Grand Canal at Suzhou

The Grand Canal is largest ancient artificial waterway in the world and an engineering marvel on the scale of the Great Wall of China. Begun in 540 B.C. and completed in A.D. 1327, it is 1,107 miles long and has largely been dug by hand by a work force described as a "million people with teaspoons." At its peak the Grand Canal extended from Tianjin in the north to Hangzhou in the south. It connected Beijing and Xian in the north with Shanghai in the south, and linked four great rivers—the Yellow, the Yangtze, Huai and Qiantang. Water levels have traditionally been maintained using a system of stone gates which channel water in and out of the canals. When it has been necessary to prevent flooding gates are opened so that water can be diverted into lakes. The world's longest modern canal, the Belomorsko-Baltiyskiy Canal in Russia, is 1,410 miles long.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: In the Ming and Qing eras, the “Grand Canal was a major conduit for grain, salt, and other important commodities. Any taxes that were paid in kind were paid in grain, which was shipped along the Grand Canal. Thus, control of the Grand Canal was of critical importance to the government. To a certain extent, the state itself facilitated the movement of goods to market by locating Beijing, its capital, far to the north, away from the rich and prosperous rice growing areas of Southern China. This resulted in a natural market for the demand of goods in the North, if for no other reason than to feed the imperial household and court. This was one of the reasons why it was so important to keep the Grand Canal working. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Madeleine Zelin, Consultant,]

The Grand Canal was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in June 2014. On paper the Grand Canal runs 1,760 kilometers, between Beijing and Hangzhou, which is about 200 kilometers from Shanghai. But since the 1970s the northern part of its course—from Beijing to Jining—has been too dry and shallow to accommodate shipping. The waterway’s main commercial artery encompasses 580 kilometers from Jining to the Yangtze. [Source: Ian Johnson, National Geographic, May 2013]

According to UNESCO: “The Grand Canal forms a vast inland waterway system in the north-eastern and central eastern plains of China, passing through eight of the country’s present-day provinces. It runs from the capital Beijing in the north to Zhejiang Province in the south. Constructed in sections from the 5th century BC onwards, it was conceived as a unified means of communication for the Empire for the first time in the 7th century AD (Sui Dynasty). This led to a series of gigantic worksites, creating the world’s largest and most extensive civil engineering project ensemble prior to the Industrial Revolution.[Source: UNESCO ==]

“Completed and maintained by successive dynasties, it formed the backbone of the Empire’s inland communications system. Its management was made possible over a long period by means of the Caoyun system, the imperial monopoly for the transport of grain and strategic raw materials, and for the taxation and control of traffic. The system enabled the supply of rice to feed the population, the unified administration of the territory, and the transport of troops. The Grand Canal reached a new peak in the 13th century (Yuan Dynasty), providing a unified inland navigation network consisting of more than 2,000 km of artificial waterways, linking five of the most important river basins in China, including the Yellow River and the Yangtze. Still a major means of internal communication today, it has played an important role in ensuring the economic prosperity and stability of China over the ages.” ==

“The canal sections, the remains of hydraulic facilities, and the associated complementary and urban facilities satisfactorily and comprehensibly embody the route of the Grand Canal, its hydraulic functioning in conjunction with the natural rivers and lakes, the operation of its management system and the context of its historic uses. The geographic distribution of these attributes is sufficient to indicate the dimensions, geographic distribution of the routes, and the major historic role played by the Grand Canal in the domestic history of China. Of the 85 individual elements forming the serial property, 71 are considered to be appropriately preserved and in a state of complete integrity, with 14 in a state of lesser integrity. However, the inclusion of recently excavated archaeological elements means that it is not always possible to properly judge their contribution to the overall understanding of the Grand Canal, particularly in terms of technical operation.

