apricot, walnut and jujube trees. Just look, those are persimmon trees, and over there are some flowering crabapples, aren’t they beautiful?

Authors’ Commentary

For centuries this small village was protected from wind and storm by the hills, concealed by pines and cypress trees, and surrounded by clear springs. The Solitary Mountain massif was made of very hard igneous rock that doesn’t weather or erode. Soil was deposited on it for eons so that trees grew thickly, hiding the buried coal deposits and that’s why so much spring water poured out of the rock crevices.

When the villagers started small-scale coal mining, they dug through to the aquifers, which caused the direction of the underground water to change. The water levels in the 72 wells dropped, to the point where they just dried up. As a result of the drop in water level, the trees died.

Eventually the small mines were closed down. But the villagers can’t afford to buy coal from elsewhere at today’s prices. The only thing they can do is chop down more trees for firewood – which just exacerbates the problem of deforestation. Ten ancient trees in the village have been listed on the “Register of Beijing’s famous ancient trees” but they are endangered by the destruction of the river system and continuous drought.

Right now, Magic Water Village is attracting investors who want to develop cultural tourism. They plan to dig an even deeper well in the village and expand the alcohol brewing, food and beverage industries – making it hard to avoid another turn in the wheel of the vicious circle.

My Home and Water: A People‘s Account

Beijing, once famous for its sweet spring water and clear-flowing rivers is now infamous for its polluted canals and dried up riverbeds. My Home and Water: A People‘s Account provides a rare uncensored glimpse of life and water in the ancient capital of Beijing and surrounding areas – as told by longtime residents.

Translation, editing and online publication of the series by Chinese author Dai Qing and Probe International has been made possible by funding from the Open Society Institute. For more information, contact Probe International at

[1] In the period since liberation.

[2] This is a Chinese expression meaning water is plentiful.

Categories: Beijing Water

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