Yang Xin

River Man

Yang Xin is the founder of Greenriver one of
China’s first environmental NGOs. His story here – “I wonder where the river
comes from?” – is taken from Lindsay Levin’s inspirational book ‘Invisible Giants: changing the world one step at a time’, which features stories about people who are
working in unique ways to change the world. 

“I was born in Chengdu and lived there
until I was seven years old,” Yang Xin began. “But my memories of it are scant.
It was only after we moved to Panzihua that I start to have memories. It was a
small industrial town then, and my father worked in one of the factories there.
But it was the surrounding nature that caught me. It’s a beautiful, mountainous
place and the river flows right through it. So I grew up beside the Yangtze in
the high ground of Sichuan. And every hour that I could find, I played outside.
You play differently in the country than you do in the city. You learn to catch
birds, to fish, to fend for yourself.

“I learned that I had a relationship with
the mountains and everything that lives there. I used to sit for hours beside
the river and watch it flow. I saw that it was always changing, always moving,
and it seemed to me that it continued on forever. And I thought to myself: I
wonder where the river comes from?

“Then, when I was ten years old, I saw a
map for the first time. It was such a special day! My mother brought it home, a
gigantic map of China, and I was riveted. What caught my attention most was a
thin blue line that started in Shanghai. I traced the line with my finger,
traced it back across the country and, as it went, I read the names of all the
places it passed through until I came to our home place of Panzihua. I was very
excited and I thought to myself: now I will know the answer to my question! Now
I will know where the river comes from!

“So I followed the thin blue line with my
finger, past Panzihua, back and back across the map until the names ran out.
And still I had no answer. ‘I can trace the river right across China,’ I said
to my father. ‘But still I don’t know where it comes from!’

“‘I don’t have the answer to your
question,’ he replied.

“I went to my teachers and I asked them too
and each one gave the same reply. All except for one who said to me, ‘I too do
not know where the river comes from, Yang Xin. But why don’t you go and find

“I decided then that this is what I would
do. And I kept it as a secret, buried deep in my heart.”

In 1986, Yang Xin organised an expedition
by raft from the Yangtze’s glacier source at some six thousand five hundred
metres above sea level, to its mouth, almost four thousand kilometres away at
the East China Sea – the longest river in Asia. It took one hundred and seventy
days, and ten of his fellow explorers died on the journey. But it marked the
beginning of a lifetime’s work.

As they travelled through the towns and
villages that line the river banks, Yang Xin stopped to ask the people who
lived there whether they knew where the river came from, and where it was
heading. Those he met at the start of the journey, who lived beside the
tributaries, didn’t know it as a single, vast river that crossed a continent.
For them it was part of their own small ecosystem, a simple fact of life. The
water flowed, heading who knew where. And many miles downstream, the people of
Hubei knew only the big, broad swell of its curve as the river ran past,
yielding what they needed and carrying away what they did not.

“I came to realise that no one knew the
whole river. No one could see the whole picture. And I knew then what I was
here to do,” he said. “I would become an educator. My job was to teach people
why the river mattered and how to take care of it.”

Shortly afterwards, Yang Xin established
Greenriver, in an effort to protect one of the most precious ecosystems on the
planet, the high-altitude, near pristine wilderness on the Qinghai-Tibetan
plateau which stretches for thousands of miles across remote mountains and
desert landscape. He and a small team of volunteers established the Suonandajie
Natural Ecological Protection Station. They’d named it after a colleague,
killed in a one-man battle with some of the poachers who were pushing the
Tibetan antelope to the brink of extinction.

“The mountains and glaciers of Qinghai and
Tibet are the birthplace of many rivers. They include the Yangtze and the
Yellow River which flow across China, the Salween that flows on to Burma and
Thailand, and the Mekong which is the water source for Yunnan province, Burma,
Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The Brahmaputra River also rises here,
flowing through Assam and Bangladesh to join the Ganges in India. Together,
these rivers support the lives of close to two billion people across south