The Grand Canal is a series of waterways that that link Hangzhou with Beijing. Some 1,085 mi (1,747 km) in length, it is the world's longest man-made waterway. It was build to enable successive Chinese dynasties to transport surplus grain from the agriculturally rich Yangtze and Huai river valleys to feed the capital cities and large standing armies in the north. The oldest portion, in the south, may date from the 4th century BC. Expanded over the centuries, it continues to be used today for shipping and irrigation. It's scope in construction is of the same scale as the Great Wall itself. Unlike the wall which rarely stopped invaders, the Grand Canal fulfilled its purpose and played a vital role in transporting goods and even helping to hold the empire together for centuries. Today it continues to be navigable but no longer plays the important role it once did because other means of transport (roads, railways, and even planes) are widely available. But it continues to be a dramatic example of the lengths that the dynasties went to hold the empire together and connect North and South.
We use the canal's symbolic image to explore the regional difference between North and South China with a special eye towards both terminals of the canal in Beijing and Hangzhou. Beijing is the imperial capital during the last several centuries and continues to be the capital of political power in China today. Yet in many ways the city is on the edge of the empire. It has traditionally been at risk to the nomadic peoples of the north and has been attacked countless times. More than half of its tenure as capital was to foreign rulers (Mongol & Manchu) and it is far from the Yellow river valley called the cradle of Chinese culture and even farther from the economic and agricultural powerhouse of the south. We explore this northern capital and discover the political history that has made it a powerful city. We will also examine what northern Chinese culture is like and how the people of Beijing have been influenced by their nomadic neighbors. The Zhejiang & Jiangsu lowlands have been the agricultural and economic power of China for much over a millennium. The relatively new powerhouse of Shanghai has been the center of China's economy for the last couple centuries but far before the city rose from the Huangpu's banks other cities in the region, especially Hangzhou, had control over vast portions of the nations economic reserves and the region produced the greatest amount of surplus grain in the nation. What makes this region so economically important and why if so vital has the region not hosted the capital city of the nation for more of its history? We will examine the regions economic history and learn about the cultural distinctions that make the region unique. We will explore how Jiangnan culture has influenced all of China but also discover the uniqueness of the region today. Through language, customs, food, philosophy, and history we'll discover the two regions. By spending time with everyday people, using experiential learning techniques and meeting with cultural experts we will come away with a far greater understanding of Chinas regional cultural legacies and a deeper understanding of what makes up China today.