Grand Canal mao
Map of China's Grand Canal
Liaoning Hebei Beijing Tianjin Hebei Shandong Jiangsu Anhui Zhejiang Jiangxi Henan Henan Shanghai

China's Grand Canal or Emperor's Canal

The Grand Canal () Da Yunhe is a waterway of amazing grandeur and importance. Linking north and south China it provided safe transportation insulated from the threats of storms and pirates on the high seas. Just as significant to China as the more famous Great Wall it is a testament to the immense organized manpower used in its construction. It spans 1,100 miles [1,770 kms] making it the longest canal system in the world. It is also known as the JīngHáng Dà Yùnhé where ‘Jing’ stands for Beijing and ‘Hang’ for Hangzhou - naming it the ‘Beijing Hangzhou grand canal’. Another old name is the ‘River of locks’ Zhá hé

Like the Great Wall it was not all built as a single project. The earliest section from the Yangzi river north to Huaiyin (the Shanyang canal) was built as early as 486BCE and is shown in turquoise on the map. A separate early section from Suzhou to the Yangzi was built in 495BCE. Boats were pulled by teams of oxen; horses or men along a tow path. The main building phase came during the Sui dynasty when Yangdi commenced the project in 605CE with the building of sections from the old capital at Luoyang to Beijing and from the Luoyang on the Yellow River to Hangzhou. Incredibly, as many as five million people, including women and children were conscripted into the project. The cost in human lives was huge, perhaps 2 million workers died on the project. All men aged from 15 to 50 were liable to be called up. When it was finished Emperor Yangdi sailed a Dragon fleet with 80,000 men pulling the boats, some of these boats were huge with 120 rooms. The majority of the canal was made an impressive 131 feet [40 meters] in width.


grand canal, boat
Boats on the ancient Grand Canal, China
grand canal, wuxi
Ancient Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal in Wuxi area. 锡段. Image by 波波 available under a Creative Commons License

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Mostly built over the flood plains made by the wandering Yellow River, long stretches are flat and so were easy to construct. Some sections needed to be built above ground level requiring high levees to be built up so that a deep excavation could be made for the navigable channel. Near the edge of Shandong at Jining there are locks to allow it to climb the foothills of Meng Shan. This section was built around 1280CE to shorten the length by about 435 miles [700 kms]. Locks are also needed to take it to the level of the Yangzi at Yangzhou. At this time a lock was typically a 'flash' lock, a boat raced down a slope on a shallow burst of released water. Although the Grand Canal is a mighty transport artery, travel is slow, with journey times of about one year from end to end. Such a length of time renders it unsuitable for transport of perishable goods, but silk, wood, coal, bricks and porcelain could all be transported as bulk freight. Rice from the south traveled up to the north (100,000 tons a year in the Tang dynasty) this was, historically its most important freight. Like the Nile in Egypt, the Grand Canal served as a vital lifeline for food from the agricultural south to the urban north.

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Xu Yang, 18th century painter from Suzhou, China; between 1736 and 1796. Image by Scan by Szilas available under a Creative Commons License
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China although predominately populated with the Han Chinese, has over 100 million people identified as belonging to other ethnic minorities. However these people are concentrated in the less densely populated 'fringes' of China so may form the majority in certain areas. Tensions with other peoples has been a cause of troubles throughout China's long history and continue to this day in Tibet and Xinjiang.

When Hangzhou was the capital of China during the Southern Song dynasty the southern section, south of the Yangzi had great importance. Later in the Yuan dynasty the canal was further extended to take the canal directly to the new capital at Beijing. The new route bypassed the sections taking the canal on the long detour to Luoyang, reducing the total travel time considerably.

grand canal, lock, Macartney
Drawing by William Alexander, draughtsman of the Macartney Embassy to China in 1793. A canal lock which the Embassy passed on November 6, 1793, during the travel from Han-tcheou-fou to Tchu-san. The drop of water was six foot; the water ended within one foot of the upper edge of the beam over which the flat-bottomed river boat had to be pushed. The lock consisted of a double glacis of sloping masonry, with an inclination of about forty degrees from the horizon. The pushing machinery was represented by two capstans in this particular lock, in other locks, four or six could be used. Alexander noted that canals were used as a preferred means of transportation and communication in the mountainous areas of China. Image taken from The Costume of China, illustrated in forty-eight coloured engravings, published in London in 1805. Image by Internet Archive available under a Creative Commons License
Tue 12th Sep

Mulberry bark money

Among the most influential inventions of the Chinese has been paper money. While the rest of the world was lugging around silver and gold China had made the break in the Tang dynasty around 800CE. In China the problem was that normal coinage was in standard bronze discs. The coins had a hole in the middle so they could be strung together in groups of 100. A string of cash was a heavy and inaccurate unit of currency (some traders would claim a 'complete' string which would only have 65 coins). How much better to carry around IOUs rather than cash? As long as the IOU was unequivocally signed by a reputable merchant it was just as valuable as thecoins it represented.

The problem of metal coins was particularly acute when the government forced Sichuan province to use iron coins. As soon as the government saw that the system of IOUs was working well they of course stepped in and made it a government monopoly.

At the same time counterfeiters threatened the new currency and for that reason in the reign of Kublai Khan (1279-1294) Marco Polo witnessed the use of money in the form of strips of black mulberry bark which was then marked with the red seal of the Emperor (only the Emperor was allowed to write in vermillion ink). The bark had to be specially processed and so the notes were hard to forge. An even rarer form of currency had been attempted much earlier in the Han dynasty (175 BCE) when Emperor Wudi introduced money made from pieces of hide from rare white stags.

As the issuing of paper money did not have to be backed by actual silver and gold the modern system was born where a government can just print money to get itself out of (or into!) financial difficulties.


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Marco Polo, who visited during the Yuan dynasty, was greatly impressed by the transport system of massive barges hauled by teams of horses on the towpath. 500 years later, after the Taiping Rebellion the canal fell into decline, when railways began to be built. and by 1900 the northern sections had become silted up by the waters of the Yellow river. South of Jinan the canal, like many canal systems in the world is now more of a tourist attraction than a transportation system (particularly from the stretch from Yangzi to Hangzhou). However coal is still shipped south from Xuzhou to Shanghai in long trains of up to 30 barges and 305 meters [1,000 feet] the canal is still used to divert water from the Yangzi to arid Shandong.

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Citation information: Chinasage, 'China's Grand Canal, the longest in the World', last updated 2 Dec 2016, Web, http://www.chinasage.info/grandcanal.htm.

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