For more than two thousand years caoyun was the centralized transportation system used by central governments of imperial China to collect grain—an important form of tax levied on agricultural land—and transport it to locations such as capitals, the metropolitan garrison, the court, and the metropolitan bureaucracy. The caoyun system consisted of water transportation and land transportation.

The centralized caoyun system of water and land transportation was established during the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE) to meet the consumption needs of the government and military and to distribute grain as welfare to people who needed it. During a warring period with a neighboring tribe to the north, Qin Shi Huang—who was the first emperor of the Qin dynasty and unified China—ordered the Linqu Canal to be built. This canal connected the Li Jiang River in Guangxi and the Xiang Jiang River in Hunan, enabling faster supplying of troops.

By the late Qing dynasty (1644–1912), the caoyun system was out of use. One of the obvious reasons for its demise was the destruction of the Grand Canal during the lengthy civil war between Hong Xiuquan’s Taiping Heavenly Kingdom (1851–1864) and the Qing government. In fact, in the late nineteenth century China’s modernization and the increasing use of steamships and railways made the caoyun system obsolete.

From the Qin dynasty to the Qing dynasty, a period of about two thousand years, the caoyun system played an important role both politically and economically. The caoyun system was developed and improved throughout the major dynasties in between—the Han (206 BCE–220 CE), Sui (581–618 CE), Tang (618–907 CE), Song (960–1279), Yuan (1279–1368), and Ming (1368–1644).

For instance, during the Han dynasty the Cao Qu Channel was built, running parallel to the Wei River. Hence, the distance of water transportation between the grain-producing areas and the capital city Chang An (Xi’an) was significantly shortened. The amount of grain tribute able to be shipped to the capital had once reached 6 million shi (1 shi is about 62.5 kilograms) a year. The average yearly amount was about 4 million shi, according to historian Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian.

Although the Sui dynasty spanned a relatively short period, its contribution to the caoyun system was significant. The newly dug canals of Guang Tong, Tong Ji, Shan Yang, and Yong Ji had connected five large rivers: Hai, Huang (Yellow), Huai, Yangzi (Chang), and Qiantang. As a result, a great water network was formed that was maintained and expanded by the Tang, Song, Yuan, and Ming dynasties.

The caoyun system reached its maturity during the Tang dynasty. The Grand Canal served as a lifeline to provide the grain needed by the central government and the capital city. The flow of grain was mainly from south to north and from east to west.

The Song dynasty had its capital at Da Liang (now Kaifeng city in Henan Province). The nearby four rivers—Bian, Huang, Huimin, and Guangji—were connected to support he distribution of grain tribute.

During the Yuan dynasty the caoyun system experienced a shift from shipment by rivers and the canal systems to shipment by sea. Two special caoyun offices were established. One office was responsible for gathering and transporting grain from all over the empire to the city of Zhongruan. The other office was responsible for shipping the grain from Zhongruan to the capital city Dadu. Three thousand ships were built for the grain tribute.

The Grand Canal, connecting the Qiantang, Yangzi, Huai, Huang, and Hai Rivers, was in its grandeur during the Ming dynasty. Staring in 1415 the Ming dynasty ordered that all grain tribute had to go through the inland rivers and canals. As a result, the grain transported via the Grand Canal system accounted for three-quarters of the total. At the time the Grand Canal ran through most of the major cities.

Like so many other Chinese institutions, the grain tribute system entered a period of crisis during the Qing dynasty. The First Opium War (1839–1842) between the Qing empire and Great Britain severely damaged the Grand Canal, which was the lifeline of the Caoyun system. After that the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom occupied Nanjing and controlled a long segment of the Yangzi River for more than ten years. The war destroyed many of the major cities along the Grand Canal. The final blow to the caoyun system came from modern transportation by sea and by railway. In 1872 the Ship Bureau was established in Shanghai. In 1911 a railway between Tianjin and Pukou was opened. The grain tribute system officially ended in 1901. The demise of imperial China followed in 1912.

Further Reading

Bao Yanbang. (1996). Mingdai caoyun yanjiu [The study of Caoyun system in the Ming dynasty]. Guangzhou, China: Jinan University Press.

Cai Taibin. (1992). Mingdai caohe zhi zhengli yu guanli [The restoration and management of the grain tribute canals in the Ming Dynasty]. Taipei, Taiwan: Taiwan Commercial Press.

Hinton, H. C. (1956). The grain tribute system of China (1845–1911) (Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, 1956).

Peng Yunhe. (1995). Ming Qing caoyun shi [The history of Caoyun system in the Ming and Qing dynasties]. Beijing: Capital Normal University Press.

Once a tree falls, the monkeys on it will scatter.


Shù dǎo hú sūn sàn

Source: Bai, Di. (2009). Caoyun System. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 280–281. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Caoyun System (Cáoyùn xìtǒng 漕运系统)|Cáoyùn xìtǒng 漕运系统 (Caoyun System)

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