In China Through Time: A 2,500 year journey along the world’s greatest canal, young readers are invited to explore the people, the stories and the fortunes of the canal throughout history. With illustrations by Du Fei, the book is very much a journey, taking readers through key moments in the canal’s history.
The book opens with the idea of the Grand Canal:
Some 2,500 years ago, in ancient China, an emperor had a bright idea. If he joined together two rivers, the Huai and the Yangtze, he could transport his troops quickly through his lands to conquer an enemy kingdom.
Du Fei’s illustrations comprise the bulk of each double-page spread. A short introductory paragraph explains the era and the location, while a brief description describes the context of the time. But—as it should be—the focus rests on the illustrations. Certain elements are identified: on the page illustrating the start of construction in 486 BCE, readers can see King Fuchai of Wu and his advisors, soldiers and canal diggers; at a night fair on Maple Bridge in Suzhou in 760 CE, the Hangshan Temple is named as is the Jiangcun Bridge. The integration of the text is subtle, as are the notes that encircle the illustrations and frame each page. “Can you spot the guard whose shield is painted with the face of a tiger?” asks a page dedicated to Kaifeng in 960 CE.
Each scene is richly illustrated and the level of detail on each page commands, at the very least, a close second look. The book covers time periods from 486 BCE in Yangzhou to today in Tianjin, underscoring the importance of the Grand Canal throughout history as well as its continued relevance today.
The organization of the book also makes for an interesting choice: rather than proceeding chronologically or from one end of the canal to the other, the pages move around. Starting with the construction of the canal, the book travels through time up until the 12th century in Hangzhou before going back to 760 CE in Suzhou. Tianjin in 2020, for example, appears before three key moments in the 15th and 16th century in Tongzhou.
At times, the jumps through time and from location to location can be disorienting. At other times, it serves as a way to help absorb the reader into a specific moment.
The book does well in finding ways to engage with young readers: the simple text and the large illustrations help, as does the presence of a time-traveling cat, hidden on each page as a special treasure to find.