The Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, despite the "grand" in its title, was not originally part of a grand plan. In fact, it only later became a comprehensive system of connective canals linking the major rivers of China with the capital, Beijing, and only much later developed into a continuous string of canals from Beijing to Hangzhou, or perhaps one should say, from Hangzhou to Beijing, as that is the direction of the canal's flow, such as it is (the Grand Canal understandably does not flow at any great speed). When we today speak of the Grand Canal, we mean the long canal proper that stretches between the two cities in question, and which largely passes through marshy, low-lying terrain.
The Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal
The Grand Canal follows a path that generally runs a certain distance from the coast, except for a distinct inward bulge in its upper half west of the Shandong Peninsula, which is rocky and mountainous, and, farther north of the peninsula, where the canal crosses the Yellow River Delta, which is increasingly marshy – too marshy, in fact – near where the Yellow River empties into the Bohai Sea (the constructors of the Grand Canal did not possess the kind of sophisticated earth-moving machinery that we possess today, therefore they had to follow the logic of the terrain... which, by the way, modern engineers largely still do, also because water does not, as most folk know, at least most rural folk, flow uphill!).
The first such stretch of canal was constructed, not too surprisingly, in the Yellow River Valley, home of China's famous ancient bread basket, where wheat and millet were the primary food crops of this, the ancient "Cradle of Chinese Civilization". The Hong Gou ("Far-Off Canal", literally "Canal of the Great Wild Goose" [鴻渠]) linked the Yellow River, near the ancient and present-day city of Kaifeng (Zhengzhou )*(1) in Henan Province, with the Si River [泗河]. During the Sui Dynasty, this stretch of canal came to be called the Bian River [汴河] (as will be seen farther below, because these early canals followed existing elongated shallow lakes and marshes, meaning they meandered a lot, the canal was often called a river... the Bian River was eventually called the Bian Canal, and later still a new canal was built parallel to the Bian Canal that would be called the Tongji Canal [通濟渠], though sometimes referred to as the New Bian Canal).
The Ancient Tongji Canal Has Dried Up
The path of the pre-1194 Si River ran from Mengshan Mountain that rises south of Lake Yunmeng (formerly Andi Reservoir, and note that the lake/ reservoir is situated just east of the Shandong Province city of Mengyin, while the mountain lies about 60 kilometers north-northwest of the city of Linyi), continued in a south-southwesterly direction to the city of Pengcheng (present-day Xuzhou), the ancient capital of Chu State that was conquered in BCE 205, but only briefly, by a half million strong army led by Liu Bang, aka Emperor Gaozu, founder of the Western Han (BCE 206 – CE 009) Dynasty. Liu Bang lost the city within a few days to a determined Chu general who commanded only 30,000 men. From Pengcheng the pre-1194 Si River turned sharply east-southeast and continued via the city of Suqian (alternatively, Suxian) to the city of Huai'an on the Huai River.
At Pengcheng, the Bian Canal connected to the Si River, which, until the great flooding of CE 1194, continued on to the Huai River at the city of Huai'an. A New Bian Canal/ Tongji Canal, whose course would depart slightly from that of the the old canal (aka the Bian River) would be dug during the Sui Dynasty – though this event had nothing to do with the CE 1194 flooding
A canal that could link the pre-1194 Si River to the Yellow River could thus link the Yellow River to the Yantze River via the Si River and the Shanyang River (the canal section between the Huai River and the city of Yongzhou on the northern banks of the Yangtze River), in crossing the Huai River at the city of Huai'an, just northeast of Lake Hung-Tse (aka Lake Hongzhe, which, during the pre-1194, was a much smaller lake, or hardly more than a swell in the Huai River).
Construction of the Hong Gou/ the Far-Off Canal, the first connective canal of its kind, is believed to have started –and was maybe also finished – during the 6th century BCE, though it is first mentioned in BCE 330 in the historical record by Su Qin, a military-political strategist during the Warring States (BCE 475-221) Period of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, who attempted to unite the various remaining states against the Qin State – sensing perhaps, that without a united front, the stronger Qin State would end up crushing, one by one, the rest of the smaller and/or weaker states... which is precisely what came to pass. There was at the time no unified plan to link all of China's major river systems, much less create a "grand" canal.
Indeed, the waterway that was eventually opened between the Yellow and Huai Rivers – and via the Huai, to the Yangtze River as indicated above – was needed in order to transport grain (namely, rice) from the middle-lower reaches of the Yangtze River to Kaifeng, which was a burgeoning city during the Sui (CE 581-617) and Tang Dynasties period as well as during the Five Dynasties (CE 907-960) period, culminating in what could only be called a megalopolis, by Middle Ages standards, by the time of the Northern Song Dynasty.