Good Websites and Sources on the Grand Canal: Wikipedia Wikipedia Travel China Guide (click attractions) Travel China Guide ; Map Encarta Encarta

Canals in Ancient China

leftDr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: From the sixth century B.C. on, “the governments of the various states began to devote increased attention to massive public works. Among these were large-scale dams and canals, which improved agricultural productivity, transportation for commerce, and the ability to move troops in times of war. The earliest of these projects that can be dated with certainty is the construction in stages of a massive canal, undertaken by the government of Wu, a southeastern state on the north bank of the lower Yangzi, whose population was considered non-Chinese until midway through the Spring and Autumn period.” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“In the early years of the fifth century, the ruling house of Wu capped a rapid rise to power by seizing the hegemonic leadership of the patrician lords. As part of this political process, Wu began work, in 486 B.C., on a massive canal, designed to link the waters of the Yangzi with those of the Huai River, which lay north, midway between the Yangzi and the Yellow River. Four years later, this canal was extended further north to reach waterways in the smaller states of Song and Lu, at which point a navigable route existed linking the Yangzi to the Yellow River. While the motive for this canal system was chiefly military, its benefits for agriculture and commerce were far greater. The artificial waterways it created provided irrigation that improved existing fields in some places, and allowed new lands to be opened to cultivation in others. Its military success was limited – as we have seen, the state of Wu was annihilated by its neighbor to the south, Yue, in 473 B.C., less than ten years after the completion of the system. /+/

Importance of the Grand Canal

On why the Grand Canal was selected a World Heritage Site, UNESCO reported: 1) “The Grand Canal represents the greatest masterpiece of hydraulic engineering in the history of mankind, because of its very ancient origins and its vast scale, along with its continuous development and its adaptation to circumstances down the ages. It provides tangible proof of human wisdom, determination and courage. It is an outstanding example of human creativity, demonstrating technical capabilities and a mastery of hydrology in a vast agricultural empire that stems directly from Ancient China.” ==

2) “The Grand Canal bears witness to the unique cultural tradition of canal management via the Caoyun system, its genesis, its flourishing, and its adaptations to the various dynasties and their successive capitals, and then its disappearance in the 20th century. It consisted of an imperial monopoly of the transport and storage of grain, salt and iron, and a taxation system. It contributed to the fundamental link between the peasant economy, the imperial court and the supply of food to the population and troops. It was a factor of stability for the Chinese Empire down the ages. The economic and urban development along the course of the Grand Canal bears witness to the functioning core of a great agricultural civilisation, and to the decisive role played in this respect by the development of waterway networks.” ==

3) “The Grand Canal is the longest and oldest canal in the world. It bears witness to a remarkable and early development of hydraulic engineering. It is an essential technological achievement dating from before the Industrial Revolution. It is a benchmark in terms of dealing with difficult natural conditions, as is reflected in the many constructions that are fully adapted to the diversity and complexity of circumstances. It fully demonstrates the technical capabilities of Eastern civilisations. The Grand Canal includes important, innovative and particularly early examples of hydraulic techniques. It also bears witness to specific know-how in the construction of dykes, weirs and bridges, and to the original and sophisticated use of materials, such as stone and rammed-earth, and the use of mixed materials (such as clay and straw).” ==

4) “Ever since the 7th century and through successive Chinese dynasties up to modern-day China, the Grand Canal has been a powerful factor of economic and political unification, and a place of major cultural interchanges. It has created and maintained ways of life and a culture that is specific to the people who live along the canal, whose effects have been felt by a large proportion of China’s territory and population over a long historical period. The Grand Canal is a demonstration of the ancient Chinese philosophical concept of the Great Unity, and was an essential element in the unity, complementarity and consolidation of the great agricultural empire of China down the ages.” ==

Grand Canal

History of the Grand Canal

Ian Johnson wrote in National Geographic, “The original canal system, built by Emperor Yang of the Sui dynasty, was seen by Chinese historians as an act of brilliant madness. Ancient China’s main rivers ran west to east, and Yang wanted to break this grip of geography. He needed a way to move rice from the fertile region around the Yangtze northwest to feed his court and, crucially, his armies, which were constantly battling nomadic tribes. So the emperor’s officials press-ganged an estimated million workers, mostly farmers, into building the first section of the canal. Supervised by thousands of soldiers, the men and women were driven around the clock. Yang “inflicted intolerable sufferings,” a ninth-century poet wrote, yet these projects “provided endless benefits to the people.” Officially the work was finished in 171 days in the year 605, but in reality it took six years to complete and claimed an untold number of lives—many of them villagers who starved because there weren’t enough hands left to harvest the crops. [Source: Ian Johnson, National Geographic, May 2013 ]

