Beijing Water

Standing tall: New oral history shows citizens taking a stand for Beijing’s rivers

Probe International
June 1, 2010

Beijing, once famous for its sweet spring water and clear-flowing rivers is now infamous for its polluted canals and dried up riverbeds. But one small river, that once suffered decades of insults and was among the city’s dirtiest, is making a comeback.

In this, the ninth in a series of oral histories about the Beijing watershed compiled by a team of Beijing researchers, and published by prize-winning environmental journalist Dai Qing and Probe International, a story of hope and citizen determination to see Beijing’s watershed restored is told.

In “A River Returns,” Li Yuling, a long-time resident of the Majiabao neighbourhood in Beijing, says that she wanted nothing more than to live next to a river that flowed day and night. Instead, she found herself living on the banks of the Macao River, which was so polluted that it was famous across Beijing for its awful smell. Ms. Li describes a scene when, after moving into their new home in 1989, the stench from the river was so strong that she and her husband, suffering from the sweltering heat, still wouldn’t open their windows.

The river’s health hit a low-point in the mid-nineties. Ms. Li says the residents suffered through worsening pollution and smells—with great difficulty—but did their best to cope with it. She says the elderly suffered the most, as they didn’t leave the neighbourhood during the day to go to work. It seemed that her dream of living on a river was more of a nightmare.

But Ms. Li describes how the decline in the river’s health helped pique her interest, and her family’s, in environmental protection. Her new-found concern for the environment led her to environmental websites and citizen-led walks along rivers across Beijing. She also became involved in “water action” activities and has walked along nearly all of Beijing’s rivers in order to have a greater understanding of the ancient city’s river system.

Then, in 2004 the government began to rehabilitate the river—ensuring that sewage no longer flowed in it untreated and that its banks were planted with trees and grass. Ms. Li says cleaning the river has brightened people’s outlook and helped to spur economic development and raise house prices in the neighbourhood. The river now also carries more water.

Ms. Li’s story is complimented by essays written by her son whose imagination has also been captured by the prospect of recovering a river and improving the quality of life of all who live along it. In their hands, and those of their fellow concerned citizens, one begins to see hope that the demise of Beijing’s watershed might begin to turn the corner.

Read “A River Returns” here.

To read other Beijing Water Oral Histories, click here.

To read other Three Gorges Oral Histories, click here.

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 a grant from the Foundation Open Society Institute (Zug). For more information, contact Probe International at

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