Grand Canal culture to bolster ‘dual circulation’

By ZHANG YUN / 08-18-2022 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

Tourists kayak on the Grand Canal in Changzhou, Jiangsu Province, on Aug 11. Photo: CFP

At present, China is accelerating the construction of the new development paradigm of “dual circulation,” which relies on the domestic market as its mainstay while allowing the domestic and overseas markets to mutually reinforce each other, reshaping the relationship between the Chinese nation and the world at an unprecedented speed, width, and depth. This era’s grand theme cannot be separated from strong cultural support. 

For thousands of years, the Grand Canal has been a main artery which sustained the Chinese civilization, and also a key bond for mutual learning between different civilizations. Trade, personnel, and information exchanges along the canal have instilled a unique Grand Canal culture. Open, inclusive, and advocating for mutual benefits, the Grand Canal culture constitutes an important gene within Chinese civilization. For its historical value and humanistic notions of all-inclusiveness, harmonious symbiosis, and cooperation to achieve mutual benefits, the Grand Canal culture is of special realistic significance to the new development paradigm. 
‘Dual circulation’ of Chinese civilization 
Inside China, the Grand Canal runs through the six cultural spheres of Wuyue (mainly in today’s Zhejiang, Jiangsu, and Jiangxi provinces), Huaiyang (narrowly Huai’an and Yangzhou cities in Jiangsu Province), Zhongyuan (Central Plains), Qilu (Shandong), Yanzhao (Hebei), and Jingjin (Beijing and Tianjin). Since ancient times, it has remained a carrier of the Chinese civilization with rich cultural resources and distinctive cultural marks. If the Great Wall represents the nation’s solid history, then the Grand Canal reflects the fluidity of its culture. 
In Chinese territory, the Grand Canal runs south and north, and connects east and west. Interweaving with the five waterway systems including the Yangtze River and the Yellow River, as well as various transportation hubs, it is part of the major framework of the Chinese civilization. 
Particularly prior to the Industrial Revolution, the Grand Canal was the most important artery for logistics and exchanges between southern and northern China, and directly linked political, economic, and cultural centers at that time. Fluid and open, it significantly promoted cultural communication, facilitated national integration, and expedited domestic unification for the Chinese civilization. Moreover, it contributed to identification with the national value of da yi tong (great unity), providing inexhaustible cultural nourishment for the formation and development of Chinese civilization’s subjectivity. 
Externally, the Grand Canal is like two open arms propping up communication between the Chinese civilization and the world. In history, China’s foreign exchanges relied primarily on overland and maritime silk roads. The former started from Luoyang in Henan Province, and via the Western Regions, stretched to West Asia, South Asia, and even the hinterland of Europe. The silk road across the sea started from the port of Ningbo in Zhejiang Province and led directly to East Asia and Southeast Asia, even as far as the Middle East and Africa. 
The Grand Canal joined two silk roads in Luoyang and Ningbo, respectively, serving as a linchpin for cyclic personnel, commodities, and cultural exchanges among steppe, desert, farming, marine, and other types of civilizations. Through the Grand Canal, the diverse cultures absorbed, integrated with, and acculturated each other, disassembling and then merging amid interconnectivity, effectuating continuous quantitative and qualitative changes in content and form. Flowing with differences, the civilizations formed a community with a shared future featuring a coexistence with heterogeneity, unity in diversity, and common progress. 
In a sense, the Grand Canal was like a gear revolving around the two cogwheels of the internal and external circulation of the Chinese civilization. Meanwhile, its openness to exchange became the undertone of the Grand Canal spirit. Internally, it held together the nation, and externally, it facilitated exchanges of what was needed around the world. In the course of historical evolution, the Grand Canal, together with a wide array of material and non-material appendages, weaved a gigantic civilizational network, linking the past and the present, and bonding China with the world. 
Significance of Grand Canal culture
The internal, or domestic, circulation in the new development paradigm is not a closed circuit, and the external circulation does not blindly pursue massive imports and exports. This is a dialectical development strategy that takes into account both domestic and global situations, champions both openness and independence, and upholds inheritance and innovation. If the economy is the foundation for material development, then culture would buttress intellectual and ethical progress. Building the new development paradigm necessitates the construction of a cultural axis along which China can communicate with the world and create a brighter future. 
Essentially, building the new development paradigm is about realizing a high level of self-reliance. Since reform and opening up, China has steadily pushed for export-oriented economic development, accelerating its fusion into the international market, and thus rapidly increasing its comprehensive national strength. However, autonomous development and self-reliance are critical to the country’s development and national rejuvenation. 
