China's Grand Canal

Wuzhen city, on China's Grand Canal
Wuzhen City, on China's Grand Canal. Huang Xin via Getty Images

The largest canal in the world, the Grand Canal of China, wends its way through four provinces, beginning at Beijing and ending at Hangzhou.  It ties together two of the greatest rivers in the world - the Yangtze River and the Yellow River - as well as smaller waterways such as the Hai River, the Qiantang River, and the Huai River.

History of The Grand Canal

Just as impressive as its incredible size, however, is the Grand Canal's remarkable age. The first section of the canal likely dates back to the 6th century BCE, although Chinese historian Sima Qian claimed that it went back 1,500 years earlier than that to the time of the legendary Yu the Great of the Xia Dynasty.  In any case, the earliest section links the Yellow River to the Si and Bian Rivers in Henan Province.  It is known poetically as the "Canal of the Flying Geese," or more prosaically as "Far-Flung Canal."

Another early section of the Grand Canal was created under the direction of King Fuchai of Wu, who ruled from 495 to 473 BCE.  This early portion is known as the Han Gou, or "Han Conduit," and connects the Yangtze River with the Huai River.

Fuchai's reign coincides with the end of the Spring and Autumn Period, and the beginning of the Warring States period, which would seem to be an inauspicious time to take on such a huge project. However, despite the political turmoil, that era saw the creation of several major irrigation and waterworks projects, including the Dujiangyan Irrigation System in Sichuan, the Zhengguo Canal in Shaanxi Province, and the Lingqu Canal in Guangxi Province.

The Grand Canal itself was combined into one great waterway during the reign of the Sui Dynasty, 581 - 618 CE.  In its finished state, the Grand Canal stretches 1,104 miles (1,776 kilometers) and runs north to south roughly parallel to the east coast of China.  The Sui used the labor of 5 million of their subjects, both men and women, to dig the canal, finishing work in 605 CE.

The Sui rulers sought to connect northern and southern China directly so that they could ship grain between the two regions.  This helped them to overcome local crop failures and famine, as well as supplying their armies that were stationed far from their southern bases.  The path along the canal also served as an imperial highway, and post offices set all along the way served the imperial courier system.

By the Tang Dynasty era (618 - 907 CE), more than 150,000 tons of grain traveled the Grand Canal annually, most of it tax payments from southern peasants moving to the capital cities of the north.  However, the Grand Canal could pose a danger as well as a benefit to the people who lived beside it.  In the year 858, a terrible flood spilled into the canal, and drowned thousands of acres across the North China Plain, killing tens of thousands.  This catastrophe represented a huge blow to the Tang, already weakened by the An Shi Rebellion.  The flooding canal seemed to suggest that the Tang Dynasty had lost the Mandate of Heaven, and needed to be replaced.

To prevent the grain barges from running aground (and then being robbed of their tax grain by local bandits), the Song Dynasty assistant commissioner of transport Qiao Weiyue invented the world's first system of pound locks.  These devices would raise the level of the water in a section of the canal, to safely float barges past obstacles in the canal.

During the Jin-Song Wars, the Song dynasty in 1128 destroyed part of the Grand Canal to block the Jin military's advance.  The canal was only repaired in the 1280s by the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, which moved the capital to Beijing and shortened the total length of the canal by about 450 miles (700 km).

Both the Ming (1368 - 1644) and the Qing (1644 - 1911) Dynasties maintained the Grand Canal in working order.  It took literally tens of thousands of laborers to keep the whole system dredged and functional each year; operating the grain barges required an additional 120,000 plus soldiers.

In 1855, disaster struck the Grand Canal.  The Yellow River flooded and jumped its banks, changing its course and cutting itself off from the canal.  The waning power of the Qing Dynasty decided not to repair the damage, and the canal is still not entirely recovered.  However, the People's Republic of China, founded in 1949, has invested heavily in repairing and reconstructing damaged and neglected sections of the canal.

The Grand Canal Today

In 2014, UNESCO listed the Grand Canal of China as a World Heritage Site.  Although much of the historic canal is visible, and many sections are popular tourist destinations, currently only the portion between Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province and Jining, Shandong Province is navigable.  That is a distance of about 500 miles (800 kilometers).

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "China's Grand Canal." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2023, April 5). China's Grand Canal. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "China's Grand Canal." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).