Waterway that helped villages and towns bond

The Jiaxing section of the Grand Canal flows for 111 kilometers and links Zhejiang's mother river with one of China's largest lakes

The historical sites along the Grand Canal, Jiaxing section

The Grand Canal runs through 18 cities from Beijing to Hangzhou, linking five of China’s main river basins. In Zhejiang Province, only two cities nestle along it — Jiaxing and terminal point Hangzhou.

Jiaxing, between Shanghai and Hangzhou, is a third-tier city less well-known than its neighbors. However, it has been called “one of China’s top 20 cities for retirees,” due to its slower pace of life and low living costs.

The 111-kilometer section of the canal in Jiaxing connects with crisscrossed watercourses in the area and is an artery between Qiantang River, Zhejiang Province’s mother river, and Taihu Lake, one of China’s largest freshwater lakes.

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Changhong Bridge

According to archives, the earliest segment in Jiaxing could date to the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC). Thereafter, a couple of canals were dug during the Qin (221-206 BC) and Han (206 BC-AD 220) dynasties.

In the Sui Dynasty (AD 581-618), these canals were dredged and then linked up as a section of the Grand Canal. Villages and towns started to bond together through the channel. Importantly, it broke the city’s isolated location and laid solid foundations for its status as a transport hub.

As Jiaxing’s mother river, the canal still works in aspects of irrigation, transport and water delivery. In history, it not only accelerated the city’s development, but also enriched cultural heritage.

When the Grand Canal was included as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014, two relics along the Jiaxing section were listed as heritage spots, namely Changhong Bridge and Chang’an Floodgate.

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A bird’s-eye view of Changhong Bridge, Nanhu District section 

Changhong means “long rainbow” in Chinese and was so named because the shape resembles a rainbow. The bridge — 72.8 meters long and 18.8 meters in height — is believed to be the largest masonry arch bridge built on soft soil in northern Zhejiang Province.

It’s hard to figure out how this strong bridge was built on such soft ground. Even in modern expressway construction, cast-in-site bored piles have to be drilled 24 meters into the ground, since the city is situated in the soft soil belt of the Hangzhou-Jiaxing-Huzhou Plain.

At present, only three masonry bridges in the same style sit across the canal within Zhejiang Province. The other two are Gongcheng Bridge in Hangzhou and Guangji Bridge in Yuhang District.

Chang’an Floodgate has a longer history, dating back to the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), it was rebuilt as a vital hydraulic facility for military use and transport.

As the earliest floodgate in the Jiangnan region (south of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River), it witnessed glory days when numerous watercrafts passed back and forth every day. Renowned poets Fan Chengda (1126-1193), Yang Wanli (1127-1206) and Lu You (1125-1210) testified to the busy scene in their works. 

The floodgate was in use until the 1970s. Apart from controlling water, it also conserved and recycled it. It went into decline due to watercourse transformation in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The rise and fall of ancient hydraulic facilities reflect changes of the Grand Canal.

Throughout dynasties, a couple of towns along the canal thrived as ports with countless boats coming and going every day. Wangjiangjing Town, at the boundary of Jiaxing and Suzhou in Jiangsu Province, was one of the busiest in the Jiangnan region.

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People engaged in the fishing, agriculture and transport industries would flock to the aquatic temple fair during the annual Qingming and Mid-Autumn festivals at Xiuzhou District, Jiaxing.

In ancient times, people engaged in the fishing, agriculture and transport industries would flock to the town’s aquatic temple fair during the annual Qingming and Mid-Autumn festivals for worship, trade and entertainment. 

The temple fair was a cultural and religious tradition in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), and then reached its heyday in the late Qing Dynasty. According to archives, in one year the event gathered around 5,000 boats with more than 183,000 sacrificial offerings. In 2011, it was included as national intangible cultural heritage.

The tradition halted in the 1950s but was revived in the early 1980s, soon attracting more than 100,000 fishermen from Shanghai and Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces.

Today, the tradition is still popular. Boats line up through the canal during the event, while people perform local ballads and bring handmade sacrificial offerings for entertainment and worship.

“The temple fair was even more bustling than Spring Festival during my childhood. It was a carnival for kids,” said 88-year-old Xiao Yuming. “Local economy relied on the canal and our custom is closely connected with the canal.”

Xiao opened a bistro on Yili Street in the town when he was young, catering to endless streams of out-of-town visitors. According to his reminiscence, the street was flanked by stores selling multifarious products and crafts, packed with people during festivals. Now, the street is under renovation. Local government hopes to revive the past prosperity.

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Yuehe Watertown

On the riverbank in the downtown area, the canal is dotted with two historical streets, Yuehe and Meiwan. Yuehe, or “Moon River” in Chinese, is named after the river it is built along. A tributary of the Grand Canal, Moon River got its name from its crescent moon shape.

Wandering along the street feels a bit like getting in a time machine and going back to ancient times. The street is flanked by traditional houses featuring black-tiled roofs, white walls, up-turned eaves, sculptured windows and rafters. Stores selling folk crafts, ink paintings and tea create a historic ambience.

Yuehe also houses the Zhenzhen Laolao Zongzi Museum. Most cities have their own specialties, and Jiaxing zongzi — glutinous rice dumplings — are a must-try.

The popularity of Jiaxing zongzi is partly down to agriculture. The city has been dubbed “the granary of the south Yangtze River” since the Han Dynasty. The Grand Canal boosted agricultural development because cereal produced around the city could be transported across the area.

Zhenzhen Laolao is a renowned brand offering authentic Jiaxing zongzi. Its fillings vary from duck and pork to sesame sauce and chestnut. In the museum, visitors can watch zongzi making and learn about the history.

Different from Yuehe’s traditional wooden structures, Meiwan is a fusion of olden stone architecture and modern commerce. Boutiques, fashion brands and restaurants line a street which has become a hipster hangout.

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