Photo taken on June 21, 2014 shows a general view of Gongchen Bridge on China's Grand Canal, in Hangzhou, east China's Zhejiang province. (Xinhua/Li Zhong)
China had made marathon journeys before having its 2,400-year-old Grand Canal and its section of the millennium-old trade route Silk Road inscribed on the World Heritage list on Sunday.
[Read more: Silk Road, China's Grand Canal listed as World Heritage Sites]
This dual honor has boosted China's national pride. But amid cheers, there is a sober reminder from scholars and officials of the disgrace of resting on past glories in a time of profound changes.
Liu Qingzhu, director of the Academic Committee of the Archeology Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, saw both historical and realistic significance in the preservation of the two relic sites.
By submitting a joint application for adding part of the Silk Road route to the UNESCO World Heritage List with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, China has a chance to review its shared ancient memory with its friendly neighbors, he said.
Citing the period under the reign of Emperor Wudi of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.- A.D. 220) as an example, the director said the trade route's prosperity always coincided with the political stability and economic flourishing in history.
It was Emperor Wudi who sent general Zhang Qian to make China's first travel to the far west. The Emperor's idea of seeking political contact with the countries in the far west had propelled the economic and cultural exchanges between East and West.
"In the Chinese culture, tolerance and harmony are always valued. As the Silk Road is an epitome of such culture, reviving it is of immediate significance," said Liu.
The day before the inscription was announced, Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi reiterated at a peace forum in Beijing that China would carry forward the spirit of the ancient Silk Road to work actively to build the Silk Road economic belt and the 21st century Maritime Silk Road.
Put forward by Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visit to central and southeast Asian countries last fall, the new Silk Road initiatives revealed China's sincerity to achieve common development for countries along the routes, he said.
In the State Councilor's eyes, the Silk Road has been a synonym for peace, cooperation, openness, inclusiveness, mutual learning and mutual benefit.
The Silk Road spirits have been at the forefront of joint application, according to Chen Tongbin, chief of the Institute of Historical Research of the China Architecture Design and Research Group.
"Through close cooperation with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, we identified differences and at the same time found ways to achieve our common goals. Also through joint application, we learn to engage different parties and broaden our horizons to focus on the integrated value of an initiative," said Chen.
For Dong Bing, chief of the Grand Canal World Heritage Application Office, putting the world's oldest and longest artificial waterway into the World Heritage List is more like a marathon testing the applicant's stamina and strength.
"Eight years has passed, the success doesn't come easily," said Dong, likening the inscription to "a solemn promise to protect the canal for not just the Chinese but the world."
Built in B.C. 486, the 1,011-km-long Grand Canal is the largest civil engineering project before the Industrial Revolution, revealing the exceptional hydrotechnics and operating capability in the Oriental civilization, according to the evaluation of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee.
As the waterway runs through six provincial regions, the application office had to coordinate a variety of stakeholder to sort out the problems in water conservation, transportation and cultural relic protection.
In ancient China, the orderly management of canal transportation provided the prerequisite to the economic prosperity as it was essential to grain supply.
Nowadays, the cargo handling capacity of the waterway is four times as much as that of the Beijing-Shanghai Railway, according to Tong Mingkang, deputy director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage.
"It is hard to imagine for the ancient China to preserve peace and solidarity without a sound management of the waterway to facilitate the communication and cooperation among different regions," said Chen Tongbin.
The secret of sound management nowadays, according to Zheng Hanxian, general manager of the Hangzhou Canal Group, is "to give back the waterway to the people."
"Our principles is protection first, ecology first, developing tourism for the people and emphasizing overall management," said Zheng.
Dong Bing said in Yangzhou, a city in Jiangsu Province where the Canal runs through, economic planning department must solicit the opinions of cultural heritage protection department in writing and may veto any project once it suspects that the relic area might be endangered.
Recalling the application work, many officials and scholars agree that an open mind and reverence to history are essential.
Wang Jianxin, an archaeologist with the Northwest University in Xi'an of Shaanxi Province, said that through the fate of a relic, one can feel the ups and downs in history and hold the pulse of the changing world.
The Weiyang Imperial City Relic of Han Dynasty in Xi'an, for instance, one of the 33 sites of the Silk Road relics, used to be the residence of royal and nobles. In Tang Dynasty (618-907), it became a reserved garden for the aristocratic. Till the later Song (960-1276) dynasty, commoners began to swarm in.
As one of China's earlier cultural relic sites, the 4.8-square kilometer-area was slow in development and turned into a shanty town as infrastructure facilities elsewhere in the city quickly improved in the past decades.
Now, with the 10,000-strong residents relocated, this area has been restored into a reserve where many residents would like to go for a stroll on spare time.
"No one can retain the wheel of history. The essence of relic protection is to uphold a culture," said Wang Jianxin.
"In Han Dynasty, the Weiyang Imperial City was the central platform for Sino-foreign exchanges and a fashion town. We can not get back to those days, but we can learn from the history to improve our capability of staging cross-cultural dialogues in the age of Internet," said the archaeologist.
UNESCO adds Grand Canal, Silk Road route to World Heritage List
Silk Road, China's Grand Canal listed as World Heritage Sites