For 36 years, This Man Dug In The Mountains - The Story of Huang Dafa

Let's find out why Huang Dafa dug in the mountains for 36 years!

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The world can be a tough place. And, sometimes, it can leave you feeling powerless to change anything. But no matter how high the mountain, you can scale it! Or, in the case of humble Chinese villager turned hero Huang Dafa, dig straight through it! Let's embark on the inspiring story of one man who literally moved mountains to make the world a better place.

Who Is Huang Dafa?

So, first things first, who the heck’s Huang Dafa? And why was he digging through the mountains? Practically everything about him is shrouded in myth and mystery, and navigating all the rumors and misinformation has been a mountain in itself! Still, I’ve pieced together this tantalizing tale from everything I could find.

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Little is known about Huang’s early years. We do know however that he was born in 1936, in Caowangba, a remote village in the beautiful Guizhou mountains of Western China. Caowangba was very small, and very isolated, with only 1,200 residents living at a dizzying altitude of over 4,100ft. In other words, it’s not the kind of place that got a lot of visitors.

Huang was orphaned as a young boy and raised in this isolated community by his neighbors. After only receiving a basic elementary-level education, he seemed destined to become a farmer, like most of the villagers before him. But this life wasn’t easy.

Caowangba was a hard place to get by, with the average villager earning less than 100 yuan a year. That’s just over a dollar a month! And with no electricity running into the village, it meant long days in the field cultivating crops by hand.

Modern farming equipment was nothing but a daydream, and Caowangba didn’t even have any roads connected to it! So, villagers had a long trek through the mountains to collect supplies from the nearest town with a road. Then, once they had their goods, they had to carry them all the way back again.

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But Huang Dafa worked hard for his village, and in 1958, at the tender age of just 23, his work paid off when he was elected as village leader. It was time for some changes, big changes. Huang saw three main problems facing Caowangba. First, there were no roads. Second, there was no electricity. Third, and arguably most pressing, there was no water.

On top of everything else, the Guizhou region, where Caowangba lies, had battled with terrible drought for centuries. Layers of soft rock below the area’s soil had worn away over the years, leaving behind giant sinkholes in the landscape. This is bad because water drains down into these holes from the top layers of soil and leaves the farmable land totally dry.

Luckily, it can still support growing potatoes and corn, but that was literally all the villagers could eat day in, day out. Some years, these deathly dry conditions meant they barely grew enough corn to last five months. And with just a single well to collect rainwater, villagers barely had enough to drink either!

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So, to avoid draining their well entirely, they were forced to trek two sweltering hours through the mountains every day to the nearest village, Yebiao. And when they got there, they had to queue all day to access their water! It was hell. Everybody was hungry, dehydrated, and exhausted. Huang knew he had to do something about it.

Carving Through Three Mountains

The issue though, was what? He knew there was water going spare at Yebiao. But it was miles away, and walking every day wasn’t a good solution. But what if instead of going to the water, he could make the water come to him? Between Yebiao and Caowangba there were three mountains and ten hills, and you can’t ask water to climb a mountain.

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©Google Maps

Our boy Huang was stuck between a rock and a high place. So, in 1959, with no real plan but a whole lot of motivation, he grabbed his pickaxe, went to the nearest mountain, and started to dig. He just went ahead and started digging! When people asked what he was doing, he’d simply reply, “Action is better than inaction” and keep on going!

So, Huang left the village every morning and headed up the mountain with nothing but his pickaxe and his dream. Because if you can’t get the water over the mountains, what’s the next best thing to do? Go through them, of course. That’s right, his plan was to make a tunnel directly through the middle, and channel water from the other side straight to Caowangba!

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This would be insanely difficult under the best of circumstances, but Guizhou’s mountains aren’t even made of ordinary rock, they’re formed from super-tough basalt rock, which would’ve been a serious match for Huang’s basic hand tools.

Basalt is formed when lava rapidly cools, and it’s stronger than iron, so breaking through just one rock would be a monstrous arm workout, let alone trying to dig out a whole mountain! Luckily, Huang got hold of a few rudimentary explosives to help him out. Huang was willing to do anything for the good of his village. And the other villagers took notice!

Yu Gong Tale

His extreme effort made them reminisce about an ancient Chinese folktale they were told when they were young, about an old man called Yu Gong. It goes a little like this:

Many moons ago, Yu Gong lived with his family between two great mountains in China’s Yu province. However, the mountains were so impassable that they stopped them from ever leaving their home!

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So, at the grand old age of 90, Yu Gong finally decided it was time to get rid of them. I know what you’re thinking; you can’t just get rid of some mountains. His wife had the same reaction! But that didn’t stop Yu Gong.

Determined in his goal, the elderly man gave his sons and grandsons pickaxes and took them to the mountains. There they toiled long and hard, smashing the rock to pieces and throwing it into the sea. Yet, even with the whole family working together, a year went by and they still hadn’t finished the job.