Up to this time, military outposts – not only in China's remote regions but even in the Yellow River Valley, where wheat and millet were the staples – had to grow their own food (and fish and hunt game), thus reducing the military effectiveness of the contingent, since rice from the south, a staple that could substitute for meat, could not be transported to these outposts. The Grand Canal – and its precursors, beginning with the Bian Canal – therefore had a dramatic influence also on the military history of China. Indeed, the redesigning of the canal system that would link the Yangtze River with the Yellow River via larger, deeper, more direct and therefore more efficient waterways, undertaken during the Sui Dynasty, contributed in large part to the astounding commercial and cultural success, both at home and abroad, of the subsequent Tang Dynasty, considered one of the "golden ages" of Imperial Chinese history.
Sketch Map of the Terrain Surrounding the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal
Note also that the Yellow River ("Hwang Ho" (Huang He [黃河]) on the sketch map above) has shifted its course near the mouth of the river over the years, due directly to flooding, but also due to the presence of the mountainous terrain of Shandong Peninsula that was in the direct path of the Yellow River. The amassed waters, not being able to continue in a direct path toward the sea, backed up in the marshland immediately in front of the high terrain, creating an enormous reservoir that continued to fill, with the result that in some cases the floodwaters would shift the course of the river northward of the peninsula, and in other cases would shift the course of the river southward of the peninsula (north of the peninsula up until CE 1148 – but sometimes radically altering course even then – then south of the peninsula from CE 1148-1852. Today, the Yellow River again courses northward of Shandong Peninsula, emptying into the Bohai Sea near the same point where the mouth of the river lay in CE 1048
Far-Off (Hong Gou)/ Bian Canal is first mentioned in an official history by Sima Qian in his Records of the Grand Historian. However, Sima Qian attributed the Far-Off Canal to Yu the Great, the mythical Father of China. The first section of the Grand Canal proper that we know today is the Han Gou ("Han (Chinese) Canal" [邗渠]) section which runs between the Jiangsu Province cities of Yangzhou – which lies just north of the present-day city of Zhenjiang (also situated in Jiangsu Province) on the Yangtze River – and Huai'an, about 125 kilometers, as the crow flies, north-northwest of Yangzhou. Construction of the Han Canal section began in BCE 486 under the orders of the King of Wu, King Fu Chai (his birth is not recorded, but he ruled from BCE 494-473, having committed suicide in order to avoid being taken prisoner when the army of Wu toppled Yue in BCE 473), and was completed in BCE 483, only three years later. It must be said, however, that this construction project is what one today would call low-hanging fruit in the sense that much of the land in question was already either in the form of lakes or marshland, i.e., was relatively easy to form into a canal.
While the Huai River once emptied directly into the sea not far from Lake Hongzhe, and in fact, the Yellow River itself, from 1194 until 1852, emptied into the East China Sea (aka Yellow Sea here) just north of where the Huai River formerly emptied into the sea, the river today ends at Lake Hongzhe, though other waterways east of Lake Hongzhe (with possibly some lesser waterways leading directly southward from Lake Hongzhe that feed the string of lakes south of Lake Hongzhe) now lead the Huai River's effluence on to the sea.
Sketch Map pre-1194 Bian Canal – Si River Jnct at Pengcheng
The present-day depiction below shows the area's three main rivers, the Yellow, the Huai and the Yangtze, as they end in or near the sea – the Yellow River ending in the Bohai Sea north of Shandong Peninsula while the Huai and the Yangtze Rivers end in the East China Sea/ Yellow Sea south of the peninsula, the Yangtze emptying into the sea just north of Shanghai and the Huai essentially ending at Lake Hongzhe, with numerous smaller tributary canals – and one large canal, the Subei Canal – carrying the outflow from the lake on eastward to the sea.
The Major Rivers of Eastern China
Below is another partially sketched map of the area in question (borrowed without permission from an online source but originally stemming from The Cambridge History of China, Vol 1 – there are to date 13 volumes of this impressive work, each with multiple editions, making it one of the most comprehensive, most scholarly works of history ever compiled, a veritable encyclopedia of Chinese history that any Sinologue would be proud to own) depicting various sections of the Grand Canal during the Sui Dynasty – Tang Dynasty Period. Note that the connective canals between, to the south, the Yellow River and the Huai River, and to the north, between the Yellow River and Beijing, extend westward to a point on the Yellow River corresponding to the present-day city of Zhengzhou, near the city of Kaifeng.
East-Central China w/Superimposed Sketch of the Sui-Tang Period Canals
The Far-Off/ Hong Gou canal would never had been dug had it not been for the preexistence of canal digging know-how, which leads us to the next chapter in our treatment of the Grand Canal....