> Opinion

Grand Canal continues to serve cultural function

HE YUN’AO | 2018-09-07
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

As the Grand Canal was accepted as the UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014, the Chinese government for the first time stressed the importance to develop a cultural belt along the Grand Canal corridor and made it a national proposal in 2017. Aimed at protecting the inheritance of the Grand Canal, the vast waterway system through the northern and eastern plains of China, the proposal is particularly significant for Jiangsu Province, a principal axis of the canal.


An artificial water transport project, the Grand Canal is the externalization of the ancient Chinese people’s creativity. Essentially the regional behavioral wisdom gradually formed over the centuries of canal construction. The much-discussed historical and cultural spirit of the Grand Canal can be divided into five aspects.


First, the canal reflects the wisdom of human harmony with nature. In the history of the canal’s construction, natural bodies of water were fully utilized, integrating the artificial project with natural waterways. Through water management and planning, the ancient Chinese maintained respect for nature and were undaunted in the face of danger, fostering the sustainable development of the regional civilization along the canal’s route.


Second, the canal represents an ethos of openness and inclusiveness. The Grand Canal originated in Jiangsu, and with the national support of different dynasties in Chinese history, it was connected to other waterways in many directions nationwide. This helped link the country’s political and economic centers, the maritime and overland silk roads, and the Northern and Southern cultures.


Third, through the integration of its main course and network of tributaries, the canal embodies wholeness. As more and more tributaries were dug and dredged, the canal was gradually constructed into a network system, which facilitated the coordinated development among cities and towns along the route. This also allowed coastal salt, marine products and other materials to be shipped to places across the country, increasing the sophistication of intensive farming.
Fourth, the canal shows the importance of both practice and theory. In the regions along the route of the Grand Canal, theoretical research and scientific observation was conducted in the process of canal management. Many works and maps from the research have been handed down through history.


Fifth, the canal demonstrates equal emphasis on agriculture, industry  and business. Driven by a higher quality of life and market demand, the handicraft industry in regions along the canal’s route has made remarkable progress. Many of the local handicrafts have become well known both home and abroad, and the skills have been handed down through generations as valuable intangible cultural heritage.


The Grand Canal has influenced the historical formation of many hub cities of Jiangsu Province such as Xuzhou, Huai’an, Yangzhou and Zhenjiang. It has also influenced cities such as Wuxi, the city famous for the Pearl of Tai Lake, China’s third largest freshwater lake; Suzhou, which is famed as paradise on earth; and Nanjing, which has served as the capital of several Chinese dynasties, kingdoms and governments.


Before the advent of modern transportation, the Grand Canal was the main logistics artery for major cities along its route. It connected a string of large-scale water systems traversing the territory of Jiangsu Province, including the Yangtze River, Huai River, Hongze Lake, Tai Lake, the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea, Qinhuai River and Si River. At the same time, the water bodies of different sizes running through the province were interwoven with the waters around urban and rural settlements into a network. It can be said that the Grand Canal has nourished the city systems of Jiangsu Province.


Spanning thousands of years, the Grand Canal culture is a living culture that is ever renewed. With the canal running unceasingly for thousands of miles, the boon of its culture is widely spread.


The functional value of the Grand Canal has greatly altered today. However, while its transportation function has been replaced by modern transportation tools, its cultural function remains.


Today when China advocates cultural consciousness and cultural confidence, exploring the historical and cultural spirit of the Grand Canal doesn’t just mean musing over the past for historical sentiments; it also means pondering over the modernity and modern value of the practices carried by such a spirit, as well as how the Grand Canal can serve the high-quality development of contemporary China.

He Yun’ao is the director of the Institute of Cultural and Natural Heritage at Nanjing University.

​(edited by BAI LE)