OUR PLEA May, 2022
The Chinese people are a great people, inventive, hard-working, and, through history, especially accomplished at water control.
The control of water has been very important in the advance of civilization worldwide. The peoples of China have led the nations of the world in showing the way to control water for irrigation, flood control, and transportation. Yet some of China’s great contributions to world civilization remain obscure, unknown to the world, and little known even in China itself. And this is our concern:
We speak of the Língqú 灵渠 Magic Transport Canal in Xing’an County, 60 Km north of Guilin in Guanxi Province, and its current deplorable condition. (The Canal has many names; we use a combination name that includes nomenclature used by the English researcher/sinologist Joseph Needham, 1900-1995.) The Língqú 灵渠 Magic Transport Canal has a history that goes back more than 2,200 years. It was ordered constructed by the Chin leader who came to call himself Shi Huangdi, China’s first emperor, controversial (powerful and cruel) leader of the unifying dynasty that gave China its name. The Canal was built to supply troops he sent south into the Pearl River drainage, critical to the would-be Emperor’s plan to bring the various peoples of the region under a single government, hisgovernment. Shi Huangdi went on to establish many other critical elements of civilization, including uniform systems of weights, measures, language, and tax payments, but the point we want to make is that the construction of the Língqú 灵渠 Magic Transport Canal was critical to the creation of China more than 2,200 years ago. In 2012, the Canal was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites tentative list.
Designed and constructed under the direction of chief engineer Shi Lu, the Língqú 灵渠 Magic Transport Canal, a thirty-five-kilometer-long artificially-dug waterway, connects the north-flowing Xiang River, a tributary of the Yangtze, with the south-flowing Li River, which eventually flows into the Pearl River far to the south. The Língqú 灵渠 Magic Transport Canal is credited with being the first-in-history contour-level canal connecting two drainage systems. The Canal eased the difficulty of transport between central and southern China. The Língqú 灵渠 Magic Transport Canal is not just the world’s oldest such canal, it was the world’s first, made possible by ingenious design, Chinese genius, and the labor of thousands, Chinese labor. Its important innovations include a spade-snout-shaped obstruction to divide the waters of the Xiang River, with additional low dikes and weirs diverting a sufficient and stable supply of water necessary to operate barges and boats along the Canal while sending excess water back into the Xiang River. Flash locks were invented to hold back, and release, water sufficient to float barges along their way both north and south.
For so important an ancient civil engineering success, the Língqú 灵渠 Magic Transport Canal is nearly forgotten in China and the rest of the world outside of the town of Xing’an. It is interesting to note that of the major Chinese physical feats credited to the First Emperor, the Great Wall of China and the Terra-Cotta Warriors are famous, while the Língqú 灵渠 Magic Transport Canal is little known. All three cost many lives and much treasure, but only the Língqú 灵渠 Magic Transport Canal brought significant change and progress to the people of China. And yet, the Língqú 灵渠 Magic Transport Canal is, by far, the least known of the three. Technical knowledge gained from construction of the Língqú 灵渠 Magic Transport Canal contributed to the completion of China’s famous Grand Canal some eight centuries later. In addition, the “Canal Age” in Europe, from about 1750 to 1850—a critical component of Europe’s Industrial Revolution (Clark, Ronald W, Works of Man, 1985, p. 87)—evolved from Língqú technology. The importance of the Canal in world history cannot be over-stated. The Língqú 灵渠 Magic Transport Canal should be among the most famous and frequently-visited sites in China, it is so important to the history of China, and such a contribution to the progress of world civilization.
Unfortunately, for China and the rest of the world, the Língqú 灵渠 Magic Transport Canal is little known and almost forgotten outside of Xing’an, although it has been nominated by the National Commission of the People’s Republic of China for recognition by the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site.
