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Grand Canal promotion needs diverse narratives

YAN HAIMING and LIU SHUGUANG | 2020-08-12
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The Grand Canal is the world’s largest and most extensive civil engineering project prior to the Industrial Revolution. Photo: XINHUA


The Grand Canal, the longest and oldest man-made waterway in the world, was inscribed in the World Heritage list on June 22, 2014. The vast inland waterway system runs from Beijing in the north to Hangzhou in the south, stretching nearly 1,800 kilometers through eight of China’s present-day provinces. Constructed in sections from the late Spring and Autumn Period (5th century BCE) onwards, the Grand Canal has a history of more than 2,500 years.
 
In recent years, with the proposal of a number of national projects such as the Grand Canal Cultural Belt and Grand Canal National Cultural Park, the value of the Grand Canal heritage has extended from the historical dimension to present-day national economic, cultural and social development strategy, and even the construction of China’s cultural soft power.
 
When preparing an application for the listing of the Grand Canal as a world heritage site, professionals and scholars in the Chinese team took note of the World Heritage standards and put forward the universal value of the Grand Canal as well as its authenticity, integrity and compliance with those standards, ultimately being recognized by the World Heritage Committee. 
In order to better popularize, disseminate and share the heritage value of the Grand Canal, we need to re-interpret this complex and comprehensive knowledge system, and step out of world heritage discourse and even the framework of cultural heritage to understand the Grand Canal from a broader view.
 
Two limitations
From a theoretical perspective, we need to avoid the limitations of historical reductionism and the overemphasis on the role of the Grand Canal in unification and centralization, so as to establish a more inclusive, diverse and multi-dimensional Grand Canal narrative system.
 
First of all, from the point of view of time, we should caution historical reductionism and avoid fantasizing the “golden age” of the Grand Canal. Generally speaking, the fate of the Grand Canal is linked to the ups and downs of political regimes. However, the discussion and interpretation of the Grand Canal should not be limited to a particular historical time period, such as the early Sui Dynasty (581–618), early Song Dynasty (960–1279), early Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), mid-Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) or Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). Instead, we need to put this gigantic feat of ancient engineering in a modern perspective with a dynamic view of time.
 
In history, the Grand Canal was mainly referred to as caoqu, a waterway for the transport of grain, salt and iron and so on, and even in the Ming and Qing dynasties, when the word canal was widely used, the name “Grand Canal” had not yet come into being. It was not until 1958, when Huaiyin Cigarette Factory created a “Grand Canal” brand cigarette and Jiangsu Province established a “Headquarters for the Jiangsu Grand Canal Project,” that the waterway acquired the name “Grand Canal.” As a result, the name Grand Canal, as a product of rather modern cultural memory, can shield us from overemphasizing so-called historical authenticity. 
 
Without rigidly advocating to return to a historic moment, we can ground ourselves in specific geographical and social conditions, to best accommodate local social culture and people’s livelihood. For example, some scholars and relevant authorities have proposed “a full revival” of the Grand Canal, aiming to recreate the prosperity and good-old glory of the canal. However, if we take a deep look at its most prosperous moments in the Ming and Qing dynasties, we will find that it is rare to see the canal running its whole route for a whole year at all. In reality, due to water shortages, siltation and cutoffs were more the norm.
 
From a political perspective, the Grand Canal should not be excessively tied to the label of unification and centralization. In the mid- and late 20th century, when investigating the emergence of large unified ancient states, a group of scholars represented by German-American historian Karl Wittfogel brought forth “oriental despotism,” emphasizing the importance of large-scale waterworks for totalitarian rule in Asian societies. 
 
In his book Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power, Wittfogel pointed out that maintaining control over the supply of water and irrigation systems in ancient China had a fundamental effect on the emergence and strengthening of monopolized political power, and he also put forward the theory of “hydraulic civilization.” Wittfogel’s thesis of water control and totalitarianism has been widely questioned in academia. 
 
Though it did not directly mention the Grand Canal, the argument that “water control” is somewhat the same as “despotism” and “tyranny” led to the misconception that the function of the Grand Canal was to maintain national unity. It is easy for people to equate the ancient Chinese hydraulic projects represented by the Grand Canal with the imperial rulers’ other action to seize and maintain political power.
 