Then one day a wise old man named Zhi Sou laughed at Yu Gong and said, “You’re too old and weak, how can you move such a high mountain?” But Yu Gong simply responded, “Even if I am dead, there will still be my children and my children’s children. They will go on forever, but these mountains will not grow taller.”

This caught the attention of the gods of the two mountains, who were afraid that Yu Gong and his family wouldn’t stop until they were completely destroyed. They turned to the Emperor of Heaven for help, and the Emperor was so moved by Yu Gong’s spirit that he ordered the mountains be taken away! So, Yu Gong and his family got their wish, the mountains were moved, and they were free!

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What a beautiful story! It’s not about what you achieve, but the effort you put into trying to achieve it! Hard work and determination go a long way. Just like Yu Gong, Huang knew this all too well.

Building A Canal

Huang tirelessly pressed on with his tunnel, chipping away day in, day out. It was back-breaking work. But finally, after a grueling 13 years of hard labor, Huang gasped as his pickaxe broke through the rock and light poured in! That could only mean one thing, he’d done it. And the grass was certainly greener on the other side.

When the last stone had been removed, Huang stood back and admired his work. 13 years and 330ft of hellish toil later, it was all over!

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But his enjoyment was short-lived. With a creeping dread, he realized that even though this side of the mountain was better watered, none of that water was able to flow through his tunnel! Dejected and exhausted, Huang grabbed his pickaxe and began the long trudge back to his village.

Despite the disappointment, the tunnel wasn’t totally useless, it gave the residents of Caowangba a shortcut through the mountain. But it was far from ideal. The issue with Huang’s system was that you can’t just dig a hole through a mountain and hope that water will flow through it.

Channeling water from one location to another depends on gravity, that thing that stops us from floating off into space. So, getting water to flow downhill is easy. You just dig a little channel and it’ll come splashing down. However, when your village is 4,000ft high, you need the water to do something unnatural, flow uphill.

But how do you get that to happen? With a great deal of planning and something called an inverted siphon. This is where you make a body of water first drop down in order to accelerate and generate enough momentum to shoot up a hill on the other side. It’s not easy though and requires some highly accurate mathematical calculations to work properly.

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Huang didn’t realize this while making his tunnel, and his story goes quiet after finishing it in 1972. Over the years he’d built a large family, with two sons and six daughters. But he never stopped thinking about making things better for his village. And one huge project some 1,000 miles away in Anyang may have given him the inspiration he needed.

Anyang had also struggled with severe droughts for many years. So, the people who lived there got together and decided to do something to make their lives better. Allegedly, some half a million people contributed to the planning, design, and building of a revolutionary water transportation network called the Red Flag Canal.

In 1969, the 44-mile-long main branch was completed, revolutionizing the agricultural landscape of the whole district. We can’t be certain whether it directly influenced Huang, but it’s not unlikely that word eventually spread to the secluded Guizhou mountains.

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Whatever it was, something really got things ticking in his head. It wasn’t a tunnel that he needed, it was a canal! The only problem was he didn’t know how to build one, and he wasn’t getting any younger, either. So, in 1989, a full 17 years after completing the tunnel, Huang did something he’d never done before.

He left his village to get a job at Fengxiang Water Bureau, 700 miles to the north! Unwilling to let his elementary education hold him back, he dedicated the next three years to learning everything he could about canal building. And this was before smartphones, so he carried a dictionary around with him in case he came across anything he didn’t understand!

Anyway, in 1992, with his brain freshly full of canal-building wisdom, Huang returned home and surveyed the land, and it didn’t take long for a grand plan to form in his mind. If he played his cards right, it’d be possible to use the mountainous terrain to his advantage and build a canal that wound from the water source all the way down to the village.

The route he had in mind would span six miles and it needed over 2,000 tons of concrete to complete. That’s like lugging six Boeing 747 airplanes up a mountain! Not only this but in order to effectively channel the water, much of the canal would have to be built way up high in the side of cliffs!

The difficulty of the task didn’t faze Huang, but he knew that it’d cost far more money than he could afford. So, ever relentless, he walked a blister-inducing 36 miles to the water resources authority in the city of Zunyi to ask for help.

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But when he got there, they weren’t so keen on dishing out money to an aging farmer whose toes poked through the holes in his sneakers. So, they demanded that the villagers put forward 10,000 yuan as a sign of their commitment.

Huang couldn’t believe it. He had no idea how he’d raise all of the money. Caowangba villagers lived off around 100 yuan a year! But you know Huang by now, he doesn’t let anything stop him. Upon his return to Caowangba, he set about persuading the villagers to spare whatever they could. Some refused, jeering that he’d failed once and he’d fail again.

But Huang knew he was onto something, and miraculously his confidence bought him the trust of his village. After raising all 10,000 yuan, Huang triumphantly took the proceeds back to the water board, and in turn, they gave him 60,000 yuan back, around $8,300, along with enough corn to feed the hungry villagers. Now things were really in motion.

