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October 13, 2009

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Home » Feature » Art and Culture

Grand Canal seeks rightful place as UNESCO heritage site

GRANDMA Yang shows up at her courtyard gate as usual, a basket of vegetables across her arm. Sitting on a stool, she starts preparing lunch, cutting vegetables piece by piece and washing each bundle in several basins of water.
Neighbors, young and old, are gradually gathering around, chatting and laughing, each engaged in their own chores. Kids happily run about in the alley off Dongguan (East Pass) Street that's only wide enough for two people to pass at the same time.
"I've been doing and living like this my whole life," the 70-year-old woman grins at me, while playing mahjong with her neighbors after lunch in the courtyard. Her beloved pet cat is quietly by her side, enjoying her occasional teasing.
This is a scene just one block from the Grand Canal.
For the first time in my life, I feel proud that I'm a native of Yangzhou, a city on the ancient canal in Jiangsu Province.
Yangzhou is the first and one of the most important cities on the Grand Canal of China, retaining much of the canal culture and lifestyle.
Generations of residents living alongside the canal still embrace the simplicity of life here, following centuries-old traditions and customs. Some still like to do their washing in public areas and stop at nearly every household on the way back from the wet market to gossip a bit or just say "hello."
Many ages-old arts and crafts are still practiced: lacquer ware, paper-cuts, lanterns, embroidery, penjing (miniature gardens) and seal carving.
Young artists make colorful flour dough figurines on the street while fans dressed in costumes perform traditional opera nearby, to much applause.
There's a little verse, much quoted in reference to Yangzhou, which goes something like this:
"Brilliant moonlight, orioles, flowers and pavilions of jade,
All attest to the past and present glories of Yangzhou."
To these glories might be added the city's tradition of producing beautiful women, just as a Chinese saying goes: "The unique features of a local environment always give special characteristics to its inhabitants."
The Grand Canal of China, or the Beijing-Hangzhou Canal, was a giant irrigation project of ancient China. With a history of about 2,500 years and a length of 1,794 kilometers, it is the world's oldest man-made canal.
The canal goes from Tongxian County in Beijing in the north to Hangzhou, capital city of Zhejiang Province, in the south. It flows to Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei, Shandong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, and connects five large rivers - the Hai River, Yellow River, Huai River, Qiantang River and Yangtze River.
The Yangzhou section was the first part of the Grand Canal to be built. Within Yangzhou, it extends 143 kilometers.
The thriving salt business in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) was largely attributed to the ancient canal, making Yangzhou at that time one of the world's 10 biggest cities with a population over 500,000. As a hub in the development of the canal, Yangzhou has made remarkable contributions to the waterway.
The city of Yangzhou is now engaged in the lengthy process of applying to UNESCO for world heritage status for the Grand Canal.
In early 2006, 58 members of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) signed a proposal urging the Grand Canal be protected. It compared the significance of the Grand Canal to that of the Great Wall.
"There are two gigantic projects in China's ancient construction history: the Great Wall and the Grand Canal, which is the longest man-made canal in the world," said the proposal.
Liu Feng, a political adviser who first put forward the proposal, said that with dramatic political, economic, cultural and social progress in China, the canal is "a best witness to the country's long history and civilization."
On May 12, a ceremony in Beijing launched a survey on the protection of the Grand Canal, part of the UNESCO application process.
According to the State Council, from 2009 to 2010 is the launch stage, 2011-12 is the preservation and restoration stage, and 2013-14 is the UN reporting stage.
"Yangzhou came into being as an answer to transport needs and prospered because of the water," said Yangzhou Mayor Xie Zhengyi at the 2009 China Yangzhou World Canal Cities Expo held late last month. "The 2,500-year history has provided the city with a special charm, a charm in its classical beauty, its elegance and its canal culture."
Yangzhou City Historical Site is so far one of China's most representative and best-preserved ancient city sites, said Xie. "That also includes the ancient sites, the culture and lifestyle along the Grand Canal."
The streets around the canal reveal much that is charming and interesting. Walk down Guoqing Road past craftsmen painting mirrors and making bamboo steamers and cloth shoes, then along Dujiang Road where wooden-fronted shops, partitioned with rattan matting, sell household goods, basket ware and fireworks, and itinerant sugarcane vendors hawk their products.
The road eventually reaches the Grand Canal, where, from the bridge, boat life can be observed as it passes underneath. The courtyards of the small, gray-tiled houses are cluttered with pots of flowers and penjing plants, a specialty of the region. Rows of white cabbage and strips of turnip hang out to dry.
Strolling down the cobbled pathway along the Dongguan Street and Dongquan Men (Dongquan Gate), a historic block by the Grand Canal, I find a deep attachment to this city of gardens and alleys - the well-preserved Qing Dynasty architecture, the gray-brick walls, the raised eaves, the desolate wooden doors, the tranquil, deep narrow lanes ...
Cycle-rickshaw riders run back and forth down the street ready for business.
"Take a ride, and I'll show you around the whole block and take you to all the places of interest," shouts a rider.
"No, thanks. I'd like to take a walk," I smile back.
Everything indicates that life in this part of China is going more or less the same as it was some 2,500 years ago when it was born with the Grand Canal. There are few places where folk houses blend harmoniously with celebrities' former residences. Here you can enter Merchant Wang's Residence, Wu Daotai's Residence, Hu Garden or the Former Residence of Li Changle, barely noticing that, except for the ticket window, they are different from other dwellings.
Draw by the delicate accessories and booklets of Lao-tzu on sale, I stop by a small store.
"How's business?" I ask, browsing through the booklets.
"Just so-so," replies the owner surnamed Zhang, a young woman in her 20s, a graduate in design.
"Why stay here? Why not move to the downtown where there might be better business?"
"I like it here, the atmosphere, the people, the history, and of course, the canal," she smiles. "It just matches the products I sell, full of cultural elements. See? I even want to change the name of my store to Moonlight over the Lotus Pond, which is exactly the name of a famous article written by Zhu Ziqing, whose former residence also lies on this street."
"True," Zhang's mother is quick to add. "We choose to stay because we see a bright future here as the government is attaching great importance to the preservation of the Grand Canal and its culture."
In recent years, the Yangzhou Government has invested 1 billion yuan (US$147 million) in the protection and renovation of its "Mother River" by cleaning up the water, planting more greenery and restoring the historical buildings along the canal. In 2006, the city of Yangzhou was listed on the United Nations Habitat Scroll of Honor.
"Yangzhou is like a bottle of old wine. Remove the cork just a bit, and its fragrance permeates and lingers," says Ji Jianye, former Party secretary of Yangzhou. "We don't compete with other cities in the number of skyscrapers, in the city size or in foreign flavors. Instead we promote Yangzhou's elegance, delicacy, history, environment and inner beauty."
The inner beauty, of course, lies in its rich culture and traditions.
"A canal doesn't only refer to water. It means a canal of economy and culture," says Ambassador Zou Mingrong, executive vice chairman of China National Committee for Pacific Economic Cooperation. "Canals have given birth to cities and these cities have also given rise to canal culture and economy.
"An essential function of canal cities is to bring forth and carry forward the canal culture. While protecting canals, each generation will inevitably add new economic and cultural elements to the canals. So it remains a vital and an urgent issue for our generation to fulfill this important mission," Zou says.


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