In 2007, David Lague wrote in the New York Times: “The Duke of Wu began work on what became the Grand Canal in 486 B.C., but it was not until the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan moved the capital to Beijing and straightened the canal that it became a direct north-south waterway. The canal’s main purpose was moving rice to the empire’s wheat-growing north, but it has carried far more colorful cargo over the years. The wood used in building the Ming tombs on the outskirts of Beijing was transported down the Yangtze River from Yunnan and Sichuan provinces and then up the Grand Canal to the capital. During the Ming dynasty, the bricks used to build the Forbidden City in Beijing were hauled up the canal from Jiangsu and Shandong Provinces. Even the craftsmen and artisans recruited from Jiangsu to build the sprawling complex that became the seat of power for the Ming and Qing dynasties arrived in the capital on the canal. [Source: David Lague, New York Times, July 24, 2007 |^|]

Johnson wrote: “The canal did more than move grain—as the country’s unifying feature, it was a potent political symbol and a strategic target for invaders. In the early 1840s, when the British wanted to put a stranglehold on China during the first Opium War, they occupied Zhenjiang, at the intersection of the canal and the Yangtze, throttling the flow of grain and tax revenues to Beijing. Within weeks China surrendered. The Grand Canal was also a cultural conduit. Emperors on visits to inspect the canal’s locks and levees observed and co-opted local ways. That’s said to be how Beijing acquired two trademarks: Peking duck, from Shandong Province, and Peking opera, from Anhui and Hubei. Theater troupes, who relied on the canal to get around, said prayers to its wharves, while poets were moved by its very presence. Writing in the eighth century, Zhang Ji describes a temple on the canal whose “ringing bell reaches my boat at midnight.”

Lange wrote: “In 1790, during the reign of Emperor Qianlong, opera troupes from Anhui Province were ferried up the canal to perform in the capital. The troupes stayed on, and their melodies and performances, combined with other influences, eventually became Beijing Opera. But by the beginning of the 19th century, the canal was in decline as a weakened Qing dynasty neglected maintenance and dredging. A major flood on the Yellow River in 1855 damaged the waterway and blocked it for more than a decade at a time when increasing amounts of cargo were being carried by sea and then rail.” |^|

Construction of the Grand Canal

The Grand Canal was created by connecting a series of smaller canals built in separate areas. It was constructed primarily to move troops from the north to south and transport food from the rich agricultural lands in the south to overpopulated cities and towns in the north. It was also built to allow merchants to avoid transporting their cargoes on the high seas where they were vulnerable to typhoons and pirates.

Construction of the canal has been done in a piecemeal fashion over the centuries, with new sections added and others abandoned and rebuilt. The bulk of the work was done during the Sui dynasty under the leadership of the ruthless emperor Yang Di, who put 5.5 million workers to work during a six year period, ending to 610 A.D. No one knows how may died digging the canals but it was probably in the tens of the thousands. During the height of the Tang dynasty, which followed the Sui Dynasty, long strings of barges carried 100,000 tons of grain a year from the rice fields in the south to the north.

The great Mongol leader Kublai Khan put three million people to work in 1279 to extend the Grand Canal 135 miles to north so that rice could be transported from the fertile Yangtze Delta, near Shanghai, to his new capital, present-day Beijing.

