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New 'ancient town' rises along the Grand Canal
By Yao Minji

Eighty-five-year-old Zhao Qingyou, a retired farmer, poses for pictures wearing his handmade suo yi, a rustic rain cape and wide-brimmed hat made of woven grass and tree bark.

In the old days, most farmers peeled bark from trees and wove it with dried grasses into suo yi to wear for fieldwork.

It's a shaggy cape made with long, trailing grass - scarecrows today still wear suo yi.

The outfit is waterproof, durable and costs nothing, though it's quite heavy.

Some poor families even wore it outdoors as a substitute for unaffordable fabric clothing.

Today Zhao can certainly afford a light-weight modern raincoat, but he has crafted his own suo yi as a labor of love. It's the "uniform" he wears as a fixture and tourist attraction in a new ancient-town theme park along the Tai'erzhuang section of the Grand Canal of China.

Tai'erzhuang, administered by Zaozhuang City, is an hour's bullet-train ride from Ji'nan, capital of Shandong Province.

It's part of the 3,200-kilometer Grand Canal, which dates back 2,500 years. This particular section in Shandong Province represents an awesome feat of hydraulic engineering starting in 1593 that bypassed the ever-flooding, silt-bearing, course-changing Yellow River.

Ancient engineers also successfully tackled the complex geography and changing elevations in the Shandong region, stabilizing the key route carrying grain to Beijing in the north.

Theme park

Starting in 1958, the Tai'erzhuang stretch itself was bypassed by an expanded, wider canal system. The big system is still in use, mostly carrying coal, gravel and sand to the south. The older system used to carry grain from Jiangsu Province north to Beijing.

The 2km Tai'erzhuang channel is strictly for sightseeing today and is at the heart of a new "ancient town" that recreates in many ways the bustling canal town and transport hub that reached its peak in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. The water comes from surrounding rivers, including branches of the Yellow River.

In 1938, the town was devastated in the famous Battle of Tai'erzhuang during the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-1945). It was an early victory for China.

The town has been completely rebuilt. The ancient town project and canal restoration began in 2006 and are still underway.

"It's so different now, even bigger and better than the old town before the war," says 79-year-old Li Jingshan whose family once ran a famous sweets shop along the canal.

This ancient-town theme park contains around 2 kilometers of renovated ancient canal and covers around 200 hectares. Admission is 160 yuan (US$25.70); more areas will be opened in the future.

The ancient canal flows quietly, only 50 steps from the visitors' center. An ancient-style bridge arcs over the canal and the pavilion atop the bridge is decorated with traditional painting and calligraphy. Willow trees line the banks of the winding canal. This section looks like a southern Chinese water town, such as Suzhou in Jiangsu Province.

Behind old Zhao stands the large new visitors' center, built in traditional Chinese style, with dark tiled roofs, upturned eaves and roof carvings of lucky animals. Wooden window frames are also carved and the building is decorated with colored carvings.

Zhao and many other locals helped clean up and landscape the stone canal. He then became interested in suo yi. Now he gets paid to dress like an impoverished peasant, demonstrate how the garments are made, and pose for photos. He poses for free, but if visitors want to take a photo with him or wear suo yi themselves, the price is 5 yuan.

Old Zhao's tourist spot is called "Old Man in Suo Yi," where he adds some nostalgia to the tourist experience.

Every day, Zhao commutes 20 minutes from his village to the park. Nearby villages were once known as Qian Fu Cun, (literally Barge Haulers Village), referring to the men who hauled barges along the canal. At one time, many laborers worked for the canal, hauling barges, loading and unloading them, and working on board. Many other people did brisk business, selling food, supplies and services along the bustling canal.

They still do today. Like Zhao, many villagers work on construction projects along the canal and rebuilt the ancient town into a tourist attraction.

Great battle

The Battle of Tai'erzhuang (March 25-April 6, 1938) is famous in modern Chinese history and was the site of cruel, house-to-house urban warfare. It was an astonishing, against-all-odds victory for Chinese forces and a boost to national morale.

China's hodgepodge of many troops inferior in almost every aspect crushed elite divisions of crack troops superior in logistics, training, equipment and weaponry. The Japanese invaders had been considered invincible.

The story of Tai'erzhuang is taught in Chinese textbooks. The battle is depicted in many war movies. It's studied by war historians and tacticians and compared to the 1943 Battle of Stalingrad. There's even a Tai'erzhuang board game.

The town was eventually taken over by Japanese forces that ran the canal for a few years.

New 'ancient town'

But rarely do people outside of Shandong Province know anything else about the city. And even fewer know that it is part of the city of Zaozhuang.

The ancient town was recreated based on old records, maps, photos and interviews with old people like Zhao. The flourishing canal city of Tai'erzhuang once looked a lot like this grand and prosperous new town.

Some streets are filled with restaurants, hotels and shops of all kinds, as in the old days. Others contain rebuilt temples, churches, company buildings, canal administration and customs offices, as well as museums about the town and the canal.

Some ancient wharves have been excavated and preserved.

"According to records, at its peak the town never slept because traders from all over the country were busy loading, unloading and distributing products at the wharf," says Zhou Juncheng, director and canal expert from the Zaozhuang Bureau of Cultural Heritage.

Tai'erzhuang was once a tiny anonymous village, but after the canal branch, known as Jiayunhe, was dug in the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), it quickly became an important regional traffic hub and wharf, he tells Shanghai Daily.

After the town was destroyed in the war, the canal also declined. "People today no longer know about its past glory," Zhou says.

Ming Dynasty officials and engineers dug the Tai'erzhuang canal to solve the problem left over by their colleagues from the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), who mainly used the Yellow River and its tributaries in designing the water system.

When the river flooded or when silt accumulated, which was most of the year, the canal was impassable.

Repair, dredging, filtering and maintenance were very costly, labor-intensive and ongoing.

By some accounts, only 10 percent of all the grain needed was successfully transported along this stretch of the canal during the Yuan Dynasty; the rest was transported by sea, which was much riskier at the time, or by land, which was most costly.

In the late Ming Dynasty, officials and engineers decided to go around the Yellow River and they dug a new canal in Tai'erzhuang in 1593. It was expanded in 1756 to accommodate more shipping. The project was one of the dynasty's biggest hydraulic projects and a great feat of engineering.

As the canal was put into use, the tiny village of Tai'erzhuang became the first stop in Shandong Province for vessels traveling north.

Many traders took a break in the long journey before continuing on and Tai'erzhuang became a prosperous hub for traders from around China.

Outside the new ancient town, the canal banks are dotted with decrepit buildings - it looks the way the entire area looked before it was landscaped. People living along the canal dumped their garbage into it.

The polluted water has been treated and many residents have been relocated to new neighborhoods to make space for the ancient town.

Li Jingshan, 79, once lived by the canal with his entire family, including his three sons and their families. The Li family lived by the canal for generations before him and once owned a famous shop that sold traditional snacks to traders and sailors. Now he lives in an apartment building about 15 minutes' drive from the theme park. The building is one of many that house people who once lived by the canal.

From owner to worker

The sweets shop, called Yi Feng Heng (literally Brotherhood, Harvest and Eternity), had been in operation for more than 100 years before Li's father took over in the 1930s. It made all kinds of snacks, notably sweet rice cakes.

"The canal was prosperous beyond imagination," Li says, "and I heard that thousands of vessels passed every day. Our shop was famous among regular travelers."

Li's father had more than 30 employees when the canal was used to transport coal to the railway.

But when the Battle of Tai'erzhuang loomed, the family fled to safety to other villages. At the time, Li was only 5, but he recalls that as the son of the owner, he could enjoy desserts every day. "Sometimes I can still taste the sweetness," he says, licking his lips.

He digs out an old family album, showing black-and-white pictures.

"My dad was not a big boss, but don't I look just a little bit like a boss?" he asks.

Li never got the chance. Eventually he went to work for a state-owned supply company, retiring 20 years ago.

"It's lucky we went away, otherwise I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you today. Almost the entire town was evacuated at the time," Li recalls.

His crumbling, bullet-riddled house still stands in the ancient town park, a monument to the devastation of war and proof of the urban warfare.

"Our family came back a few months later after the battle, but the entire town was destroyed," Li says. The canal would never again witness the traffic and prosperity that Li remembers.

But life went on. "We had to survive," he says. The canal was still in use and at times business looked promising.

"But the war made canal transport unstable, so our lives were difficult. "Workers ran away, traders and sailors stopped coming, and people hardly ever needed snacks at a time when it was difficult not to starve," Li says.

When the new canal was built in 1958, Li was already working for a state company. He, his wife and extended family continued to live in the cramped, bullet-scarred old house for many years. They were relocated to their current neighborhood in 2005 before construction of the ancient town began.

Many of his neighbors today are old neighbors from the canal days. The ancient town theme park isn't far away.

Sometimes Li is invited to stand in front of his old home and talk about the past.

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