This article investigates how cultural workers from the 1950s to the 1970s served China’s hydraulic engineering campaign in artworks depicting human resource extraction. Focusing on Tian Han’s drama The Caprice of the Ming Tombs Reservoir (1958) and Jiang Yunchuan’s documentary Red Flag Canal (1970), the article tells two tales of Chinese hydraulic construction to analyze the theatrical and cinematic aesthetics of socialist labor reform and rural industrialization. In China’s history of transforming water from a natural threat to a natural resource, Tian Han and Jiang Yunchuan represent the Chinese cultural workers who used their works to mobilize the masses to navigate the hostile natural environment and overcome technological insufficiency, portraying the body as corporeal machine. This mode of cultural representation went beyond revolutionary culture’s conventional task of reinforcing class consciousness. Instead, it aimed to generate and maintain the energy of the infrastructure builders to change the nature of labor in socialist industrial planning. The Chinese cultural works on hydraulic engineering draw attention to the materiality of the laboring bodies often ignored in current infrastructure scholarship.

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