Running from Beijing to Hangzhou, the 1,400 year-old Grand Canal was a vital artery of transportation, boring through China’s ‘north-south divide’.
At more than 1,700 kilometres, the waterway is the world’s longest of its type. It’s also a hot topic once again, following a massive effort to refill it.
Different canals have been built across the Middle Kingdom for 2,500 years but Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty ordered a massive construction effort to extend and link many of them into a giant waterway.
The project’s completion in 609 didn’t do much for Yang’s prospects, as his reign lasted for less than 10 more years. Indeed, he went down in history as one of China’s worst tyrants, partly because of the lives that were lost during the canal’s construction.
Nevertheless, the robust volumes of trade and other transport that would pass along the canal laid some of the foundations for the golden age of the Tang Dynasty, when the Middle Kingdom became the world’s greatest power during the early eighth century.
Fast forward a thousand years to the Qing Dynasty and many parts of the Grand Canal had become clogged up because of insufficient maintenance. To add to the waterway’s woes, cargoes were now being shipped more by sea along the country’s coasts in new steamboats operated by foreign firms. A huge army of labourers along the inland waterway lost their jobs. Many would join the uprisings that overthrew the ailing Qing empire.
Given the historical context, the Chinese government’s current effort to reinvigorate the world’s longest artificial river was always bound to prompt discussion.
While sections of canal in the south are still serviceable for tourist trips and some river transport, more than 700 kilometres of the Grand Canal’s dryer northern stretches have been impassable for decades.
What is now unblocking the Grand Canal, Xinhua reported last month, is a ‘water replenishment project’ that has pumped 515 million cubic metres of water, or 37 times the volume of Hangzhou’s West Lake, into clogged-up sections of the canal running through Beijing and Tianjin, as well as in Hebei and Shandong provinces.
The water is coming from multiple sources, including the South-to-North Water Diversion Project and the Yellow River, Xinhua said. For the first time in a century every section of the Grand Canal has reported some kind of water level last month.
But what’s the point in rejuvenating the ancient canal today?
According to the National Business Daily, there are economic benefits. The Jiangsu section of the canal was still transporting nearly 500 million tonnes of cargoes in 2020 and the reopened northern stretches will also support local logistics flows, supporters of the canal claim, especially in a context of the government’s policy to encourage ‘internal circulation’ in the domestic economy.
There may be environmental and agricultural benefits in replenishing groundwater in neighbouring areas as well.
Then there are the added incentives thrown in by the different local governments along the route, many of which are trying to develop tourism attractions.
In Tianjin alone there are more than 200 tourism spots in operation or under planning along the ancient waterway.
And what about the feng shui? The symbolism of reviving the great artery of the prestigious Tang era coincides rather neatly with Xi Jinping’s own moment of glory later this year, when analysts expect he will be granted an unprecedented third presidential term at the Party Congress.
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