Grand Canal of China

Grand Canal of China
Grand Canal of China

The Grand Canal of China (Simplified Chinese: 大运河, Traditional Chinese: 大運河; pinyin: Dà Yùnhé), also known as the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal (Simplified Chinese: 京杭大运河, Traditional Chinese: 京杭大運河; pinyin: Jīng Háng Dà Yùnhé) is the largest ancient canal or artificial river in the world. It passes through the Chinese mainland cities of Beijing and Tianjin and the provinces of Hebei, Shandong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang. The oldest parts of the canal date back to the 5th century BC.





Early History

The concept of the canal arose in the late Spring and Autumn Period (722-481 BC), when Fu Chai, the Duke of Wu (present-day Suzhou), ventured north to conquer other kingdoms. He ordered a canal be constructed to transport soldiers, which became known as the Han Guo, or 'Han-country Conduit'.

The first cut was made near Yangzhou, Jiangsu to guide the waters of the Yangtze River northbound. According to a passage in one of the books of Confucius, it is thought to have been built circa 486 BC. It is the most ancient part of the canal and connected the Yangtze with the Huai River. This section was repaired and enlarged in the 3rd century AD.


The Formation of the Grand Canal in the Sui Dynasty

The Grand Canal was lengthened during the Sui Dynasty (581-618). In 604, Emperor Yang Guang (or Sui Yangdi) of the Sui Dynasty left Chang'an (present-day Xi'an), and made his rounds in Luoyang. In 605, the capital was transfered from Chang'an to Luoyang, and the emperor ordered the excavation of a Grand Canal linking Beijing and Hangzhou.

It took over six years to link the five river systems of the Grand Canal. When completed, it connected the Hai River, Yellow River, Huai River, Qiantang River, and Yangtze River. The southern section, between the Yangtze and Hangzhou, was named the Jiang Nan He (江南河). The central portion of the Grand Canal stretched from Yangzhou to Luoyang, and could be divided into two sections. The section between the Yangtze River and the Huai River was called the Shan Yang Du (山阳渎), most of which was rebuilt on the course of the existing canal. The other section was called the Tong Ji Qu (通济渠), connecting the Yellow River and the Huai River. The northern portion of the Grand Canal was named the Yong Ji Qu (永济渠). It linked Beijing and Luoyang, and was used to transport troops for the Goguryeo-Sui War[1]. The total length of the canal at that time was approximately 2500km.


Grand Canal in the Later Dynasties

After the An Shi Rebellion during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the economy of north China was greatly damaged and never recovered due to wars and to constant floodings of the Yellow River. The Grand Canal was the main route for the shipping of cereals from the Yangtze River Delta to North China. The city of Kaifeng was a major depot on the course, and grew gradually, later becoming the capital of the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

During the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), the capital of China was moved to Beijing and eliminated the need for the Grand Canal to flow west to Kaifeng or Luoyang. A shortcut was dug across Shandong province in the years 1280 to 1283. This shortened the overall canal by as much as 700km, making the total length about 1800km. Since then, the course of the Grand Canal has not changed much.

The entire canal was reconstructed between 1411 and 1415 during the Ming Dynasty by the Yongle Emperor. During the next 400 years it was maintained as the main artery for transporting grain from the Yangtze River Delta to Beijing.

In 1855, the Yellow River flooded and changed its course, severing the course of the Grand Canal in Shandong. Because of various factors - the difficulty of crossing the Yellow River, the increased development of an alternative sea route for grain-ships, and the opening of the Tianjin-Pukou Railway and Beijing-Hankou railways, the northern and southern part of canal thereafter remained separate. This reduced the canal's role greatly. Many of its sections fell into disrepair, and some parts became choked with mud. After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the need for economic development led the authorities to order heavy reconstruction work on the Grand Canal. Currently, the section from Jining to Hangzhou is navigable.



The Grand Canal starts at the north in Beijing and ends in the south in Hangzhou, Zhejiang, with a total length of 1,794 km (1,115 miles). It is nominally divided into seven sections. From south to north these are the Jiangnan canal, the Li canal, the Zhong canal, the Lu canal, the South canal, the North canal, and the Tonghui River.


Jiangnan Canal

The southern section of the canal, the "Jiangnan Canal", runs from Hangzhou in Zhejiang province, where the canal connects with the Qiantang River, to Zhenjiang in Jiangsu province, where it crosses the Yangtze River. After leaving Hangzhou, the canal passes around the eastern border of Lake Tai, surrounding in its course the beautiful city of Suzhou, and then moves in a generally northwesterly direction through the fertile districts of Jiangsu, and as far as Zhenjiang on the Yangtze. In this southernmost section, the slope is gentle and water is plentiful (from 7 feet (2.1 m) at low water to 11 feet (3.4 m) and occasionally 13 feet (4 m) at high water). Between Suzhou and Zhenjiang the canal is often over 100 feet (30 m) wide, and in many places its sides are faced with stone. It is spanned by fine stone bridges, and near its banks are many memorial arches and lofty pagodas.


Li Canal

Between Zhenjiang and Yangzhou the canal cross the Yangtze. The section of canal between Zhenjiang and Huai'an is called the "Li Canal" (the "Inner Canal"). In this section the current is very strong, making it difficult to traverse upriver going north. At Qingjiangpu(Huai'an), it crosses the dry channel which marks the course of the Yellow River before 1855. This part of the canal skirts several lakes and is fed by the Huai River as it issues out of Hongze Lake. The land lying to the west of the canal is higher than its bed; while the land to the east is lower than the canal. The two regions are known respectively as Shanghe (above the river) and Xiahe (below the river). Waste weirs opening on the Xiahe — one of the great rice-producing areas of China — discharge the surplus water during flood season.


