Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal

Written by Sally Guo Updated Oct. 18, 2021

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.

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 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 modern engineers largely still do, also because water does not, as most folks 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 breadbasket, 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 ) in Henan Province, with the Si River [泗河]. During the Sui Dynasty, this stretch of the canal came to be called the Bian River [汴河], 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 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 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 Yangtze 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.

Note also that the Yellow River 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 the 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 the 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 affluence on to the sea.

Purpose of Beijing and Hangzhou Grand Canal

It was something that was greatly feared by the people, the ancient Chinese people in the Xia Dynasty (often referred to by other tribes as the Hua xia) who lived along its banks. The river was both a life-giver and a life-taker. Naturally, Xia wished to maximize the former and minimize the latter. Therefore a leader who could offer to minimize the terror of an overflowing river – which was a parameter beyond the control of the individual, while there were many parameters involved in a successful harvest that was 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 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, 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

It 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 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.

Chu State sat in the heart of ancient China's "breadbasket" 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, 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 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.)

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 is 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.

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 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.

Ancient Chinese Waterworks

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

Dujiangyan Dam – 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.

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.

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