A Cartographic History of the Liugong Canal

by on Tuesday, 29 October 2013 Comments

The course of Liugong Canal is a calligraphy brush carving Taipei's human history into its natural history. The collection of maps gathered at Academia Sinica, along with more recent maps made for various purposes, are useful guides to explain the history of Taipei from the view of the Liugong Canal.

(Googlemaps screenshot of Taipei)

In 1736 Kuo Hsi-liu, originally of Fujian province, came to Zhonglun in Taipei from Changhua and began the settling and development of a small farming community by the name of Xingyazhuang. Before long he found that the water resources for the village were drying up and were insufficient to maintain the community in the long term. By the time of his death in 1765, the farming plateaus of Taipei were well on their way to being fully supplied by an intricate and vast system of irrigation channels now known as the Liugong Canal, fed from the Xindian River, where water was diverted through the tunnels and trenches they dug to form the canal. While the original canal was completed in 1762, the Liugong Canal (公 'gong' is a respectful name affixed to great men, 'Liu' is derived from the individuals name) now refers to a grand network which spreads and branches out through Taipei City.

liugong map1(A map of the system of channels around the time of Liugong's death in 1765
See the whole map : http://webgis.sinica.edu.tw/map_irrigation/Canal_D04.html)

As the story goes, Kuo Hsi-liu dedicated his life to the construction and development of his farming community. He borrowed money to start the village, became a topographer in order to search for new water sources as natural reservoirs dried up and farms suffered droughts, and sold all he owned to fund the construction of the canal. Beyond that, he married an indigenous woman from a local tribe in order to stop the persistent raids on the workers and the destruction of their engineering works. He organized a great collaboration with the five villages of Dapinglin which lay along the path of his great plan. However, in the end he died distraught after watching his life’s work shattered by a typhoon which destroyed the critical Snakes Cage Dam, but not before handing down responsibility for the continuation of his magnum opus to his son.

This documentary commissioned by the Kuo Hsi-liu Foundation tells Liugong’s story, depicting him with all the aspects of a conscientious Chinese hero; self-sacrifice, piety, and lasting historical contribution to Chinese culture. As with many historical accounts, and great development projects, it is slightly oversimplified and perhaps glorified. Many other important individuals contributed to the construction of the channels and the road to agricultural security was paved with dead construction workers, who were regularly attacked by indigenous peoples angry that there lands were being encroached on by the Han settlers as there water resources grew. Though it was perhaps a the most peaceful solution, the act of bequeathing an indigenous woman, was a common tactic of the Han settlers to appropriate indigenous lands and ultimately become the new stewards of the Taipei basin. Nevertheless the project is an important part of Taipei’s heritage had lasting implications, helping secure the foundations for Taipei to become a major city in Taiwan. Kuo Hsi-liu was honored posthumously for his contributions with the respectful ‘Gong’ title by the contemporary Qing emperor. The following map shows the extent the canals had reached towards the end of the Qing Dynasty period over a century after Liu Gong’s death. At the time the canal systems were still divided into the Dapinglin, Wulixue and Liugong (originally Qingxi) canals

 liugong map2

By the Japanese era all the different names of the canal systems had been merged to create one single Liugong Canal. In order to solve their drainage and flooding problems, the Japanese constructed the huge Horikawa Drain (堀川) in 1933, which overlapped and rebuilt part of the Liugong Canal, thus bringing part of the canal into the sewage system, this trend continued as the drainage network expanded.

liugong map3(Liugong Canal during the Japanese era, 1939
See the whole map: http://webgis.sinica.edu.tw/map_irrigation/Canal_D06.html)

Not long into the KMT era changes happened in waves to the Liugong Canal. Emboldened by the pervasive spirit of modernity that had now seeped through to Chinese culture, the KMT pushed rapid industrialization and urbanization. Due to population strains, political needs, comparative unprofitability of farmland and more and more pollution nature was squeezed into the margins of the city and the Liugong Canal pushed underground. With rapid economic development, the population of Taipei further exploded. Most of the remaining farmland in the Taipei basin, including that bordering the Liugong Canal, was bought up by developers to build high rises, in order to meet and multiply the needs of Taipei's urbanization. Using techniques such as reinforced steel box culvert, the canals were paved over to build residential and commercial areas on top. The following map shows the water sources left in Taipei in 1904:

liugong map4

By the late 1970's most of the water sources within the main rivers of Xindian and Songshan and the mountain ranges enclosing Taipei from the east (i.e. the Taipei city area) were underground, covered by roads, buildings or parks. By the 80s the vast majority of the Liugong Canal was cemented over and either became obsolete in terms of its original irrigation function or certain parts were merged into the existing sewage system. One can now access the maps of the sewage system and underground waterways of Taipei using sewage maps that run on the Google Earth engine.

