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'A city is most valuable if she can allow people to live like poets'

"So this is the great Bund?" my mother asked, staring at the bright, thronged, unshaded sidewalks of the Bund, the sunlight dancing on the Huangpu River, the majestic facades of history evoking another era. Big deal.

There was apparently a gap between what I had extolled and what she actually saw on that legendary stretch of the Huangpu River.

It was last summer, and my mother's first visit to the Bund. I was doing my best as a pious, filial son, showing her the best of Shanghai.

"Too noisy and too bare" was her first and final judgment of the Bund, a place I'm so proud of.

In a similar vein, she dismissed Suzhou Creek.

Her remarks were a bit biased, just a bit provincial.

The Bund and the creek are lovely in their own ways, but she had a point: She thought the dominance of high-rises on the banks of the Bund and the Creek ruined their natural beauty.

For all its splendid mix of old and modern architecture, the Bund is far less enchanting and historic than the most ancient part of the Grand Canal that passes through Yangzhou in Jiangsu Province - my hometown - a 2,500-year-old city born along with the digging of the canal.

For all its greenery and galleries that have popped up along its banks, Suzhou Creek is far less artistic and poetic than the Grand Canal that flows past my parents' home.

My mother doesn't know how long the Grand Canal is (1,794 kilometers), when it was first built (486 BC), or why Yangzhou stands out in the history of the canal, but she is lucky enough to live by one of the most magnificent and restored parts of the Grand Canal.

The canal is believed to be the longest and the oldest artificial waterway in the world, linking Beijing and Hangzhou (capital city of Zhejiang Province), hence, it is also called the Beijing-Hangzhou Canal.

Within walking radius of my parents' home are establishments of four major religions along the Grand Canal: Buddhism, Islam, Taoism and Christianity. And I myself was born in the studio of a great scholar-official of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

"No wonder you sometimes go spiritual," my wife joked to me the other day.

The religious establishments - a Taoist temple, a Buddhist pavilion, a Catholic church and a sacred Muslim cemetery - were somehow dilapidated 25 years ago when I left Yangzhou for university in Beijing.

Some were damaged during the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976). Now they've been restored to their former dignity as part of Yangzhou's effort to protect cultural relics along the Grand Canal. All are open.

From 1998 to 2008, Yangzhou invested more than 2 billion yuan (US$293 million) in moving more than 100 factories away from the banks and cleaning the water, among other measures.

"A city doesn't have to be big to be attractive. Her charm is in her culture," said Ji Jianye, Party secretary of Yangzhou, at the opening ceremony of an international trade and tourism festival held in the picturesque Slender West Lake on April 18.

"In the wave of urbanization, we're keenly aware that a city is most valuable if she can let people live like poets," he said. "The number of high-rise buildings doesn't define the value of a city."

In the 2009 Blue Book of City Competitiveness released by the China Academy of Social Sciences on April 14, Yangzhou ranked No. 1 in terms of a municipal government's ability to unite its people, and No. 2 in terms of environmental beautification (after Suzhou).

Walking to the sacred cemetery of Puhading (Bahaa'Eddin) along the Grand Canal takes 10 minutes or less from my parents' neighborhood. Bahaa'Eddin was said to be the 16th-generation grandson of Mohammad the Prophet.

My late grandmother and I used to play and relax in the dilapidated graveyard in the 1970s and I was often scared at night.

On the rainy afternoon of April 19, I visited it again and was both surprised and elated to find it a key cultural relic with national-level protection now.

There were two gatekeepers that afternoon - two good old men with a ready smile. They are not Muslims, but they appreciate Islam. It was from them that I learned that the Crane Mosque that Bahaa'Eddin helped build in the 13th century (separate from his tomb) is one of the four greatest mosques in China. It is shaped like a crane with extended wings.


The other three are in Quanzhou (Fujian Province), Guangzhou (Guangdong Province) and Hangzhou. The Crane Mosque has been restored as a sacred place of gathering for Muslims.

Outside the Puhading Cemetery is a long willow-shaded path paved in wide stones, running along the canal flanked by rows of low houses of archaic architectural style. The studio where I was born and bred lies across the canal from the graveyard, which is about 10 minutes' walk from a Buddhist pavilion.

The pavilion was part of the Longevity Temple built in the Qing Dynasty, which no longer exists. On the restored pavilion you see four Chinese words, yi duo xiang rong, which means "co-existence of one and many."

You can safely call the area within the short radius of my parents' home a "public museum" of world religions.

These religious establishments lie along the most ancient and possibly the best preserved part of the Grand Canal. Today one can stroll, contemplate, sip tea or take a leisurely boat ride.

In 486 BC, a king of Wu in what is roughly Suzhou today constructed a 150-kilometer canal in what is now Yangzhou to link the Yangtze River in the south with the Huai River in the north. That's the earliest part of the Grand Canal.

From 605 to 610 AD, the canal was expanded to link Hangzhou in the south and Luoyang (Henan Province) and Beijing in the north. It ran 2,500 kilometers. Luoyang was the capital of the Sui Dynasty (581-618 AD) and Hangzhou was a source of grain supply for the dynasty.

In the 13th century, the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), whose capital was Beijing, shortened the Sui Dynasty's canal to 1,794 kilometers by linking Hangzhou directly with Beijing, avoiding a detour from Luoyang.

Now 1,442 kilometers of the Grand Canal remains navigable, 877 kilometers navigable all year round - mainly in Shandong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces.

In the three phases of construction, Yangzhou was a crucial link.

China listed the Grand Canal as a key national cultural relic in 2006, and set up an office in Yangzhou in 2007 to coordinate the country's work of applying to UNESCO for world heritage status for the Grand Canal.

Luo Zhewen, an 85-year-old expert on cultural relics known for preserving the Great Wall, says the Grand Canal is no less a wonder of ancient China than the Great Wall. "Indeed, the Great Wall and the Grand Canal are like sisters," Luo wrote in an article in 2006. He helped gain heritage status for the Great Wall in 1987.

Work of art

The Grand Canal is now on China's inventory list of heritage sites submitted to UNESCO. China is preparing for formal application.

So far UNESCO has accepted only a few canals as world heritage sites, such as Canal du Midi in France built between 1667 and 1694.

UNESCO calls the 360-km network of navigable waterways "one of the most remarkable feats of engineering." Its design and the way it blends with its surroundings "turned a technical achievement into a work of art."

Whether the Grand Canal or parts of it will become a world heritage site is not my concern, nor that of many Chinese scholars.

What we share is a hope that the Grand Canal and its environs be restored, as much as possible, to its former bucolic beauty - free from overbuilding and industrial pollution.

If Canal du Midi is both a modern technical achievement and a work of art, the Grand Canal, at least its Yangzhou section, is a work of art with ancient Chinese wisdom about harmony between man and nature.

Chen Congzhou (1918-2000), a great scholar of ancient architecture, wrote in his book "On Gardens" that "water is the eye of the land."

A waterway overshadowed by high-rises is surely not.


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