Yang Guang and the Grand Canal

Takahiro Suzuki wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “Yangzhou in Jiangsu Province has always flourished as a city of water transportation, as it is located on the Yangtze River. The canal that runs through the center of the city is iconic. Originally built in the 5th century B.C., it was expanded and developed into the Grand Canal by Yang Guang, the second emperor of the Sui dynasty (A.D. 518-619). Lush willows grow along both sides of the canal and are known among local residents as “yangliu,” or riverside willows. They were planted along the banks when Emperor Yang had his people build the canal. [Source: Takahiro Suzuki, Yomiuri Shimbun, September 9, 2014 |*|]

“Before becoming emperor in the capital Changan, Yang Guang spent 10 years in Yangzhou as a provincial governor and loved the city of scenic beauty. When part of the construction of the Grand Canal between Changan and Yangtze was finished in 605, Yang Guang visited Yangzhou in a “dragon boat,” a boat used for pleasure cruises. It is said that on the completion of the entire 2,700 kilometers, he traveled from Yangzhou to somewhere near the current Beijing area in a dragon boat. It can be said that Emperor Yang was at the height of his rule around this time. |*|

“The construction of the Grand Canal was necessary to transport products from the developed lower reaches of the Yangtze River to the northern areas. Though there was criticism that the emperor planted willows on the banks just to suit his taste for austere elegance, it is believed that they were actually planted to reinforce the banks. It is obvious that Yang Guang had immense foresight, since the Grand Canal has proved invaluable even after the Sui dynasty fell. Though part of the canal is now disconnected, it is still in use after all these years as a route for transporting cargo.” |*|

Kangxi’s Visit to Suzhou and the Grand Canal

Canal Gate near Suzhou station

On the handscroll “The Kangxi Emperor's Visit to Suzhou in 1689", Columbia University’s Asia for Educators reports: “The seventh of the twelve scrolls recording the Kangxi Emperor's second southern inspection tour takes the viewer from the city of Wuxi to the city of Suzhou in the fertile Yangzi River delta region of China. This is the commercial heartland of the empire — an area crisscrossed with a network of canals and prosperous cities. Fully one-third to one-half of the economic wealth of the entire empire was concentrated in this area, and it was enormously important for the emperor to ally himself politically with the gentry of this region. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Maxwell K. Hearn, Consultant, ]

“The culmination of the seventh scroll depicts the Kangxi Emperor's residence in Suzhou. It was not at the house of the provincial governor, as might be expected, but rather at the house of the Silk Commissioner, who was technically the emperor's bond servant. The Silk Commissioner was part of the emperor's private entourage, but was stationed in Suzhou in order to supervise the manufacture of silk. Suzhou was the center of the silk manufacturing industry in China, and silk was one of the commodities that was an imperial monopoly, the revenue from which went directly to the emperor's "privy purse," which refers to those monies used exclusively to underwrite the cost of running the imperial palaces. These monies were the private purview of the emperor — his private, discretionary funds — and they were not part of the government taxation system, which of course collected monies for the expenses of the government itself. Being a major source of funds for the imperial privy purse, Suzhou's silk industry was of special interest to China's rulers.”

Qianlong’s Visit to Suzhou and the Grand Canal

On the handscroll “The Qianlong Emperor's Visit to Suzhou in 1751,” Columbia University’s Asia for Educators reports: “The sixth of the twelve scrolls recording the Qianlong Emperor's first southern inspection tour depicts the emperor visiting the city of Suzhou, just as his grandfather, the Kangxi Emperor, had done some 60 years earlier. Suzhou remained the cultural capital of China even into the 18th century, and both emperors' visits underscore the importance of Suzhou to the imperial household as well as to the rich commercial life of China under the Qing dynasty. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Maxwell K. Hearn, Consultant, ]

Grand Canal near Qianhair Lake, Beijing

“Following the Grand Canal from the outskirts of Suzhou, past Tiger Hill, to a panoramic view of the walled city, the sixth scroll depicts the Qianlong Emperor entering Suzhou on horseback, in preparation for riding the final leg of his journey to the Silk Commissioner's residence, where he was to spend the night, just as his grandfather did. The sixth scroll also shows the imperial barge of the Emperor’s mother, who accompanied him on his tour, being pulled along the Grand Canal on the outskirts of the city. During Qing times the Grand Canal was a major conduit for grain, salt, and other important commodities. Any taxes that were paid in kind were paid in grain, which was shipped along the Grand Canal. Thus, control of the Grand Canal was of critical importance to Qing rulers.

