The Shandong Grand Canal
by Eric N. Danielson
I’ve been conducting field research on China’s Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal (Jing Hang Da Yun He) ever since completing my three-volume New Yangzi River trilogy in 2005. During that time a few other books have been published on this topic, their authors claiming that they were the first to ever think of the idea, which has been pretty frustrating for me to endure in silence.
Although portions of the canal in Hangzhou, Suzhou and Yangzhou are fairly close to my home base in Shanghai, the northern sections in Shandong and elsewhere have been harder for me to reach quite as often. Still, over the past six years I’ve now traveled the whole route of the canal through Shandong province from south to north on three separate trips, taking photographs and detailed notes the whole time.
For those of you who may be wondering why this topic should be of any interest (including those many book publishers who turned down my proposals over the years), the Grand Canal is not just about the hydraulic engineering it took to build, rebuild, and maintain it. As those few Chinese historians who have been pushing for UNESCO Cultural Heritage status for the canal know, the Grand Canal is as important to China’s history as the Great Wall. Not only is it an engineering accomplishment, but more importantly after its construction it proved to be a cultural corridor providing for the transmission of the previously foreign beliefs of Islam and Christianity. Almost every port along the historic route of the canal has at least one mosque (qing zhen si) and a Christian church (jiao tang), both established by missionaries. It was also a conduit for merchants, so many ports also have a historic guild hall (hui guan). More well known is the six southern tours (nanxun) taken by the Qing emperors Kangxi and Qianlong, so sites related to them, such as their temporary palaces (xing gong), also abound.
My most recent trip through Shandong province over two weeks in September 2011 was the first time I had returned to the area since 2007. Despite my somewhat rusty travel skills, it went almost perfectly according to plan. I was able to complete the whole itinerary I had planned pretty much on schedule. I flew into Xuzhou airport in northern Jiangsu, went straight to Xuzhou by a free airport shuttle bus, as opposed to the 200 Rmb taxi ride I had taken previously, then immediately caught a bus from Xuzhou to Zaozhuang in southern Shandong without staying overnight in Xuzhou at all. In Zaozhuang it took me three tries to find a suitable hotel the first night, but once I did it turned out to be fine. Not only did I return to the famous Taierzhuang site, but this time I also made it to Hanzhuang, which is right at the point where the Grand Canal flows into Weishan Lake, a place I had not been before.
At Taierzhuang I discovered that this section of the Grand Canal had been entirely rebuilt with new water control facilities, and a previously abandoned ship lock full of rusting ships had been completely removed and disappeared since my last visit here in 2006. On the other hand, the historic city center around the town’s mosque had been completely razed to the ground and was being rebuilt as yet another fake old town of new buildings. Taierzhuang is the place where in 1938 Guomindang General Li Zongren won China’s only military victory over the Japanese during the whole Sino-Japanese War. The old train station there has been turned into a memorial to him, full of photographs and personal belongings, including a handwritten diary. During the battle the local mosque served as Li’s command center, its tall tower allowing observation of the surrounding area.
The Hanzhuang Canal
At a place in Northern Jiangsu called Da Wang Miao, the Grand Canal branches off into two routes heading north, one of which travels along the western shore of Weishan Lake and is known as the Hu Xi route, while the other known as the Hu Dong route goes through Taierzhuang to Hanzhuang where it enters Weishan Lake and follows its eastern shore, often traveling in between islands such as Weishan Dao and the mainland. The section from Taierzhuang to Hanzhuang is now officially known as the Hanzhuang He. It has three modern shiplocks, one at Taierzhuang, another 16 km away at Wannian, and a third about 2 km. from the town of Hanzhuang. These three modern ship locks were built between 1989 and the year 2000, replacing two older ship locks which had been built at Hanzhuang and Taierzhuang between 1968 and 1972, but which have since been removed. The 1972 Taierzhuang lock was still there, bone dry and full of the rusting hulks of old barges in a dried up channel running parallel to the new one, when I visited in 2006, and made for a fascinating archeological relic, but has since been demolished. On my 2006 visit I had only noticed one modern ship lock and a total of three channels, so it’s possible that the second ship lock and fourth channel were added since then. This section is open to two-way ship traffic. Once entering Weishan Lake at Hanzhuang, where one of the two channels is guarded by a massive set of flood gates built in 1980-82, ships travel another 51 km. along the eastern shore, passing between islands such as Weishan Dao and the mainland, until they reach the Weishan Ship Lock (aka Er Ji Ba), which divides Weishan Lake into two halves. On maps this looks like a long bridge crossing the lake from one side to the other, but actually it’s a massive water control project built in 1961 to keep water in the northern half of the lake, which is actually at a higher elevation than the southern half. The dam is reportedly 6,500 meters long.
