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Thursday, January 1, 2009

Heart of the Grand Canal

Yangzhou’s history is inextricably linked to the Grand Canal and to the salt trade which made it one of China’s richest and most cosmopolitan cities for over a millennium. THERE are places that, for some reason, you immediately take a liking to the moment you set eyes on them. That was how I felt when I arrived in Yangzhou.

It is not easy to say what exactly makes a place appealing, especially one that you know very little about. With Yangzhou, it was perhaps the verdant environment, or the seemingly slower pace, or maybe it was simply the romance of the “Jinghang” Grand Canal which passes through the city.

Perched on the northern bank of the Yangtze River at its confluence with the Grand Canal some 250km northwest of Shanghai, Yangzhou was a very important and prosperous city through much of its 2,500-year-old existence, right up till the turbulent mid-19th century.
As a key transportation hub for grain, silk and salt (it was the seat of the salt monopoly in the Qing dynasty), it was a magnet for merchants from all over the Chinese sphere and beyond.

Arab and Persian traders arrived there as far back as the early Tang dynasty, while some sources suggest Marco Polo served there as a municipal official in the 13th century.

Yangzhou has the distinction of possessing one of the oldest datable sections of the Grand Canal, going back 2,500 years to 486BC. A thousand years later, Emperor Yangdi of the Sui dynasty linked up the waterways between Beijing and Hangzhou (hence the name “Jinghang”) to create the canal that at its current 1,800km, remains the longest in the world.

Sui Yangdi evidently sailed down the Jinghang to visit Yangzhou three times. Some tales recount he had weeping willows planted on the water’s edge to shield the fair skin of the women who lined the banks and that besides inspecting the southern reaches of his realm, he was also there to inspect the lovely ladies.

Of course, our guide did not fail to mention that Yangzhou girls are renowned for their beauty but with a twinkle in his eyes, was quick to add (as did our Suzhou guide) that the “best ones” have married people in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.

With these colourful stories swirling through my mind, I was a little disheartened to find the reality of Yangzhou’s Grand Canal somewhat more prosaic. We arrived at a grassy park and walked towards the water’s edge.

There the Canal stretched before us, much wider than I had expected, its placid surface mirror-like. There were few of the legendary willows, just stretches of immaculate lawn with shrubbery. In all fairness, our guide said the Canal is still being prepared for World Heritage application and its restoration not yet complete.

Unsurprisingly, the homes of the former salt merchants are located in the vicinity of the Canal. “There were initially about 100 of these mansions,” recounted our guide as he pointed several out to us, “but most were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution.”

According to him, some 20 of the residences are slated for restoration.

One restored villa, the Qing dynasty Geyuan, though not built by a salt merchant, was bought by one in the early 19th century.

It seems the wealthy trader, surnamed Huang, paid six million taels of silver for the property. Merchant Huang was not only rich, but well-educated and held in high esteem the bamboo which symbolises modesty, dignity and moral rectitude. Small wonder then that he named his villa Ge, for the character “ge” resembles two bamboo leaves joined at the stem.

Thickets of different bamboo varieties greeted us as we stepped into the enormous, yet refreshingly quiet and serene garden. They lined the meandering trails that brought us past a meticulously landscaped gazebo where several girls dressed in hanfu (traditional Chinese costume) were chatting beside a flower bed.

An unassuming side path led to a picturesque pond with a stone bridge. With tall weeping willows and a delicate red maple among the evergreen shrubs framing the water’s edge, the sight was stunning in the setting autumn sun.

The architecture of Geyuan appears more formal and weighty than that of the intimate villas of Suzhou. Strangely enough, some aspects seem vaguely reminiscent of the mansions of the Jin merchants of Shanxi – the high brick walls flanking long straight walkways that lead off into one small courtyard after another reminded me of the Qiaojia dayuan (Qiao family mansion).

Given Yangzhou’s location at the interchange between north and south, this is perhaps not so surprising.

Geyuan’s back garden contains one of the most elaborate rockeries I have seen with boulders of differing colours in four sections, each representing a different season.

I sat down on a stone bench amidst the rocks, trees and shrubs and took in the pavilions and water features; it just seemed a perfect way to end a leisurely afternoon in that very pleasant city.