While the Great Wall of China is undoubtedly the nation’s most famous engineering feat, another ancient Chinese construction project was arguably just as impressive, and certainly more successful. While the Great Wall repeatedly failed to keep out invaders from the North, this ancient construction is still being used today. That project is the Grand Canal, an 1800 kilometre running from Beijing in the north to Hangzhou in the south. Completed in the Sui dynasty in the early seventh century, this fourteen hundred year old canal is still the longest manmade waterway in the world.
The earliest stage of the Grand Canal dates back to the Wu state, some 2500 years ago, when an ancient waterway was built from Yangzhou on the Yangtze River to the Huai River, 170 kilometres to the North. However, the great bulk of the construction can be attributed to the reign of the Sui Dynasty emperor, Emperor Yangdi. In 608 he ordered that the canal be extended to Beijing in the north and in 610 he demanded it be extended four hundred kilometres from Zhenjiang on the Yangtze River to the southern city of Hangzhou. This section of canal became known as the Jiangnan Canal. With the completion of this canal, Northern and Southern China were reliably linked in all seasons. The project cost at least tens of thousands of lives and the tax burden on the Chinese people was so huge it greatly aided in the collapse of the short-lived Sui Dynasty, but Yongdi’s great infrastructure project proved to have numerous benefits for the nation.
For one, it enabled troops to be transported quickly in the case of an attack on the Northern frontier, giving a boost to national defence. Second and crucially, it increased the economic interdependence of the North and South, giving a massive boost to the Chinese economy. Cheap and plentiful grain from the Yangtze River basin could be diverted north to the area around Beijing, increasing its food security. In Chinese the Grand Canal is known as the “Grain Transport River”, giving a hint at its crucial role in feeding the kingdom. Marco Polo also described its importance in his writings, noting, “Every year the southern provinces provide the king with everything wanted to needed to live well in the infertile province of Beijing, all of which must arrive on a fixed day, otherwise those who are paid to transport them are subject to a heavy fine”. For many centuries it was one of the busiest arteries of trade and commerce in the world, and it is noteworthy that most of the most prosperous cities in China and still located near this ancient waterway.
In 2005 China began the World Heritage listing process for the Grand Canal, saying of the waterway, “The canal is a manifestation of our country’s superiority over the world in water engineering and transport and it has been bequeathed to us as a rich legacy.” Despite its cultural and economic importance, it looks much the same as many smaller canals, so it has never been embraced as a tourist attraction. Nonetheless, for those interested in Chinese history, the Grand Canal is worth seeing. We got our best view of in in the Jiangsu city of Wuxi; in that part of Jiansgu, it is still regularly used by barges, which makes it more appealing as a sight. The Grand Canal passes about one kilometre to the west of the old town of Wuxi, and you can get a good view of it from Xihui Scenic Spot. There is even a barge harbour in town, which might be an interesting port of call (no pun intended) for those wanting to see canal life at its busiest.