The Emperor's River: Travels to the Heart of a Resurgent China

The Emperor's River: Travels to the Heart of a Resurgent China

by Liam D'Arcy-Brown

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781908646873
Publisher: Eye Books
Publication date: 07/09/2010
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Liam D'Arcy-Brown is the author of Green Dragon, Sombre Warrior.

Read an Excerpt

The Emperor's River

Travels to the Heart of a Resurgent China

By Liam D'Arcy-Brown

Eye Books Ltd

Copyright © 2010 Liam D'Arcy-Brown
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-908646-87-3


The Grandest of Canals

from Hangzhou to the town of Tangqi

Cradling the city of Hangzhou in one of her broad sweeps, the Qiantang River breathes serenely in and out. Already that morning she had inhaled a huge sigh of water, the world's largest tidal bore, deep into her lungs, and now a high tide lapped against her river walls. On her northern shore a mouth opened into that dangerous tideway. Willows shaded a pathway damp with brackish spray. There a scarlet pavilion, its roof like the capital "A" on a thousand-mile manuscript, marked the start of the Grand Canal of China. The confluence of these two waterways was more peaceful than I had imagined it would be, for the Qiantang was wide and the sound of her shipping simply dispersed into the vastness of the heavens. The buildings on the far bank shimmered through a mile of haze. A lone barge waited as the lockgates opened. It was a giant, its length hard to judge. One hundred and forty, one hundred and fifty feet long? The monstrous shiplock swallowed it whole with a silent gulp.

I took out a pen and made a rough calculation on the back of one hand. Beijing lay 1,115 miles away, and the canal here at its mouth was easily 50 yards across. Even assuming a minimal depth of twelve feet to float such great barges, 294 million cubic yards of spoil must have been excavated. But I had seen photographs of the canal further inland, where it could not have been less than three times as wide, and in places it was said to be eight yards deep. Those larger dimensions came to a staggering 2.4 billion cubic yards in total and left the back of my hand more ink than flesh. The two figures averaged out at 1.3 billion cubic yards. Scholars of the Great Wall had estimated that it had taken 236 million cubic yards of rammed earth to build. Even at a conservative estimate, the Grand Canal was far and away the greater achievement. It was only the conspicuous proof of the labour that had gone into the Great Wall, redoubled by its photogenic beauty and the wildness of its terrain, that had made it the more popular of those two siblings, the extrovert yang to the canal's introverted yin.

For the moment, there in Sanbao Village, the Grand Canal of China was just a meek expanse of water. A string of coal barges was hitched like spent horses to the walls beyond the lock. There was chatter and laughter in their wheelhouses. The canal around them was motionless, ink-black with the run-off from a coal wharf. It skulked low that day as if condensed to liquid carbon by the heat of late spring. Then the ribbon of water turned west with the towpath, and factory walls became columns of pretty willows. I began to see other people out walking, watched cars slide along wide avenues, heard the babble of tourists aboard the shiny, new water buses. Hangzhou had become a modern city in the fifteen years since my last visit, a perky informality of apartment blocks. In the centre of town the temperature dropped so suddenly that passers-by looked up to the heavens as one and shivered. The sky, pregnant and lowering, began to spit. I hailed a taxi: a short drive away, a traditional waterside neighbourhood was rumoured to have survived the frenzy of reconstruction.

By the time our car reached Lishui Road the rain had strengthened. The driver turned his meter off while we waited for the worst to pass, more interested in spending the time in conversation than in charging the extra fare he was entitled to. He pointed to his licence, glued to the dashboard.

"My name's Cong Bian. Are you married?" I told him I had married just a week earlier. "I congratulate you! I'm married too, with a daughter, ten years old. She's living in Harbin while my wife and I are here working." So he wasn't from these parts? He waved his palm stiffly. "I'm from Heilongjiang. Can't you hear?" He spoke, now I paid attention, the crisply correct Mandarin of a Manchurian.

"So you don't understand the locals?"

"They speak Wu dialect. I can understand a little, after two years here, if they speak slowly." I too found the speech of eastern China incomprehensible, I admitted: the disparate tongues that go under the name of Wu dialect are unintelligible to Mandarin speakers just as Spanish is to an Italian or a Frenchman.

"We're both in the same boat in that regard", he mused. "In China we might say we are tong shi tianya lunluo ren – two vagrants thrown together under the same corner of the sky.

"We moved down here to the coast after I lost my job," he explained. "I'd worked in a factory, but the economic conditions in the northeast are poor. We've entrusted our daughter to her grandparents. This is the only way to earn money to put her through school, to save for our parents' old age, for our own retirement." But he did not want to talk about his old life in Manchuria, as though it pained him to be separated from his flesh and blood. The rain was easing off. Wiping away the condensation from a window he looked intently at our surroundings and changed the subject.

"This is Grand Canal Cultural Square, where the authorities have built the Grand Canal Museum. It's cost the city more than 100 million renminbi. Over there is Bowing to the Emperor Bridge. Very beautiful." Where were the old warehouses, the inns, the wharves and landing stages that had once stood where now there was an open plaza? "Chaichule," Cong Bian shrugged. "Demolished." He read my look of disappointment, and quickly added in consolation: "But Bowing to the Emperor Bridge is very old, the oldest structure in Hangzhou. Ming dynasty."

