Travel: The Grand Canal 

Rice paddies and silk farms along China’s ancient waterway are giving way to heavy industry

click to enlarge The Grand Canal in Suzhou
  • The Grand Canal in Suzhou

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I was surprised to see what I took to be a large photograph of Chairman Mao over the entrance to the museum. In fact it was a demonstration of silk embroidery, a likeness of Mao’s familiar visage made with needles and thread so fine that the stitches are like the pixels of a high-resolution colour photograph.

The museum is a working factory that traces the production and marketing of silk from worms feeding on mulberry leaves to long-limbed models strutting on a fashion runway. We followed the plump white cocoons as they trundled down conveyor belts through the sorting room and on to the spinning machines. Finally in the embroidery room we watched the young women who turn the silk thread into elaborate works of art. Like the tailors in Hans Christian Anderson’s tale of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” the women seem to be working with invisible needles and thread. They give their eyes a 10-minute rest every two hours and it may take months or even years to complete one of the more complex pieces. But all is not well with the silk industry.

For thousands of years silk farmers have fed their worms mulberry leaves and harvested their cocoons for sale to the factory. But in recent years many worms spin only a token cocoon or no cocoon at all. “The problem,” explains our guide, “is believed to be pollution. Toxic chemicals on the leaves are making the worms sick. But,” she adds confidently, “the government is committed to solving the problem.” Perhaps, I thought, the silk industry is still important enough to China’s ruling elite that something will actually be done. But reversing the present trend to bigger industry at the expense of agriculture and the environment will be a task as daunting today as digging the Grand Canal was 2,000 years ago.

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