After a few days in Zaozhuang I moved onto downtown Jining by bus. That was a long ride of about 3 hours heading north. In Jining I revisited the historic East Mosque (Dong Da Si), the Taibai Lou dedicated to the Tang dynasty poet Li Bai, and the city museum, which includes the Iron Pagoda (Tie Ta) and Sheng Yuan Lou pavilion within its walled compound. The old route of the canal snakes through the downtown city center, past the mosque and the Tai Bai Lou, then through a town in the suburbs known as Anju Zhen, and from there to the town of Nanwang Zhen in Wenshang district. However, a much wider modern canal flows in a straight line to the west of the city center and still carries ship traffic as far as the Jining North Port.
During the first week it poured rain incessantly, making it a real challenge to take good quality photographs. In some photos you can actually see the sheets of rain coming down in front of my lense. Fortunately I had taken an umbrella with me, and had bought a new pair of hightop hiking boots the day before I left Shanghai. In Jining the streets were actually flooded under water, and cars looked more like submarines with waves of water literally splashing over both sides as they tried to drive down the roads.
The sun didn’t come out until I made a side trip from Jining to Qufu at the end of the first week. Qufu has three important historic sights to see, all related to Confucius, including the main temple dedicated to him (Kong Miao), the mansion where his descendants lived for years (Kong Fu), and the family cemetery where he and his descendants were all buried (Kong Lin). However, it has become a very touristy town, with lots of touts on the streets trying to force you to buy souvenirs and other stuff that you don’t even want. As a result, it’s not really that enjoyable of a place to visit, and I don’t think I would go back there a third time. On the other hand, it was in Qufu that I was miraculously able to find a camera store selling Sony digital camera equipment that I needed, including digital memory cards for pretty low prices compared to Shanghai, and I’m sure I would not have been able to find that anywhere else along my journey. I went there in one day without staying overnight. It was the only place I went that was a real tourist attraction, the others being quite obscure, isolated places out in the countryside.
Nan Wang Zhen
From Jining I was also able to make a day trip north to a place called Nan Wang Zhen in Jining’s rural Wen Shang district, which was the highest point of elevation on the route of the historic Grand Canal. Because the elevation drops off on both sides of this point, engineering the canal in this section so that water would stay in it was very difficult. I was surprised to find that since 2008 the site had been excavated and an excellent museum built next to it. In fact, this museum is undoubtedly the best one devoted to the Grand Canal anywhere, and is far superior to the Grand Canal Museum in Hangzhou. Information includes lists of every ancient ship lock (da zha) on the historic route of the grand canal, photographs and present locations of all surviving ancient ship locks, and diagrams showing the change in elevation along the route of the historic canal. At the time of my last visit in 2007 the Nan Wang site was shown on maps as Shui Long Wang Miao aka Water Dragon King Temple. Although some signs are still labeled as such, others have been updated with the new name for the site, the Nan Wang Archeological Site Park. Nan Wang is 28 km north of Jining’s downtown city center on highway S337, and 20 km from Wenshang town.
Jining’s Four Canal Ports
A short distance to the west of Nan Wang town I discovered that a newer route of the Grand Canal is actually under reconstruction and took photos of it. I also discovered a nearby canal port where ships were actually already able to dock to load and unload goods at a spot that was much farther north than I previously thought ships could sail nowadays.
