With a total length of 1,794 kilometer, the Grand Canal, also known as the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, is the longest manmade waterway in the world. 22 times longer than the Panama Canal and 10 times longer than the Suez Canal, the Grand Canal connects Beijing in the north with Hangzhou in the south. In between, it runs through six provinces and municipalities.
First built more than 1,400 years ago, expanded twice during its first two centuries, the canal links five separate major water systems, including the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers.
As the only commodity channel along its route in ancient times, the canal also played an important role in cultural integration. It was through this water route, in the late 18th century, for instance, that the four large Chinese opera troupes entered the capital, combining with other operas, through the next half a century to form today's Peking Opera.
Though today the canal remains an important waterway for transporting coal from north China to the south, sheer neglect has caused this man-made marvel to decay. In some sections of the canal, pollution from both living and industrial waste is serious. And in other parts, ships are hardly able to proceed, because the water has narrowed or evaporated.
"The Grand Canal is a combination of cultural and natural heritage. If the Great Wall is said to be the backbone of the Chinese people, then the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal is the flesh and blood of the Chinese,” says Shan Jixiang, director of the State Bureau of Cultural Relics. “And unlike the Great Wall, which no longer fulfills its original function - as a defense project - the Grand Canal is still flowing. It functions as an important means of transport for local people."
Shan is in the process of putting together an application for World Cultural Heritage status for the canal.
Last summer, over 200 members of the Chinese People’s Political Consulatative Conference inspected the Grand Canal. They spent 10 days along the route, talking to the locals as well as local officials, archaeologists, and transport and cultural experts. Drawing on this experience, they then mapped out a blueprint for its protection and restoration.
Liu Feng, a CPPCC member who first put forward the proposal to list it as a World Cultural Heritage Site, says the move is not only to protect the ancient project, but revitalize the canal, so that people living alongside it can benefit from it the way their ancestors have.
"Protection of the canal offers a double gain. For one, its cultural and historical heritage can be kept in good shape. And for another, it will revive its role as a route for transportation, easing up traffic pressures in the region,” Liu said.