Jessica Ritsche
Jessica Ritsche, NIU

Jessica Ritsche is majoring in elementary education at NIU with an emphasis in history. She hopes to be an inspiration to her students when she begins teaching.  Jessica was involved in Palatine High School’s basketball program and is a member of the International Society of Poets.  She found her essay “Civil Unrest as a Means of Political Unrest” challenging because she had to take unfamiliar information and synthesize it into a successful argument.

Yung Chang’s documentary Up the Yangtze (2007) provides a real example of the struggles Chinese commoners face as their country transitions from a peasant-based communist economy to a consumer-capitalism economy. In this documentary, Cindy, the daughter of a poor farm family, works onboard a cruise ship to send money to her home. Her family is forced out of their home because the Yangtze River will soon flood, as a result of the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, necessitating relocation into housing provided by the government. Like most of the low-income class citizens, Cindy is forced to find a job to support her family. The film follows her as she works aboard a cruise ship serving the abundance of Western tourists. This cruise ship is an example of the rising consumer capitalist based economy. Here also emerges a class struggle between what Karl Marx calls the proletariats and the bourgeois. As Marx describes it, “The essential condition for the existence, and for the sway of the bourgeois class, is the formation and augmentation of capital; the condition for capital is wage labor. Wage rests exclusively on competition between the laborers” (373). The laborers, or proletariats, have no choice of their fate, while the wealthy class, the bourgeois, is in full control. Inevitably, this split causes a class struggle. This struggle is between those who own the means of production, the bourgeois, and those who labor for a wage, the proletariats. These two classes are shown in Up the Yangtze as they follow two citizens of China, Cindy and Jerry, who both work aboard the cruise ship.

The wealthy class, as shown through Jerry, is more westernized in comparison. They are unaffected by the development of the Three Gorges Dam and flourish underneath the demands of the economy. This New China is accustomed to these new economic demands; however, Old China is unfavorable to the societal attributes of the developing consumer capitalism but is forced to labor for New China and its overzealous pursuit of money. Using the rhetoric of Marx, Jerry is a member of the bourgeois and only works on the ship by choice; he is a porter and a singer, trying desperately to make more money than his parents do. He learns quickly who will bring him the most tip money and intentionally singles out the middle class of the wealthy crowd. He is happily predatory and, speaking to the camera, explains his exploits, “Normally I don’t help the elderly. Even if they ask I won’t go. I would ask someone else because I know they are the poorest.… If they’re too young or too old they won’t give tips. The best are the middle aged men or women.” It’s obvious that he is just in it for the money. He states, “I earn the most.… My mom only earns 1,000 Yuan a month. My father makes about 2,000 Yuan.” Even though his family is well off, he still wishes to make more than they make.

This is a common characteristic of the bourgeoisie. They have “torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and [have] reduced the family relation to a mere money relation” (Marx 365). He only mentions his family when it comes to competing incomes. Because he is also a member of the bourgeois class, he isolates himself from the lower class workers on the ship; he views himself as far more westernized and thus far above them. It is only natural that in being around those who he has been taught are far below him, he develops arrogance. This becomes the end of him. As he stays away from the other employees and hungers for money, he loses control of his arrogance. A tourist blames him for requesting a tip and in turn he is terminated. Although he has lost his job, he still has the option of easily finding a new place to work. The lower class would not have that option.

The proletariats have no choice but to work to survive. Cindy, as shown in Up the Yangtze, is the only basis of her family’s income. Ironically, though Chang as director clearly intends the irony, Cindy’s working tour covers the river that is going to flood her family’s home. These low class families are to be relocated in government-mandated homes. These new homes present additional problems to survival. Instead of living off the land like most of these families are used to, they are now required to purchase what they need from the local market. To purchase these goods, residents need jobs now. Noting this paradox, Marx writes, “The average price of wage labor is the minimum wage, i.e., that quantum of the means of subsistence which is absolutely requisite to keep the laborer in bare existence as a laborer” (375). Here, Marx writes that the bourgeois keep the proletariats working because they need the money, so they work for any, even low-paying, jobs. They work for these jobs because their low class keeps them from advancing or learning more specific advancements. However, as these low class people are relocated in contemporary China, it becomes harder for them to find even basic jobs. As NPR journalist Anthony Kuhn states, “The resettled residents are not finding jobs or are facing discrimination in their new homes” (para. 13). These residents are kept from advancing in society because they are both relocated and from the low class.

However, they are treated even more badly by government officials. Some of the residents have lost their household registrations because “the government has counted the residents as resettled after simply moving their household registration from one town to another, whether or not the residents themselves have actually moved” (Kuhn para. 14). This can prevent the children from being able to attend school because they have no household registration. Besides the problem of registration, some don’t even have that chance. Kuhn notes that some residents “have not received the relocation subsidies promised by the government, sometimes because officials have embezzled the money” (para. 13). Preoccupied with their hunger for money, the Chinese government explains that the Three Gorges Dam will bring much prosperity to their economy. In reality, it is quite the opposite. They proposed the Dam as being a low cost project with a budget in the range of, in U.S. currency, $27.19 Billion (Yauch para. 1). However, their estimated cost to the taxpayers is sugar-coated. According to Brady Yauch of the independent environmental-advocacy group Probe International, “The true cost of the dam might be as high as 600 billion Yuan ($88-billion)” (para. 2). It seems that the Dam’s faults heavily outweigh its benefits.