Culture contains humanistic traits of a nation, whose confidence, self-consciousness, and self-examination are the intellectual roots of its self-reliance. For more than 2,000 years, the Grand Canal linked up numerous cultural nodes in 35 cities and eight provinces. The accumulated history, customs, values, and ideas along the routes can form a cultural corridor showcasing the quintessential elements of the Chinese civilization. 
In the new era, the Grand Canal connects the most vibrant modern metropolitan areas in China, such as the Yangtze River Delta and the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei Region. With old and new functions of shipping and water transfer superposed, it still continuously nourishes contemporary Chinese civilization. Unique natural and humanistic endowments have made the Grand Canal culture a vital spiritual backbone of the Chinese civilization, particularly providing strong cultural support for the new development paradigm. 
The key force which drives building the new development paradigm is to push forward with deeper reform and higher-level opening up. Based on China’s actual conditions, the paradigm mainly aims to smooth the internal circulation, innovating domestic division of labor and technical systems through deeper reform, and fostering new advantages in international cooperation and competition through higher-level opening up. 
The Grand Canal has always been a cultural window through which the Chinese civilization enhances its cohesion and extends its clout to the world. Currently, it bonds regions where social development is most mature, innovation factors are most concentrated, and external exchanges are most vigorous in China, alongside people in these regions. Along the canal routes we see the leading edge of collisions and blending between the traditional and the modern, the East and the West. 
In other words, the Grand Canal of the new era belongs not only to China, but also to the world. The core of its spirit, featuring inclusiveness, harmonious symbiosis, and cooperation to achieve mutual benefits, goes in line with peace and development pursued by all countries around the world, as well as the philosophy of the community with a shared future for mankind, which China has been advocating. It can inject hugely cohesive cultural power into the new development paradigm. 
Building a Grand Canal cultural belt
As a sum of material and non-material production, culture is an infectious collective memory and the most penetrating language for communication. With the deepened construction of the new development paradigm, the Grand Canal, as a key carrier which distinguishes the Chinese civilization, is significant, historically and realistically, to fostering identity and confidence domestically, and linking to other nations and the world externally, thus breaking down barriers between regions, resolving clashes of civilizations, and bridging gaps in values. 
However, the interpretation and dissemination of culture is not spontaneous. Especially as the Grand Canal culture involves gaps between eras, regions, and ethnic groups, creative transformation and innovative development efforts are needed to present it through more dynamic, resilient, and attractive expressions. 
First it is necessary to stimulate its cultural vitality as the Grand Canal integrates into and serves social development. A culture’s prosperity is inseparable from economic development and support. The Grand Canal culture flourished as the canal thrived, but it weakened in modern times due to its declining transportation status. Building a Grand Canal cultural belt requires blending into the new development paradigm and carrying the culture forward in a dynamic fashion, while serving overall economic and social development. Attention should be paid to synchronizing cultural strategies with economic production, people’s lives, and social environments, and also to exploring and extending the Grand Canal’s special status in shipping, irrigation, and ecological conservation, constantly consolidating practical vehicles for cultural creation and communication. 
Second, importance should be attached to cultivating spiritual strength as we inherit and innovate traditional Chinese culture. It is necessary to delve deep into the connotations of the Grand Canal culture, such as the harmony between man and nature, the public nature of the world, a people-centered governance approach, and a life philosophy of unremitting self-renewal. Its philosophical core and spiritual qualities intermingle, representing unique emotions, contemplations, and wisdom of the Chinese nation. The uniqueness itself is an important driver to transmit the Grand Canal culture across regions. During the construction of the Grand Canal cultural belt, it is vital to forge a cultural brand from this uniqueness, connecting Chinese traditions to modern China through inheritance and displaying traditional culture with innovated content, carriers, and approaches. 
The meaning of human advancement lies in exchange and mutual learning. Canals, by nature, are a common language for international dialogue and communication. Statistics show that there are more than 500 canals in more than 3,000 cities and 52 countries around the world. Beyond time and space, they have much in common in terms of development pursuits, hydraulic technologies, and cultural implications. Such commonalities should be grasped in the building of the Grand Canal cultural belt to converge the Chinese culture and world civilizations from the perspective of dual circulation. Mutual understanding, respect, and love can be enhanced through exchanges, dialogue, and mutual learning between different cultures and civilizations, thus eternalizing the spirit of unity in diversity and common progress like running canals. 
Zhang Yun is from the Grand Canal Research Institute at Yangzhou University.