Tang's remarkable focus on canal life

Tang Desheng began to capture images of the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal during his army career, building up a precious resource from which people can learn about the past.

No one knows the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal better than photographer Tang Desheng, who has taken more than 20,000 photos of it since the 1960s. His work records the river’s changes throughout half a century, giving people today a wealth of documentation from which to learn about the past.

And, at the age of 71, he hasn’t stopped yet. Currently, he is on a journey to capture the canal as it is today. Before he began his trip in late March, Shanghai Daily visited his studio in Changzhou, a city in Jiangsu Province.

Photographer Tang Desheng has focused on the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal for most of his life and continues to record its progress today.

Tang Desheng

A picture of 1968 records the removal of mud and sludge from the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal

In 1961, 13-year-old Tang became an apprentice in his uncle’s photography shop in Changzhou. It was there that he honed his skills before joining the army in Beijing in 1964.

It was when he was in the army that Tang began to focus on the canal, beside which his family had lived for generations. During the four years of military career, he captured images of the canal in Beijing, Tianjin and Shandong Province.

After leaving the military and returning to Changzhou, Tang’s family encouraged him to continue to take pictures of the canal, capturing how it had changed over the years, including the sludge-dredging period during the 1960s and 1970s.

“The canal was a vital artery linking southern and northern China. However, the sludge hindered transportation. In some segments, people had to pull the boats onto the bank,” Tang told Shanghai Daily.

Apart from transporting goods, the canal was also a water resource used to irrigate the fields. It connects five of China’s main river basins, playing an important role in agriculture and people’s lives. The piles of sludge were putting that at risk and that was when the government began to dredge the canal.

Local people were dispatched to deal with the sludge, including Tang’s siblings. When he went to a construction site with his camera, he was astonished at scenes where the riverbed was exposed and countless people were removing mud.

“When I saw my sister’s shoulders were scuffed, I was stimulated to photograph more of the canal,” Tang said.

In a period of privation, photography was considered a luxury. Tang still remembered a roll of film cost 9.7 dimes, which equaled nearly 5 kilograms of rice at the time. He cherished every moment he pressed the shutter.

In an effort to capture more facets of the canal, Tang bought a bicycle, which he used throughout the 1960s and 1970s and is still preserved in his studio. The bicycle cost 128 yuan (US$19), almost 10 months’ salary at the time.

He rode along the banks to take photos and became familiar with the boat people’s lives and focused on scenes that cannot be found today.

“During that time, most boat people were illiterate. In a bid to enhance literacy level, the government dispatched educated youths to teach them Chinese characters when boats pulled up to shore,” Tang recalled. “In one year, they could learn at least hundreds of characters.”

In addition to his images of boat people taking part in literacy training classes on shore, he also captured their entertainment and religious activities when they disembarked to see opera performances, chitchatted in teahouses and attended ceremonies in temples and churches.

Tang Desheng

“Canal’s Morning” captured in 1976

Tang Desheng

An image taken in 1983 of the daily lives of people living by the Grand Canal

Tang Desheng

A picture captured in 1973 of the Jiangnan region girls cultivating pearls

“Learning Chinese on Boat” taken in 1969

Boat people were always organized on a team going on the canal together, often linking up with dozens of watercraft.

Special water schools were established for the children. Every boat team was assigned two to three teachers, who lived with them throughout the year.

Tang’s camera recorded their changing lives. In the middle of the 1980s, they began to live on shore, altering the social structure of the boat people. Water schools no longer existed and river transport boomed along with economic development.

“Today, young adults account for the majority of boat people. They are smart and earn good money. River transport has found favor with businessmen today, since it features low price, big traffic volume and is not vulnerable to adverse weather,” said Tang.

The present-day canal can well survive weather disasters. However, the situation was different in the past. In 1984 and 1991, heavy rainfall brought flooding to sections in Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces.

“Floodwaters broke through banks and swamped villages and towns alongside the canal. Since roads and bridges were broken, I had to wade into the water to take photos,” Tang said.

In the flood of 1991, he took his camera with him as he moved from village to village in the lower reaches of the canal for 40 days, recording images that are valuable archive material today.

“Everyone was fighting against flood tirelessly. They carried planks on their shoulders to build a simple bridge to transport seeds and crops from warehouses. Their bravery and persistence motivated me to photograph more,” Tang said.

When taking pictures, Tang often finds the clues from the merchandise on the boats that bring into focus the huge changes in China’s economy.

“It was obvious that economy began to leap forward in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The goods moving south were mainly building materials and coal, while those going north included furniture and large agriculture machinery,” Tang said.

Tang Desheng

“Fishing Kids” captured in 1973

Tang Desheng

“The Horn of Captain” taken in 1975

In the 1980s and 1990s, Tang was invited to make aerial surveys in southern Jiangsu Province, during which he photographed the canal from the sky, giving a panoramic view of the time.

“I was tied on a seat to prevent falling. The aircraft kept bumping up and down, making taking photographs much more difficult than in normal situations,” he said. “There was no GPS at the time, we had to look for our way on the map. When the shutter was pressed, it always meant that the view couldn’t be captured again.”

Today, as Tang continues to photograph the canal, drones are used to take panoramic shots. On his new journey, he plans to look for the buildings that once appeared in his old photos.

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