Grand Canal: a cultural symbol of Jing-Jin-Ji region #Oriental Outlook#-Sino-US


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Grand Canal: a cultural symbol of Jing-Jin-Ji region #Oriental Outlook#
Dozens of dance dramas, operas and plays based on the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal have been on stage since the beginning of this year across the country, which shows Grand Canal’s important role in the cultural sector.
 
Running over 1,700 kilometers through six provinces and cities from Hangzhou, Zhejiang province in the south to Beijing in the north, the Grand Canal is the world's oldest and longest artificial waterway. 
 
In 2014, the Grand Canal was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was built in sections since the 5th century BC, unified in Sui Dynasty (581-618), and parts of it are still in use today. 
 
While the integration and development of Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei province (Jing-Jin-Ji) developed in depth in North China, local governments expected to revitalize the Grand Canal, not for its transport role but for its cultural value.
 
In the 13th issue of 2018, the Oriental Outlook magazine under the Xinhua News Agency ran a cover story on the Grand Canal’s role in Jing-Jin-Ji, the efforts to revitalize it, as well as the problems facing the endeavor. 
 
Below is an excerpt of the article.
 
A poem by poet Gong Kui living in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) is inscribed on a relief sculpture at the Grand Canal Culture Park in Tongzhou district of Beijing. The poem describes the canal’s beautiful scene that Gong saw in Tongzhou in 1302. 
 
Jing-Jin-Ji region has three sections of the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, namely Tonghui River, North Canal and South Canal. The canal, like the artery, has boosted the population mobility and cultural integration in the region.
 
Along the canal, people have similar customs and practices in the region, and the canal is a bridge to integrate the region. People there have a deep feeling of lands connecting with each other and people are deeply attached to each other.
 
In February and June 2017, President Xi Jinping gave important instructions for protecting the Grand Canal and building the canal cultural belt, in order to inherit and better use the historical and cultural resources.
 
Xi said that provinces and cities along the Grand Canal should all take responsibility to protect it.
Beijing became the first city across the country to include a canal cultural belt in its urban overall planning, and listed missions such as repairing cultural relics, exploring resources and renovating the environment.
 
Among the listed missions, one is the resumption of navigation in the North Canal in Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei. A plan is to fulfill a whole-line navigation in the North Canal before 2020.
 
The navigation will not be used for transporting goods, but, through waterway dredging, is aimed at ecological restoration and environmental promotion to build a corridor for ecological and cultural experience along the canal.  
 
People expect a better coordination and linkage mechanism to realize the true connection of the cultural resources along the canal in the Jing-Jin-Ji region.
 
Nowadays, the canal has moved on from the water transport era and entered a cultural era. How to protect and keep the lively imagery along it has become more important. One important task is to explore and spread the canal’s cultural connotations. 
 
“When people can use and benefit from the canal in their life, the memory naturally revives,” said Zhang Jin, chief writer of the inscriptions for the Grand Canal to apply for the UNESCO World Heritage site.
 
Connecting Jing-Jin-Ji
 
The Tonghui River was excavated under the supervision of water conservation expert Guo Shoujing in Yuan Dynasty to connect Dadu (Beijing) and Tongzhou, allowing the goods transported from south to reach Jishuitan port in the capital directly.
 
Zhang said that the Grand Canal reflected the will of the country, a governance measure to fulfill a better allocation of the unbalanced resources across the country.
 
During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), materials used to build Beijing city were transported through the canal from south to north and many workers also came to Beijing on boats from south. 
 
The canal has helped the formation of Beijing’s urban water system and functional sub-areas from east to west. There are many heritage sites along it, such as Jishuitan, Nanxincang (south new storehouse literally) and Randeng Pagoda.
 
Zhang said that the canal represented a great vision in urban planning, especially combining the urban planning with the water transportation to fully use different types of materials in the city.
It is also an inspiration for modern China, said Zhang, for example, how to solve the complex national economy and people's livelihood with Chinese wisdom.
 
Running southward, Tonghui River connects the North Canal to Langfang in Hebei province and then Tianjin where the North Canal meets Ziya River and the South Canal.
 
The meeting place of the three rivers become the earliest residential site, wharves and commodity distribution site, becoming the cradle of Tianjin. 
 
During the Ming and Qing dynasties, the water transport on the canal has brought prosperity to Tianjin, making the city a transmission base, salt and grain center, and the commercial center of North China.
 
People from different places came to Tianjin, bringing folk arts and performances, and helped form the culture and arts of Tianjin, such as Tianjin tune and allegro.
 
Nine rivers meet in Tianjin, most running from west to east. People have diverted some rivers to support the canal flow in a north and south direction. Artificial waterways and water gates have been built to control the water flow. 
 
Zhang said that the North Canal and South Canal have many man-made waterways to reduce the water level, which shows the difference between the Grand Canal in north and south. 
 
“The Grand Canal has changed the regional ecology and geographical environment. Such a project of national importance needs efforts for maintenance, and the practices used for the canal represent people’s will and wisdom,” she said.
 
Still to south, the Grand Canal comes to Cangzhou where the mileage in urban area is the longest in cities along the route from Beijing to Hangzhou, and it is the only city in Hebei province where the canal passes through an urban area. 
 
Zheng Zhili, an official from the Cangzhou Cultural Heritage Bureau, said that Cangzhou grew to the current position because of the Grand Canal.
 
The canal section in Cangzhou can be traced back to the Three Kingdoms period. When the old Cangzhou city was on the decline at the end of the Yuan Dynasty, Changlu town began to rise because of the Grand Canal there. 
 