Zhong Canal

The next section, from Huai'an to Weishan Lake, is called the "Zhong Canal" (the "Middle Canal"). It largely utilizes existing rivers and follows their original winding paths. In this region it passes through Luoma Lake. There region also boasts many coal mines, as is apparent from the number of coal-barges on the canal.


Lu Canal

At Weishan Lake, the canal enters Shandong province. The canal here is called the "Lu Canal" (the "Shandong Canal"). Between Huai'an and the Yellow River, the canal curves to the northwest, skirting the foothills of the Shandong massif. It hugs the shoreline of a series of lakes - Weishan, Zhaoyang, Dushan and Nanyang - which nominally form a continuous body of water. At present, water shortages mean that the lakes are often largely dry land.

North of the northernmost Nanyang Lake is the city of Jining. Confucius' hometown, Qufu, is located 60km to the east. Further on, about 30km north of Jining, the highest elevation of the canal is reached at the town of Nanwang, where the canal reaches 38.5m above sea level. Here the River Wen once entered the canal from the hills to the east, providing water to both the southern and northern parts of the canal. In the 1950s though, with the drying up of the Wen, a new canal was dug to the south of the old summit section, fed by the River Quan and its tributaries. The old summit section is now a dead channel, while the new canal holds too little water to be navigable.

About 30 miles further north, passing close by Dongping Lake, the canal reaches the Yellow River. By this point waterless, it no longer communicates with the river. It reappears again in Liaocheng City on the north bank where, intermittently flowing through a renovated stone channel, it reaches the city of Linqing on the Shandong-Hebei border.


The South Canal

The fifth section of the canal, the "Southern Canal", extends from Linqing to Tianjin. Its name derives from its position south of Tianjin. At Linqing it is joined at right angles by the Wei River, the feature which gives this stretch the alternative name of the "Wei Canal". The Wei River at this point is very heavily polluted, while drought and water extraction have left it too low to be navigable.

The canal, now in Hebei province, passes through the cities of Dezhou and Cangzhou. Although visitors might see the canal as a deep waterway in these city centres, its depth is maintained by weirs and the canal is in fact all but dry where it passes through the surrounding countryside. Finally, the canal joins the Yongding River and Bai River at Tianjin.


The North Canal and Tonghui River

From Tianjin the canal heads northwest, following the course of the Bai River. Again, the name "North Canal" refers to the canal's position relative to Tianjin.

Finally, 80km from Tianjin, the canal reaches Tongzhou on the edge of Beijing. It is here that the modern canal stops, and here that a Grand Canal Cultural Park has been built. During the Yuan Dynasty a further canal, the Tonghui River, connected Tongzhou with a wharf called the Houhai in central Beijing. In the Ming and Qing dynasties, however, the water level in the Tonghui River dropped and it was impossible for ships to travel from Tongzhou to Beijing. Tongzhou became the north shipping terminus of the canal. Cargos from thesouth were unloaded at Tongzhou and transported to Beijing by land ("Tongzhou" literally means "connecting city").


Length and Elevations

According to Père Gandar, the total length of the canal is 3,630 li, or about 1,200 miles (1,930km). A rough measurement, taking into account only the main bends of the canal, places its length at around 850 miles. The total length today is generally agreed to be 1,794km (1,115 miles).

The elevation of the canalbed varies from -1m at Hangzhou to 38.5m at its Nanwang summit. At Beijing it reaches 27m. The water flows from Beijing toward Tianjin, from Nanwang toward Tianjin, and from Nanwang toward Yangzhou. The water level in the Jiangnan Canal is close to sea level.





During the Yuan (1271-1368), Ming (1368-1644), and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, the Grand Canal served as the main artery between northern and southern China and was essential for the transport of grain to Beijing. Although it was mainly used for shipping grain, the waterway also transported other commodities. The area around the Grand Canal eventually developed into an important business belt. Records show that every year more than 8,000 boats transported 4 to 6 million dan (200,000 to 300,000 tonnes) of grain to Beijing. [2] The convenience of transport also enabled the rulers to lead inspection tours to southern China. In the Qing Dynasty, Emperor Kangxi and Qianlong made 12 trips to southern China, on all occasions but one reaching the south terminus in Hangzhou.

The Grand Canal also bridged the cultural exchanges between the north and south of China. The canal even made a distinct impression on some of China's early European visitors. Marco Polo recounted the Grand Canal's arched bridges as well as the warehouses and the prosperous trade in the 13th century. The famous Roman Catholic missionary Matteo Ricci travelled from Nanjing to Beijing on the canal at the end of 16th century.

The northern portion of the canal is currently of little use as a means of communication between north and south. It is poorly built, neglected, and charged with the mud-laden waters of the Yellow River. In recent years, due to the greater demand for the water, this part is almost dried up. The central and southern portions of the canal from Jining to Hangzhou is well maintained and heavily used to ship coals from the coal mines in Shandong province and northern Jiangsu province to the Yangtze Delta, greatly alleviating the overload on the Jinghu Railway.


Eastern Route of the South-North Water Transfer Project

The Grand Canal is being upgraded and will be used as the Eastern Route of the South-North Water Transfer Project. Water from the Yangtze River will be pumped into the canal at Jiangdu City. The water will then be pumped continuously along the canal to Dongping Lake, where water can flow downhill to Tianjin and Beijing.[3] Construction on the Eastern Route officially began on December 27, 2002, and the water is supposed to reach Beijing in 2012. The most technically challenging of the route is to build a tunnel under the Yellow River. In addition, the water pollution in the grand canal will also be a serious problem.[4] The success of the eastern route will need a comprehensive clean-up of the grand canal water system, therefore, the ecological impact of the eastern route is largely positive.[3]


See also


External links



  1. Book of Sui, Chapter Three
  3. 3.0 3.1
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