[This article is reprinted from Peking Review, #42, Oct. 20, 1972, pp. 16-17.]
OUR production brigade recently sank a new well—to be exact, a subterranean water retention basin with a shaft at one end. It is 7 metres deep, 25 metres long and 1 metre wide. Its completion was a firm rebuttal to the fallacy that there was no underground water in our area.
The well itself is quite small, and about 300 cubic metres of water are obtained from it per day. Its birth, however, involved a struggle between materialism and idealism, between dialectics and metaphysics. Its construction helped us learn more about Marxist philosophy.
Beginning in mid-June last year, our brigade had little rain for six months running. By late August, the reservoir had practically dried up. One of our brigade members remarked: “The Party branch has told us that we must always uphold the materialist theory of reflection, that matter is primary. Now how can we combat drought without water?”
No one questioned the remark. But the point is: Was there really no other source of water besides the reservoir? To claim that it was impossible to fight the drought since surface water had dried up appeared to be consistent with the principle that matter is primary. Actually, it regarded man’s knowledge as something absolute and denied his subjective dynamic role. So when some members suggested looking for water under the ground, the Party branch gave its full support and lost no time in mobilizing everyone to do so.
But there were dissenting voices, too. The terrain of our brigade, they asserted, was like a hump and this caused the water to run off to both sides. What with the red sandy soil all around, the chances of finding underground water were extremely slim. If there was any water, it would have been discovered long ago.
Was this view correct? In Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, Lenin pointed out: “The materialist affirms the existence and knowability of things-in-themselves. The agnostic does not even admit the thought of things-in-themselves and insists that we can know nothing certain about them.” “Each one of us has observed time without number the simple and obvious transformation of the ‘thing-in-itself’ into phenomenon, into the ‘thing-for-us.’ It is precisely this transformation that is cognition.”
Whether there was underground water in our brigade, therefore, was not a matter of subjective conjecture, but had to be verified through practice. If there was, it existed whether we had discovered it or not. We could certainly learn to know it and turn the “thing-in-itself” into the “thing-for-us,” making it serve the interests of the people. The fact that no underground water was obtained here before did not at all mean that it was non-existent. If our predecessors had known everything there was to know, then there would have been no development of knowledge and no advancement of society.
We analysed the local topography. It was true that our brigade was on a height, but there were places which were not so high. The soil was mostly of a red sandy nature, indicating that it was difficult to find water underground, but there were also tracts of farmland where it might be found. Since neighbouring brigades having similar topographical and soil conditions had discovered wellsprings before, no one could rule out the same possibility for our brigade. True, underground water could not be seen or felt, but surely there must be signs on the surface which could be of help to us in finding it.
The masses have the richest practical experience. They know every inch of the brigade’s land. Everyone was encouraged to give whatever information that was useful. A member of a production team told us that the soil on a certain patch was moist in winter and muddy with cool water in summer. During dry spells, loaches tried to wriggle into the mud there. These were clues that there might be underground water. Other peasants who had worked on the same land agreed with him.
So we started digging right away. At four metres deep, water gushed out, giving timely relief to the nearby paddyfields. The myth that there was no water under red sandy soil was thus exploded, and we made a leap in our knowledge of water sources in our brigade.
At first, we intended to dig a well with a 15-metre diameter. But the masses promptly vetoed the idea, pointing out that it would take up too much farmland, that it was likely to get silted up in the flood season, and that it would easily collapse as the site chosen was in a swampy area. But could we find another way to build a well with the maximum capacity while taking up the minimum space? Some comrades argued: “You can’t catch two fish with one hand. We’ve got to give up some land if we want to build a well.”
This was a contradiction. But surely it could be solved if the necessary conditions were created. So we put the problem before the masses. After consulting experienced peasants, we finally decided on building a subterranean basin rectangular in shape. First, we would dig a ditch 25 metres long, I metre wide and 7 metres deep and cover it with a cement lid, on top of which there was to be a layer of soil. Then we would build a round well at one end of the ditch from which water could be drawn. In this way, the subterranean basin would retain the water, while crops could still grow on the soil above it.
We now had a fairly satisfactory plan. In the process of drawing it up, we realized that, as in doing everything else, the important thing was to rely on investigations and practice, and not on subjective opinion.
Our plan was drawn up, but we had not completed the process of cognition. Chairman Mao has taught us: “Generally speaking, whether in the practice of changing nature or of changing society, men’s original ideas, theories, plans or programmes are seldom realized without any alteration.” Following this teaching, we constantly revised and improved our plan in the light of new conditions and problems cropping up in the course of practice, thus making our subjective knowledge conform still better with the objective reality.
Originally, we thought that the underground water came front only one wellspring on the floor of the ditch. So the plan was to pave the sides with concrete and cover the ditch with a cement top. However, when we got to 5-6 metres deep, we discovered that water was also seeping through the crevices of the rocks on both sides. This being the case, we would block the flow if we were to pave the sides and the resulting pressure would cause the concrete walls to collapse. Paving the sides with concrete would actually weaken rather than strengthen them as we had subjectively thought. Having analysed all this, we revised the plan. We lined the sides with rocks instead of concrete, thus ensuring quality and economizing on raw materials, with the result that only half the planned amount of rocks and cement was used.
The construction of the new well not only gave us the much-needed water, but also helped change our subjective world and raised our cognitive ability.
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