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The great waterway connecting China

WANG TAO | 2018-09-14
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Gong Chen Bridge, built in 1631 in the Ming Dynasty, crosses the Grand Canal at its starting point in Hangzhou. Photo: 699PIC

There is a legend that Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty (581-618) decided to connect the northern and the southern sections of the canal for access to his favorite flower in Yangzhou, the qiong hua (Chinese viburnum). However, the truth is that Emperor Yang wanted to transport grain from the fertile Jiangnan areas, the south of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, to feed the capital city and armies in northern China. The part of the Grand Canal completed in the Sui Dynasty linked Zhuojun (today known as Zhuozhou, Hebei Province) in the northeast and Yuhang (today known as Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province) in the southeast, with Luoyang (the capital of the Sui) at its center. It had a length of 2,500 kilometers. A lot of granaries were built for transporting or storing grain along the canal. The canal enjoyed increased traffic at the time, with a large number of ships passing through it every day.


‘Rice, salt, tea and horse’
A few constructions on the canal were conducted by the ensuing dynasty, the Tang (618-907), connecting Chang’an, its political center, with the advanced economy of the Jiangnan areas. Undoubtedly, the canal played a crucial role in reaching the unparalleled prosperity of the Tang Dynasty.

According to historic records, in 742, boats loaded with numerous goods from Jiangnan came to gather in the east of Chang’an, attracting huge crowds of people. Among those boats, Chang’an citizens found brocade, mirrors, bronze ware and seafood from Guangling (another ancient name of Yangzhou), tortoiseshell, pearls, ivory and eaglewood from Guangzhou (a city near the South China Sea), porcelain items from Yuzhang (today known as Nanchang, Jiangxi Province) and glutinous rice from Wujun (Suzhou, Jiangsu Province). Before the mid-8th century, tea-drinking was primarily a southern Chinese practice. Thanks to the Grand Canal, it became widely popular in the north during the Tang Dynasty.

The Song Dynasty (960-1279) made Bianliang (today known as Kaifeng, Henan Province) its capital, which was a major commercial hub in the central portion of the canal. The Song government set up an institution in the north of Jiangsu Province, collecting and storing grain and other goods to guarantee stable canal transportation. A series of locks were installed to make the canal more easily navigable. The annual shipment of rice to Bianliang was as heavy as 6 million dan (about 300,000 tons), twice or three times that of the Tang. Various goods were shipped north to Kaifeng while horses and salt were transported to the south. The canal transportation between the north and the south boosted the economic growth of cities along it.
During the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), the capital of China was moved to Dadu (today known as Beijing), eliminating the need for the canal arm flowing west to Kaifeng or Luoyang. Kublai Khan (1215-94), Emperor Shizu of Yuan, ordered the reconstruction of the canal to link Hangzhou and Dadu with a direct north-south waterway, shortening the overall length by as much as 800 km (making the total length about 1,794 km). The modern Grand Canal came into being.

During the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368–1912), Beijing continued to be the national capital. The canal formed the backbone of the Empire’s inland communication system. The Qing government split rule between Han Chinese and Manchus, leading to increasing crew size and excessive bureaucracy. Meanwhile, over 100,000 soldiers of the army of the Eight Banners (the administrative/military divisions under the Qing Dynasty) were garrisoned in the capital, creating much more demand for food. However, due to various factors–the difficulty of dredging the canal, the malfunction of the official transportation system and the increased development of an alternative sea route for grain-ships–the canal gradually languished. Many of the canal sections fell into disrepair, and some parts returned to flat fields. Until today, the Grand Canal has not fully recovered.


North-south link 
China is one of the few existing countries that flourished culturally in the earliest stages of world civilization. Much of China’s cultural development was accomplished with relatively little outside influence and  with strong unification within the country. The Grand Canal, connecting China via an internal route, greatly improved not only the economy but administration, serving to increase the economic interdependence of the north and south.

Tian Binge, a Chinese historian, once said that the Grand Canal was designed by ancient politicians. It served as an administrative tool to support the centralization of state power. Indeed, despite the political and social upheavals that frequently ravaged the country, the canal was constructed and remained in operation through all the dynasties, due to its economic and political significance to the central administration. The Grand Canal ensured efficient allocation of state-owned resources and promoted the unification of the north and the south.

In ancient China, Jiangnan was inhabited by Jiuyi tribes, who occupied the east of China and named their state after the God of Water, Gong Gong. Jiuyi and Huaxia had remained two independent groups until the end of the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600-1046 BCE), when Tai Bo, the oldest son of the tribal leader of the pre-dynasty Zhou, settled at the mouth of the Yangtze River and established the State of Wu, marking the beginning of Jiangnan civilization. Huaxia culture was introduced to Jiangnan. The Qin Dynasty (221-207 BCE) unified China as a whole for the first time, expanding the national border beyond the Pearl River basin in the southeast, exerting more intensive civilizing influence on Jiangnan areas. However, the long-term remoteness of Jiangnan from Huaxia groups and the natural obstacle, the Yangtze River, meant that eliminating the division between the north and the south would be a long-term process.

The founding of the Jin Dynasty (266-420) further promoted the north-south incorporation, encouraging the Jiangnan people to abandon their warlike traditions and adapt the cultural beliefs and social customs of Huaxia, including the admiration of literature, music and arts. Although Chinese civilization originated in the North China Plain around the Yellow River, natural disasters and continuous harassment from nomadic enemies damaged nothern China’s agricultural productivity throughout the early 4th century and caused the fall of the Western Jin Dynasty. The northern Chinese moved to Jiangnan in significant numbers, where the warm and wet climate was ideal for supporting agriculture and allowing highly sophisticated cities to arise. People stayed in the north, bothered by the widespread nomadic uprisings coupled with famine, epidemic and floods, adapted the barbarian customs, thus greatly weakening the Huaxia civilization. Meanwhile, Jiangnan areas, far beyond the reach of wars and natural disasters, kept thriving and preserved the whole Huaxia civilization. Jiangnan was highly developed after the Yuan Dynasty, and the north relied heavily on the south. The Grand Canal played a key role in strengthening the imperial control over Jiangnan areas. The Shang Fang Sword (a sword given by the king representing the imperial power) claimed royal ownership of the important waterway and granted power to the successive governors of the canal.

The Grand Canal is a monumental project that has bound northern and southern China together, leading the southern groups to be largely absorbed into the fabric of Huaxia culture and avoiding the pain of potential wars. It also symbolizes the imperial power and aids the unification of the country. In this way, the Grand Canal is a unique political and cultural conduit for China.


The article was edited and translated from the Journal of Jiangnan University (Humanities & Social Sciences). Wang Tao is from Jiangsu Provincial Academy of Social Sciences.

(edited by REN GUANHONG)