It turns out that in recent years a Malaysian company called Sime Darby has built three new modern shipping ports along the Jining section of the Grand Canal, and contracted to build a fourth. The Jining North Port, which I visited and photographed, is located at a spot known as Yue Jin Gou. It was incorporated in March 2008 and began operations in December 2009. Its primary purpose is the shipment of coal, huge stacks of which can be seen piled everywhere and being transported by massive conveyor belts to ships at seven berths. It’s this coal which produces electricity for Shanghai. The Jining City Port, also known as Guo Zhuang Port, was incorporated in December 2008 and is located on a section of the modern canal passing by the west side of the downtown city center. Although coal shipments were still being handled here on my last visit in 2007, for environmental reasons this City Port now only handles cargo such as containers, steel, paper pulp, grain, and chemicals. The facility includes warehouses, container equipment, and nine berths. Jining South Port, also known as Long Gong Port, is located south of the city center and is another coal shipment point, albeit much smaller than the North Port with only three berths for ships. The South Port was incorporated in November 2008 and began operations in September 2011. Plans to establish a fourth Jining canal port in Zhou Cheng city at a place called Taiping Port, which would be on the east shore of Weishan Lake, were announced by Sime Darby in November 2009. However the current status of that port and whether it is operational yet is not known. What’s amazing about these three new modern ports on Jining’s section of the Grand Canal which are now operational is not only how they are revitalizing ship traffic in this inland region, but the fact that Sime Darby was given 70 percent ownership of all four of these projects, leaving only 30 percent control to the Jining city authorities. It’s quite remarkable that a foreign company would be given such a large majority stake in any enterprise in China.
In addition to these three new ports on Jining’s section of the Grand Canal, there are three new ship locks planned to be built along the 99 km. section of the Grand Canal between Jining and the Yellow River at places known as Chang Gou, Deng Lou, and Ba Li Wan. Chang Gou is only 13 km south of Nan Wang town, and just a short walk north of the Jining North Port.
From Jining I went by bus across the Yellow River (Huang He) to Liaocheng. Staying in this city was probably the least pleasant experience. The whole historic city center around the Guang Yue Lou had been torn down wholesale and was being rebuilt into a kind of fake new copy of a historic city. Because of the mass destruction and reconstruction the whole city was covered with waves of choking dust. On top of that, I couldn’t find a decent hotel to stay at, even after several tries, and ended up spending three nights at a place that was supposedly three-star, but in fact was crawling with cockroaches in the worst way I’ve ever seen. The main reason I kept staying there was because I needed a base of operations for that general area, and at least that hotel would accept my credit card, which no other hotel on the trip would, and which helped me to conserve my cash supply.
The Guang Yue Lou is a gigantic drum tower standing in the middle of the old square-shaped city, which is surrounded by a lake known as Dong Chang Hu, a reflection of Liaocheng’s former name of Dong Chang Fu. Not far from the Guang Yue Lou stands the Hai Yuan Ge, a former private library dating from the Qing Dynasty. Other historic sights in the old city center include the impressive Shan Shaan Hui Guan compound, which stands on the banks of the old canal’s route, a 100 year old Christian church nearby to it, and a bit farther away the Iron Pagoda (Tie Ta). There are also two mosques here in the old city, the West Mosque (Da Li Bai Si) on Da Li Bai Si Jie, and the East Mosque (Dong Li Bai Si) on Dong Li Bai Si Jie, across the street from the Hui Min Xiao Qu and a short walk across a bridge from the Iron Pagoda.
Using Liaocheng as a base, I made day trips to Linqing and Dezhou, as well as a half day trip doubling back to explore the area along the Yellow River (Huang He), which is hard to visit because all the cities on both sides are at least one hour’s drive away from its shores. The bridge crossing the Yellow River at Liaocheng only has two lanes, one heading each direction, and often backs up with massive traffic jams of heavy trucks, long-distance buses, and cars that grind to a complete halt. It was like this on my last visit, making it impossible to cross over to the south side, so we only explored the northern banks of the river by traveling a ways west on a dusty road running along the top of the flood wall. From here we could see the traffic completely stopped on the bridge, as well as other floating pontoon bridges used to carry heavy trucks back and forth across the river, and which would block any ship traffic, of which there is none. The banks of the river are shaped into a zig zag pattern of triangular flood walls that stick out into the water. The river comes rushing downstream with quite a forceful current, slamming against these floodwalls, creating waves and sounds just like you would see and hear at the ocean. The patterns visible in the water’s currents become almost hypnotic to look at, with swirling whirlpools forming here and there. These whirlpools look as if they could suck down anything that happened to fall into their wake.
