When I told Beijingers
what my itinerary for their city included, they nodded along. The Forbidden
City, of course. Tiananmen Square, yes. The Great Wall, naturally.
And then, when I
listed my final stop – one almost as monumental as the Great Wall, as
connected to the emperors as the Forbidden City and even more consequential to
Beijing’s history than Tiananmen Square – they paused.
“The Grand Canal?”
they asked. “Are you sure?”
If few Beijingers make
it out to the Grand Canal, even fewer travellers do. The canal is a relatively
well-known attraction in southern China, where barges and cruise ships alike
ply the 2,500-year-old route. In Beijing, less so: hardly anyone realises that
the canal runs an entire 1,794km north from Hangzhou to Beijing’s suburb of
Tongzhou, located 35km west of Tiananmen Square.
Yet few spots are more
important to Chinese history than this: the longest, oldest manmade waterway in
the world, nine times longer than the Suez Canal. Without the canal, Beijing
never would have been China’s capital. And without the canal, China may not be
China at all – all reasons why, in June 2014, Unesco finally inscribed the
Grand Canal on its World Heritage List.
I didn’t care if
locals were perplexed. I had to see it.
As we drove west along
highway 103, four lanes of traffic running in each direction, one building under
construction loomed after another. People on scooters checked their iPhones at
a stoplight; a concrete mixer churned behind them. As we crossed a bridge, I
caught a quick glimpse of water beneath us. And then it vanished.
Whether the canal goes
largely ignored by locals today or not, the workers who build here are
continuing a millennia-old tradition: one of investing human capital in
projects on the kind of scale the world has never before seen. Work began on
the canal in 486 BC, but it wasn’t until a 7th-century expansion
that the canal was brought to the magnitude it’s known for today: in 605, a 1,000km
canal was cut from Luoyang to Qingjiang (now called Huaiyin), and three years
later, 1,000km were built on to today’s Beijing. In 610, another 400km was
cut from Zhenjiang to Hangzhou.
The project took more
than three million peasants to complete. Half are estimated to have died from
the hard labour and hunger. The canal’s further facelifts, including a major
intervention in the 13th Century, took even more manpower. When Kublai
Khan moved the empire’s capital to Beijing in 1271, eliminating the need for a
section to go to the previous capitals of Kaifeng or Luoyang, he ordered that
the canal be made more direct – creating today’s 1,794km Beijing to Hangzhou
route. The project took four million slaves some 10 years. According to Unesco,
in fact, the canal was “the world’s largest and most extensive civil
engineering project prior to the Industrial Revolution”.
Like any major route,
the canal played several roles, all of them indispensable to the empire. Food
security was one: the Yangzi River Delta was China’s breadbasket, but the
Yangzi itself flowed from west to east. As any ruler knew, hungry locals were
more likely to rebel, and unfed soldiers couldn’t be counted on to keep both
the peasants and potential invaders in check. And so (before Kublai Khan’s
overhaul), the Grand Canal allowed barges to transport rice from the Yangzi to
the Yellow River and on to Luoyang and Kaifeng, with an adjoining tributary
allowing transport even further west to Xi’an, another of the ancient capitals.
Meanwhile, wheat, which was grown in the north, could be sent south. By 735, no
less than 149,000,000kg of grain was being shipped along the canal each year.
Other goods, from cotton to porcelain, were also traded, helping China’s
economy bloom. And the canal became a lifeline for communication, with
government couriers running messages up and down the waterway.
A feat of modernity in
itself, the canal led to equally extraordinary innovations. In 587, the world’s
first lock gates were invented by the Sui Dynasty engineer Liang Rui for one of
the canal’s original sections along the Yellow River; in 984, a transport
commissioner named Qiao Weiyo invented the Grand Canal’s first pound lock – the
lock that we see in modern canals even today, creating a pool with two barriers
and allowing a boat to wait safely until the water level changes. (It wouldn’t
be picked up in Europe until 1373, in Vreeswijk, Netherlands).
Yet after railroads
took over China in the late 19th Century, the canal was largely
forgotten. Vast sections fell into disrepair. In 1958, the canal was restored.
Today, some sections – particularly in the south – are plied by barges, mostly
transporting construction material, while others remain unused. Here in Tongzhou,
the section hadn’t been used for trade in years.
But the city seems to
be rediscovering the canal’s merit. For the 2008 Games, an Olympic park was built
along its shores; I could see the park’s white canopy rising from the fog like
a Japanese crane.
And last year, the
city built a new park: the Grand Canal Forest Park, which runs 8.6km on the north side of the
canal in Tongzhou. On a Sunday morning, families pushed strollers and carried
picnics beneath the park’s tree-lined walkways. Immaculate clusters of flowers
and foliage grew, many with descriptive signs in both Mandarin and English. From
a small amusement park, a carousel tinkled a tune.
Smelling the brine on
the air, I wandered past the families, past the rides. And there it was.
The Grand Canal was
wider than I’d expected, and stiller too. Lotus flowers blossomed at the edges of the
grey-green water. I couldn’t see a single skyscraper on the horizon. The only
movement was a tiny boat, no more than a creaky platform with a sputtering
outboard engine; its crew of three old men looked like they were trawling for fish.
Floating in and out of the mist that hung thick in the air, they seemed like
At the dock, wooden
boats lined up to take curious customers across. As mine puttered down the
canal, another boat passed, this one without so much as an engine, just an
operator rowing wooden oars. A handful of locals were on board for a Sunday
outing. We waved at each other, and they smiled curiously: what was a tourist
doing all the way out here?
Once, the canal had
been proof that China was on the fast track. And I’d been drawn by its
monumentality, its grandeur, its importance. Yet today, as Beijing builds
bullet trains and underground metros, expands its airports and thrusts
skyscrapers into the sky, the Grand Canal is anything but. It seems, instead, a
symbol of a slower-moving past. And, if I could have, that’s what I would have
explained to the perplexed passersby on the canal: in the end, my choice to
come here was worth it not because the canal was as monumental as I’d expected
– but because, on the scale of modern-day Beijing, it was less so. And that made
it a refreshing stop.
The Beijingers I’d
spoken to may have been right; today’s vast, almost empty waterway makes it hard
to get a sense of just how extraordinary the Grand Canal once was, and how
integral it was to China’s flourishing trade. But as Beijing races ahead,
building modern monuments to commerce, industry and traffic, experiencing the
canal – stepping outside of the rush, experiencing a place of lotus flowers and
fishermen, faded pride and stillness – seems all the more poignant.