Right line

Flow of history

(China Daily)Updated: 2022-05-23

We seem to be the only two people walking along the promenade beside rows of willows drooping down to touch the placid, dull waters of the canal, on a gloomy winter afternoon.

A row of newly constructed gray buildings with sloping tiled roofs running parallel to the stream look uninhabited. An odd country boat, with exposed engines fastened to the prow, passes by at times, rippling through the calm waters.

In another part of the town, we are told, Yangzhou is in the throes of being built anew.

Waterside recreational and ecological corridors are being developed along other stretches of the canal, which, I imagine, would be more colorful and lively.

But to watch the Grand Canal evolve through stages of organic growth, Shaobo is the place to go. This is where one could have a brush with thousands of years of history compressed into a kernel.

At the Sixian Pavilion in Douye Garden, leading to the waterfront, verses by seven Song Dynasty poets - Su Dongpo and Su Zhe among them - are carved on the walls.

The poems, a tad predictably, are about the panoramic view of Shaobo town from the riverfront. The quirky touch lies in the way they all begin with the same character in the first line and end with the same word.

The sculpture of a squatting buffalo, cast in solid iron, is too conspicuous to miss. It's been there since 1699.

"There used to be nine of these along the Yangtze," the tour guide explains.

"Only five remain. People would offer prayers here to ask the gods who control the floods. Now, children are brought here to tie a ribbon on the buffalo's horns and seek its blessing when they turn."

A giant yellow crane had torn down the old bridge, almost to extinction.

Only the stumps remain. A set of brand new blue and silver metallic arches has replaced the old structure.

Some of the barges and boats parked near the bank look like they are doubling as improvised housing.

Barges pass underneath the bridge, carrying coal dust in their open and cavernous hulls.

The route still transports twice the amount of cargo carried by freight trains from Shandong to Hangzhou and Ningbo, Gu says.

The commodities shipped are mostly coal and building materials.

The old sluice gate looked too thin.

But then so was the canal here in those days, our guide explains.

The channel has since been expanded - first, during the time of Chiang Kai-shek and later under Mao Zedong.

Now, the two channels exist side-by-side, a visual reminder of the roles played by two of China's legendary leaders in augmenting the canal's girth.

The embankment on which the old town of Shaobo is located was originally built in 1026-29.

It was last touched up about 300 years ago and seems to have withstood the lashings of flood - for which the Yangtze River basin is famous - rather well.

A signboard at the entrance reads "Big Horse Head", meaning "big dock".

A few steps leading down to the waters indicate where the wharf was. But it obviously has limited use today.

A stray dog looks up at us from the steps of the pagoda-roofed courtyard where merchants would hold their meetings before curling back to sleep.

The Old Council House is a picture of dereliction. Thick, unkempt shrubbery covers its unadorned walls. A ceiling fan hangs from a beam overhead, just beside the skylight, a square block of brightness in an otherwise dank and moldy room.

A 700-year old pear tree - so the sign on its trunk says - stands in the courtyard, its bare branches conjuring up the image of a woman in motion.

Suddenly, a piece of classical Chinese culture appears in the shape of a marble slab underneath a pomegranate tree.

It has images of cranes and clouds stretching out in well-etched curlicues - the two most enduring motifs of longevity and wisdom in Chinese tradition.

But Shaobo is no ghost town.

Sausages are hung out to dry on clotheslines erected on poles on the promenade. Giant tiered incense sticks, spiraling upwards, burn away unattended.

"It's a Buddhist family, living in that house," a local woman explains.

"They're staging a family ritual."

She chats with us a little, asking us to guess her age, revealing, eventually, she is a septuagenarian, obviously proud of the fact that she does not quite look it.

We ask her if she has any memories of the wharf when it was functional. She doesn't.

But she recalls boats piled on high with merchandise -not just coal dust - passing through.

"This is where my family has lived together for generations," she says.

"I have very strong feelings about the canal."

For one living so close to the ebb and flow of history, a little pride is not out of place.

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