Bridges And Boats In The Region Of Water Country (1)

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Bridges And Boats In The Region Of Water Country (1)

China is a great country with a written history of about 5000 years. She has a vast territory, topographically higher in the northwest and lower in the southeast. Networked with rivers, she has the best-known valleys of the Yangtze River, the Yellow River and the Pearl River, which are the cradle of the Chinese nation and her brilliant culture. Throughout history, the Chinese nation has erected thousands of bridges, which form an important part of her culture.

Ancient Chinese bridges are universally acknowledged and have enjoyed high prestige in the bridge history of both the East and the West. Ancient Chinese bridges can be classified under four categories: the beam, arch, and cable suspension bridges. The earliest reference to the beam bridge in Chinese history is the Ju Bridge dating from the Shang Dynasty (16th-11th century B.C.). King Wu of the Zhou Dynasty launched a campaign against King Zhou (Zhou Wang), and having captured Zhaoge -capital of the Shang Dynasty (now northeast to Quzhou County, Hebei Province), at the Ju Bridge, he ordered a hoard of millet distributed to the relief of the poor. From the Zhou Dynasty through to the Qin and Han Dynasties, bridges with timber beams and stone piers were predominant. 

There are different views on the origin of arches. Some believe the first arch was a natural formation over the caverns, others claim that it was brought into being by the piling of the collapsed stones, and still others hold that it was evolved from the "false arch" which was formed by the openings in the walls. However, a study of the tombs and the extant old arches in China indicates that the joint of the beam and sides evolved gradually into isometric trilateral, pentalateral and septilateral arches and finally into semicircular arch. The span, too, was gradually elongated, from 2m or 3m up to 37.02m (clear span). And it has kept the world record for more than a thousand years.

Cable suspension bridges vary in kind according to the material of which the cables are made: rattan, bamboo, leather and iron chain. According to historical records, 285 B.C. saw the zha bridge (bamboo cable bridge). Li Bin of the Qin State, who guarded Shu (256 -251 B.C.), superintended the establishment of 7 bridges in Gaizhou (now Chengdu, Sichuan Province), one of which was built of bamboo cables.

One spring, I went to a region of rivers and lakes in Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces to collect folk stories. The region is situated on the south banks of the largest river in China, the Yangtze River, so it is often called "water country south of the Yangtze," including southern Jiangsu Province with Taihu Lake at its center and eastern Zhejiang Province. It is a typical lake region, with scattered lakes and a network of waterways.There are many bridges in the region. Some are high bridges with arches like a crescent moon, some are slabstone bridges, some rainbow-shaped reinforced concrete bridges, and some are long and thin arch bridges. There are over 5,000 large and small stone bridges in the city of Shaoxing in Zhejiang Province, therefore, Shaoxing is renowned as a museum of ancient stone bridges.

The bridge for pedestrians is called Taiping (peace) bridge or Ankang (safe and healthy) bridge, to wish pedestrians safety in travelling. The bridge near grocery stores is named Jinli (making profit) bridge or Jinding (golden tripod) bridge, to wish for a brisk business. The bridge in the vicinity of some temples is known as Jishan (accumulating kindness) bridge or Xianghua (fragrant incense) bridge, meaning that those temples will have many worshippers. The Ke bridge, Xie bridge, Hong bridge, and others are named for famous families. Many ancient bridges are decorated with carved stone lions at the ends or columns of these bridges. It is an ancient Chinese custom to place the stone lions there, which presumably can frighten away water monsters that cause disastrous floods.

At one time, superstitious people believed that God of Bridges existed. On New Year's Day or other festivals, some of the older women brought joss sticks, candles and paper money to bridges, as offerings to the God of Bridges for stable bridges, safe passengers and boats. When a pregnant woman was about to give birth, her family would carry several pounds of noodles to cross over three bridges. It was believed that the woman and the baby would be safe and healthy after she ate the noodles. When a rich and influential family held a funeral procession, a temporary ceremonial gateway would be constructed with pines and green bamboo, with paper flowers placed at the ends of the bridges which the procession would pass, as a symbol hoping the person would have happiness in the afterlife.

These old customs have all disappeared now. On festivals, however, local residents still decorate the main bridges with pines, cypresses, colorful flags and festive lanterns. After a night snowfall in winter, some people go to clean the snow from the bridges the next morning or spread husks of grain on the surface of the bridges in case someone slips and falls. In summer people like to sit on the bridges, enjoying the cool air, chatting, watching the lights of fishing boats on the river, in the gentle swaying breeze. The cares of the day are relieved by the tranquility of the scene.

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