Tianjin is a water city, built along the banks of the Hai He river, at the intersection of the North and South Canal, and about 15km from the the Estuary on the Bohai Gulf. Its location (and history) is somewhat similar to that Shanghai, for which reason I like to call the the waterfront of the former French concession ‘the Bund’

The fortune of Tianjin – in literal translation ‘Sky Ford’ – was always connected to its location – a meeting place of many waters, a cross-canals offering passage to the sea, nearby.

In such an environment, bridges – as much as boats – have a crucial function to play, practically (because if people cannot cross, then the many waterways become an obstacle to trade), and symbolically – signifying connection.

The colonists understood that symbolic function, and built garish bridges on the Paris model, with warrior sculptures on pedestals, and horses at water level.

Two of the most famous symbols of Tianjin are the 19th century ‘Jiefang’ bridge – allegedly built by Gustave Eiffel (Eiffel tower Eiffel), and just further down-river, the new sun and moon bridge from Da Gu road to He Bei district.

But the beauty of Tianjin comes not only from the majestic Hai He, snaking its way through the city centre. The town is full of quieter water bodies. There are lakes in the Water Park, or People’s Park, or at the foot of the TV Tower. Bridges are there, as well, to connect artificial islands, a zoo, a Japanese garden to the mainland.

Not far from where I worked is a long canal – which, if I was on a little barge, and followed it, could lead me to Beijing, or Shanghai, or, along the coast, all the way to Seoul. I’ve sat on a bench, often, looking at it.

I crossed a stone bridge over it, many times a week, to get my lunch.

An artist of the floating world

Tianjin has a famous ‘water park’, just south of the TV tower. I was intrigued by the concept of a ‘water park’. What would it be like? I had a bit of a (warm) laugh when I first entered, seeing garish smurf-like plastic houses. Another one of these Chinese gimmicky parks, magical world of speaking mushrooms for kids and adults alike.

I didn’t follow that trail. On my left, I found a long red portico, in traditional architecture, which I walked under for a while. People were eating, dancing or singing traditional music together. It was pretty, but nothing exceptional – I had seenall that before in China. Plus how did water play a role there?

But then, getting further into the park, I started seeing the beauty of its understated, grey Japanese aesthetics. Some scenes reminded me of hokusai’s drawings: people sitting under a pergola, on a stone path, in the middle of a lotus pond.

Towers reflected in the water, on either side of a stone bridge.

Or a boat crossing the lake, with a temple and a stone bridge in the distance.

These images were very much like the ones I had seen at the Museum, the previous days. Empty spaces giving room for imagination. Little people, and the simple dailiness of their activity, punctuating a vast landscape, full of nooks and chambers for them to inhabit.

Water was crucial here. Water, connecting and separating peninsulas, islands and bridges. Water, reflecting the sky, towers and trees. Water, the mother of dream, the playground of images. Water, a pathway to the other world.

Walls and Canals

The Great Wall is the most famous icon of China: a World Wonder, visible from the moon, printed on bills and stamps. A military device to protect the Middle kingdom from the wandering tribes of North and Central Asia from the civilised plains of the middle kingdom; a symbolic border, signifying the limit of the organised world – separating the wildnerness, outside, from the garden space of China.

From the – urban – point of view of this blog, it is worth noting that the word for the Great Wall – 城 – also means ‘city’; literally, a space inside a wall.  Within the Great Wall, the developed regions of China connect like the different suburbs of a gigantic metropolis.

Everyone’s heard of the Great Wall. But there is another, as important monument, which serves a complementary function: the Grand Canal, a networks of waterways running from Hangzhou in the blue river delat to the capital, Beijing; connecting North and South, and unifying the two main river systems of the country. The canal was developed around the 5th century before Christ, and has been used consistently throughout history to transport products – food, cloth, building materials, animals, art – around the country. In terms of engineering and effort, the Grand Canal is the dug in equivalent of the great wall. The unseen hollow, that water fills in – but essential to the possibility of life.

Interestingly, Tianjin has both. The Great Wall runs across the North of the Municipality; the fortune of the city depended on its strategic location, at the meeting place of the Grand Canal and the Hai river, the northernmost sea access for the Canal. The little tourism propaganda guide I bought ‘Tianjin, Lustrous Pearl of the Bohai Gulf”,  by Foreign Language Press, insists on every second page about this fact: the unique character of Tianjin comes from its unique status as a riverine and a maritime city.