Grand Canal — short excerpt

Robert Campbell
Feb 2, 2019 · 3 min read
Kaifeng Chronicles, Book Three

On February 5th, Grand Canal, the third installment in my Kaifeng Chronicles series of novellas will be available in print and electronic versions through Amazon and elsewhere. As always, I have to thank Danielle Mugridge for her original artwork and cover design, and Mike Hunter for his skillful editing.

The Kaifeng Chronicles series of nine novellas follows the life and career of a young scholar during the final years of China’s Ming dynasty. Filled with political intrigue and a touch of romance, not to mention a number of twists and turns, the series provides insight into the workings of the ancient empire’s bureaucracy, manners, religious environment, artistic and literary traditions, and much more.

Here’s a short excerpt from the opening pages of the third novella:

On the eighteenth day of the twelfth month in the fourth year of the Chongzhen emperor, Li Bing stood on the wharf owned by the grain merchant Cao. The sun had yet to show its face above the horizon and the cool moist air made him shiver. Even at this distance from the ocean on the Qiantang River, the ebb and flow of the relentless swells had the well-secured vessels bucking at their tethers, making the job of loading and unloading a complicated affair. Through years of practice, the endless stream of dockworkers matched their movements with those of the river as well as with the peculiar rhythms of the various shapes and sizes of vessels they tended. There was little need for instruction or intervention. Perpetual motion was the norm. Any break in the pattern set the whole system awry until a new equilibrium was achieved — an unwelcome waste of time and energy. Bing found the constant movement and clamor, despite its near metabolic regularity, disorienting and exhausting. Short of breath and unsteady on his feet, even before getting on board, he hoped conditions would be more peaceful once they got underway.

Winter travel could be treacherous along the length of the Grand Canal, even for seasoned sailors who navigated the heavy-laden vessels through the many interconnected lakes, rivers, and manmade channels, each with its own vexing challenges for even the most experienced pilots. Rogue currents, migrating sandbars, hostile winds, and frustrating and costly delays were all to common. Most are natural in origin, but some are at the hands of unscrupulous officials or bandits. Barge captains struggled to adhere to a strict schedule of departures, arrivals, and ports of call, suffering steep penalties should they fail to deliver their precious cargoes on time. The capital was an insatiable giant — the canal, its essential lifeline. Nothing could be allowed to interfere with the smooth operation of the central government, reliant as it was on thousands upon thousands of civil servants, soldiers, support personnel, and common citizens, fulfilling their duties as cooks, cleaners, porters, and so much else. The food supply chain was the capital’s greatest vulnerability.

The fortune tellers had selected this day for his departure and the matter had been put to rest. Bing had been assured…

Of course, you’ll want to read the first two novellas in the series, 18 Cranes and Mandarin Ducks, before starting on Grand Canal.

Kaifeng Chronicles, Books One and Two

Thank you for reading. I welcome comments and questions. Be sure to check out the Kaifeng Chronicles page on Facebook, to keep track of my writing progress and to learn about various aspects of Chinese history and culture.

Robert Campbell

Written by

sociologist teaching in the MBA program in community economic development at Cape Breton University

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