The development of Yangzhou and the waterway has remained inexorably intertwined for millennia, Cheng Yuezhu reports.
Dozens of cities line the Grand Canal. But one settlement's vicissitudes have remained inextricably intertwined with the waterway since the channel was first dug 2,500 years ago.
Jiangsu province's Yangzhou has shared provenance with the canal that stretches from Beijing to Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang province.
On Nov 13, President Xi Jinping, who is also general secretary of the Communist Party Of China Central Committee, pointed out during a visit to Yangzhou that the Grand Canal has nourished the adjacent cities and residents, and that people should preserve the waterway.
The preservation of the Grand Canal's cultural heritage should be integrated with ecological and environmental protection, the restoration of cities and towns along the waterway, the development of culture and tourism, and the transformation of canal transportation. This can create favorable conditions for the social and economic development of regions along the Grand Canal and the improvement of people's living conditions, Xi said.
There's good reason that the office for the canal's 2006 UNESCO World Heritage site application was located in Yangzhou.
Gu Feng, who was then head of Yangzhou's cultural heritage bureau, was appointed as the office's director.
"One of the greatest values of Yangzhou's section of the canal is that it has an accurate historical record," he says.
According to China's first detailed historical compendium, Zuo Zhuan, king Fuchai of the Wu kingdom constructed a city called Hancheng and a canal called Han Gou that connected the Yangtze River and Huaihe River for the first time in 486 BC.
Hancheng became today's Yangzhou, and the later construction of canals in different eras, including the Sui (581-618) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties, completed today's Grand Canal.
"The finalized canal artificially connected two major natural rivers－the Yangtze and Huaihe," Gu says.
"It has exerted a profound long-term impact on economic and cultural exchanges between north and south. These wouldn't have been possible, otherwise.
"It also set an example for canal construction across China, leading to the final Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, which connects the channels built in different periods."
The Grand Canal's Yangzhou section hosts rich cultural heritage. Since the waterway was inscribed on UNESCO's World Heritage list in 2014, six channels and 10 heritage sites from Yangzhou have likewise gained the status.
"The Yangzhou section is very intricate. Unlike many other cities, where there is only one canal running through or bypassing the city, Yangzhou has a network of waterways, where courses built in different dynasties interweave with natural waters," Gu says.
The Slender West Lake, one of Yangzhou's most renowned scenic spots, for example, is linked with the Grand Canal and is one of the UNESCO sites.
The canal brought economic prosperity and cultural progress to the city.
Although it was initially constructed for military purposes, it later facilitated the national food supply, including grain and salt.
Yangzhou was, therefore, home to many salt merchants, who built elaborate Chinese gardens that remain to this day.
Historical records from the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties describe Yangzhou as the country's most affluent city.
"This prominent status comes from the canal. And the city continued to expand the canal grid as Yangzhou flourished. So, the canal network and city share a growth dynamic," Gu says.
"The canal was constructed for the city's economic, cultural and social development. And development, in turn, required canals with higher transport capacity."
This history will be showcased at the Yangzhou China Grand Canal Museum, scheduled to open in July.
The museum is designed to be an "encyclopedia" of the canal, showcasing relevant culture, economics and ecology using immersive technology and interactive design.
Huang Jie, executive vice-dean of Yangzhou University's Grand Canal Research Institute, also says that Yangzhou and the canal share a relationship of reciprocal advancement.
The institute was established in 2017 to study the canal and relevant heritage sites, use technology to preserve the ancient waterway and build databases to inform policymaking.
The institute is working on such projects as an intangible cultural-heritage database in response to the national-level plan to develop the Grand Canal Cultural Belt and the Grand Canal National Culture Park.
"The city was born with the canal," Huang says.
"So, the culture of Yangzhou and the waterway are essentially one and the same."
One of the various measures to protect local culture includes an intangible cultural-heritage zone, where artisans can exhibit and sell their products, he says.
"Many Yangzhou residents volunteer to assist with the canal's preservation," Huang says.
Volunteers come from municipal, district and even village levels, and range in age from primary school students to retirees.
Yangzhou hosts various canal-related annual events, including the World Canal Cities Forum and the World Canals Conference, which focus on international exchanges related to the preservation of canals; the Grand Canal Culture and Tourism Expo, featuring parades on the waterway; and exhibitions and performances.
"Yangzhou's section is still one of the most vibrant parts of the Grand Canal," Gu says.
"Its annual shipping capacity exceeds 300 million metric tons, much of which is building materials and energy sources. Visitors can still see fleets of boats sailing on the waterway today."