Grand Canal art exhibition draws on ancient 'poet road' themes

Wu Huixin
Inspired by the 2,000-year-old watercourse, 80 sets of contemporary oil and ink-wash paintings, calligraphy and installations pay tribute to its cultural heritage.
Wu Huixin

The Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal was created between the 5th century BC and the Sui Dynasty (AD 581-618), the longest man-made waterway in the world. In 2014, the Grand Canal was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

In ancient times, the river was a thriving belt of commerce and culture. Apart from transporting goods, it was also a water resource used to irrigate agricultural fields. It connects five of China's main river basins, playing an important role in crop production and people's lives.

Over the years, Hangzhou has attempted to revive the canal's former splendor by restoring many of its old buildings and encouraging artists to create works themed on it.

Now, 80 sets of contemporary works, including oil and ink-wash paintings, installations, sculptures and calligraphy, that were inspired by the millennia-old watercourse, are on show at Zhejiang Art Museum through October 11.

In 2019, Zhejiang government initiated the concept of a "Grand Canal Poet Road," thus branding the section linking Hangzhou and Jiaxing that attracted an endless stream of poets during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) by virtue of its booming economy, tranquil bamboo forests and enriched culture.

Renowned poets visited hamlets and cultural relics in seclusion, some of which are located in off-the-beaten track locations and hidden in forests. The provincial government encourages professionals to explore the cultural heritages along the section and promote them to younger generations.

Grand Canal art exhibition draws on ancient 'poet road' themes
Ti Gong

Cao Ou's painting "Walking Boats" depicts bustling modern-day activity on the canal.

Grand Canal art exhibition draws on ancient 'poet road' themes
Ti Gong

Wu Qiong's work "Grand Canal Dream"

"The Grand Canal is considered an epitome of sustainable development as it has been used for more than 2,000 years. It is also the hub that links the inland with the Maritime Silk Road in cultural and trade exchanges," said Ying Jinfei, curator of Zhejiang Art Museum.

"It is a cultural river, an ecological river and poetic river. It is the ancestors' river and also ours."

Wu Qiong's work "Grand Canal Dream" depicts a small watercraft floating on the canal while the faraway hills are shrouded with mist. Since ancient poems often portrayed secluded landscapes, highlighting man's insignificance against nature and the poets' detached attitude toward life, Wu aspires to rebuild that spiritual world through art.

Ancient literati traveled throughout Zhejiang, especially when they faced setbacks in their pursuits of political careers, so the landscape along the canal won their hearts.

The watercolor woodblock printing department of China Academy of Art created a series of works themed on the riverside landscape. The arched stone bridges, endless boats, cavalcades of fishermen and thriving reed flowers all typify the waterway over centuries.

The paper and pigment used in the watercolor woodblock prints were the same as those used in traditional Chinese paintings, so they appear to have the same tint and tone as ancient art and calligraphy.

Zhang Xiaofeng's long-scroll watercolor uses multiple shades of pink and gray to vividly portray the view along the canal, evoking a feeling of tranquility and simplicity.

Grand Canal art exhibition draws on ancient 'poet road' themes
Ti Gong

A long-scroll watercolor woodblock print by Zhang Xiaofeng

Grand Canal art exhibition draws on ancient 'poet road' themes
Ti Gong

Zhang Jie's wooden boat with calligraphy. The work is named after the Chinese idiom "ke zhou qiu jian."

By the 1990s, the centuries-old waterway had lost much of its charm, as cars and high-speed trains replaced travel on rivers. However, the canal was not abandoned.

It has since been rejuvenated by the Hangzhou government which launched a series of "shot-in-the-arm" revival projects.

Zhang Jie's work, inspired by the canal's revival, was named according to the Chinese idiom "ke zhou qiu jian," which literally means carving on the gunwale of a moving boat to mark where a sword was dropped. It often refers to fools who make decisions without considering changes in circumstances.

Zhang built a wooden boat and carved her calligraphy on it, aiming to remind people to move with the times.

Many towns along the river canal have been thriving for centuries. Life continues in one way or another as it always has.

To some extent, the canal has witnessed the progress of its people generation by generation. Cao Ou's "Walking Boats" depicts bustling modern-day activity on the canal, highlighting the waterway's revival.

Grand Canal art exhibition draws on ancient 'poet road' themes
Ti Gong

Visitors appreciate the artworks at Zhejiang Art Museum's grand canal exhibition.

Contemporary Art of the Grand Canal Exhibition

Date: Through October 11 (closed on Mondays), 9am-5pm
Admission: Free
Venue: Zhejiang Art Museum
Address: 138 Nanshan Rd

南山路138号

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