At Linqing I made the surprising discovering that the Grand Canal there (the Wei He aka Nan Yun He) is once again full of water, whereas on my previous two trips there in 2006 and 2007 it was bone dry. I also revisited the three mosques here, the Bei Si, Dong Si, and Nu Si. See my separate posting on Linqing for more details about this fascinating town.
At Dezhou I revisited the historic Muslim site of the King of Sulu’s Tomb (Sulu Wang Mu) and its adjacent mosque known as the Bei Ying Qing Zhen Si, and was reunited with an old Chinese historian friend of mine who runs an antique shop there.
I was also able for the first time to locate the strategically important site of the Si Nu Si water control project, which I had only read one vague report of before and had failed to find on two previous visits. The exact date of this project’s construction is unknown, but its existence was first reported by a group of visitors in 1984. It turned out to be quite close to the Dezhou city center, but still in a very isolated spot that you would never run across accidentally unless you already knew where it was and went there on purpose. At this spot three separate canals coming from different directions at diagonal angles all converge and merge into one huge canal the size of a lake. At the spot where they converge there are three sets of massive flood control dams. On the east side of the dams the Nan Yun He and Zhang Wei Xin He are both bone dry channels with no water flowing in the direction of Dezhou city. However, on the west side of the dams heading in the direction of Linqing the Wei He, aka Nan Yun He, is full of water.
This raises interesting questions regarding the construction of the South-North Water Diversion (Nan Shui Bei Diao) project. The Si Nu Si project was not designed to allow ships to pass through, and thus serves as a blockade to any resumption of ship traffic, which there hasn’t been for over 30 years at least. A group of visitors in 1984 reported that there was a ship lock at Dezhou that had been built in the 1950s, but was at the time of their visit already abandoned, although the exact location of this lock is now unknown. Furthermore, although the section of canal at Linqing was full of water, and I was told that this was water somehow transported from the Yellow River (Huang He), there were numerous floating bridges across the canal carrying fleets of heavy trucks from one side to the other. These floating bridges would also be blockades to any ship traffic.
The section of the canal within Dezhou city has a misleading appearance. In between the Shengli Qiao bridge on Dong Feng Xi Lu and the Wen Ge Qiao bridge on Tian Qu Xi Lu the canal is full of water deep enough for people to go swimming. However, the situation at the Si Nu Si site makes it clear that no water is flowing towards Dezhou from there. In addition, there was an earthen dam blocking the canal visible just north of the Wen Ge Qiao on Tian Qu Xi Lu.
After completing my day trip to Dezhou I returned from Liaocheng to Jinan, spent one day sightseeing there, and then flew from there back to Shanghai.
Jinan impressed me as quite a civilized city with overall a very well-mannered and polite population, kind of like in Beijing, and a city which has really achieved a good balance between modern conveniences and preservation of historic sites. The traffic jams there were terrible though, and it could take an hour to travel by car from one end to the other. It took me two tries to find a decent hotel there on the first night.
While in Jinan I revisited the campus of the former Chee Loo University (Qi Lu Daxue), a school that was set up by Christian missionaries from Western countries in the early 1900s. Most of the buildings are still intact and continue to be used by students as the Bao Tu Quan branch campus of Shandong University on Wenhua Xi Lu. I also visited the former Taoist temple compound on Shang Xin Jie, Jinan’s historic South Mosque (Nan Da Si) on Luoyuan Da Jie, and the Bao Tu Quan springs on Gong Qing Tuan Lu.
After I got back to Shanghai I realized that I had filled up three camera memory cards with 10 GB of photos, which is about 10,000 pictures. It took five hours just to upload them from my camera to my computer, and hours longer to complete organizing them into folders labeled according to location and topic. I’ll try to post some of the photos here later, along with possibly more detailed descriptions of individual sights, as opposed to this brief summary.
Eric N. Danielson
Some precise details for this travel report came from consulting the following sources after my return.
1. Sun Zhen, Yue Guo Fang, Bi Yue Nian, Xie Li, Xu Pei De, Howard Coats and James Kelly ed., The Grand Canal of China, Hong Kong: South China Morning Post Ltd. and New China News Ltd., 1984.
2. Wu Peng and Fang Xiupan, “Navigation Locks on the Grand Canal.” A paper presented to the 31st PIANC Conference in Portugal in May 2006.