Jiangsu (江苏, jiāngsū) is a long, narrow province hugging the coast south of Shandong. Low-lying, flat and wet, it is one of China’s most fertile and long-inhabited areas. Today, much of it is industrial sprawl, which is why it’s one of China’s richest areas, but there are a few gems among all the new factory towns; provincial capital Nanjing is one of the country’s great historical cities, while Suzhou is an ancient city famous throughout China for its gardens and silk production.
Visiting the region, you find yourself in a world of water. The whole area is intensively drained, canalized, irrigated and farmed, and the rivers, canals and lakes which web the plain give it much of its character. The traditional way to travel here was by boat, though passenger traffic has dwindled away to near-extinction. The traditional route across Jiangsu was the Grand Canal, once navigable all the way from Hangzhou in Zhejiang province to Beijing. The province’s other great water highway – the Yangzi River – connects Nanjing with Shanghai, ensuring that trade from both east and west continues to bring wealth to the region.
Jiangsu cuisine tends to be on the sweet side and is characterized by an emphasis on flavour rather than texture, and by the use of wine in cooking. That said, one of the best-known dishes, yanshui ya (brine duck), has none of these qualities. The duck is first pressed and salted, then steeped in brine and baked; the skin should be creamy-coloured and the flesh red and tender. Other Jiangsu dishes worth trying include majiang yaopian (pig’s intestines), jiwei xia (a lake crustacean vaguely resembling a lobster, but much better tasting, locals affirm) and paxiang jiao (a type of vegetable that resembles banana leaves).Read More
The Grand Canal
The Grand Canal
The Grand Canal (大运河, dàyùnhé), at 1800km the longest canal on earth, ranks alongside the Great Wall of China as the country’s greatest engineering achievement. The first sections were dug about 400 BC, probably for military purposes, but the historic task of linking the Yellow and the Yangzi rivers was not achieved until the early seventh century AD under the Sui emperor Yang Di, when as many as six million men may have been pressed into service for its construction.
Locals like to point out that whereas the Great Wall was designed to stop contact and communication, the canal was made to further it. The original function of the canal was specifically to join the fertile rice-producing areas of the Yangzi with the more heavily populated but barren lands of the north, and to alleviate the effects of regular crop failures and famine. Following its completion, however, the canal became a vital element in the expansion of trade under the Tang and Song, benefiting the south as much as the north. Slowly the centre of political power drifted south – by 800 AD the Yangzi basin was taking over from the Yellow River as the chief source of the empire’s finances, a transformation that would bring an end to the long domination of the old northern capitals, and lead to Hangzhou and Nanjing becoming China’s most populous and powerful cities.
By the twelfth century, the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang had become the economic and political heart of China. The Song dynasty moved south and established a capital at Hangzhou and the Ming emperors subsequently based themselves in Nanjing. During this period, and for centuries afterwards, the canal was constantly maintained and the banks regularly built up. A Western traveller, Robert Morrison, journeying as late as 1816 from Tianjin all the way down to the Yangzi, described the sophisticated and frequent locks and noted that in places the banks were so high and the country around so low that from the boat it was possible to look down on roofs and treetops.
Not until early in the twentieth century did the canal seriously start falling into disuse. Contributing factors included the frequent flooding of the Yellow River, the growth of coastal shipping and the coming of the rail lines. Unused, much of the canal rapidly silted up. But since the 1950s its value has once more been recognized, and renovation undertaken. The stretch south of the Yangzi, running from Zhenjiang through Changzhou, Wuxi and Suzhou, is now navigable year-round, at least by flat-bottomed barges, since passenger services have been killed off by new highways and high-speed trains. North of the Yangzi, the canal is seasonably navigable virtually up to Jiangsu’s northern border with Shandong, and major works are going on to allow bulk carriers access to the coal-producing city of Xuzhou. Beyond here, towards the Yellow River, sadly the canal remains impassable.