In his former life he had been an unskilled worker, and in his industrial hometown there was nothing so old, he said, or so enchanting. The bridge's triple arches soared, its steep granite steps reaching fully 50 feet in height before starting their descent to the far shore a hundred yards away. It was undeniably beautiful, even in rain that fell like water spilling from a calabash ladle (as the Chinese phrase has it), the last echo of the dozens which had once spanned the city's waterways. We both stared in appreciative silence at this reminder of how lovely China could be. On the misted windscreen Cong Bian drew two thoughtful strokes with a forefinger, the second running off at a broad angle from the first. They formed the character ren: human.

"I remember how in the 1980s, just as we were beginning to rediscover our history after the Cultural Revolution, state television broadcast a long series of programmes on the canal. The first was called Two Strokes of the Writing Brush. I still remember sitting as a child in front of a TV in my parents' work unit – they worked in a chassis factory – watching a man in a suit with a great map of China on the wall behind him. 'This first stroke, here,' he said, 'is the Great Wall. And this one is the Grand Canal. Here, where the two lines join, is Beijing, our capital.' The very character for 'human', you know, reminds us of what the Great Wall and the Grand Canal look like on a map of the People's Republic. You understand, we Chinese built that wall, dug this canal, brought human civilization to this land with our bare hands."

The rain eased, and soon we had said goodbye. The museum proved to be closed that day. Standing alone upon the bridge's crown, the water far below was still, betraying its slow drift only by the chemical which bled scarlet-red from a drain. Then, as that stain merged into the ripples, the blunt nose of a barge appeared beneath my feet. Her hold followed, sliding gracefully upstream with a cargo of gravel, and presently there came her wheelhouse. Behind her the dull dishwater became a wake of white foam. As the barge's bulk raised a bow wave from the meagre depths, the canal sucked at its own shallows to bring clouds of mud billowing to the surface like liquid smoke.

* * *

So old are China's canals that their origins fade into fables. The oldest is the legend of the folk hero Yu the Great, who calmed the flood that once inundated the world. Yu dug and dredged for thirteen years, channelling the water out to sea and refusing to return home to rest despite the birth of his son and heir. That legend is known to all Chinese, for Yu's mass mobilization of Bronze-Age farmers can be seen as the true starting point of Chinese civilization. It is a civilization built upon a profound understanding of water and how to control it, as an unforgiving environment forced ingenuity upon the earliest ancestors.

For the pattern of rainfall in northern China was always intensely seasonal, with summer monsoons that filled watercourses to bursting and dry winters that tested the skills of reservoir builders. "Picks and shovels are as good as clouds, and opening a channel is as good as rain", goes one age-old saying. Running through the birthplace of Chinese civilization, the Yellow River was ever a capricious creature, her water bearing a staggering load of silt which raised her bed and choked her path, causing devastating floods. Even in the wetter Yangtze valley, where later generations would learn to cultivate paddy, water had to be stored and released through laboriously maintained works to ensure that rice seedlings had all the moisture they demanded at just the right points in their life cycle.

The Chinese proved more than capable of controlling that challenging environment, and with good husbandry the plains of the Yellow and the Yangtze became amongst the most densely populated places on earth. Kings and emperors mobilized millions to share in the work of flood prevention; ditches were dug to draw water into the fields, deeper channels cut to connect these to the great rivers. Long, long before China was ever a unified nation, junks were sailing out across those lands upon a labyrinth of man-made waterways.

The Grand Canal became the greatest of them all, and Hangzhou at its southern terminus one of the richest cities not just in China but on earth, its populace so large, so wealthy, that their gowns struck visitors as a solid screen of silk. Its markets were said to be piled high with gold and silver, the masts in its harbour as thick as the teeth of a comb. Flowers that never faded gave the city an air of everlasting spring. Today the West Lake that lies at its heart is one of the most beautiful sights in all China. Pleasure boats glide out from the wharves, and at dusk the locals promenade, or sit in silent embraces. Lined with weeping willows, hemmed in by hills speckled with temples, they have good reason to call it the finest lake in the world. On that first day of my journey I found a bench by the lakeshore and sat deep in thought. I recognized this place from my childhood, as though I had been predestined somehow to be there.

Not long into secondary school, you see, I had read ahead in my French grammar, beyond the present tense and into the past and the pluperfect, so that when my classmates were introduced to avoir and être verbs I was instead dispatched to a store cupboard to translate French pop songs. But my mind wandered from the lyrics of Tous les Garçons et les Filles and I began to potter around shelves piled high with old textbooks. One, Beginning Chinese, was a university primer, half in Romanized script and half in Chinese characters. Upon its cover was a sketch of a lake.