It is undeniable that the Grand Canal was a hydraulic system, but it was also a system of transportation and communication of the people. For example, in the Song Dynasty, due to the capital Bianliang (today’s Kaifeng City, Henan Province) of the Northern Song Dynasty being situated in the central part of the canal, the waterway became the preferred mode of transportation among the whole population. It is recorded that when famed Song poet and essayist Su Shi returned to Sichuan for his father’s funeral, he went back from the capital via the canal, and then travelled upstream on the Yangtze River, rather than the usual inland route, signaling the role of the canal in cross-regional travelling at the time. 
 
There are also a number of personal records of travel along the Grand Canal, such as Huang Bian’s China’s Inland and Sea Routes (Tianxia Shuilu Lucheng) and Tan Qian’s Record of a Journey to Beijing (Bei You Lu), as well as novels set against the background of the Grand Canal such as The Water Margin and Stories from a Ming Collection. All these have surpassed the discourse of totalitarianism in politics to unveil a lively and charming canal with a popular aesthetics.
 
Cultural memory
Once we clarify the aforementioned misconceptions, we can set out to explore multi-dimensional Grand Canal narratives. Whether as material heritage or as an abstract concept, the Grand Canal is the product of “cultural process,” meaning that our cognition and interpretation of it are built on the basis of specific historical and realistic conditions. 
 
French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs pointed out that memory and history are two oppositional ways of dealing with the past. “Whereas historians aim at writing a single objective and impartial universal history, collective memories are numerous, limited in their validity to members of a particular community, subject to manifold social influences, and restricted to the very recent past in scope.” 
 
To differentiate different types of collective memory, German scholar Jan Assmann made a distinction between communicative and cultural memory. In Assmann’s view, while communicative memory evokes personal and autobiographical memories, cultural memory refers to objectified and institutionalized memories that can be stored, transferred and reincorporated throughout generations.
 
The Grand Canal is a typical cultural memory, involving official and folk memory, national and local memory, as well as a variety of agricultural, commercial, religious, literary and military memory, in the forms of official histories, diaries, novels, oral literature, drama, folk art and painting. In short, as a cultural memory, the Grand Canal is a collection of stories.
 
Different types of texts are bound to interpret the Grand Canal from different perspectives and approaches. The official account of the canal highlights the development and evolution of the man-made waterway and its importance to grain transportation and the stability of political power. The literature on hydraulic engineering stresses the technological achievements in canal construction and maintenance such as canal excavation, dredging, layout and structure. 
 
Meanwhile, folklore tends to commemorate individual stories, such as the legendary Emperor Yang Guang of the Sui, the Emperor Qianlong of the Qing and the folk heroes of flood control such as Bai Ying. Literary works describe the customs on the banks of the canal while poetry is keen on the image of the canal itself. 
 
Contemporary historians set their eyes on canal warehouse distribution, management, operation and maintenance. Since the Ming and Qing dynasties, many foreign envoys and tourists have also left precious records of the canal from their perspectives. All the above texts and art products are a kind of cultural memory of the Grand Canal.
 
It is safe to say that there is not one great canal, but a series of river basins linked together. From the construction of the Grand Canal Cultural Belt and the Grand Canal National Cultural Park, we can also see that only a complete, objective, comprehensive and diverse representation of the waterway in the memory of different regions and different groups of people can truly convey the symbolic significance of the Grand Canal.
 
Chinese stories
In practice, the construction and expression of the Grand Canal’s cultural memory could fall under the purview of “telling China’s stories to the world.”
 
We argue that it is crucial to respect the cultural memory of Chinese audiences and to promote the understanding and recognition of our own narratives. That said, we should strive to tell rich, diverse and interesting Grand Canal stories to the  audiences. China’s world cultural heritage is a collection of excellent traditional culture and is a treasure to people all over the world.
 
Yan Haiming and Liu Shuguang are from the Chinese Academy of Cultural Heritage.
 
​edited by YANG XUE