Residents long for revival of Grand Canal

Aug. 11, 2017 19:12:00


Photo taken on June 21, 2014 shows a general view of Gongchen Bridge on China's Grand Canal, in Hangzhou, east China's Zhejiang province. China's Grand Canal, the longest artificial waterway in the world, was inscribed on the World Heritage list on June 22, 2014. The Grand Canal with a history of more than 2,400 years was recognized by UNESCO World Heritage Committee which convened its 38th session in the Qatari capital. The 1,794-km canal runs from Beijing to Hangzhou in China's eastern Zhejiang Province.   (Li Zhong/Xinhua) 


Children view a wall painting about Gongchen Bridge at the Grand Canal Museum in Hangzhou, east China's Zhejiang Province, on July 20, 2017. A cultural and scenic belt, including museums, cultural and creative zones, historical relics and ancient streets, has formed along the 12-kilometer-long section of the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal in Gongshu District of Hangzhou.  (Huang Zongzhi/Xinhua)

By Lyu Qiuping, Gao Bo, Li Kun, Sun Xiaohui

The Grand Canal, the world's longest manmade waterway, once carried the lifeblood of ancient China.

It opened in 486 B.C. and carried water across the country for more than 2,000 years, transporting food for Beijing, which served as capital for several dynasties.

Although highways, railways and aircraft have taken over most of its transportation duties, there have been increasing calls to reflood a dry section of the waterway.

The Grand Canal has a total length of more than 2,500 km, stretching from Beijing to Hangzhou, capital of east China's Zhejiang Province. Over 1,000 km of it was recognized as a world heritage site in 2014.

In 1855, a flood changed the course of the Yellow River, dividing the canal into two parts. The southern part is still a major transportation waterway, but the northern part in Beijing and Tianjin municipalities, and Hebei and Shandong Provinces has almost dried up since the 1960s due to changes in rainfall pattern, reservoirs, irrigation projects and flood control along the rivers that feed into it.


Photo taken on May 17, 2013 shows a worker maintaining Nuomi dam in Huajiakou section of China's Grand Canal, in Anling Township of Jingxian County, north China's Hebei Province. The dam, a turning point on the canal, used to breach a lot before it was reinforced in 1911. It was listed as a heritage point of China's Grand Canal in 2013.   (Xinhua)


Wei Shucheng, 70, is proud to live in the city of Cangzhou, an important staging post on the canal in north China's Hebei Province. His township is also known for a 100-year-old dike built at a sharp turn in the canal. Rice starch was used to make the dike firmer, and it has never been breached. Many vessels once stopped there, so the township is busy with restaurants and hostels.

"Back then, Lianzhen Township had fame only following that of Beijing and Tianjin," Wei recalled. "Many of our villagers were boat trackers or cargo loaders."

Wei's father served as a cargo loader using a wooden wheelbarrow. The cargo was unloaded from the vessels before being distributed via roads.

Decades later, Wei also became a loader -- though he used a truck rather than a wheelbarrow -- until the canal fell out of use for transportation. The company he worked for eventually went bankrupt.

"I hope one day I could see a vessel passing by again," Wei said, looking at the almost dry watercourse.


Photo taken on July 13, 2017 shows the scenery of Yangliuqing ancient town in north China's Tianjin Municipality. Yangliuqing ancient town, which is run through by the Grand Canal, also known as the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal that was conceived by Emperor Yang from the Sui Dynasty (581-618)  to connect the south and the north of China, is a major tourist town in Tianjin.   (Yue Yuewei/Xinhua)

In 2011, when water from the Yellow River was diverted via the Grand Canal watercourse to thirsty Tianjin Municipality, Cangzhou residents gathered to watch water fill the canal once again.

"Although we were not allowed to take any water for irrigation or any other reason, we were delighted just to see it," said Sun Jian, a cultural association worker in Cangzhou City.

Sun said even the cabbage grown along the canal tasted better, as the rest of the coastal city mostly had saline soil. "We can't call it a waterway if there is no water. How we wish there would be water every day in the canal!" he said.

He Zhineng, deputy chief of Tianjin municipal tourism bureau, said resuming boat travel along the canal would greatly boost tourism development.

By strengthening connections between the south and the north, the Grand Canal helped foster the development of Chinese culture. Famous resorts along the waterway include the hometown of Confucius Qufu, the cradle of Chinese acrobatics in Wuqiao, and Cangzhou, known for its martial arts.

In 2014, local authorities signed a framework agreement to resume boat navigation in Beijing's Tongzhou District, Tianjin's Wuqing District and Hebei's Xianghe County along the northern part of the Grand Canal.

The restoration is expected to be accomplished by 2020, according to the agreement.

17aPhoto taken on May 28, 2012 shows staff members working at an archaeological dig site of a sunken ship in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) at Beichen District of north China's Tianjin Municipality. Two sunken wooden vessels from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)were discovered at the Tianjin section of China's Grand Canal in 2012.   (Xinhua) 


Turning the dry canal section into a waterway for boats isn't easy. One of the biggest issues is finding enough water.

Zhu Yang, an architecture and planning professor at Tianjin University, said processed urban waste water would help fill the waterway between the megacities of Beijing and Tianjin.

However, in Shandong's Dezhou and Hebei's Cangzhou, where there are no rivers and little urban waste water for processing, all they can do is to expect water to flow from the upper reaches.

Li Diankui, an irrigationist and political advisor of Shandong Province, recommended turning current distributary projects into tributary ones, so that the water of source rivers will be diverted to the dried canal, instead of flowing directly into the sea.

He also advised building a tunnel beneath the Yellow River to connect the southern and northern parts of the Grand Canal, much like an overpass.

"The overpass of the Grand Canal and Huaihe River in Jiangsu Province has proved its feasibility," he said.


Photo taken on July 13, 2017 shows the scenery of Yangliuqing ancient town in north China's Tianjin Municipality. Yangliuqing ancient town, which is run through by the Grand Canal, also known as the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal that was conceived by Emperor Yang from the Sui Dynasty (581-618)  to connect the south and the north of China, is a major tourist town in Tianjin.   (Yue Yuewei/Xinhua)

The limited headroom of bridges is another problem.

Dong Xiaoli from Cangzhou's water affairs department said that to boost local tourism, the city bought a 24-seat tourist boat in 2011, when the Yellow River water was transferred via the city to Tianjin.

The boat failed to move for two kilometers along the waterway, as the headroom of the bridge was not enough for the vessel to pass through.

"Many bridges along the canal have to be rebuilt. Otherwise, tourists would have to change boats whenever they encounter a bridge standing in the way," she said.

According to Ma Yuping, from the water affairs bureau of Wuqing District of Tianjin Municipality, more than 20 bridges need to be renovated in Wuqing District alone, including expressway and railway bridges.

Dredging is also needed for the long-deserted waterway, which is now full of garbage and dried sludge.

"We have to renovate the waterway so it is able to receive enough water for vessel navigation," she said.

Liu Guimao, a retired media worker, is helping a local Grand Canal culture association shoot a documentary.

Both tangible and intangible cultural heritage along the canal are featured, such as the historic artillery fort of Machang, different versions of the folk song "Jasmine" along the canal, and the martial arts of Cangzhou.

"Water transport along the canal created demand for body and cargo guards, which turned Chinese kung fu from an exercise into a way of making a living," said Liu.

Despite admitting the difficulties and costs of up to billions of yuan, Liu expects one day he will see flowing water in the canal again.

"I don't want our offspring to only find the great legacy of the Grand Canal in a museum or a documentary," he said.  


(Editor: Ji Xiang)


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