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The Original Purpose of Canals in Ancient China

Last updated by fabiowzgogo at 2014/7/16

There exists a legend about great flooding along the Yellow River, which geographical area corresponds to the ancient Cradle of Chinese Civilization [中華文化發祥地], during the Xia (BCE 2000-1500) Dynasty. These accounts, by their very nature, belong to legend, or myth, since writing, in any meaningful sense of the word, did not exist during the Xia Dynasty except for very primitive "oracle bone" script, which was more of a religious, 'reading the tea leaves' event, using what is believed to be pictographic representations, than an attempt at constructing a language for recording important events for posterity, i.e., a history, or even for recording something as banal as the record-keeping of one's stores (everything from grain to cattle to pottery to beer, the latter of which stores seem to have been one of the first commodities recorded in ancient Mesopotamian history).

The Shang (BCE 1700-1027) Dynasty would make the pictographic characters of the Xia Dynasty into a system of written language. It was the first written language in Asia, and was borrowed by all Asian cultures, making it possible to communicate in Chinese from Korea in the north to Vietnam in the south. Still, we know little of Shang history even though language was systematized during this dynasty. Most of what we know of the Shang Dynasty we have from its successor dynasty, the Zhou Dynasty (which comprises the Western Zhou (BCE 1027-771) Dynasty and the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, the latter itself subdivided, as we have seen in the above, into a Western and an Eastern period), which overthrew the Shang Dynasty. In fact, the story about the Shang Dynasty having overthrown the Xia Dynasty is, for all we know, a piece of fiction fabricated by the Zhou Dynasty and whose ulterior purpose was to justify the Zhou Dynasty's own overthrow of the Shang Dynasty (i.e., the Zhou Dynasty would thus be following a precedent). The following account, while it may contain many elements of truth in its "facts", quite likely belong more to the world of fiction (myth) than to fact.

The frequent seasonal flooding of the Yellow River – was something that was greatly feared by the people, the Xia people (often referred to by other tribes as the Hua xia [華夏], or 'magnificently clad Xia people', to which also follows a supporting level of civilization, suggesting that already at this early stage in their history, the Chinese people distinguished themselves from the other, more primitive tribes of the area) who lived along its banks. The river was thus both a life-giver and a life-taker. Naturally, the Xia wished to maximize the former and minimize the latter. Therefore a leader who could offer to minimize the terror of a overflowing river – which was a parameter beyond the control of the individual, while there were many parameters involved in a successful harvest that were indeed within the control of the individual – would instantly have a following.

Not surprisingly, leaders came and went, because it was not easy to tame such violent forces of nature. What had been tried, time and again but with little success, was damming the river, for no matter how high the protective walls and no matter how sturdy they appeared to be built during their construction, when the floodwaters came, and in Biblical proportions, it must be said, the dikes and dams were swept away as were they made of matchsticks and mud. A new leader promising a better mousetrap (you can see what 'violent forces of nature' plagued the early Americans! :) ) hired a minister to find a better solution to the problem of flooding; the previous Minister for Waterworks, a certain Minister Gun, had in fact been held responsible for the violent floods during his tenure, and ended up paying the ultimate price for his 9 seasons of failure: he was executed!

The new Minister for Waterworks, Minister Yu (alternatively spelled Yü – and I'll give the secret away immediately, this is the semi-mythical, if not entirely mythical, 'larger than life' figure later known as Yu the Great, the Founding Father of the Chinese people), decided to try something else: out were dams; in were diversionary canals, i.e., canals that could divert the overflow elsewhere, as well as serve as reservoirs in their own right. The new flood control strategy worked so well that Minister Yu became a national hero, and, as so often happens – from Roman times down to the present – the famous general who wins the war becomes such a hero that he ends up scoring his boss' job, which is precisely what happened in the case of Minister Yu, who became Emperor Yu, or Yu the Great.

A real-world example of "Minister Yu" – was Sun Shu-Ao (BCE ca.630-ca.593), a minister serving in the government of Chu State during the Spring and Autumn Period of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty. Sun eventually became Prime Minister and was commissioned to create various waterworks: irrigation canals, dams and reservoirs. Most, if not all, of the waterworks of PM Sun were focused on improving existing and/or extending agricultural land use to new areas.

For example, a dam might be designed to lightly flood a valley (with numerous reservoirs and sluices to regulate the water level) so that rice could be grown there. Reservoirs could hold water to be used to get through shorter drought periods, while canals could divert water to specific locales instead of having to flood entire areas. PM Sun made use of all of these tools to address the agricultural problems he faced. Much later, Sun Shu-Ao was recognized as China's first hydraulic engineer.

As the Spring and Autumn Period map below (Figure 4) indicates, Chu State sat in the heart of ancient China's "bread basket" that lay between the Yellow and the Yangtze Rivers – and, additionally, the Huai River ran through it. (An interesting observation, not related to the discussion at hand, but of interest to the armchair historian – of which there are surely a few among you? – is that the last two of the remaining Zhou Dynasty states by the end of the Warring States period, the Qin and Chu States, were not only large states (they had each absorbed lesser states), but were each situated on the perimeter, compared to the other states, as both the map immediately below (Figure 6) and the next map (Figure 7) shows, surely thus decreasing their vulnerability to attack. And speaking of vulnerability, given the importance of rivers in warfare during the period, and given the fact that all of China's major rivers in this part of the country flowed (flow!) from west to east (in particular, the Huai River), it was almost inevitable, caeteris paribus, that Qin State would be victorious over Chu State, it being a lot easier to slip downstream than upstream.)

