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Jining: Capital of the Grand Canal

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Jining in Shandong Province is known to the world as the birthplace of Confucius, but few know that the city has long been called the "Capital of the Grand Canal."

The 1,400-year-old monumental Grand Canal is a lifeline that bound north and south China together. But the ancient waterway was not completed until the section in Jining, specifically the Nanwang Water Project, was finished.

It was no easy task. In the Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties, the organizations in charge of the Grand Canal were all located here, hoping to finish the big task. In 1411, Song Li was sent to Jining by emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty, to manage the canal. He took the advice of Bai Ying, a farmer and experienced manual labourer, to build a water diversion system which included dozens of sluice gates along the main route and its auxiliary channels.

Jining lies around 40 meters above the sections of the canal next to it. The Nanwang Water Project’s facilities could adjust the water flow of the canal so that transport could be controlled. It took thousands of workers nearly nice years to complete the project.

Jining used to be the highest point of the Grand Canal, not only a historical heritage site.

Excavation of the ancient site began in 2008. Archaeologist Hu Guangyue, who’s been following the project, says the work was carried out very carefully.

"The heritage site is of great scientific, historic and artistic value. During excavation, we preserve cultural relics as best as we can. We have unearthed and restored a lot of relics, including the Jinkou Dam, the Dragon Temple here, the sluice gates and many more. The ancient watercourse has been kept the way it was," Hu said.

After the completion of the Nanwang Water Project, the whole route of the Grand Canal was unlocked. Jining then enjoyed convenient transportation for centuries as the canal flowed through.

"The Nanwang project was one of the most important in ancient China. It also had a vital position in the world’s history of water conservation. The project epitomized the highest level of technology at the time. It guaranteed the completion of the whole route of the Grand Canal which had been in use for centuries, and as such, shaping the course of history of ancient China," said Du Qingsheng, vice president of Research Association of the Grand Canal.

(Why do you think the city deserve the reputation?) "In my opinion, there are three reasons. First, the section in Jining was the highest point of the Grand Canal and thus controlled the whole route. So its pivotal importance is beyond doubt. Secondly, the official office of the administrative authorities and its military unit were set in Jining. And last but not least, it’s because of the famous Nanwang Project. Jining deserved its reputation," Du said.

The canal hugely influenced Jining, attracting traders and goods from around the country.

For example, bamboo, typically found in southern China, soon arrived in the city thanks to traders. Jining is now famous for its Zhu Gan Xiang, literally meaning bamboo lanes, filled with shops and vendors selling all kinds of bamboo products, from small baskets to tall bookshelves.

"Ever since the Grand Canal's built, goods from southern part of the country were able to reach this city. The street I’m standing on right now has been historically known for selling products of bamboo.

This husband-and-wife shop has been open for decades. The owners, now in their eighties, took it over from their parents.

"We have been working here since we were teenagers. And then we got married. We don’t earn much but we are happy because we love what we do," the wife said.

"The bamboo is from Jiangsu and Zhejiang Provinces. We take orders from local customers. We make whatever products they want, including baskets, dustbins, brooms and more, all of which are used in everyday life," the husband said.

Just minutes from the bamboo lane is the Dongda Mosque, one of the most important mosques in China. It is located a few steps from the canal. The Dongda Mosque was built in 1368 during the Ming Dynasty, with donations from dozens of Muslim traders. The buildings, fusing Islamic and Chinese elements, are rare in China.

Another important influence of the canal is food. Yutang Pickles is a classic example of this, now synonymous with Jining. Yutang Pickles have been selling their unique pickled products for 100 year, having originally been established by a merchant from Jiangsu Province during the Qing Dynasty.

At the time pickled melons, eggplant and cucumbers were regularly sent to the palace expressly for the Imperial family. Today, Yutang pickles made with high-quality ingredients and traditional techniques still enjoy a growing reputation throughout the country.

During the course of its development, Jining nurtured a unique culture characterising inclusiveness and creativity. The Grand Canal brought together people from different parts of the country, people of different backgrounds and beliefs. They lived here harmoniously and contributed to the diversity of culture in Jining.

(What kind of legacy has the grand canal left Jining?) "Plenty of them! The tangible and intangible heritage. The canal’s sluice gates, its dams and more. More importantly the big projects represent a spirit of science, the courage of rising up to hardships and challenges, the wisdom and creativity of our ancestors. They all have a profound influence on the city and its people today and will remain so for generations to come," Du said.

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