The burlaks of the Yangtze (qianfu – 纤夫)


Photo taken at the Three Gorges Museum (sanxia bowuguan - 三峡博物馆)in Chongqing, in November 2013.

We will be publishing a series of articles dedicated to the city of Chongqing, the venue of the next UrbaChina conference, which will be held at the end of this month.  A good reason, therefore, to pay homage to the barge haulers of the Long river (or Chang Jiang(长江) in this article. The mighty Yangtze river, the longest in China and the third longest in the world, bends around the peninsula of Chongqing where the tributary Jialing River (嘉陵江)joins it at the tip of the horn. The city, surrounded by both rivers, was originally called Jiang Zhou(江州)or city of rivers, a label that continues to be used today(hecheng - 河城).

The Yangtze has played a crucial role in the development of Chongqing as the most important inland maritime port. Throughout history, the river has represented a formidable geographic (and sometimes political) barrier dividing northern and southern China. At nearly 3,000 kilometres long, the Yangtze did not have a single bridge crossing it until 1957 when the first one was built in Wuhan. Chongqing had to wait two more years to see its first (railway) bridge, in 1959. Thus, river trade was essential to the economy due to the poor network of roads and railways. Passengers travelling by train from Beijing to Shanghai and Guangzhou in the south had to disembark to cross the river by ferry, before continuing their journey by train. The river now counts more than 60 bridges and three tunnels, the majority of which were built during the 1990s.1

Sampan (from sanban, or three planches - 三版) and junks were the predominant means of transportation in maritime trade. Many of them were powered by the muscle power of the qianfu (tow-rope worker), especially when they have to negotiate the region of the three gorges. They pulled the boats from the river banks, pushing against the stream. It was backbreaking work, done mainly by peasants. Typically they performed the job naked, as clothing would hurt their skin and also because it would make them more vulnerable to illness since they were constantly getting in and out of the water.

The word “burlak” comes from Russian, where barge haulers became a sort of popular hero before the industrial revolution and well until the beginning of the twentieth century when they disappeared (in the nineteenth century there were about 600,000 burlaks working on the Volga and Oka rivers).


Illia Efimovich Repin – Volga Boatmen (1870-1873)

Pilots passed instructions to the harnessed qianfu with the beat of a drum that was played at different rhythms. Large junks required up to 400 haulers. Judy Bonavia and Peter Neville-Hadley give a compelling picture about the Herculean job in their book “The Yangtze River”, including an account by an American passenger and his wife who spent several weeks on a Chinese cargo boat in 19222):

“If the boat happens to turn about when it is struck by a cross-current, a call from the pilot
 brings all the trackers to their knees or makes them dig their toes into the dirt. Another call makes them either claw the earth or catch their fingers over projecting stones. Then they stand perfectly still to hold the boat. When it is righted, another call makes them let up gradually and then begin again their hard pull.”

There are still some haulers who pull tourist boats through some stretches of the Shennong stream(神农溪), another tributary of the Yangtze. Otherwise, traces of these brave men remain only in rocks along the Long River, the so-called  qianfu rocks(qianfushi-纤夫石)where one might observe rope marks, as well as their footprints.3

fd039245d688d43f86886dfc7d1ed21b0ff41bd5ad6e03a6 Qianfu rock (纤夫石)


Cite this blog post
Miguel Elosua (2014, May 9). The burlaks of the Yangtze (qianfu – 纤夫). URBACHINA. Retrieved May 30, 2024, from

  1. []
  2. The Yangzi River, Judy Bonavia, Peter Neville-Hadley, Odyssey Publications; 5th edition (July 1, 1999 []
  3. []

Miguel Elosua

Spanish qualified lawyer; PhD in Chinese Law. UrbaChina Research Officer. Has lived in China since 2006.

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