Pollution, a huge concern in all industrial projects, emerges as another one of these faults. Factories pollute in tributaries that feed into the Yangtze. The pollution is so bad that “in some places, the pollution has caused major algae blooms, and killed off fish and plant species. One of the most noted casualties is the Yangtze River dolphin, which is on the verge of extinction, if not already extinct” (Kuhn para. 9). While it is devastating to the vegetation and plant species, it could potentially have geological effects on the population. These geological issues would include “the possibility that the reservoir has contributed to recent heat waves and droughts in the region” (Kuhn para. 8). Geologists have also recently discovered that the River sits upon “tectonic fault lines and the weight of the water could trigger devastating earthquakes,” and it has been cited that the “reservoir’s shoreline has collapsed in ninety-one separate places and is causing landslides” (Kuhn para. 8). It seems obvious at this point that this Dam is causing more problems than benefits. Although it provides a remarkable amount of electricity (up to 200 billion kilowatts of electricity) as an alternate source of energy in comparison to the burning of fossil fuels (Yauch para. 7), this astonishment is quickly undercut by the evident lack of concern for the people or general environmental concerns. This situation is visualized in Up the Yangtze. Because their home is completely flooded, as shown by the end of the documentary’s time-lapse, Cindy’s family is forced to move into these government-provided homes.

The proletariats or Old China as portrayed in the film, suffers in the advancing technology and economy. A lower class citizen describes the situation, “It’s hard being a human, but being a common person in China is even harder.” While they are constrained by the bourgeois’ rules, they start to create social upheaval. Marx anticipates the people’s revolt:

The unceasing improvement of machinery, ever more rapidly developing, makes their livelihood more and more precarious; the collisions between individual workmen and individual bourgeois take more and more                     the character of collisions between two classes. Thereupon the workers begin to form combinations (Trades Unions) against the bourgeois (370).

Here, Marx states that the developing machine, or, in the documentary’s case, China’s newfound economic industry, makes the proletariat’s life more unstable. These hardships cause more clashing between the two classes until finally the proletariats have had enough and create a Union. Anthony Kuhn reports evidence of this in conjunction with the Three Gorges Dam:

Signs of discontent around the Three Gorges are hard to miss. In the county of Zhongxian, taxi and bus drivers are on strike … The creation of the reservoir forced two-thirds of local industries to close. Unemployment in the                   area stands at twelve percent (para. 16).

Trying to adjust to relocation and new living standards is hard enough for Old China, but having the only source of income tampered with creates even worse hardship. Therefore, their only option at this point is to revolt.

Marx goes on to explain that once the proletariat class starts to strike they gain power and agency to overthrow the bourgeois. Its own creation, the proletariats, will revolt against them: “What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable” (Marx 373). The capitalism of the state will be overthrown by the Proletariats. This is because they have been stripped of their rights, and forced to survive the bare minimum. The bourgeois and the proletariats are so far apart in class distinction that it’s unavoidable to stay that way. Although Old China hasn’t overthrown New China, it does not mean that it’s not a possibility of the future. However, New China, perhaps echoing Marx, has taken away the freedom of the proletariat. Marx explains, “In bourgeois society, capital is independent and has individuality, while the living person is dependent and has no individuality” (375). Their dependencies, for now, will keep the proletariats from lashing out to the fullest extent. Still, individuals will try to make a statement, though they may be chastised for their attempts. For example, the common citizen in the film who speaks about the hardships of being a common man remains unnamed. This shows that he has no individuality and cannot speak out by name against the wrongs of the government for fear of reprisal. Also, in being relocated from their homes, these low income families are forced to be dependent because their only option is to move into the government-mandated homes. This class struggle has been a problem for China but only seems to get worse. The bourgeois flourish in China’s new rules and the proletariats become a victim of its inequalities.

The proletariat has no choice but to labor for the bourgeois. Support of this claim is shown in Yung Chang’s Up the Yangtze as Cindy must work aboard the cruise ship to send money back to her impoverished family. The Three Gorges Dam has proven its lack of benefits to the commoners of the community due to its ecological and geological faults. Also, China proves its lack of concern for the low income class by the imperfections of its relocation process. As the bourgeois flourish in these conditions the proletariats break down. The proletariats will revolt, only to be thrown back into this vicious cycle of inequality and absence of freedom. Conditions toughen for the proletariats as the desire for money controls the government’s actions. Commoners will be kept from individuality until New China changes its ways.


Works Cited

Kuhn, Anthony. “The Three Gorges Reservoir: A Series Overview.” NPR. 2 Jan. 2008. 10 Oct. 2009. Web. <>.

Marx, Karl. “The Communist Manifesto.” 1848. A World of Ideas: Essential Readings for College Writers. Ed. Lee A. Jacobus. 8th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010. 362-382. Print.

Up the Yangtze. Dir.Yung Chang.eitgeist Films, 2007.

Yauch, Brady. “The Chinese Government is not Telling the Whole Truth about the Cost of the Three Gorges Dam.” Probe International. 19 Sep. 2009. 10 Oct. 2009. Web. <>.

Published by Aaron Geiger

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *