Travel along the Grand Canal of China, the country's artery and vital grain tax transport system, was not for the faint of heart, despite the poets. Except for officials, wealthy merchants and notable figures, most of them protected by bodyguards, the journey was one of natural and man-made perils.
There were cut-purses, robbers, pirates, assassins, desperate smugglers of salt and other products, rival boatmen's associations and various secret societies. One of the most famous associations, later known as the grain gang, would eventually evolve into Shanghai's notorious Green Gang, a far-reaching criminal enterprise.
While little serious research has been carried out, experts say that the headquarters and base of operation of the grain gang was Huai'an in Jiangsu Province, the strategic midpoint of the canal system. This was where the Huaihe River, the Yellow River and the canal itself converged. This was where grain from all around southern China was collected, weighed, assessed and sent on to the capital in Beijing. It was the location of one of the government ministries outside Beijing, the cao yun zong du, or the Ministry of Grain Transportation, in charge of grain collection in the state's cao yun or grain canal transport system.
Huai'an, though little known today, was a flourishing hub and transfer point where merchants heading north shifted to horseback and wagons because grain barges had priority and the canals sometimes silted up. Heading south, it was where they shifted from horseback and wagon to canal vessels on their journey.
It had a burgeoning population of around a million people, far more than Nanjing and Suzhou, the two major cities in Jiangsu. The opportunities for enrichment were enormous, and there was plenty of drama along the Grand Canal of China.
When the state no longer used the canal to transport heavily guarded grain tax in 1901, when it collected cash instead of grain, and when rail and sea transport were used, the unemployed grain gang - which had spread into grain collection, protection, warehousing and other areas - had to find other work, such as salt smuggling. Eventually they moved on to greener pastures in Shanghai.
Long ago in Huai'an, in the middle reaches of the northbound Grand Canal of China, there were often colossal traffic jams as barges carrying grain tax and other vessels competed to be first to sail out of locks containing only 10 vessels. Hundreds of vessels lined up as the canal narrowed into a bottleneck, at one point only wide enough for two ships.
There were not a few brawls in the old days in the late Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties as sailors in several grain fleets competed for space with each other and other cargo vessels, some carrying salt, both legal and smuggled. They battled for wharf space and warehouses, even over who would be first to get food and wine in an eatery.
It took several months to go all the way from Huai'an to the capital Beijing. The route was often unpredictable, since channels in the north often silted up and the Yellow River and its tributaries changed course.
There were strict deadlines for grain delivery and severe penalties for late delivery to royal granaries, so it was imperative to get a head start here in the Huai'an hub area. Meeting a deadline could sometimes be a matter of life or death. Since it was the collection point for grain tax for eight or nine provinces in the south, it was also essential that unloading and loading was done fast.
A quiet canal
But it wasn't easy to get a head start.
Crews of the salt-laden vessels were also eager to move fast and the grain and salt crews were often rivals. No one wanted to back down without a fight, since any sign of weakness or vulnerability could mark a crew as cowardly, and that was dangerous along the canal filled with natural obstacles and human peril.
Once Huai'an was a prosperous trading city. The ancient, narrow canal section no longer carries cargo, only tourist boats. A wide canal was built nearby in the 1950s and it is still in operation.
Today, the city is almost unheard of, except as the birthplace of premier Zhou Enlai (1898-1976) and the name Huaiyang cuisine, famous for fusion, as befitting a flourishing canal port that drew people from around China and other countries.
Huai stands for Huai'an and Yang for Yangzhou, a famous trading city on the canal in Jiangsu. The oldest canal in China, the Han Ditch, was built nearly 2,500 years ago to carry soldiers and supplies for war and it went from Yangzhou to Huai'an. Thus, this area in the fertile region south of the Yangtze River became a canal hub and one of the most developed areas in the country, both commercially and economically.
Official records showed at one point in the Ming Dynasty there were around 12,000 licensed laborers at one major wharf in Huai'an to carry passengers' baggage, according to local historian and canal expert Xun Delin.
"The real number was definitely much larger, considering unlicensed workers. But that gives a glimpse of how prosperous the place was and it only got better in the Qing Dynasty," he tells Shanghai Daily.
Xun estimates that the city was one of the few in China with a population of more than one million at the time. Nanjing had 300,000 residents and Suzhou half a million.
But in the mid-19th century, the canal was largely replaced by railway and ocean transport. Further, instead of levying tax in grain, central authorities started collecting currency in the late 19th century. The canal declined as a state supply line, and so did cities along the way, especially Huai'an, which had no other industry to support itself in affluent Jiangsu.
Today the city is no different from many small Chinese cities, except for the ancient canal that extends to major districts.
Grain gang warfare
Standing on the quiet canal, I visualize how ships once crowded the narrow waterway, just like rush hour in Shanghai today. Gangs from grain boats and salt vessels fought it out, each boarding the other vessel in narrow channels and jockeying for position and power. Many old novels described canal gangs engaged in continual warfare on water and land. They beat each other up to get a head start on water and, on land they did the same to be the first to load or unload at wharves. Gangs were the backdrop, however, not the subject of novels - if they were, we would have more stories to tell.
When the bloodshed became so serious and frequent that neither side could withstand the losses, the bosses on each side would sit down and hammer out new rules. These were soon broken and fighting would begin anew, leading to more talks, more broken rules, and the cycle continued.
