National Geographic : 2013 May
china’s grand canal 135 chuanmin,” Huang said. “But she’s a good girl. She works hard.” Chuanmin rarely indulge themselves. They live by the hard-nosed calculations that deter- mine whether a family gets rich or is ruined. This was driven home to me at the end of our first day. I was chatting with Zheng Chengfang, who came from the same village as Old Zhu. Our boats were tied up together, and I’d hopped over to visit with him. Wasn’t it a wonderful sight, I said to Zheng as we surveyed Old Zhu’s boat, freshly painted and gleaming in the sunset? “No, no, no, you don’t understand us,” he blurted out. “It’s not a question of good. We chuanmin need the boats, or we can’t survive.” Zheng accompanied me back to our barge for a smoke with Old Zhu, while Huang cooked a simple dinner of salted fish, rice, and stir-fried greens. “If you’re going to write about us, you also need to know something else,” Zheng said. “We chuanmin are at the receiving end. The coal owners set the price, the moneylenders set the interest, and the government officials set the fees. All we can do is nod and continue working.” This is a common refrain among barge own- ers: Like peasants working the fields, they have little control over their fate. In the countryside it’s the vicissitudes of weather, but chuanmin face whimsical bureaucrats and unpredictable economics. They must make complicated deci- sions based on everything from the direction of world commodity prices to Chinese banking reforms. Indeed, while Zheng was holding forth, Old Zhu was fixated on the TV news about the Middle East and the price of oil. “What do you Living on the water was once part of the fabric of Grand Canal life—and still is for this mother and daughter bringing provisions from the shore to their home on a retired concrete barge in Shiqiao. This kind of community is slowly vanishing as local governments clean up the canal to draw tourists.