The Jing-Hang Grand Canal linking the Yellow River and Yangtze River nominally runs between Beijing and Hangzhou over a total length of 1,794 km. Its main role throughout its history was the transport of grain to the capital.

Although the earliest construction is uncertain, the Grand Canal is a lasting legacy of the Sui dynasty. With the eastern capital Luoyang at the center of the network, the mega project linked the capital Chang’an to the economic and agricultural centers of the east towards Hangzhou, and to the northern border near modern Beijing.

While the pressing initial motives were for shipment of grains to the capital, and for transporting troops and military logistics, the reliable inland shipment links would facilitate domestic trades, flow of people and cultural exchange for centuries.

Running alongside and parallel to the canal was an imperial roadway and post offices supporting a courier system. The government also planted an enormous line of trees. The history of the canal’s construction is handed down in the book Kaiheji (‘Record of the Opening of the Canal’).

Between 604 and 609, Emperor Yang Guang (or Sui Yangdi) of the Sui dynasty ordered a number of canals be dug in a ‘Y’ shape, from Hangzhou in the south to termini in (modern) Beijing and in the capital region along the Yellow River valley. When the canal was completed it linked the systems of the Qiantang River, the Yangtze River, the Huai River, the Yellow River, the Wei River and the Hai River. Its southern section, running between Hangzhou and the Yangtze, was named the Jiangnan River.

The Grand Canal at this time was not a continuous, man-made canal but a collection of often non-contiguous artificial cuts and canalised or natural rivers.

Although the Tang dynasty (618–907) capital at Chang’an was the most thriving metropolis of China in its day, it was the city of Yangzhou—in proximity to the Grand Canal—that was the economic hub of the Tang era.

By the year 735, it was recorded that about 149,685,400 kilograms (165,000 short tons) of grain were shipped annually along the canal.The Tang government oversaw canal lock efficiency and built granaries along the route in case a flood or other disaster impeded the path of shipment. To ensure smooth travel of grain shipments, Transport Commissioner Liu Yan (in office from 763 to 779) had special river barge ships designed and constructed to fit the depths of each section of the entire canal.

During the Song and earlier periods, barge ships occasionally crashed and wrecked along the Shanyang Yundao section of the Grand Canal while passing the double slipways, and more often than not those were then robbed of the tax grain by local bandits.

The Grand Canal was renovated almost in its entirety between 1411 and 1415 during the Ming dynasty. a total of 165,000 laborers dredged the canal bed in Shandong and built new channels, embankments, and canal locks.

From the Tang to Qing dynasties, the Grand Canal served as the main artery between northern and southern China.

In the Qing dynasty, the Kangxi and Qianlong emperors made twelve trips to the south, on all occasions but one reaching Hangzhou.

The Grand Canal also enabled cultural exchange and political integration to mature between the north and south of China. The canal even made a distinct impression on some of China’s early European visitors. Marco Polo recounted the Grand Canal’s arched bridges as well as the warehouses and prosperous trade of its cities in the 13th century. The famous Roman Catholic missionary Matteo Ricci travelled from Nanjing to Beijing on the canal at the end of the 16th century.

Currently, the canal is separated into seven sections and ships can only travel up to Jining. The economic importance of the canal likely will continue as the southern portion remains in heavy use.

The Grand Canal is listed a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Edited by staff

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