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Pa Pao Canal and Taiwan's first water conservancy engineer¢wMr. Shih-pang Shih
Nearly 300 years ago, the Qing Dynasty's commander in chief in Taiwan Shih Shih-pang had a hard time dealing with the surging torrents of the Jhuoshuei River in the central part of the island.He had not been able to draw water from the river for irrigation purposes for Tung-lo Fort until a certain "Mr. Lin" taught him some secrets on how to divert river waters.Lin helped Shih build the Pa Pao Canal and one of the important innovations he introduced was the "gou, " an hourglass-shaped bamboo basket normally used to catch fish.
Thousands of these "bamboo pillars, " measuring from four to 12 Taiwan feet high, were loaded with stones and inserted in the water, forming artificial jetties that blocked the flow of water and channeled it into the irrigation system.
To the older generation in Changhua County's Ershuei tow nship, the basket pillar symbolizes complex meanings and emotions because only with this simple tool could the Pa Pao Canal be built and water be channeled to Ershuei's farms.When the Jhuoshuei River flooded, these jetties also played a role as a protective embankment. In addition, people in Ershuei who knew how to make these "basket pillars" could make a living when people had a hard time making ends meet during the post-World War II period.
"I have been making the basket pillars since my early twenties." the 72-year-old pillar-making master Ming-chen Cheng said. He recalled that many in Ershuei were able to earn NT$20 a day making the baskets, an above-average job at that time.
A pillar-making craftsman has to weave the basket, work underwater to install the pillar and load the stones. The job requires stamina and excellent swimming skills."You have to be able to hold your breath longer because you work under water all the time," Cheng said. "The best I've ever seen could hold his breath for more than one minute. I could only hold it for 50 seconds."
At a time when large machine tools were not widely available, business boomed. During the busy season, these craftsmen were hired to work on all water-related construction projects, leaving Cheng so busy at one point in his career that he could only sleep every other night.
In practice, these basket pillars are still used in some places, especially those inaccessible to large machines, according to Chuan-hsien Liu , the former head of the Changhua Irrigation Association's Ershuei station.The Yunlin Irrigation Association uses the pillars in their construction projects even today, Liu said.
People in Ershuei still appreciate the advice given by the mysterious Lin hundreds of years ago that helped the canal successfully draw water from the Jhuoshuei River because Ershuei's agricultural development benefits from the river's dark and muddy water.The rich and fertile mud, which consists of clay and helps conserve water, has enabled the area to grow abudant crops, Liu explained. Using the river water to irrigate farmland not only reduced the frequency of irrigating crops but "also increased the soil's absorption of fertilizers, enabling farmers to reduce the amount of fertilizer used."
To this day, nobody has ever been able to identify the mysterious figure known as Mr. Lin, and his story is likely more myth than reality, but in Ershuei, people are still grateful to him and has a temple dedicated to him.Shih Shih-pang and Huang Shih-ching, who made contributions to the construction of the Papao Canal, are also e nshrined in the temple.