Anyone born in Taipei since the end of the martial law-era will likely not have experienced the Liugong Canal like their previous generations, washing, playing or collecting clams. Taipei’s richer youth may shop at the SOGO megastore in Zhongxiao Fuxing, but are unlikely to know that underneath flows the Liugong Canal and that the land is owned by Taipei’s Liugong Irrigation Association. Now there are only a sprinkling of open areas along the Liugong Canal, treasures worthy of letterboxers. For example, there is a 10-metre stretch outside the Café Pick up a Cat in the Alley on Wenzhou Street, a 5 km section near the source of the canal in Bitan, and since the turn of the century the ecological pond on the NTU campus. 

By the late 1990’s the Taipei City government began pushing the idea of ‘livable cities’ and there was growing interest in beautifying the city. These trends provided an opening and encouraged politicians, academics and community groups to re-explore the idea of bringing waterways back into the everyday life of the city. In 2005 there began to be some political interest in reopening some sections of the Liugong Canal and ever since then there have been projects highlighting and promoting the rediscovery of this historical relic which still exists beneath our feet. Beyond beautification, these projects increasingly include an environmental sustainability angle while they attempt to bring the Liugong Canal back into the city and renegotiate the relationship between Taipei’s waterways and its inhabitants. For example Professor Chun-E Kan of NTU’s Department of Bioenvironmental Systems Engineering has made the ‘sunlighting’ of the Liugong Canal his life’s work and has long promoted the restoration of the NTU section of the Liugong Canal by channeling natural rainwater flows from the nearby Toad Mountain. Further proposals for reopening the Liugong Canal have also come from a group of Finnish students mentored by the recent winner of the European Architect of the Year Award, Marco Casagrande and his cross-disciplinary research hub, the Ruin Academy, who bring in an aesthetic of nature re-invading architecture, but also have a social focus on community participation. There have also been groups and organizations more focused on memory and the historical value of the canals. For example, the Daan Community College ran historical walking tours along the former path of the canals. In 2013 there were even day-event cycling tours riding along the covered canal routes. There was a cultural landscape preservation movement (非瑠不可) led by students of NTU’s Department of Building and Planning for the preservation of a marginal military dependants' community whose makeshift houses bordered the open part of the canal close to the Xindian River. Indeed, re-exploring the Liugong Canal in this feature was also partly stimulated by the participation of our nomadic arts space, The Hole, in a movement to preserve another military dependants community, that of Toad Mountain near NTU. The skeleton of the Liugong Canal borders runs along the front Toad Mountain community. Until the 80's the canal was open and used daily by the residents, but by the 1980's it was paved over and there is no longer a regular flow of clean water running through.

(A brochure map for the historical tours run in the Daan Community College.)

For the more adventurous minds, one can even descend into the underworld, for a bit of urban exploring or catacomb-like art, visible only to those who may descend into the underground passages. In fact when entering the canal from the mountain streams that flow in there is still a diverse ecosystem underneath - a paradise for turtles, watersnakes, white egrets, fish, and huge toad and frog species, before reaching cockroach territory as you go further under the city. Budding cartographers can even find ways to trace the canal from above or below and find interesting new ways to display the maps, perhaps hand-drawn by a local residents or schools to promote community participation in design, perhaps using open source mapping to aid in the decentralization and democratization of the internet. These are all activities which our group is engaged in and promoting.

Over recent years more and more plans have emerged for the reopening of parts of Liugong Canal. Some are based purely on beautification, others on green economy, environmental protection and awareness and now, certain groups have begun to bring in ideas of community restoration and participation in planning for the Liugong Canal's future. As we can see from above, different parts of civil society - academics, community organisations, individual enthusiasts and artists - are already remapping the Liugong Canal. One thing is for certain: there are still many changes to happen to these maps, and the cartographic history of the Liugong Canal is far from over.

Sources:
http://www.khl.org.tw/about1-en.html
http://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E7%91%A0%E5%85%AC%E5%9C%B3
http://thirdgenerationcity.pbworks.com/w/file/fetch/53734479/Aalto%20University_SGT_Taipei_Final_report_15.5.2012.pdf
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v5HGFbVIqRE
http://140.131.110.231/tmhui/subpage_4-6-6_J_b05.html

Nick Coulson (聶克)

I was born in sunny Torbay on the south western coast of England's green and pleasant lands. I'm prowling the streets, parks and ruins of Taiwan hunting for absurdities and studying the sociology of the underground. Furthermore with our nomadic arts and action space "The Hole" we attempt to challenge rigid and alienating structures.

出生於英國西南部,海邊的天堂為Torbay。目前在台灣的街上,公園,廢墟尋找世界之荒謬與世界之美,努力盡量在各方面跳脫框框。透過我們的游牧空間「洞」我們不斷地用藝術與行動來挑戰早已僵化的體制。

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