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Saturday, August 05, 2017, 15:52
The Grand Canal: A Chinese cultural conduit
By Xinhua
Saturday, August 05, 2017, 15:52 By Xinhua

Man-made waterway offers a link to country's past

Gongchen Bridge stretches across the eastern and western banks of the Grand Canal and appears majestic and grand. (Photo/Xinhua)

The ancient Chinese built two great engineering wonders: the Great Wall and the Grand Canal. Though the Great Wall's function in military defense has faded over time, the Grand Canal remains a crucial conduit of cultural communication.

The Grand Canal, spanning over 2,000 kilometers between Beijing and Hangzhou, was listed as a world heritage site in 2014.

Currently, the creation of the Grand Canal cultural belt is being discussed nationwide.

But why should a man-made waterway be considered a cultural treasure?

Zhang Shuheng, a researcher at an archaeological institute in Zhejiang province, says the canal was a pillar for the economy, social stability and government functions in ancient China.

The canal also helped the evolution of Chinese culture by enhancing communication between the south and the north.

Hangzhou resident Zhou Zhihua, who grew up beside the canal, says:" Areas around the Gongchen Bridge used to be busy - filled with people from all walks of life, like businessmen, dockmen, rickshaw drivers and vagrants."

Zhou, who has been a local folk opera performer for over 50 years, says that in the early 20th century, opera performers would gather at the bridge to perform, and the boats and tea houses on the dock were the stages.

Like silk and porcelain, tea was once an important cargo transported on the canal. So, tea dealers from different parts of the country gathered at Gongchen Bridge, and set up a business association.

Zhou says the association was also a charity that would give food to vagrants and prepare coffins for those who died in poverty.

Local governments along the canal are coming up with all sorts of measures to protect this cultural gem. (Photo/Xinhua)

"People on the dock, no matter where they came from, whether rich or poor, were all willing to give," says Zhou.

Today, the hustle and bustle at Gongchen Bridge is long gone, but its spirit of openness and philanthropy is part of local culture.

Zhou now runs a tea house which has been offering free Laba porridge to local residents for the Laba Festival for the past six years.

Also on the Grand Canal is the city of Suzhou, sometimes called the "Venice of the East" for its waterways.

Andrew Shaw, once a BBC reporter in Britain, found his spiritual home in the Chinese city.

Nine years ago, Shaw, mesmerized by jade, quit his job and moved to Suzhou to become a jade carver.

Since the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Suzhou has been the center of jade carving in China, and local craftsmen would travel to Beijing, using the canal, to serve the emperors.

Shaw went to Xiangwangnong, an area known for jade workshops, looking for a mentor. Finally, he became an apprentice there.

Local governments along the canal are coming up with all sorts of measures to protect this cultural gem. (Photo/Xinhua)

Today he owns a workshop and his works are a blend of Eastern and Western culture.

"Jade is the heart of Chinese culture, it represents the perfect personality - mild, tolerant and pure," says Shaw.

Also, on the banks of the Grand Canal, Jessica Doolin, 27, from Ireland, is pursuing her dream to be an acrobat.

Wuqiao county of Cangzhou city in Hebei province is the cradle of acrobatics.

In the past, performers traveled using the Grand Canal to perform around the country and even abroad.

Doolin, a former hairdresser, fell in love with the art and decided to be a performer five years ago after watching an acrobatic performance.

She is now the oldest student at the Wuqiao acrobatics school.

"Being a late starter means I have to work harder," she says.

In Wuqiao she has received lots of help.

Cangzhou is also the cradle of Chinese kung fu. And many kung fu masters in the area worked as guards to protect travelers and cargo on the canal.

Today, the Cangzhou section of the canal has almost dried up. And the Grand Canal is only partly in use, with its transport function fading.

Local governments along the canal are coming up with all sorts of measures to protect this cultural gem. (Photo/Xinhua)

But, as a cultural link connecting different parts of China, and China to world, the importance of the Grand Canal remains.

Meanwhile, local governments along the canal are devising measures to protect this cultural gem.

A Grand Canal protection regulation was enacted in Hangzhou in May, and in the city of Yangzhou technologies such as remote sensing and big data are being used to protect the canal.

Beijing is also working on a blueprint for the protection of the Grand Canal cultural belt.

In the art and crafts museum under Gongchen Bridge, ancient craftsmanship such as paper umbrellas, silk fans and paper cutting are demonstrated.

Paper cutting master Fang Jianguo has a workshop in the museum, and the work he is most proud of is based on the G20 Hangzhou summit, a piece he spent two months on.

Separately, during the past six years, Shaw has introduced jade artists from different countries to the annual jade carving exhibitions in Suzhou.

Last year, Shaw taught two French apprentices at his workshop.

"Communication and exchange are key to keeping culture alive and evolving," he says.

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