The Grand Canal: China’s Ancient Lifeline

Veteran China journalist Ian Johnson, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for his coverage of persecution of Falun Gong practitioners, recently spent two weeks aboard a barge on China’s Grand Canal. In a feature for National Geographic, Johnson walks us through the of the world’s longest manmade waterway, and introduces some modern-day chuanmin (船民), or “canal people”:

barges have no fancy names, no mermaids planted on the bow, no corny sayings painted on the stern. Instead they have letters and numbers stamped on the side, like the brand on a cow. Such an unsentimental attitude might suggest unimportance, but barges plying the have knit China together for 14 centuries, carrying grain, soldiers, and ideas between the economic heartland in the south and the political capitals in the north.

[…]Canal people, known as chuanmin, re-create village life on their $100,000 barges. Like farmers at harvest time, the small crews—generally just one family—start at dawn and go till evening, when they tie up their boats next to each other. Old Zhu’s wife, Huang Xiling, now posted at the stern, had given birth to the family’s two sons on earlier barges. She cooked, cleaned, and made the boat’s little cabin a retreat from the water, wind, and sun. “The men say these boats are just a tool for making money, but our lives are spent on them,” she said. “You have so many memories.”

[…]Chuanmin rarely indulge themselves. They live by the hard-nosed calculations that determine whether a family gets rich or is ruined. This was driven home to me at the end of our first day. I was chatting with Zheng Chengfang, who came from the same village as Old Zhu. Our boats were tied up together, and I’d hopped over to visit with him. Wasn’t it a wonderful sight, I said to Zheng as we surveyed Old Zhu’s boat, freshly painted and gleaming in the sunset?

“No, no, no, you don’t understand us,” he blurted out. “It’s not a question of good. We chuanmin need the boats, or we can’t survive.”

Xinhua reported this week that the tomb of Emperor Yang of Sui, the ancient ruler credited with building the Grand Canal, may have been discovered not far from the banks of his legacy:

Chinese archaeologists said that a tomb unearthed in east Province might be the final resting place of an emperor known for his tyrannous reign about 1,500 years ago.

The 20-square-meter tomb in Yangzhou City might belong to Yang Guang, or Emperor Yang of Sui, the second and last monarch of the short-lived Sui Dynasty (581-618), according to the city’s cultural heritage bureau.

[…]A notorious tyrant in China’s history, Yang Guang made millions of workers build palaces and luxury leisure boats. His legacy includes the Grand Canal, which was later increased to connect Beijing and Hangzhou in the world’s longest artificial waterway.

The emperor was killed during a mutiny in 618 AD, which marked the end of the Sui Dynasty and may explain the relatively small scale of the extravagant emperor’s tomb, researchers said.


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