National Geographic : 2013 May
134 national geographic • MAY 2013 The canal was seen as an act of brilliant madness. It took years to complete and claimed untold lives. just one family—start at dawn and go till eve- ning, when they tie up their boats next to each other. Old Zhu’s wife, Huang Xiling, now posted at the stern, had given birth to the family’s two sons on earlier barges. She cooked, cleaned, and made the boat’s little cabin a retreat from the water, wind, and sun. “ The men say these boats are just a tool for making money, but our lives are spent on them,” she said. “You have so many memories.” The couple’s older son, Zhu Qiang, had re- cently taken over their previous barge. Their other son, 19-year-old Zhu Gengpeng, Little Zhu, was working on this new one, being groomed by his dad to be a captain. Little Zhu took me under his wing, translating his father’s incom- prehensible Shandong accent and making sure I didn’t fall over the side. Gracing my quarters with his calligraphy, he wrote the words “Private Berth” above the watertight door. (My berth was a storeroom that had been converted into a guest suite by laying a plank and a quilt across two empty paint drums.) Little Zhu doesn’t look much like a chuanmin. With a rakish mustache, permanent bed head, and a purple, fur-trimmed jacket, he could be a hipster in any provincial Chinese city. He has a middle school education, and when the barge pulled up at a lock, it was Little Zhu who stepped ashore to deal with officialdom. (Although Old Zhu is only 46, he’s illiterate.) Off duty, Little Zhu seemed to spend most of his time texting his girlfriend, who worked in a bakery back in Jining. He plans to bring her aboard to live in his room in the bow after they are married. “It will be hard for her because she isn’t a Canal villages reflect the tug of China’s past and its present. Bride-to-be Wei Li, 23, wears a traditional red gown for the ceremony in the fishing village of Xiaxinzhuang, on Weishan Lake. Photos on the wall of what will be the newlywed’s bedroom, taken weeks earlier, show her in Western-style garb.