The World Canals Conference at Yangzhou in China, on September 26-28, focused on the heritage potential of canals, and their role in regeneration and renewal. 

Guazhou Lock on the earlier Grand Canal south of Yangzhou, just before it enters the Yangtze River. This canal was bypassed east of Yangzhou in the 1980s. WCC delegates visited the site on September 28

At 1863 km long and 2500 years old, the Grand Canal breaks all canal records and puts European waterways in the shade. The WCC was held in Yangzhou in Jiangsu Province on the banks of the Grand Canal near its crossing of the Yangtze River. This is the oldest section of the canal, started in the 5th century BC. Since then the Grand Canal has undergone enlargements, widening, straightening, closure and reopening.  Its original course followed a V-shape linking Hangzhou on the Qiantang River northwest towards to the Yellow River and then north-east to Beijing, a total of over 2300 km. In the 6th century AD the route was ‘shortened’ to follow a more or less north-south route from Hangzhou to Beijing. Currently the canal is not navigable north of Jining due to siltation and problems with water supply, as well as the impossibility of crossing the temperamental Yellow River, but there are plans to try and reinstate navigation at least some distance north from the Jining limit. Today the sections south of Jining are busy with barge traffic of all shapes and sizes up to vessels equivalent to European Class IV, mainly carrying building materials.

The subtitle of the conference was ‘The Role of Canals in City Betterment and Ecological Restoration’, and many of the presentations focused on  using the heritage aspects of the built canal environment in regeneration of cities and also in the preservation and development for tourism of the smaller networks of canals to be found in canal cities such as Nanjing and Suzhou.  There is currently a segregation of these ‘heritage canals’ from the commercial waterway on which pleasure boats are not allowed. It was interesting to note that the Chinese characters for ‘canal’ are made up of the characters for ‘transport’ and ‘river’ and yet the transportation of freight was hardly mentioned at the conference. It is as if the vital work of the Grand Canal in carrying millions of tonnes of freight that would otherwise be on the road is forgotten, unnoticed, seen as workday and not something that would interest visitors. Currently there is no consideration of extending tourism and leisure use to the main working Grand Canal. A presentation at the conference from Canada showed how this could be done for example on the Rideau Canal.

A highlight of the WCC was the launch of the ‘Gazetteer of the Canals of China’: a massive project comprising 9 volumes (and 11 tomes) that covers the available information on the canal divided into sub-headings including a volume of historic maps. A captivating 5-minute film was projected showing how the publication was prepared starting in 2012. This important and comprehensive work with numerous colour illustrations has been produced by the Phoenix Scientific Press who produce a number of books about the Grand Canal, although currently these are all in Chinese. IWI’s president David Edwards-May has been commissioned to rewrite a one-volume digest of the Gazetteer in English. We look forward to this publication, to add to what is a very limited library of literature in English on the Grand Canal at present.

The Conference was attended by about 400 delegates from around the world and was held in conjunction with the World Canal Cities Organisation annual event. The joint opening event included a spectacular display of singing and dancing covering the history of the Grand Canal.  This was followed by a parade of illuminated boats on a section of the old canal route through Yangzhou which is otherwise devoid of boats, since commercial traffic uses the wide deep main line that bypasses the city. Visits for delegates included boat trips on the old canal and the Slender West Lake, both of which have tourist boats but no private hire boats. This would seem to be huge opportunity for tourism in the Grand Canal in China.

The organisers (the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and Jiangsu Province) arranged an impressive Conference with high profile-speakers including the Minister and many regional and local dignitaries, and a programme of visits although none of these included any trip or visits to sites on the main commercial Grand Canal.

Prior to the WCC, some delegates from France and the UK made a private tour to waterways sites on the Grand Canal, including Hangzhou, Suzhou, Nanjing and Huai’an. The amount of freight carried is impressive – one set of three huge locks, at Saobao not far north of Yangzhou, holds the record for passing through a million tonnes of cargo in one day.  

The WCC in 2020 will be held in Leipzig, Germany focusing on the old lignite mine workings now repurposed for recreation including boating, and on plans to complete the Saale-Elster Canal linking Leipzig with the River Saale and thus the connected waterways network. The  delegation from Leipzig made an enticing presentation at Yangzhou and delegates look forward to an equally interesting and action-packed event in Germany next year.

Janet Gascoigne, October 2019