The Grand Canal of China

ethnic china

The Grand Canal of China

The Grand Canal was first built during the Sui Dynasty (581-618). Its original design resembled a «Y» whose leg would point west, as it connected the rich lands of the Yangtze River delta with the capital Luoyang on one side and the capital Luoyang with the Beijing region, then part of the border where a war was being waged against the Koreans on the other. However, it took its final shape six centuries later, when during the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) a canal was created to connect Hangzhou with the capital Beijing. A canal that took advantage of the tributaries of the five most important rivers in China, from south to north: the Qiantang, Yangtze, Huai, Yellow, and Hai, as well as the important lake systems located between them.

Before that date, several canals had already been built in China that promoted economic development in some regions, and communication and trade in others. Among them, those that connected the waterways south of Suzhou and the one that connected the Yangtze River basin with the Huai River basin, the aforementioned Hanguo Canal, can be considered the first sections of the Grand Canal. And although after the unification of China in 221 B.C.E. some canals were built, the truth is that the Qin and Han dynasties were rather a wall builders, perhaps because of the perceived threat of the Xiongnu kings, or because southern China had not yet reached an economic development that would compensate for the expense of their construction. After the fall of the Han dynasty in 220, China lived in political fragmentation for more than three centuries which limited the completion of major works.  In those years many families from the north fled the continuous wars, migrating to the south of the country, promoting there, with their higher technology, continuous economic and commercial development. This helps us to understand that after the reunification of China with the Sui dynasty the country was ripe for the construction of the Grand Canal. 

The actual work was carried out by Emperor Yang, who from 605 used a million workers to build a canal to transport taxes and tribute from the rich rice-growing regions of the Yangtze Delta to his capital. This canal was 60 to 70 meters wide, with tree-lined streets along its sides and a network of inns for the rest of travelers and canal officials and workers. Thousands of tons of grain reached the capital every year. The system was preserved by the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1127) dynasties, which maintained their splendor thanks to a system that allowed them to receive taxes from those rich and distant regions.

To be an effective waterway, the canal had to maintain a fairly uniform depth and width. To achieve this, dikes and dams had to be built to provide stability to the waters, diversion and feeder canals to supply water when needed or release it when not.  Conduits, culverts, and other retention or expulsion systems, which would help control water flows, etc. And since the conditions of the Grand Canal vary from one region to another, the solutions to maintain its operability could not be generalized, forcing a great development of hydraulic technology, building dams, dikes, drains, and accessory works adapted to the different types of problems that hindered navigation.

With the transfer of the capital to Beijing during the Yuan dynasty, the canal was extended to this city, taking its definitive form. The main items transported on its waters were grain, cloth, bamboo, timber, and minerals. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the circulation of goods along the canal reached an astonishing intensity. Although officially the grain quota was 4 million dan (one dan is 50 kg) per year for the whole country, transportation costs and losses doubled. To bring this enormous amount of grain to Beijing, more than 10,000 ships were used, with more than 120,000 people working on them. Each ship carried about 500 dan of grain. Clothes, porcelain, fruits, and other local products were also transported to the court each year, as well as bamboo, wood, and minerals, especially copper for making coins. All these items, some from remote provinces such as Yunnan, were moved to the Yangtze River, and then shipped downstream to the confluence with the Grand Canal, involving another several thousand boats each year. This shows us that the human density that we contemplate in the engravings of the canal is not the artist’s imagination, but a faithful reflection of the intensity of the traffic that circulated continuously along its waters.

No wonder Marco Polo was amazed at the traffic that flowed through the canal, and the wealth that was concentrated in its main ports, for the docks were lined with stores and warehouses, inns, restaurants, and places of entertainment to cater to the many merchants arriving from other cities. The canal brought untold prosperity to the cities in its path.

The traffic of people along the canal was also very intense, not only of soldiers sent to any point of the empire in case of emergency. Candidates for the imperial examination arrived by the thousands along the Grand Canal, through which they returned, some defeated, and others bound for the new posts to which they had been appointed by the imperial administration. With them spread throughout the country the literary and poetic fashions, the tastes considered elegant in the capital, new philosophical and literary ideas, as well as a wealth of popular information on the thousand matters of daily life that in a diffuse way was weaving the cultural fabric that would characterize China.

Given the importance of this great waterway, the imperial administration exercised close control over the Grand Canal, having assigned officials for various tasks, and regulated the estimated time of travel, the size of the boats, and the control of each section. To enforce these measures, garrisons of soldiers were stationed at the most important places, and thousands of people were sent each year to carry out the work necessary for the maintenance of the canal, and for navigation, for not only have we recorded the tasks of cleaning and dredging canals, repairing dikes, stabilizing waterways by planting trees, but there were also workers in charge of pulling boats in places of rapids or difficult navigation, others to maintain the bridges, and even to break the ice that sometimes made it impossible for boats to pass. The basic needs of this multitude of workers were provided at stations built every kilometer along the waterway.

For centuries the canal was the great artery of China, the great distributing line always in motion. For it cannot be forgotten that it not only connected the cities located on its banks but by taking advantage of the vast network of navigable rivers in the interior of the country, especially the most abundant in the Yangtze basin, it has allowed even materials from the most remote provinces to reach the capital by water. Thus, timber from the forests near Kunming, where I spend some weekends with my daughters, was used in past centuries for the construction of China’s finest palaces.

At some times it became so saturated that its activity was complemented by shipping. Then, throughout the 19th century, it lost importance due to the corruption of the Qing dynasty that prevented its proper maintenance, the outbreak of the Taiping rebellion, the change of course of the Yellow River, which filled it with mud and made it impossible to navigate, and the competition of maritime transport. Thus, in 1902, the already skeletal administration of the Canal bid farewell to a millenary history. 

This is the third chapter of my book «The Grand Canal and Water China», available free to READ HERE:

To cite this post: Ceinos-Arcones, Pedro, "The Grand Canal of China," in Ethnic China, 3 junio 2021, https://ethnic-china.com/the-grand-canal-of-china/.
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