Ashley Clevenger looked at the reflections of a hundred colored spinning pinwheels and saw in the rippling waters a mirror to an earlier time. 

The junior exercise physiology major was standing in Zhouzhuang, a river town about a half-hour drive from the University of Dayton China Institute in Suzhou Industrial Park.

In Suzhou, glass skyscrapers rise from the lakeside, while multiple lanes of traffic rush across bridges linking the ultramodern city with the countryside. 

In the river town, ancient stone buildings flank waterways on which citizens navigate pole-propelled boats as they head to work, to market or to meet a friend for tea.

How quickly one can go from present and future to past, all along China’s Grand Canal.

This was one of the lessons sociology professor Dan Curran wanted Clevenger and her fellow River Steward classmates to consider during their summer study abroad in China. The University president emeritus, along with Rivers Institute Director Leslie King and China Institute Dean Weiping Wang, guided the nine students during their summer studies. It was an opportunity for a comparative study of water use, protections and policies in China and in Dayton, where the Stewards are known for their community-based approach to water education and action.

With the China Institute as their base, the students learned about both ancient and modern Suzhou and how it has developed thanks to the canal that winds through its borders. They also traveled across eastern China, visiting both ends of the Grand Canal — Beijing in the north and Hangzhou in the south — as well as other pivotal water sites, including the famed Three Gorges Dam.

Junior sociology major Emily McAlesse talked about their float through the gorge on the Yangtze River and of watching monkeys run wild and goats trek up cliff faces.

“The beauty of this place is something that can never be captured in pictures,” she said.

Curran, whose academic study of China spans more than three decades, had been to the gorge before some of the villages were submerged under a hundred feet of water as it rose behind the world’s largest dam. But still, he said, the perspective of the Stewards changed his perspective on the dam and the course. An engineering major shared his views on the construction of the dam, while a geology student provided a lesson on rock formations and how using the tree line — the altitude of a mountain beyond which trees rarely grow — can reveal the extent of the river’s rise.

“It was an advantage having multiple sets of eyes looking at the landscape from multiple perspectives,” Curran said. “They look and said what was of interest to them, and they shared what would be of interest to other students who will follow them.”

Back on UD’s campus, the Stewards continued to find themselves immersed in China’s waterways. They served as ambassadors for Heritage Today: The Grand Canal of China, a multimedia exhibit. The exhibit was part of a larger Grand Canal project, led by the China Institute, to reclaim moments of history while also revealing the voices and experiences of the people who currently live along the canal. It includes vast data collection, photos, videos, oral histories, reproductions of ancient paintings, and the development of an interactive website that will make the data available to scholars in both Chinese and English.

The multimedia database of living cultural heritage will also allow users to contribute their own data and stories to the site, said Wang, who has a particular interest in bridging academics with ordinary people and merging history with present-day practice.

“The project is not just for academics, it’s not just for scholars; it’s for the community,” Wang said.

Created in partnership with Nanjing University, Nanjing University for the Arts, Tsinghua University and Nanjing Museum, one of China’s largest museums, the Grand Canal project reflects a historical and cultural contribution that sets UD apart from other American universities, Curran said. The project’s first phase, including the interactive database, is expected to be complete in 2018.