Grand Canal of China

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Geography of Asia

Grand Canal of China
Grand Canal of China

The Grand Canal ( Simplified Chinese: 大运河; Traditional Chinese: 大運河; pinyin: Dà Yùnhé) of China, 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 Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Shandong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang. The oldest parts of the canal date back to the 5th century BC.


The idea of a continuous waterway cutting across the Chinese mainland sprouted in the late Spring and Autumn Period ( 722- 481 BC), when Fu Chai, the Duke of Wu (present-day Suzhou), travelled north to conquer other kingdoms. He ordered a canal to be constructed, called Han Gou, to transport soldiers. The canal was first cut near Yangzhou, Jiangsu to guide the waters of the Yangtze River to the north. This part is thought, on the strength of a passage in one of the books of Confucius, to have been built c. 486 BC. It is the most ancient part of the canal and connected the Yangtze with the Huai River. This part was repaired and enlarged in the 3rd century AD.

It was lengthened during the Sui Dynasty ( 581- 618). In the year of 604, Emperor Yang Guang (or Sui Yangdi) of Sui Dynasty left Chang'an (present-day Xi'an), the capital, and made his rounds in Luoyang. In 605, the emperor gave an order to build two projects: transferring the capital from Chang'an to Luoyang and excavating the Grand Canal linking Beijing and Hangzhou. It took over six years to build the Grand Canal linking all the canals along it and connecting five river systems those of the Hai River, Yellow River, Huai River, Qiantang River, and Yangtze River. The southern part, between the Yangtze and Hangzhou, was named as Jiang Nan He (江南河). The central part stretched from Yangzhou to Luoyang. It could be divided into two sections. The section between the Yangtze River and the Huai River was called Shan Yang Du (山阳渎), most of which was rebuilt on the old canal. The other section was called Tong Ji Qu (通济渠), connecting the Yellow River and the Huai River. The northern part of Great Canal, Yong Ji Qu (永济渠), linking Beijing and Luoyang, was used to transport troops for the Goguryeo-Sui War. The total length of the canal at that time was around 2500km.

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

During the Yuan Dynasty ( 1206- 1368), the capital of China was moved to Beijing. So there was no need for the Grand Canal flowed west to Kaifeng or Luoyang. The canal was then recoursed to a shortcut in the Shandong province in the years 1280 to 1283. It was shorten as much as 700km and the total length was 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.

In the year 1855, the Yellow river flooded and changed its course to Shandong, which cut off the course of the Grand Canal. Because of the difficulty to cross the above ground Yellow river, the development of maritime transport, and the opening of the Jinpu Railway (from Tianjin to Pukou, Nanjing) and Beijing-Hankou railways, the northern and southern part of canal was never rejoined. 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.


During the Yuan, 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. 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 Grand Canal starts north in Beijing and ends south in Hangzhou, Zhejiang with a total length of 1,794 km (1,115 miles). It passes through Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Shandong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang.

In the central portion of the canal, that is between Jingjiang and Qingjiangpu, at which latter place it crosses the dry channel which marks the course of the Yellow River before 1852, the current is strong and difficult to ascend in the upward (northern) journey. This part of the canal skirts several lakes and is fed by the Huai He as it issues from the Xingzuo lake. The country lying west of the canal is higher than its bed; while the country 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 in flood seasons.

After leaving Hangzhou the canal passes round the eastern border of the Lake Tai, surrounding in its course the beautiful city of Suzhou, and then trends in a generally north-westerly direction through the fertile districts of Jiangsu as far as Jingjiang on the Yangtze. In this, the southern 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 Jingjiang the canal is often over 100 feet (30 m) wide, and its sides are in many places faced with stone. It is spanned by fine stone bridges, and near its banks are many memorial arches and lofty pagodas.

The northern and considerably the longest section of the canal, extends from the old bed of the Yellow river to Tianjin. It largely utilizes existing rivers and follows their original windings. Between Xingjiangpu and the present course of the Yellow River the canal trends north-northwest, skirting the highlands of Shandong. In this region it passes through a series of lagoons, which in summer form one lake -- Zhouyang. North of that lake on the east bank of the canal, is the city of Ziningzhou. About 25 miles north of that city the highest level of the canal is reached at the town of Nan Wang. Here the river Wen enters the canal from the east, and about 30 miles farther north the Yellow River is reached. On the west side of the canal, at the point where the Yellow River now cuts across it, there is laid down in Chinese maps of the 18th century a dry channel which is described as being followed by the Yellow River before it took the channel it abandoned in 1851-1853.

The passage of the Yellow River to the part of the canal north of this stream is difficult, and can only be effected at certain levels of the river. Frequently the waters of the river are either too low or the current is too strong to permit a passage. Leaving this point the canal passes through a well-wooded and hilly country west of Dongping Zhou and east of Dongchang Fu. At Linjing Zhou it is joined at right angles by the Wei river in the midst of the city. Up to this point, i.e. from Qingjiangbu to Linjing Zhou, a distance of over 300 miles, navigation is difficult and the water-supply often insufficient. The differences of level, 20 to 30 feet, are provided for by barrages over which the boats -- having discharged their cargo -- are hauled by windlasses. Below the junction with the Wei the canal borrows the channel of the river and again becomes easily navigable. Crossing the frontier into Hebei, between De Zhou and Zang Zhou, which it passes to the west, it joins the Beihe at Tianjin, after having received the waters of the Geduo river in the neighbourhood of Qing Xian.

The northern portion of the canal is now of little use as a means of communication between north and south. It is badly built, neglected and charged with the mud-laden waters of the Yellow River. The central and southern portions of the canal are very largely used.


According to the writings published by Père Gandar, the total length of the canal is 3630 li, or about 1200 miles (1930km). A rough measurement, taking account only of the main bends of the canal, makes its length 850 miles.

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