China’s Ancient Lifeline

The 1,400-year-old Grand Canal is a monumental project that bound north and south China together. It’s still in use today.

This story appears in the May 2013 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Grand Canal barges have no fancy names, no mermaids planted on the bow, no corny sayings painted on the stern. Instead they have letters and numbers stamped on the side, like the brand on a cow. Such an unsentimental attitude might suggest unimportance, but barges plying the Grand Canal have knit China together for 14 centuries, carrying grain, soldiers, and ideas between the economic heartland in the south and the political capitals in the north.

Outside the northern city of Jining, Zhu Silei—Old Zhu, as everyone calls him—fired up the twin diesels on Lu-Jining-Huo 3307, his shiny new barge. It was 4:30 a.m., and Old Zhu had hoped to get a jump on the other crews, who were still toying with their anchors. But as I gazed at the shore, I noticed that the trees had stopped moving against the graying sky. Looking out the other window, I was surprised to see barges overtaking us. Just then the radio crackled to life.

“Old Zhu, what’s up with you?” a barge captain said, laughing. “You missed the channel!”

We had run aground. Old Zhu narrowed his eyes in disgust. He had spent six months on land supervising his barge’s construction and now in his haste had underestimated the Grand Canal, with its challenging currents and its channels that silt up. Grudgingly, he picked up the mike and asked for advice.

After hearing that the sandbar was small, he stared intently at the water and decided on quick action. He reversed hard, pushing the throttle to full. The diesels shook the 165-foot barge and its thousand metric tons of coal with a mighty shudder. He spun the wheel, flipped the gear, and gunned the engines again. The waters churned as we surged ahead. With trailing lights off to save power, and the water lit only by the moon, Lu-Jining-Huo 3307 was like a Uboat heading into enemy territory. Our target: Nantong, 430 miles to the south.

On paper the Grand Canal runs 1,100 miles, between Beijing and the southern metropolis of Hangzhou. But for nearly four decades the top half of its course—from Beijing to Jining—has been too dry for shipping. The waterway’s main commercial artery now spans the 325 miles from Jining to the Yangtze.

The original canal system, built by Emperor Yang of the Sui dynasty, was seen by Chinese historians as an act of brilliant madness. Ancient China’s main rivers ran west to east, and Yang wanted to break this grip of geography. He needed a way to move rice from the fertile region around the Yangtze northwest to feed his court and, crucially, his armies, which were constantly battling nomadic tribes. So the emperor’s officials press-ganged an estimated million workers, mostly farmers, into building the first section of the canal. Supervised by thousands of soldiers, the men and women were driven around the clock. Yang “inflicted intolerable sufferings,” a ninth-century poet wrote, yet these projects “provided endless benefits to the people.” Officially the work was finished in 171 days in the year 605, but in reality it took six years to complete and claimed an untold number of lives—many of them villagers who starved because there weren’t enough hands left to harvest the crops.

The canal did more than move grain—as the country’s unifying feature, it was a potent political symbol and a strategic target for invaders. In the early 1840s, when the British wanted to put a stranglehold on China during the first Opium War, they occupied Zhenjiang, at the intersection of the canal and the Yangtze, throttling the flow of grain and tax revenues to Beijing. Within weeks China surrendered.

The Grand Canal was also a cultural conduit. Emperors on visits to inspect the canal’s locks and levees observed and co-opted local ways. That’s said to be how Beijing acquired two trademarks: Peking duck, from Shandong Province, and Peking opera, from Anhui and Hubei. Theater troupes, who relied on the canal to get around, said prayers to its wharves, while poets were moved by its very presence. Writing in the eighth century, Zhang Ji describes a temple on the canal whose “ringing bell reaches my boat at midnight.”

