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China Travel Guide
The Grand Canal of China
( Beijing Hangzhou Grand Canal)


Grand Canal of China  (Beijinng - Hangzhou Grand Canal)


Grand Canal - The Forgotten Jewel of Ancient China

It has existed for more than 2,500 years and has been a vital vein through which China's lifeblood has flowed, but conservation experts say the ancient Grand Canal is an all but forgotten relic that some people have no interest in protecting.

China announced this month it would be putting the world's oldest and longest man-made waterway forward in 2014 as its candidate to join the Great Wall on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage list. A total of 35 cities are working on the "unprecedented" bid, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage said.

Chinese experts said they hope the bid, if successful, would boost efforts to preserve a site many still fail to recognize as one of immense importance. Many agree, however, the move is decades overdue.
"People know all about the Great Wall but they have no idea about the Grand Canal because people often only take notice of large and imposing constructions, not low-level attractions such as a waterway," said Zhang Tinghao, former director of the Beijing-based National Cultural Relics Research Institute. "The fact the canal doesn't look any different from other waterways also makes it easier for people to take it for granted."

The failure to see the value of the Grand Canal, especially the cultural landscape it has helped define for past 2,000 years, has resulted in it being neglected, said Luo Zhewen, president of China Cultural Relics Academy and one of the country's leading experts in ancient architecture.
"When the Great Wall was listed as a national cultural relic in the 1950s, I also thought of the Grand Canal," said the 85-year-old, who at the time worked for the State Administration of Cultural Heritage. 

"But few would have. It was still working then, and a cultural relic was something people associated with static or 'dead' things, such as the Great Wall."

The Grand Canal was not even recognized as a national cultural relic site until 2005, he added.
As tourism has boomed over recent years, rushed conservation projects by towns and cities to turn areas of the canal into glitzy attractions have also put the waterway at risk.
Sections in the picturesque and popular cities of Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, and Yangzhou, Jiangsu province, have undergone major renovations, while the Beijing section has also been transformed into a waterside park suitable for cycling. Stretches, mostly in the north, have also dried and become impassable by boat, while some areas have been reduced to industrial cesspools by persistent pollution.

"The canal is more than a tourist attraction," said Shan Jixiang, director of State Administration of Cultural Heritage, who criticized cities where officials have destroyed historic sections to garner the canal with cement plazas and manicured lawns.
"It would be a disaster to see the canal have its treasure of stories drained by such a process."
The waterway, which was started in the late Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC), runs from Hangzhou to Beijing, winding through some of China's most fertile and heavily populated lands.
Stretching almost 1,800 km, it is about 16 times longer than the Suez Canal in Egypt and 33 times the size of the Panama Canal, the world's second and third largest canals.

In a nation dominated by east-west flowing rivers, the north-south Grand Canal has provided precious links between many of China's river systems, operating as a vital artery for the transporting of food and goods.

It has also played a role in some of China's most important political and cultural events.
"If the Great Wall is the backbone of the Chinese people, then the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal is the flesh and blood," said Shan.

The Great Wall has been a World Cultural Heritage site for more than two decades, but the Grand Canal failed to gain significant public attention until 2005, when elderly scholars Luo, Zheng Xiaoxie and Zhu Bingren called for it to be given the same status.

"The ultimate aim is to ensure the Grand Canal gets the conservation and protection it deserves," said Luo, 85, who also championed the Great Wall's inclusion on the UNESCO list in 1987.
His work in raising awareness of the canal began in the 1980s, but at the time a "world heritage site", as defined in the 1972 World Heritage Convention, was a static natural or unique site, leaving no room for working waterways. 

The principles were only changed in 1993, when the El Camino de Santiago, or Way of St. James, a pilgrimage route in northwestern Spain, made it onto the list, leading to the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) to call for the operational guidelines for the status to be updated to include more cultural routes.

The category was finally confirmed in Feb 2005, clearing the way for the proposed inclusion of the world famous Silk Road, which is expected to win approval next year, and the Grand Canal.

"The bid (for the Grand Canal) is progressing well but it will take another five years until it is fully prepared," said Shan. "Preparing the application represents an immense challenge because we have never been confronted by such a vast cultural site encompassing so many different regions and disciplines.

"The site is simultaneously cultural and natural. It comprises sites, lines and fields that form an immense geographical corridor, and includes monuments of the ancient, early modern and modern periods.

"It also traverses many historical villages, with fine examples of traditional housing and invaluable items of intangible cultural heritage."

He added: "Such a voluminous application is, for us in China, unprecedented."

Conservation expert Zhang said he believes the Grand Canal is one of the best examples of ancient Chinese engineering, and cites the fact the canal bed climbs from 1 m below sea level in Hangzhou to 38.5 m above sea level near the city of Jining, Shandong province, before dropping to 27 m in Beijing. To achieve this, hundreds of sluice gates had to be constructed to control water levels and aid navigation, he said, explaining: "The design and construction of such sluice gates shows an engineering wisdom that is inspiring even today."

The canal also bridged the historic culture gaps between north and south China, he said, and ignorance of its value has undermined efforts to conserve it.

"Many significant historical events, beliefs, intellectual trends, important works of art and folk traditions, even the development of a city have direct and concrete links with the waterway," Zhang explained. "Beijing itself is a city borne of the canal. All the bricks used in the construction of the imperial palaces and mausoleums were transported from all over the nation via the Grand Canal."

Following calls from conservationists and the public to safeguard the Grand Canal, an organization to coordinate the efforts of government departments and provincial authorities was set up in Sept 2007.
"One of our major responsibilities is to ensure the efforts by participating cities meet with the ICOMOS guidelines," said Meng Yao, of the general office of the Grand Canal Application for World Heritage, based in Yangzhou.

The office has issued conservation rules to help towns and cities to draw up plans for the sections that fall under their jurisdiction, she said.

At the same time, a systematic survey of the canal's tangible and intangible heritage has been ongoing for two years and has yielded a long list of relics for further study and protection over the next five years.
Zhang said he is confident about the 2014 application because he has witnessed much progress in recent years.

"People are learning more about the Grand Canal and, as they do, I believe they will do more to help protect the waterway," he said. "It is too much a part of cultural and historical heritage for us to just let it slide into disrepair."

Source: China Daily Article By Lin Shujuan (China Daily) - 2009-06-23 09:45



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