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

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - LIFE -

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.

“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 j ade, quit his j ob and moved to Suzhou to be­come a jade carver.

Since the Qing Dy­nasty (16441911), 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.

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.

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 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.

PHO­TOS BY HUANG ZONGZHI AND WANG DINGCHANG / XIN­HUA

Gongchen Bridge stretches across the east­ern and west­ern banks of the Grand Canal and ap­pears ma­jes­tic and grand. mea­sures to pro­tect this cul­tural gem.

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