“The current urban area of Cangzhou has developed from Changlu town,” Zheng said.
 
The Gand Canal has also brought the local custom of performing martial arts to Cangzhou, said Liu Yongfu, director of the Cangzhou martial arts office. Men versed in martial arts were favored in Cangzhou for protecting goods.
 
Grand Canal memory
 
The Grand Canal connects the people and culture of the Jing-Jin-Ji region, and people living along the canal have common memory. Zhang Jin said that the most valuable thing about the Grand Canal is the memory.
 
Rong Dali, deputy secretary and vice president of the Party Committee of the Beijing Federation of Social Science Circles, said that culture is the foundation, leading other features of the Grand Canal, such as ecology, openness and economy.
 
Representative inheritor Wang Baohe of Wuqiao acrobatics said that when he was young he would perform with his father along the canal. Along the canal, lots of people would move for businesses and life, and artists performed there, he said. “The banks of the canal are our market and stage.” 
 
Yang Lihui, a professor with Beijing Normal University, said that though the region is divided into three administrative areas, the culture is impossible to segregate.  
 
Yang said that people constructed the canal, enjoyed its benefits and also inherited the culture surrounding it, but the stories describing people’s wisdom, feelings and experiences are dwindling, and if not saved in time, would vanish.
 
“The process of modern life would not reverse, and it is imperative to establish a database of the videos and images of people talking about the history around the Grand Canal in Jing-Jin-Ji,” Yang said.
 
She said that people have close relationships due to the canal in the region, and the oral history of the people living along the canal shows the cultural uniformity in the region, different from other places.
 
The exploration of the cultural connotations in Jing-Jin-ji would better protect the Grand Canal culture, Yang said. The cultural protection should be around people and not limited to things. 
 
Rong Dali said that some people told him that they live by Tonghui River and they are proud to say that they are canal families. The exploration of the Grand Canal culture has given them another identity. 
 
Beijing’s leading role
 
Geographically, Beijing is the start of the Grand Canal in the north, as the “dragon head” of the Grand Canal, and also as the cultural center of the country, Beijing should play a leading role in constructing the Grand Canal cultural belt.
 
Beijing is steadily pushing ahead the missions on its list to repair and renovate the cultural sites along the canal, explore cultural connotations and improve the environment. The planning of the Grand Canal cultural belt will be made soon.
 
Shu Xiaofeng, head of the Beijing Municipal Administration of Cultural Heritage, said that the capital initiated the three cultural belts: Xishan cultural belt in the west, Great Wall cultural belt in the north and canal cultural belt in the east.
 
Cai Qi, the Party chief of Beijing, said that the construction of three cultural belts was important for the capital to form the country’s cultural center, and the construction of the Grand Canal cultural belt would be pushed ahead at first.
 
In November 2017, the Randeng pagoda reopened to the public after a seven-month renovation, and it was only part of the capital’s efforts. In 2018, the renovation work will start at Baifu Spring site, Yanqing Temple and Wanshou Temple.
 
Rong Dali said that the Beijing government has established a special organ to manage and push ahead the construction work of the Grand Canal cultural belt, setting the agenda and requirements and specifying each authority’s responsibility.
 
In August 2017, Cai Qi became the head of the leading group to push ahead the construction of Beijing as the national cultural center, and one of seven special leading groups under it is for the Grand Canal cultural belt.
 
The capital also had the ambition to establish a coordination bridge with Tianjin and Hebei to develop the cultural belt.
 
Yang Lihui said that a joint database of Jing-Jin-Ji region will boost the construction and protection of the Grand Canal cultural belt, and will greatly promote the coordinated development strategy.
 
For a long period, the provinces and cities made respective efforts, competing with each other, on constructing the Grand Canal cultural belt and there was no coordination. 
 
Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei have emphasized the importance of coordination in building the Grand Canal cultural belt, and they have set a good momentum, such as pushing ahead the resumption of water transport and cultural tourism, Yang said.
 
Flowing water dream
 
The Grand Canal is a flowing cultural river, and the flowing water has brought a variety of culture along it, but some waterways in Jing-Jin-Ji have dried up, and some have even become garbage trenches.
 
Experts said that one important and fundamental task in constructing the Grand Canal cultural belts is to improve the ecological environment of the water system.
 
Sun Jingchang, deputy director of the Hebei Culture Relics Bureau office, said, “I grew up by the Grand Canal, and without water, the Grand Canal will lose half of its spirit.”
 
Sun, a native of Cangzhou, has childhood memories full of the Grand Canal water, which include catching crabs in the canal with little friends. But he has now found that several sections among more than 300 sites are without water.
 
Since it was built, the canal was an important mode for transporting goods from south to north and the rulers would pay attention to the water level, keeping enough water to support the transport. 
 
However, the transportation by sea, road and railway have lowered the importance of the water transport on the canal, and the sediment has accumulated at many places in the canal.
 
“For the northern China, the Grand Canal cultural belt has significant ecological value, and the unimpeded water system and beautiful scenes at some sections would elevate the images of cities,” Zhang Jin said.
 
Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei are working together to restore the ecology along the canal, hoping to use the flowing water to inspire the cultural resources and integrate the ecological and cultural resources to rebuild people’s canal life.
 
In February 2017, Beijing’s Tongzhou district, Tianjin’s Wuqing district and Langfang city signed a strategic cooperation framework agreement on promoting the Grand Canal in the three places to resume navigation.
 
They expect the navigation for tourism to be resumed by 2020, forging an excellent tourism route. Visitors could go on sightseeing tour, shopping tour and folk culture experience tour. 

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