• By: Maddie Norman

    The Grand Canal is so long, we flew from one end to see the other. It begins in Beijing, where we saw a stagnant body of water walled in by stone upstaged by the bustle of Tiananmen Square. It ends in Hangzhou, where smaller waterways branch off among neighborhoods and people still travel and trade by water.

    The Grand Canal, which became unified during the Sui dynasty of the seventh century, is the longest canal in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was originally built to connect the emperor’s city to others for trading and communication. Cities along its more than 1,100 miles have recently become tourist destinations, bringing business to its residents. Just north of Hangzhou, where the canal meets the Yangtze River, the waterway runs wide and barges still haul coal and other goods.

    As River Stewards, our mission is to educate the community about the importance of our watershed and natural resources. When we went to China, we wanted to observe the Grand Canal at several locations to see how the people there interact with their water systems and resources and compare that to what we see in Dayton.

    Chinese people have developed a unique and beautiful relationship with the canal, building water towns along the edges. In Old Suzhou, which has been called the Venice of the East, its residents hang laundry from lines above the waterways and vendors serve stinky tofu. To connect with the water, its citizens just open their doors or sit along their terraces. Old Suzhou is also a popular tourist destination. When you take a ride in an old-fashioned gondola-shaped boat, you can hear the people singing ancient songs and observe diners sitting in cafes under the light of red lanterns.

    In Dayton, we have a very different relationship with the Great Miami River. Much of the shoreline is paved with bike trails and public parks, as well as business and industry. People must travel from their homes to experience all that the river has to offer. As a River Steward, I strive to connect the residents of Dayton with their aquatic neighborhood by providing opportunities to paddle, learn and grow.

    As Stewards, we explain the history of our watershed through exhibits in the RiverMobile. So we were excited to learn about a special project at the University of Dayton China Institute in Suzhou, which is along the Grand Canal. Chen Jing, a professor at Nanjing University teaching at the China Institute, is working with UD and other universities to preserve and display the history of the Grand Canal. She showed us ancient maps of the canal that had been painted onto scrolls. CJ and her photographers recreated these maps with current photographs of the sites to demonstrate the development and modernization of China’s cities. I’m excited we’ll get to help with this interactive presentation to be featured on campus in Roesch Library this October. It’s one of the ways we can bring the lessons we learned back from China to share.