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Some twenty years after his first attempt, he was back; only this time, he wasn’t alone. He’d convinced over 200 villagers to follow him! Though, I’m not sure they were prepared for how they were actually expected to dig the canal.

After traipsing through the mountains, they stopped at the edge of a tall cliff. Then, they watched in horror as Huang, a man now well into his fifties, tied some straw rope around a large tree, then around his own waist, and jumped straight off the edge!

Despite being undoubtedly dangerous, he didn’t have access to proper hoisting equipment, so it was the only option. And without making the canal in the cliff face, the route wouldn’t work and the water wouldn’t be channeled to the village. So, Huang dangled from the cliff, pickaxe in hand, and began hacking into the side of the mountain.

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As if this wasn’t absolutely insane enough, he’d also been keeping one teensy little secret from everyone for all these years: he was scared of heights! Rather than run from his fears though, he knew he had to face them, even if that meant risking becoming a human smoothie at the bottom of a 1,000-foot cliff.

Amazingly, the villagers weren’t put off. In fact, they were inspired to pick up their own pickaxes and help! But even with over 200 people digging away, it was still slow progress. Once enough rock had been chipped from the cliff, cement needed to be taken into the precariously high crevice to shape the canal.

And there were still no roads to transport all of it! So, villagers were forced to make the long trek to collect it on either horseback or "people-back". But heaving heavy concrete through a mountainous region is slow, and there wasn’t time for any hanging about.

Therefore, Huang would often slap together a section from bamboo and mud until the real building materials arrived to replace it! 30 long years after he started, Caowangba’s own Yu Gong really was moving the mountain.

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But sadly, that meant far more of his time was spent away from his family. He was so dedicated that he slept in caves so he could start work as soon as he woke up. Summers and winters came and went, but nothing could stop him digging.

During his absence, however, conditions in Caowangba worsened. The village was seeing some of the toughest droughts in its history. Tragically, Huang’s daughter fell very sick and passed away, shortly followed by one of his grandsons. That’s devastating. Any normal person might’ve been crushed and given up digging there and then. But not Huang.

For him, the tragedies only reinforced the importance of his mission. So, he pushed through the pain and carried on for another three years. Then, in 1995, it happened, the final pieces of concrete were laid down. Huang stood back and watched as water came flowing into the village.

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A Legend Comes True

He’d actually done it! 36 years after removing the first stone, he’d finally taken the last, finishing the canal. And this time, it really worked. To say it was emotional would be a huge understatement. The villagers of Caowangba were overjoyed. For the first time in their lives, they could drink water without having to walk miles to get it.

And that wasn’t all. The rest of the water was siphoned and used for irrigation, a method of farming that supplements crops with additional water so they don’t just rely on rainfall. If you’ve grown up with plenty of available food, this might not sound that impressive, but if you’ve been living off corn and potatoes for generations, it’s a literal life changer!

All this extra water meant the villagers could expand the usable farmland by 118 acres, transforming the once barren landscape into a lush green heaven! All this space provided room to grow tons of new foods like grapefruits, walnuts, hot peppers, and most importantly, rice. Before the canal, rice was seen as a luxury. Now farmers were producing over 850,000 lbs of it every year!

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Farming wasn’t just something people had to do to survive anymore, it was genuinely profitable. Villagers’ incomes shot up over 68-fold from just $14 a year to almost $1,000! But remember back at the beginning of this article it was mentioned that there were three plans for the village? The water was just the first stone to be turned!

The same year the canal was finished, electricity was brought to the village too, and a new road was built, finally connecting Caowangba to the wider world. Both of the other projects were led by Huang, and somehow he found the time to build a new school too. Does this guy ever take a day off? Maybe he’s got mystical powers after all!

So, what’s Huang doing today? Well, since retiring from being village leader in 2003, you’d imagine he’d take a nice long rest, right? This is Huang we’re talking about, the last I read he’s put down his pickaxe but he’s still going into the mountains even today to check everything’s okay with the canal. How unbelievable is that?

Even well into his 80s, he’s still doing whatever he can to help out his fellow villagers. And they’ve repaid him by naming it the Dafa Canal in his honor. His legacy, like his life, is up in the mountains helping those who live below.

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Have a think about what you can take from this story. Deep down, we’ve all got our own mountains and many of us have no idea how to move them. So, we end up paralyzed by indecision and do nothing, then nothing ever changes!

But you don’t need to have it all figured out before you start making a change. You’ve just gotta turn up and take that first stone, then come back the next day and take another. Never give up! As time goes by, you’ll notice the mountain start to disappear before your very eyes.

If you were inspired by Huang Dafa's story, you might also want to read our article about Dashrath Manjhi, The Mountain Man, who also dug through a mountain to help his village. Thanks for reading!

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