I spent hours poring over that book, copying its characters inexpertly onto the bare walls of a new home, staring into its pen-and-ink illustrations as though awaiting some revelation. In Lesson One a besuited Mr Bai met a friend. Their meeting place overlooked a lake where people took tea on boats, and where a breeze ruffled the willows. A temple nestled in a fold of the hills, and a pagoda stretched up to heaven. Beginning Chinese became my subconscious template for China, a childhood ideal that did passable service for an entire country. It was just eight years later that I visited the People's Republic for the first time, by then a second-year student of Mandarin, and the image of the lake shrank to become just one element in a growing collage. I returned time and again to visit new parts, studying in Shanghai just as that dazzling city was finding its feet after the torpor of Mao's command economy. All the sights I saw, all the sounds and all the smells, became a sensual soundtrack to my life. But of all the memories, it was to the cover of Beginning Chinese that my thoughts turned as I sat on that bench in Hangzhou. The illustration had come to life, correct to the last detail as if it had been the artist's very pattern. I slid into a jetlagged half-sleep. A young man sat down beside me.

"Mr Bai?" I asked dreamily. No, he answered, his surname was not Bai; had I mistaken him for somebody? Yes, I said, I had once come across a Mr Bai in a book, who wore a suit just like his. We talked about my reason for being in China.

"Weishenme?" he asked. "Why? Why this big Grand Canal journey? And why now, at such an important time?"

Yes, it was an important time: only five days earlier I had taken my wedding vows in a church in the English shires. Rebecca and I had been together for ten years, and it had felt right to marry before being parted for several months. A fair-weather traveller raised in temperate York, I wanted to set out after the worst of the spring rains had passed and reach Beijing before August's heat. Our wedding day turned out to be a beautiful late-April afternoon, but we had spent only four days together before driving to Heathrow. Then Rebecca had had a nosebleed and spotted my shirt with blood, and our goodbyes had been of tender bewilderment.

"Why the Grand Canal?" I repeated distractedly. "Perhaps it would have been better if...." Uncertain, my voice trailed off. Glimpsed from the air the canal region had been a daunting tangle of threads teased out over the plains, each as fragile as a rivulet of rain upon a dirty window. I had taken in its sheer scale and wondered whether I had made the right decision. So why was I here?

It was apparent that the Chinese were increasingly focusing attention on their Grand Canal. With each new website and museum, with the completion of every canal-widening scheme and the founding of preservation societies up and down its length, China was beginning to look at the canal with fresh eyes. The sudden interest hinted at deeper currents, and I wanted to discover what these might be. Besides, just as in Chinese medicine the pulse is the most valuable diagnostic tool so there could hardly be a better place to gauge the state of the nation than upon this artery linking its economic heart to its seat of government.

Hearing of my plans to follow the Grand Canal, friends and relatives had joked and told me how much I would love Venice. Yes, and there were other grand canals – one more in Alsace, yet another in Ireland – but China's was the very grandest. Why nobody had thought to follow it from source to terminus left me lost for an explanation. Since a gap had first opened in the bamboo curtain, writers had crossed China by train, sailed the Yangtze, bisected the country by road, walked the Great Wall. Only the Grand Canal, inconspicuous behind a workaday façade, remained a missing piece of the Chinese jigsaw. I suspected too that the journey would be a personal challenge, a test of that idealized China I still carried from the cover of Beginning Chinese.

In preparation I had read everything I could find on the canal, a scant library amounting to a few volumes in Mandarin and even less in English. I had pored over atlases, scoured libraries for the faded wayposts of earlier travellers, had memorized a list of nautical terms, but there my knowledge ended. And so, early the next morning, I caught a bus back to thhe Grand Canal Museum to learn more.

It unfolded like a Chinese fan across Grand Canal Cultural Square, a near semicircle of grey stone. A magnificent frieze swathed one wall in bronze, where slaves strained to haul Emperor Yang's dragon boats. In the lobby a line of lights snaked across a great map of China. The world's other great canals were stretched out beside it, even the longest of them a poor second; the Suez and Panama canals combined were less than one-seventh of its length. Then came the text of the Hangzhou Declaration, drawn up by a select group of cadres, academics and dignitaries. It proudly summed up the importance of the canal in Chinese eyes.

"The Grand Canal," it began, "is a great engineering project created by our nation's labouring people in ancient times, a precious article of material and spiritual wealth handed down to us by our ancestors, a living, flowing and vital piece of mankind's heritage." From its roots in the Spring and Autumn period, the Declaration went on, the canal had become a vital route for waterborne traffic, binding the north to the south and spanning five mighty river systems. Over the course of millennia it had contributed to China's economic development, to national unity, to social progress. It was proof that China's ancient technology had outshone other civilizations.

"With her own milk," another panel waxed lyrical, "the Grand Canal suckles those who dwell on her banks."

"Because of the Grand Canal we get rich!" boasted another.


Excerpted from The Emperor's River by Liam D'Arcy-Brown. Copyright © 2010 Liam D'Arcy-Brown. Excerpted by permission of Eye Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
The Grandest of Canals,
A Culture to be Proud of,
Life's Bitterness,
Predictions of Change,
Water, but no Boats,
A Canal Reborn,
Appendix & Author's Note,
About the Author,

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