According to novels and legend, the city of Huai'an was the origin and operating base of the grain gang - the biggest gang on the canal. When the government stopped using the canal for grain transport in 1901, the gang eventually moved its core to Shanghai, which was becoming an international port.
In Shanghai, remnants of the grain gang and salt smugglers eventually became the notorious Green Gang, at one time led by Du Yuesheng, major financial supporter of Chiang Kai-shek. The Green Gang extended its business from the port to all criminal activities, including opium trafficking, prostitution, murder for hire and other areas.
"Novels and tales are certainly artistic exaggerations, and historical records about the grain gangs are scarce, which is understandable. And nobody really carries out serious research about the gang's history and evolution, which is also understandable," says canal expert Xun.
"But there is evidence, such as gang badges, small bits in historical records and local oral history to support the idea that for a long time the grain gang was largely based here in Huai'an."
Recorded history of the national gang goes back to 1726 but it probably existed in other, looser, regional forms before that, he says.
State transport system
Huai'an was the center of cao yun, the state grain transport system that carried grain tax from the south to the political center in Beijing, especially in the Ming and Qing dynasties. At the time, people paid tax in grain, not currency.
Cao, a character written as "water" on the left and "grain" on the right, literally means transport grain by water.
Since the early Ming Dynasty, the headquarters of cao yun was Huai'an, a rare case of a central ministry based outside of the capital Beijing.
"It was mainly because of the location. It makes more sense to manage the water system here where the rivers meet rather than in the water-insufficient north," Xun says.
The administration of cao yun was sophisticated and involved transport, grain collection, hydraulic engineering, military training and other functions.
Grain from major provinces, except for Shandong and Henan, was first collected and delivered to Huai'an where the ministry checked on quality and quantity before shipping it off to the capital.
Archeologists have unearthed many canal artifacts and structures. These include special containers to measure the quantity of grain, encoded documents specifying who guarded certain vessels from various points of origin and documents recording every step of the processing, according to Yin Zenghuai, a senior researcher at Huai'an Museum.
The grain transport was originally carried out by designated military contingents. The first cao yun minister, Chen Xun (1365-1433) was originally an admiral and so were a number of his successors.
At first, grain transport soldiers were fully paid by the government, but the cost was so great that other means of payment had to be devised. Thus, soldiers were allowed to carry other goods such as silk, tea and pottery to sell along way to compensate for low wages.
Because they faced strict delivery deadlines, soldiers had to move fast. They couldn't stay in any place too long to sell their extra wares. They needed local help and a network.
"Gradually, it became a huge profit circle, a gang all related to grain shipping," says Huai'an canal expert Xun.
Shipping grain also became too heavy a burden for the military alone, since soldiers were needed to fight wars against other kingdoms and fight pirates at sea. Civil transport teams were organized and they were highly regularized in military hierarchy, making it easy to form a gang later.
The grain shipping gang is said to have included many working-class people from street vendors to sailors and dockworkers. It had a systematic quasi-military organization and strict regulations. It is said a would-be member was required to observe discipline for seven years before he was accepted into the gang.
The gang had uniforms, badges and codes to identify each other, as well as identifying flags for their vessels.
The best days of the city of Huai'an were during the peak of the canal in the Ming and Qing dynasties when people from all over the country flooded the city for jobs. Historian Xun says it was a national center for ship-building, granaries, salt transport, hydraulic engineering and many other fields, creating thousands of jobs.
"If you go into the city and ask someone to go back three generations in his family, I doubt whether you can find many people whose grandparents are locally from Huai'an," Xun says. He comes from the nearby Lianshui Town, about 40 minutes' drive from the city.
I took his advice and asked everyone I met in the city about their grandparents' hometowns. Out of 14 people, one didn't remember and all the others said their families had relocated to Huai'an.
Fifty-four-year-old Zhang Shaojun used to live by the canal, near the three old sluice gates in suburban Huaiyin District. Only around 10 years ago, the river bank area was filled with farmers, like Zhang's family, who used canal water to irrigate their fields.
"I was born here and since I was little, there were no ships in this part of the canal. We used water mainly for irrigation," Zhang tells Shanghai Daily.
His mother moved to Huai'an in the 1940s when she was 17. She recalled both cargo and passenger vessels before the new canal outside the city was built.
The Qing Dynasty government stopped using the canal in 1901 when railways were built and taxes were collected in currency, not grain. That was a major blow, but private merchants continued to use the canal since the infrastructure was well-developed and Huai'an was more developed than nearby towns.
Zhang's mother first came to do business, but those were turbulent times and the family switched to farming until the local government decided to develop canal-related tourism. Farmers were relocated to a nearby neighborhood and all switched to other jobs. Zhang himself got a job on the site where the canal was being cleared of silt so passenger boats could navigate.
The water quality of the canal has improved greatly throughout Huai'an since the government started removing factories that discharged tainted water and began water treatment in 2002.
Historian Xun repeats a rhyme about the canal that turned black in the 1990s because of industrial pollution and organic garbage.
"Wash rice and greens in the 1950s, wash clothes and water fields in the 1960s, water goes bad in the 1970s, fish die out in the 1980s and cancer occurs in the 1990s."
Today the water might be clean enough to water fields.