THE Grand Canal of China in Zhejiang Province contains two sections - the famous north-south Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal and the Zhedong (East Zhejiang) Canal, which still operates and flows from the canal in Hangzhou eastward to the East China Sea.
The oldest part of the East Zhejiang Canal was first built nearly 2,500 years ago, around the same time the Han Ditch, commonly considered the birth of the Grand Canal of China, was dug in Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province.
The construction of the Han Ditch was ordered by King Fuchai of Wu Kingdom (r 495-473 BC) to carry troops and supplies for his surprise attack on the Qi Kingdom in the north.
Around the same time, his rival Goujian, king of the Yue Kingdom (r 496-465 BC) ordered the construction of Ancient Shanyin Canal, also for military use. The 20.7-kilometer east-west canal connected suburban Ningbo and Shaoxing, making it much easier to move troops and supplies around the kingdom.
In succeeding dynasties, the canal was continuously repaired and expanded to more than 200 kilometers, connecting regionally important and prosperous cities. It was the regional extension of the north-south Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal and provided an efficient transport route to the ocean.
Ships carrying silk, tea, ceramics and other products from around the country followed the Grand Canal network to the East Zhejiang Canal, then reaching the port city of Ningbo. There cargo was loaded onto ocean vessels bound for Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia.
The regional canal became especially important in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), when the emperor and his court retreated south of the Huai River and made Hangzhou the imperial capital. The canal then became increasingly busy, carrying grain and many other products among water towns in the area.
In the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, as the government gradually became more dependant on the Grand Canal network to transport grain, the East Zhejiang Canal extension also developed quickly.
But for a long time, experts debated whether to include this regional canal in the vast Grand Canal of China system, for which China is seeking UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site status.
Some experts argued against including this segment because it was mainly comprised of natural rivers, thus, it lacked the artificial canals, gates and other features of canal artifacts in other areas.
Others argue that this ocean-bound segment should be included because it greatly facilitated commercial, cultural and art exchanges just like all other parts of the canal.
It was finally included on the bidding list in 2008, by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage.
Combining the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal and the East Zhejiang Canal, the Grand Canal of China passes five cities in Zhejiang Province - Hangzhou, Huzhou, Jiaxing, Ningbo and Shaoxing.
This is an area of streams, rivers and lakes where many historic water towns have been built, all with their own legends.
Unlike the northern canal segments, where geography was difficult and hydraulic engineers had to build pound locks, Zhejiang Province is mainly flat. This creates another problem - without some elevation, gravity cannot pull the vessels along, so their relied on sales and wind power. When the wind failed, the vessels were hauled by teams of animals or men.
Around 1,000 years ago, towpaths for hauling vessels were built parallel to the canal around Shaoxing City. They were rebuilt in the early Ming Dynasty, replacing soil with durable bricks.
The 6-kilometer towpath is one of the few in the area that have survived and been protected. In January, the first two and a half kilometers of the path were cleared and restored. The rest will also be repaired and opened to the public.