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Yangzhou preserves charms of Grand Canal

By Yao Minji (Shanghai Daily)

08:18, November 15, 2012

An overview of the Wang's Small Garden.(Shanghai Daily)

Yangzhou was a dazzling, decadent, cosmopolitan city and a vibrant trading hub on the Grand Canal. Today it's a quiet model of historic canal preservation. Yao Minji pays a visit.

My first encounter with Yangzhou began with a verse from a story written by Yin Yun (AD 471-529) - "I want millions in riches attached to my waist as I ride a crane to Yangzhou."

I imagined Yangzhou to be something like Las Vegas, where a money belt could be necessary, where everything is available for a price. There were extravagant mansions, spectacular magic shows, splendid natural scenery, elaborate artificial gardens, refined cuisine and beautiful courtesans skilled in singing, dancing, writing poetry, playing musical instruments and playing go.

It was only later that I read the entire fable, one of many similar tales around the world. Four young men happen to save an old man, who reveals himself as a god and grants each one a wish. The first man asks to become a millionaire; the second wants to become governor of prosperous Yangzhou, a position like that of Shanghai's mayor today; the third wants to become a god.

The last man, after listening to his friends, combines their wishes, saying he wants to have riches strapped to his body as he rides an auspicious crane, like a god, to Yangzhou. Gods used to be depicted riding white cranes in the clouds.

The fable warns against greed, but also shows how attractive Yangzhou was back then, and how living there could be one's lifelong dream.

There's no indication that the city was as alluring as I had imagined, even before Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty (AD 569-618) committed two million men into building the Beijing-Hangzhou Canal. Some say the emperor himself favored the fashionable city, adding a personal reason to the grand construction. It helped unify the country, distribute grain to the dry north and aid in governance.

The canal made the city into one of the most important commercial centers for merchants, scholars and artists. By the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), it was already known to be the city with the trendiest products, best accommodations, most delicious food and most charming performances.

'Heavenly' city

At that time, the city was reported to have around half a million residents, including hundreds of Persian merchants from today's Iran. Chinese poet Li Bai (AD 701-762), regarded the "god of poetry," wrote, "In the mist and flowers in March, he goes to Yangzhou."

The verse commemorates saying farewell in Beijing to a friend leaving on the canal for Yangzhou. "Mist and flowers" refers to the blossoming of hundreds of flowers and misty weather in March on the lunar calendar.

By the early Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), after the canal had been expanded a few times and the salt trade was opened to private merchants, the city was described as "heaven" by many who left records.

In the evening, dozens of boats, some with extravagant furnishings, plied the Slender West Lake. Some were tour boats where one could enjoy a few cups of warm rice wine and gaze at the harmonious passing scene of elegant pavilions, as well as natural beauty. Other boats featured graceful courtesans who would dance, play musical instruments and sing about the pleasures in the city.

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