Grand Canal Map

Fig 6: The Various States of the Spring and Autumn Period

 

One of the huge waterworks created by PM Sun is the reservoir known alternatively as Si-Si Pei, Shao Pei (Peony Dam) and Que pi hu (Que pi hu lake [芍陂湖]. This ancient reservoir exists still, though it known today as Anfeng Tang (Anfeng Reservoir), after extensive restoration (the reservoir was clogged with silt, mainly mud) by the government of the People's Republic of China.

Grand Canal Map

Fig 7: The Remaining States of the Warring States Period, anno BCE 260

 

The ingenious practice of diverting the overflow of the Yellow River via flood canals continued down through the Tang Dynasty and Five Dynasties (CE 907-960) period. During these two historical periods, when there was much warring even if there was a certain degree of centralization of power during the Tang Dynasty (the warring was the result of wave after wave of Turkic nomadic invaders arriving from the north, the oldest waves becoming more and more Sinicized over time, therefore the relative peace that ensued during the Tang Dynasty in particular).

The overflows from the Yellow River seemed to increase, not decrease, requiring the extensive dredging and repairing of the canals (their banks required fortifying with tree trunks of saplings (young trees) lashed to stones with ropes, the whole lashed together with more ropes, creating a fortifying wall of wood that helped to reduce the incidence of erosion). Due to the warring, the canals also served as connective waterways for the transport of much needed grain to the capital, Kaifeng, from the the grain-rich valley of the Yangtze River northward via the Shanyang Canal (later to be known as the Yangzhou Canal) to Huai'an, via the Si River from Huai'an to Pengcheng (present-day Xuzhou) and finally via the Bian Canal (note that both the Shanyang Canal and the Bian Canal were originally referred to as rivers, due to their meandering nature).

After the somewhat troubled Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period, the warring between the Han Chinese and the nomadic Turkic tribes broke out even more, in fact, soon after the emergence of the otherwise unifying Song (CE 960-1279) Dynasty, though the unity quickly broke down, such that the Northern Song capital, Kaifeng, was eventually overrun by the invaders, with the Han Chinese remnants of the Song Dynasty regrouping farther south, under the flag, as it were, of the Southern Song (CE 1127-1279) Dynasty, whose capital became the city of Lin'an, or present-day Hangzhou.

This move did not end the need for flood control, for the Yangtze River was at times almost as prone to flooding, if not more so, than had been the Yellow River. Thus the Han Chinese tradition of flood control via the construction of diversionary canals continued, though on the Yangtze River instead. These flood control measures would naturally continue on both drainage systems during most of the remainder of China's dynastic period, with greater zeal during periods of peace, i.e., during periods of unification, which was largely the case after the emergence of the Yuan (CE 1279-1368) Dynasty.

Of course, parallel with the notion of flood canals, China continued to build dams on rivers as a way to contain them, or so it was hoped. At least the dams could contain smaller rises in river levels. Unfortunately attempts at building very large dams proved a fiasco (alas, this lesson may be repeating itself today on the prestigious Three Gorges Dam, admit PRC officials), for when the large dams were eventually washed away, the amassed volume of water released created devastation on a Biblical scale, almost as devastating as a tsunami.

Two famous, ancient – but still functioning – Chinese waterworks, one a dam and the other a canal system, are:

Dujiang Dam [都江堰] – a diversionary canal (irrigation canal) system, originally built in BCE 256 during the Warring States period on the Min River in Sichuan Province, near the capital, Chengdu (Figure 8 immediately below)

Grand Canal Map

Fig 8: The Dujiang Irrigation System on the Min River

 

Mulan Dam (Reservoir [木蘭陂]) – originally built in CE 1064 as a dam across the Mulan River in Fujian Province near the city of Putian, and financed by two private citizens of the city of Putian, Lady Qian Siniang and Mr. Lin Chongshi who were inspired by the famous Luoyang Stone Bridge built in CE 1059 in the port city of Quanzhou, another famous Maritime Silk Road port (see the link to the Maritime Silk Road section of the Silk Road article in the "100% Canal" section farther below). (Curiously enough, Putian is the natal city of numerous other famous Chinese women, including Lin Moniang, aka Mazu or Matsu [媽祖], believed to be an incarnation of Guanyin, the sea goddess, or the patron saint of seafarers, as it were).

The dam was soon washed away, though in CE 1075 a new Mulan Dam, this time built during the Xining reign (CE 1068-77) of Emperor Shenzong – and financed by the emperor – was built nearby (the problem with the first dam was judged to be the site itself). Its clever system of sluices permitted water to escape long before a dangerous buildup could occur (Figure 9 immediately below).

Grand Canal

Fig 9: Mulan Dam with its Footbridge Across the Dam's 32 Sluices

 

Both of these famous waterworks served – and still serve – as irrigation projects.

(The next section concerns the Precursor to the Grand Canal)

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