Hangzhou reveals the charm of the Grand Canal

The construction of the Grand Canal greatly contributed to the city's booming development since the 7th century.

Grand Canal map

A group of young foreigners living in Hangzhou attempted to walk along the Grand Canal in the city and discovered the life and culture hidden in the traditional residences and bridges on the 2,500-year-old canal.

More than 30 people from 18 countries took part. They visited several historical sites along the canal including the Guangji Bridge in Tangxi Town, Gongchen Bridge, Qiaoxi cultural and historical neighborhood, Fuyi Granary, Fengshan Watergate, and Xixing Dock in Binjiang District.

They were all inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2014, together with 52 other historical properties from 26 cities that the canal runs through.

The event, launched by the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal (Hangzhou section) Preservation Center, was to raise the awareness about protecting the canal both as historical heritage and a vibrant watercourse that is still in use today.

The Grand Canal heritage consists of three parts: the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal that most people know of today, the Eastern Zhejiang Canal that extends the main course further east to the coastal area of Zhejiang, and the Sui and Tang Grand Canal, which was constructed 600 years earlier than the present course.

A group of foreigners pose on Guangji Bridge in Tangxi Town.

Visitors take pictures of rice cakes at the Huichang Pastry Molds Museum in Tangxi.

Hangzhou is both the southern end of the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal and the start of the Eastern Zhejiang Canal. The construction of the canal greatly contributed to the city’s booming development since the 7th century.

“The earliest modern industries in Hangzhou sprang up from the banks of the canal,” Zhou Xinhua, an expert on Grand Canal, told Shanghai Daily.

Tangxi, a town in the northern outskirts of Hangzhou with a population of 100,000, is one place that benefited from the canal transport and related businesses.

In 1359, Zhang Shicheng, a leader of the rebellion against Mongol rule at that time, changed the course of the canal and allowed it to travel through Tangxi, since the old one was too narrow for war-time transport.

Tangxi then became an important hub for ships carrying coal, grain, salt and other raw materials from Hangzhou to Huzhou, Jiaxing and Shanghai.

“Tangxi was then a granary for Hangzhou. In ancient times, it took a day to go from Hangzhou to Tangxi on the canal, so you would have to stay here overnight,” said Yu Ming, a Tangxi native and local history expert.

His family had been living in the town for four generations. His paternal great grandfather came there from his hometown in Ningbo at a young age, and later began a drugstore business in town. Male members in his mother's family had been doctors here for generations.

“My grandfather (on my mother’s side) used to sit in one of those teahouses on Shuibei Street, chatting with local gentlemen when his clinic was free of patients,” Yu said.

Guangji Bridge in Tangxi Town

Businessmen also met in the teahouses. A barge fully loaded with rice would be parked close to a teahouse and the rice shipper from Anhui Province would show samples to the Tangxi buyer while they talked about price and volume. 

“All of this took place in a teahouse, not in the rice shops,” added Yu.

And meirenkao, a railed long bench typically found in the covered walkways built along the canal, was used by shippers to unload their samples. “Locals call it michuang, which means rice beds,” said Yu.

Because of the canal, by the early 20th century factories were built at the north of the canal banks, producing daily necessities for residents in the Yangtze River Delta Region, including rice, textiles, oil and wine. The Dalun Silk Factory, founded by two merchants from Huzhou and Hangzhou in 1896, was one of the earliest factories in Zhejiang to introduce silk-reeling machines.

The 500-year-old Guangji Bridge is a landmark of the town and also living proof of the once busy canal shipping lines. It is estimated that in the 1990s the traffic volume going through this section of the canal had reached over 20 million tons a year, with a peak vessel flow of 4.8 ships per minute. But when the dry season came, traffic jams were frequent. Sometimes overloaded ships even crashed into the piers of the bridge.

Wang Shaoqing, the then Party secretary of the town, recalled in an interview that some people suggested they should demolish the ancient bridge in order to increase capacity of this section of the canal.

In the end opinions to protect outweighed opinions to destroy. In 1995, the Zhejiang government allocated 1.3 million yuan (US$196,000) to consolidate the bridge. Three years later a new course was created in town not far from the bridge.

Seen from the bridge today, it is now a quiet water area with lotus planted in some parts. Only dredgers come over from time to time to break the peace. Navigation channels through the bridge were permanently closed in 2006 for the sake of preservation.

When preparing an application for world heritage status, experts found it was the only seven-arch ancient stone bridge still in use on the canal.

Yu, who is the owner of the “Huichang” brand of preserved dry fruits and traditional Chinese pastry, has a shop on Shuibei Street. But most of his time is spent at his private museum where he exhibits a collection of over 500 antique pastry molds. He teaches visitors how to make rice cakes using the wooden molds in the museum.

Yu Ming, a Tangxi native, stands beside a 1949 picture of his grandparents in Tangxi.  

Quick facts about the Grand Canal

Q: How long is the canal?

The present course stretching from Beijing to Hangzhou is 1,794 kilometers while the historical Sui and Tang Grand Canal connecting Luoyang City in central China with Beijing and Hangzhou was over 2,000 kilometers.

Q: How long did it take to construct the canal?

The Grand Canal was not constructed once but in sections throughout dynasties by different rulers.

The earliest section of the canal was called “Hangou” and was constructed in the 5th century BC in the State of Wu (today's Jiangsu Province) for military reasons. Since then the old ones were fixed with new ones being created.

In the 7th century, the canal was connected for the first time from north to south China by Emperor Yang of Sui Dynasty (581-618). During the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368), the course to Luoyang was abandoned and the present course from Beijing to Hangzhou came into being.

A barge goes through the navigation channel under Gongchen Bridge in downtown Hangzhou.

Q: Is the canal still in use today?

Unfortunately, most of the waterway north of Jining in Shandong Province is no longer in use.

The Jiangnan (south of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River) Canal is the only section of the canal that has been continuously in use. It starts from Zhenjiang in Jiangsu Province and ends in Hangzhou connecting many lakes, rivers and inner city tributaries in the Yangtze River Delta.

People in this area called it “Guantang,” which means an official river.

Q: Which cities participated in the world heritage application for the canal?

The application for world heritage took eight years from 2006 to 2014 when the canal was finally included in the preservation list.

Altogether 27 cities from eight provinces and municipalities took part in the application, namely, Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Henan, Shandong, Jiangsu, Anhui and Zhejiang.

The Yangzhou section of Jiangsu Province has 23 historical elements included in it; the Suzhou and Hangzhou sections have 11 elements each listed as world heritage.

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