Andrew FIELD

The Grand Canal in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Originally built during the Sui dynasty (581–618 CE), the Grand Canal is a major waterway that unified northern and southern China, serving as a connection between major cities and as a vital means of maintaining trade relations within the empire. Today it is still used to transport goods such as bricks, gravel, sand, diesel, and coal.

The Grand Canal is an artificial waterway constructed in China during the Sui dynasty (581–618 CE) and expanded during subsequent dynasties. The Chinese refer to this canal as the yunlianghe or “grain transport river,” or alternately as the jinghang dayunhe or “Beijing Hangzhou Grand Canal.” The canal was and is still used to transport both raw and finished goods between northern and southern China. The Grand Canal was crucial to the maintenance of the Chinese empire, enabling the Chinese to use the rich agricultural lands of southern China to help feed people in the north. It was also crucial to trade relations within the empire and to trade relations between the Chinese and the peoples of the steppes (vast, usually level and treeless tracts in southeastern Europe or Asia). In imperial times the canal was used principally to transport tribute grain (grain paid by other countries in deference to China’s position of power in Asia) to the capital, but it was also used to ship large quantities of tea, cotton, and other supplies.

China is blessed with an abundant river system, which until the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century gave China a comparative advantage over trading networks in Europe, central Asia, and Africa, which had to rely on camel caravans and more tempestuous oceanic routes. Over the centuries China also developed a sophisticated knowledge of canal building. As early as the Warring States period (475–221 BCE), states in China were building canals. The state of Wu in present-day Jiangsu Province built a canal to facilitate the transportation of soldiers to fight the state of Qi in Shandong. After the Qin unification in 221 BCE the Qin emperor ordered the building of canals to ease transport of goods and soldiers to the deep southern region of Guangzhou (Canton).

North and South Connected

After the decline and fall of the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), during a four hundred-year period of disunity, the northern and southern regions of China separated into a series of competing, overlapping dynasties. When the Chinese empire was reunited under the Sui dynasty the son of the first Sui emperor, Yangdi (reigned 604–618 CE), saw the need to promote national unity by connecting the north and south through the construction of a canal system. During this period canals were constructed to connect the southern city of Hangzhou to the nearby city of Suzhou (once the capital of the state of Wu) and on to the town of Yangzhou on the Yangzi (Chang) River. These cities would continue to prosper for centuries as major nodes in the Grand Canal transport network. From Yangzhou the canal headed northwest to the city of Luoyang in present-day Henan. The Huang (Yellow) River then connected the Grand Canal to the ancient capital of Xi’an. From Luoyang the canal was extended northeast all the way to the northern coastal city of Tianjin, where a river leads to Beijing. Thus, for the first time in China’s history the Huang and Yangzi rivers were connected, and a waterway extended from the Huang River valley to China’s northeastern border regions.

During the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) the Yangzi River valley began to be settled in great numbers by Chinese from the north. This settlement process continued through the Song dynasty (960–1279). This region became the most economically and agriculturally productive in all of China and arguably in the world until the Industrial Revolution. The Grand Canal tapped and stimulated the growth of this region, carrying tribute rice and other goods to the northern capitals of Xi’an and Luoyang and eventually to Beijing. When the Song dynasty began, it chose Kaifeng as its capital, which was the site where the early Grand Canal fed into the Huang River. Advances in agriculture, canal building, and shipping during the Song dynasty greatly stimulated the production of grain in southern China, and the Grand Canal was vital to the rise of the Yangzi River valley as China’s most productive region. In 1127, when the Song dynasty shifted its capital to the south under heavy pressure from the northern Jurchen people, who established their own dynasty, the Jurchen Jin dynasty (1125–1234), the Song dynasty chose Hangzhou, the southern terminus of the Grand Canal, as its new capital.

During the early years of the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) under Mongol leader Khubilai Khan, the Yuan state had the Grand Canal shortened significantly by as much as 700 kilometers. Workers did so by digging a canal through mountainous Shandong Province, thus creating a more direct route between Yangzhou and the new national capital of Beijing. The Grand Canal built under the Yuan dynasty was one of the features that enabled Beijing to remain the national capital under the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1912) dynasties.

Tea and Textiles

During the Ming dynasty China underwent a major commercial revolution, once again spearheaded by the Yangzi River valley. Cotton emerged as a key commercial crop, and the Grand Canal became vital to the cotton industry. The Yangzi River valley became a leading producer of both raw and spun cotton, but the demand for raw cotton was so great that the Grand Canal was used to ship raw cotton from the north to the Yangzi River valley to be spun and woven into textiles. Meanwhile a commodities market in luxury goods such as silk and porcelain ware also flourished in China. Much of China’s silk and porcelain was also produced in the Yangzi River valley, and the best products were then shipped to Beijing. The Ming dynasty also traded heavily with the neighboring Mongols. The most significant items of trade were Chinese tea in exchange for Mongol horses. The Grand Canal was thus also used to transport tea grown in the southern coastal province of Fujian to the northern capital. The Qing dynasty continued to use the Grand Canal for similar purposes, although by the late nineteenth century the growth of a new railway system competed with the canal as a means for transporting grain and other supplies. Yet railways never completely supplanted the canal, and it is still used today to transport vast quantities of heavy goods between north and south China, including bricks, gravel, sand, diesel fuel, and coal.

Further Reading

Bowman, J. S. (2000). Columbia chronologies of Asian history and culture. New York: Columbia University Press.

Harrington, L. (1974). The Grand Canal of China. London: Bailey & Swinfen.

Needham, J. (1986). Science and civilisation in China: Volume 4, physics and physical technology, part 3, civil engineering and nautics. Taipei, Taiwan: Caves Books.

Yao Hanyuan. (1998). A history of the Grand Canal. Beijing: Waterpub.

Source: Field, Andrew. (2009). Grand Canal. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 915–917. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Transporting goods on the Grand Canal in Hangzhou, on the way to the Yangzi River. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Grand Canal (Dàyùnhé ???)|Dàyùnhé ??? (Grand Canal)

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