For three thousand years, the people of China have been shaping the waters of their land.
For three thousand years, the people of China have been shaping the waters of their land. Now, with the re-launching of State interest in canals and rivers, an ancient form of livelihood has received a new lease on life.
SYNOPSIS: A typical Chinese rural scene. A mule, a haycart - and , of course, a tree-lined river flowing peacefully down towards the sea. On its banks, as they have done for centuries, women wash their families' clothes.
On the river, too, life goes on the same. Here, in the ancient city of yangchou, flows the Yangtze River, spanned by a bridge nearly a mile long (0.6 kilometres). Down below, the river's powerful flow and deep waters can take ocean-going ships hundreds of miles (kilometres) inland. But the river's power has its more destructive side too; every rainy season it bursts its banks with disastrous results.
More gentle by nature are yangchou's canals, which spread like vein across the countryside. Indeed, these quiet waterways are the commercial lifeblood for many hundreds of thousands of boatmen and their families.
Negotiating the locks is a difficult process, but boatmanship is a skill passed down from generation to generation among these people. Co-ordination is essential, because of the large numbers of crafts working the canals. Small sampans, sailing junks, bulky wooden barges and large diesel-powered craft all jostle for space in the mooring area that raises or lowers them to the next water level.
Manning the boats has been a traditional family affair, and this is an area in which the government has decided that the old way is still the best way. These small craft, and all but the biggest barge-trains and state-owned tugboats, remain family in the hands of family crews - often from several generations back. Their lives do not differ much from those of their ancestors.
Many prefer the old-fashioned sailing craft to any other form of transportation; indeed, an old Chinese proverb says "A thousand strokes with the oar and ten thousand pushes with the pole are not equal to a ragged sail".
The crews sail from bases in canal and river towns to spend days, even weeks at a time, on the water. These men are taking their cargoes down China's most ancient waterway, the Grand Canal; their forbears did the same many hundreds of years before, passing beneath the windows of the palace of Marco Polo, when he was governor of Yangchou.
In former days, the Grand Canal's water levels were maintained by primitive earth dams. Now, modern equipment like this installation at Shi Chino lock have made the canal a quick and efficient means of travel.
Nowadays' virtually all the Grand Canal's one thousand miles (1600 kilometres) are open. An old saying claims that travelling the Canal is more arduous than climbing Mount Tai - China's most famous peak - but for many this is no longer so. Instead, large-scale excavation schemes are opening up more and more of the Canal, bringing fresh water to barren countryside and new dimensions to an ancient way of life.