The present condition of the Língqú 灵渠 Magic Transport Canal is a mixture of good, fair, and poor. The Canal has not been used for transportation along its entire length for more than fifty years, superseded by highway and rail (the Xianggui rail line was completed in 1939). Of its approximately 35-kilometer total length, the first few kilometers are well-restored, well-protected, and still in use as a transportation canal, albeit just as a local tourist attraction. The critical spade-snout, dams, weirs, and approximately three kilometers of canal are restored and protected under the Scenic Spot of the Língqú Canal, which provides tours and charges admission. The next approximately two kilometers of canal run through a traditional canal-centered market area of the town of Xing’an, Water Street. These good sections add up to maybe five kilometers in length. The restored Canal continues west for another few hundred yards. Beyond that, water continues to dribble west along the Canal’s ancient route through Xing-an, but the Canal’s route itself is barely identifiable. Within the built-up area of western Xing’an, especially, the Canal’s condition is poor. Its former route appears to be encroached upon by structures. Its towpath is non-existent. In places, it is choked with vegetation, preventing travel. In one place, it has been used as the route of a giant sewer pipe. In another, it has been impinged upon by loads of gravel for nearby construction. Farther west, beyond the built-up area of Xing’an, the Canal’s condition is better, choked with vegetation in some places, neglected, but not so damaged, with a new bicycle path (a real gem) alongside part of the way.
From our 2013 observations, we have a preliminary list of suggestions for renovation and restoration of the Língqú:
1. Remove vegetation and low footbridges that block navigation in several places along the Canal’s route;
2. Restore the towpath and remove impinging structures to restore the Canal’s historic configuration;
3. Re-route the concrete pipe from the Canal’s route, and protect the route from encroachment;
4. Increase the flow of water in the Canal sufficient for tourist-type navigation, using weirs as necessary, similar to the technology currently in use for bamboo rafting on the Yulong River some 100 kilometers to the south of Xing’an, near Yangshuo. (If you are unfamiliar with this technology, the waterway uses narrow spillways allowing rafts to travel along a river in spite of low water volume).
5. Protect the western end of the artificial Canal, where it joins the natural tributary to the Li River, using a gate, weir, lock, or other navigable technology.
6. Expand efforts to establish bicycle paths and other recreational facilities associated with the Canal’s route west to the Li River.
7. Promote addition of English and other international language directional signs and information postings in Xing’an and along the Canal, to attract more international visitors.
8. Provide better tourist access to the Língqú-Canal-builders statuary monuments on the west-side of Xing’an.
Perhaps there are already plans to accomplish these and/or other goals for restoration and renovation of the Canal. If so, we hope that efforts will be made to make these plans known to all, and that these plans will be supported financially and implemented, consistent with bringing recognition that the Canal and the people of China deserve.
We recognize that it may seem strange or unusual that this plea originates with our unlikely partnership, unaffiliated private citizens of the USA and PRC. We recognize that our influence to change conditions at the Língqú 灵渠 Magic Transport Canal are severely limited to those of public education and efforts to call attention to the Canal’s plight among officials of the various government levels with jurisdiction over the Canal. For the first part, public education, we have established and publicized our website, www.lingqumagiccanal.com, beginning in 2014, and re-established in 2022. For the second part, we have sent written pleas, in 2014, to as many PRC government offices as we could identify through our research. For both public education and official connections, we have participated three times in the World Monument Fund’s annual World Monument Watch nomination process, twice on our own, and once assisting the administration of the Língqú Scenic Spot. Despite our nominations, the Língqú 灵渠 Magic Transport Canal has thus far failed to be listed in any of the annual World Monument Watch lists. We believe the reason is that although the Canal is an important world resource and parts of the Canal have been in danger of being lost, lack of funding is not the issue. Also, since 2012, the Canal has been on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites tentative list, and the Canal continues to be recognized as a worthwhile and educational travel destination.
We cannot resist the temptation to make one additional observation: The Great Wall and the Terracotta Warriors are justifiably world-famous tourist destinations (the Great Wall often used to symbolize international travel world-wide). We hope that the Língqú 灵渠 Magic Transport Canal, symbolic of Chinese genius and devotion to hard labor, will one day be as world-famous as the other two landscape creations of China’s first emperor.
Jim Stembridge, PhD (Unaffiliated Geographer, Traveler, Independent Scholar, with special interest in the Língqú 灵渠 Magic Transport Canal, based in Salem, Oregon, USA, private citizen of the USA), with
Xu Peiru (Unaffiliated Business Official, Chinese and English Language Guide and Interpreter, with special interest in the Língqú 灵渠 Magic Transport Canal, based in Suzhou, China, private citizen of the PRC)
A. Many of the Internet resources on the Língqú 灵渠 Magic Transport Canal are in Chinese and only accessible through websites in Chinese, so we may not have had access to the most recent planning documents available. Because of the international importance of the Língqú 灵渠 Magic Transport Canal, we recommend that the documents be made easily available in English or another western language.