Canal people, known as chuanmin, re-create village life on their $100,000 barges. Like farmers at harvest time, the small crews—generally just one family—start at dawn and go till evening, when they tie up their boats next to each other. Old Zhu’s wife, Huang Xiling, now posted at the stern, had given birth to the family’s two sons on earlier barges. She cooked, cleaned, and made the boat’s little cabin a retreat from the water, wind, and sun. “The men say these boats are just a tool for making money, but our lives are spent on them,” she said. “You have so many memories.”

The couple’s older son, Zhu Qiang, had recently taken over their previous barge. Their other son, 19-year-old Zhu Gengpeng, Little Zhu, was working on this new one, being groomed by his dad to be a captain. Little Zhu took me under his wing, translating his father’s incomprehensible Shandong accent and making sure I didn’t fall over the side. Gracing my quarters with his calligraphy, he wrote the words “Private Berth” above the watertight door. (My berth was a storeroom that had been converted into a guest suite by laying a plank and a quilt across two empty paint drums.)

Little Zhu doesn’t look much like a chuanmin. With a rakish mustache, permanent bed head, and a purple, fur-trimmed jacket, he could be a hipster in any provincial Chinese city. He has a middle school education, and when the barge pulled up at a lock, it was Little Zhu who stepped ashore to deal with officialdom. (Although Old Zhu is only 46, he’s illiterate.) Off duty, Little Zhu seemed to spend most of his time texting his girlfriend, who worked in a bakery back in Jining. He plans to bring her aboard to live in his room in the bow after they are married.

“It will be hard for her because she isn’t a chuanmin,” Huang said. “But she’s a good girl. She works hard.”

Chuanmin rarely indulge themselves. They live by the hard-nosed calculations that determine whether a family gets rich or is ruined. This was driven home to me at the end of our first day. I was chatting with Zheng Chengfang, who came from the same village as Old Zhu. Our boats were tied up together, and I’d hopped over to visit with him. Wasn’t it a wonderful sight, I said to Zheng as we surveyed Old Zhu’s boat, freshly painted and gleaming in the sunset?

“No, no, no, you don’t understand us,” he blurted out. “It’s not a question of good. We chuanmin need the boats, or we can’t survive.”

Zheng accompanied me back to our barge for a smoke with Old Zhu, while Huang cooked a simple dinner of salted fish, rice, and stir-fried greens. “If you’re going to write about us, you also need to know something else,” Zheng said. “We chuanmin are at the receiving end. The coal owners set the price, the moneylenders set the interest, and the government officials set the fees. All we can do is nod and continue working.”

This is a common refrain among barge owners: Like peasants working the fields, they have little control over their fate. In the countryside it’s the vicissitudes of weather, but chuanmin face whimsical bureaucrats and unpredictable economics. They must make complicated decisions based on everything from the direction of world commodity prices to Chinese banking reforms. Indeed, while Zheng was holding forth, Old Zhu was fixated on the TV news about the Middle East and the price of oil. “What do you think?” he asked me, cutting Zheng off. “Will oil top a hundred dollars a barrel? And what about steel?”

Old Zhu had taken on huge debt. His barge has a capacity of 1,200 metric tons, but the global economic slowdown meant that the coal broker in Jining had only 1,100 tons to offer. And instead of getting 70 yuan ($11) a ton, as Old Zhu had before, he’d now get 45. That meant his gross revenue for this trip would be 49,500 yuan ($7,500). He’d burn about 24,500 yuan’s worth of diesel and pay more than 10,000 yuan in canal fees. On top of that there would be fines for everything from discharging wastewater to having the wrong kind of lighting. If he did well, he’d clear 5,000 yuan. But that was before the interest payment on his barge. To finance it, Old Zhu had borrowed 840,000 yuan from loan sharks at 15 percent. For this trip alone the interest would amount to 10,500 yuan. Overall, Lu-Jining-Huo 3307’s maiden voyage would probably lose him about 5,000 yuan.

But Old Zhu was betting that the world recession bottomed out in 2009, when he started building his barge, and that steel prices would climb, making his boat look cheap compared to ones yet to be built. He also believed that coal prices would rebound. “I’ll lose money for five years but then be fine,” he said, with the conviction of a Wall Street trader with a very long position on the world economy.

