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!”