B. Historically, the Língqú 灵渠 Magic Transport Canal has been known as the Xing’an Canal and has been known by other names. It was first described in detail in English by Joseph Needham in his work Science and Civilisation in China, (Volume IV:3, Civil Engineering, 1970, Pages 299-306). Needham used the name “Magic Transport Canal,” so we have combined names in an effort to eliminate confusion.
C. Local officials have done a fine job preserving the course of the Língqú 灵渠 Magic Transport Canal and maintaining its flow consistent with current use of the Canal. This plea is not meant as criticism in any way. Rather, this letter is a suggestion, recommendation, and/or appeal that additional restoration efforts, local, regional, national, and international, be devoted to this important cultural resource.
D. A recent feature article in the American magazine Time repeated the often-heard opinion that the Chinese are good at copying the work that foreigners have created, but are not themselves good at creating new ideas or new products. The Língqú 灵渠 Magic Transport Canal contradicts this opinion. It is evidence of important world invention on the part of the Chinese and should be a source of special pride in China. Instead, the Língqú 灵渠 Magic Transport Canal virtually unknown outside China, and little known even in China.
E. The Língqú 灵渠 Magic Transport Canal is especially valuable because so many of its features have survived for more than 2,000 years and are readily apparent in the landscape. These features include the spade-snout, the low dams, the balancing weirs, and the Canal’s route. Many other parts still remaining date from renovations and restorations from the late Qing Dynasty (Nineteenth Century) and earlier. Elements of the Grand Canal have been reworked so often that virtually nothing ancient remains to be seen.
F. Only the Língqú 灵渠 Magic Transport Canal, among the Fist Emperor’s three great earthworks (Língqú, Tera-cotta Warriors, Great Wall) has lasting positive meaning for China and the world. The Língqú 灵渠 Magic Transport Canal should be the most famous tourist attraction in China.
G. There is great potential for boosting tourism in the town of Xing’an centered on the Língqú 灵渠 Magic Transport Canal. Guilin and Yangshuo, international tourist destinations within a few hours’ travel of Xing’an, Water Street in Xing’an has the potential of being as busy as Yangshuo’s West Street, bringing foreign money into the local economy, if the Língqú 灵渠 Magic Transport Canal becomes a famous international tourism destination.
H. Both authors of this letter have visited the Wuzhen Water Town preservation area on the Grand Canal between the cities of Suzhou and Hangzhou, and found it to be a wonderful model of what the Língqú 灵渠 Magic Transport Canal area could become.
I. If the entire 30+ kilometer route of the Língqú 灵渠 Magic Transport Canal is to be preserved and renovated as a scenic spot, consideration might be given to conservation of the Canal’s environment, including attention to the several rock quarries that may be disfiguring the iconic karst peaks in the area.
J. A forty-year quest was accomplished when the authors of this letter, Stembridge and Xu, arrived in Xing’an and explored the Língqú 灵渠 Magic Transport Canal for three days in November, 2013. Stembridge had known of the Canal from his geography graduate school research, including Needham’s Science and Civilisation in China, from the early 1970s; Xu arranged the visit, assisted in the exploration, and has joined Stembridge in this effort to bring attention to the Canal’s plight, as well as its importance to China and the world.
K. We thank, recognize, and extend our admiration to the many thousands, perhaps millions, of lives devoted to the Canal, including the original creators of the concept, chief engineer Shi Lu, the first emperor Shi Huangdi, officials of the many dynasties who directed the maintenance and restoration of the Canal through the ages, and the throngs of minor officials, trackers, barge hands, and other laborers who devoted their lives to creating the Canal and keeping it in operation over more than 20 centuries.
L. We have posted our November 2013 photographs of the Língqú 灵渠 Magic Transport Canal—as well as a report on its history and significance—at our website, www.lingqumagicCanal.com .
M. For more information, see the UNESCO description at https://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/5814/
* * *
This website created and maintained by Jim Stembridge of Salem, Oregon, USA and Peiru Xu of Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, China. Website established in 2014; revised 2022. Photographs and descriptions are free to use for any purpose with credit to "LINGQU 灵渠 MAGIC TRANSPORT CANAL.com". We welcome comments and questions. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Powered by GoDaddy