Halfway into our two-week journey, we approached Yangzhou, chugging past willows dry-brushed with green and fields smudged with purple, red, and yellow flowers. “With flowers thick as mist, you head down to Yangzhou,” Li Po, an eighth-century poet, wrote. For hours I sat with Old Zhu in the pilothouse, watching the bucolic sights give way to new highway bridges being laid atop concrete pylons.

As we cruised around one bend, Old Zhu called me out of my reverie. “That’s the old Grand Canal, or what’s left of it,” he said, pointing to a channel about 15 feet wide curving between a small island and the bank. The Grand Canal once ran in a series of winding curves, and boats had to tack east and west as they headed north and south. When it was widened and straightened, these bends either became side channels or cutoff lakes.

“It was tough, let me tell you,” Old Zhu said, his raspy voice animated. “Boats coming in every direction, and you had to pay attention all the time.” His is the last generation of chuanmin who knew the old canal, with its whirlpools and eddies that could propel a barge—or ground it on a sandbar. The real miracle of the canal, it seemed to me, wasn’t the structure itself but the chuanmin, whose relationship to the waterway transcends all the changes.

That night we docked on the outskirts of Yangzhou, the Shanghai of its day during two golden eras—the Tang dynasty and early Qing dynasty. Today in the booming south, local governments, awash in money, aim to bolster tourism and real estate development by beautifying and cashing in on the canal. But beautification can also destroy: Although Yangzhou has turned its waterfront into a park of manicured lawns and concrete pagodas—pleasant green space in an otherwise crowded city—the makeover required leveling nearly every canal-side building. For centuries the Grand Canal had been the heart of the city; now it’s just a backdrop.

Farther south in cities such as Zhenjiang, Wuxi, and Hangzhou, the situation is worse. The canal still runs through Hangzhou’s industrial center, but with the exception of the elegantly arched Gongchen Bridge, every structure linked to it—every ancient dock, warehouse, and mooring point—has been razed. “Traditionally we talk about 18 main cities on the Grand Canal, and each had its special flair,” Zhou Xinhua, then vice director of a Grand Canal museum in Hangzhou, told me. “But now they’re all the same: a thousand people with one face.”

In 2005 a small group of prominent citizens called for the historic Grand Canal to be made a UNESCO World Heritage site. “Every generation wants the next generation to understand it, to look at its monuments,” Zhu Bingren, a sculptor who cowrote the proposal, told me in an interview. “But if we wipe out the previous generations’ work, what will following generations think of us?”

At dawn on day eight we turned east and joined the Yangtze. Now we were dwarfed by towering oceangoing ships, whose wakes swamped our decks. “The Yangtze is like a highway, and we are like a small car, so we have to go carefully and get off as quickly as possible,” Old Zhu said. Within three days we had reached our destination: the Nantong Fertilizer Plant. Because of heavy rains, it took four days to unload the barge, the hull rising imperceptibly as the crane clawed out the coal. Old Zhu then hightailed it back along the Yangtze to the canal.

After a night moored in a cove near Yangzhou, everyone was up at dawn to get the barge moving. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Little Zhu untied the thick bow ropes. Old Zhu started an electric winch that pulled up the anchor. Huang cast off from the stern and stood watch. A light current carried us away from the willow-lined shore, pushing the stern out into the canal. Old Zhu walked from the winch to the pilothouse, calmly lighting a cigarette as we glided the wrong way. He pushed the starter, and the twin diesels rumbled to life.

Barely looking back, he reversed the boat into the main channel, an act of bravura that said, This is my canal as much as anyone’s. He turned the bow upstream as other barges bore down. Then, after a dramatic pause, Old Zhu pushed the throttle full ahead. The engines surged, the propellers bit, and Lu-Jining-Huo 3307, green and shining in the soft spring light, joined the endless flow of traffic on the Grand Canal.