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Xinhua Insight: A canal runs through it

Xinhua, April 4, 2015 Adjust font size:

Guo Xiansheng, 53, is now chairman of Linzhou Heavy Machinery in central China's Henan Province.

"Without the Red Flag Canal, I would not be who I am today," Guo said.

Guo's company started out doing business from a smithy which provided tools for construction of the Red Flag Canal, built on the steep crags of the Taihang mountain 50 years ago. With over 1,500 kilometers of channels, the canal's combined length exceeds the distance between London and Vienna.

The canal wall was built with random stones of different sizes and shapes. Dubbed as the "Great Wall of Water", it is beyond imagination how villagers, without heavy machinery, dug it entirely by hand half a century ago.

"At that time, people were not even well fed and clad," said Li Lei of Linzhou city government. "With belief and determination, however, they overcame any obstacle."


Linzhou city (known as Linxian county in the past) has a history of frequent droughts. According to local records, there were more than 100 severe water shortages between 1436 and 1949. About 1,650 people starved to death as a result as one from 1942 to 1943.

Zhang Maijiang's name shows his father's desire for water. In Chinese, Maijiang literally means "buying a river".

The 67-year-old recalled that in the past, each house had a well and only their own buckets could fit the mouth of the well to stop the water being stolen. When the wells dried up, people had to walk for several kilometers to get water. "We got up early in the morning, walked for hours and queued to draw water. The task took half our day," he said.

Water was so precious that people would not use it to wash. A local saw states that some people only bathed only three times in their lives; when they were born, married and died.

Water was a dream for generations in Linzhou and everyone was happy when, in 1959, Yang Gui, then Party chief of Linxian, suggested that they themselves build a canal to divert water from the Zhanghe River.


The slogan at that time was "work for 80 days and bring water to Linxian", but water did not come until April 5, 1965, when the main canal went into operation.

More than 300,000 of Linxian's 500,000 plus population took part in the work. Danger lurked everywhere.

"Once I was working on a hill when a huge boulder rolled off the top," said Qin Rongzhen, 22 when she started working on the canal. "I ran and rolled." Her left hand was cut by a rock, and a scar is still visible. "My fellow workers told me that if had I rolled together with the boulder, I would have been mincemeat."

A total of 81 people died building the canal construction. Zhang Maijiang's father was hit by a rock during blasting when Zhang was only 13.

Hard work alone was not enough. Creativity weighed equally.

The danger of flying rocks meant that,while blasting, one needed to wait for the blast at the first site before lighting a second fuse to avoid being hurt by flying rocks. "This is too slow," Zhang said and made fuses at different length to control the timing.

Qin teamed up with four other workers to drill blasting holes. One of them held two drill rods while four others, two at each side, took turns to hammer the rod.

"This proved to be more efficient," she said.

Perhaps the most innovative was Lu Yin, who, with an empty bowl, a stick and a basin full of water, created an inclinometer.


The canal was initially designed to be used for 20 years, but is still in service.

Li Lei, 41, told Xinhua that each year, about half of the water in Linzhou comes via the canal, mostly for irrigation and industry. People got richer and the ecosystem improved.

What's more, the project left a number of construction talents in Linzhou, where the industry contributes to 60 percent of the city's GDP. Li Lin'an, whose father and grandfather helped build the canal, became a construction worker in Beijing in 1983.

He started carrying bricks and building walls, then learned to be electrician and technician. Now 65 years old, Li is head of Hongqiqu Construction Group, the company that built the Bird's Nest and the 1990 Asian Games Village. In 2013, the company was contracted to build a school in Kuwait. "With the domestic construction market saturated, we need to look outward," he said.

The ironworks is another legacy of the canal. When the canal was completed, many toolshops were retained. Today steel, heavy industry and automobile accessories are pillar industries in Linzhou.

Guo Xiansheng's father quit his job to work as a blacksmith when work on the canal started. His son became an apprentice in the 1980s. They later made a fortune by manufacturing accessories for coal mines. When the coal industry experienced a slowdown in 1995, Guo managed to survive (and even made a profit) by bartering his accessories for coal-mining equipment, before exchanging the latter for coal, and then steel-making equipment. In this way, he profitted in each trade.

Guo said the inspiration came from the life by the canal. When he was a child, his mother traded her limited grain for noodles and then rice chaff, so as to feed her six kids for a year.

Guo's company is now going high-tech.

"Residents in Linzhou discovered their creativity when building the canal," said Li Lei. "Diligence and innovation are the legacy of the Red Flag Canal."

Li used to be a tour guide. Visitors inevitably asked: "Could such a canal be built today?"

"Yes, undoubtedly" was the reply she gave at first, but later she found a better answer. "This canal has already been completed," she said, "but we are building more, economically and spiritually.

"People can succeed if they know they are working for their own sake. For that they will show the utmost diligence and creativity, just like building the Red Flag Canal." Endi