“Scroll Six follows the Grand Canal past a number of commercial streets where various trades people, stores, and restaurants showcase local products. The scroll shows that a number of temporary stages were erected for performances held in honor of the emperor, in order to entertain him and his mother as they pass along the Canal. The scroll also depicts several gardens, for which Suzhou was renowned. During the Qing period, much of what Europeans learned about China came from the reports of Jesuit missionaries, who had lived in China since the late 16th century and were enormously impressed with what they found in China during this time. The European interest in Chinese naturalistic gardens of this time may have contributed to the transformation of gardening in Europe.”

Current State of the Grand Canal

In 2007, David Lague wrote in the New York Times: “Large stretches of the canal north of where the Yellow River meets it are now dry, filled in completely or heavily polluted. “There is a lack of awareness about the canal,” said Luo Zhewen, an expert in ancient architecture at the State Bureau of Cultural Heritage and a leading authority on the Great Wall. “It is a living relic, not just something from the past.” [Source: David Lague, New York Times, July 24, 2007 |^|]

“Despite the fact that the canal is no longer navigable between Beijing and the city of Jining in Shandong Province, about one-third of its length, the remaining section south to Hangzhou remains in heavy use. More than 100,000 vessels ply the canal each year, carrying about 260 million tons of goods including coal and construction materials, according to figures released by the Ministry of Communications in March. That is three times as much cargo as is carried on the Beijing-Shanghai railway. The economic importance of the canal is set to increase because the governments of Shandong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang Provinces plan dredging that should increase shipping capacity by 40 percent in the next few years, according to official news reports.” |^|

Zhu Bingren, a well-known Hangzhou artist, played a major role in getting the Grand Canal listed as a UNESCO a World Heritage site. In late 2005, he and other activists “wrote an open letter to the mayors of 18 historic cities along the canal calling for their support in seeking World Heritage listing. They also successfully lobbied members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee, an advisory group to the central government, to back the move... Local officials say the canal could become a major tourist attraction if it were ranked alongside China’s other famous World Heritage sites including the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. “The cultural content of the Grand Canal is very rich,” Mr. Luo said. “We should not consider it simply as a canal. If you just see it as a canal, it is not very interesting.” |^|

Cleaning Up the Grand Canal

In 2007, David Lague wrote in the New York Times: “Until the early 1990s, crews on barges and boats chugging down China’s 2,400-year-old Grand Canal did not need familiar landmarks to tell them they were approaching the scenic city of Hangzhou. They could smell it. “The water was black,” said Zhu Jianbai, assistant director of the city government’s Grand Canal Restoration and Development Group. “There was no life in it. If you lived beside it, you had to live with the stink.”“It was an embarrassment,” Mr. Zhu said. [Source: David Lague, New York Times, July 24, 2007 |^|]

“But a $250 million makeover that began in 2001 has improved water quality and spurred urban renewal along a 24-mile section of this ancient transport artery that once connected China’s great west-to-east river systems, carrying the goods, taxes and official communications that sustained successive dynasties. Today, small fish swim among the pylons supporting cargo wharves where effluent from factories and raw sewage from homes had poisoned this section of the world’s oldest man-made waterway. Walkways and parkland line sections of the canal, and some of China’s most expensive apartment buildings have sprung up beside it on what has become prime real estate. Water taxis connect historic piers and bridges along the winding route through the city where old shop houses and tenements are being restored. Most remarkably, the canal no longer smells. |^|

Grand Canal in the Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou Area

“For a growing number of activists campaigning for the preservation of the 1,115-mile canal and its many cultural and historical sites, the success is an important step in reversing almost two centuries of neglect, during which long sections of the waterway that linked Hangzhou with the capital, Beijing, were abandoned or fell into disrepair. “We can borrow from this experience,” said Zhu Bingren, who with fellow activists has called on the central and local governments to develop a comprehensive strategy for rehabilitating the canal. “It can’t be copied for every city, but a lot of experts are generally satisfied with Hangzhou’s method.”...There is no deadline for finishing the cleanup and restoration work, but by some estimates, the final cost could reach $2.5 billion.” |^|

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons,, Top Map: Australia National University

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2016

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