Folly and Genius: China's Grand Canal

Travel, Culture | by Stephan Larose
Posted: January 9th, 2009 | Updated: April 21st, 2015 | Comments

An ancient engineering marvel on par with the Great Wall, China's Grand Canal is lined with scenic water towns steeped in history and culture.

The Grand Canal, a monumental Chinese cultural landscape

You may have heard about it. It's one of China's oldest engineering marvels. It's over 2,000 years old. It cost the lives of over 3,000,000 laborers to build and was seen from Skylab by astronaut William Pogue. If you're thinking that these impressive factoids describe China's Great Wall, you're making the same mistake as Pogue, who said he saw the Great Wall from space. What he actually saw was China's less-renowned (but more successful) cousin, the Grand Canal. Stretching 1,794 kilometers (1,114 miles) from Beijing in the north to Hangzhou in the south, the world's longest manmade canal is also its oldest — tracing its origins back an astonishing 2,400 years to the 5th century BC. Despite its impressive history, the Canal has not become anything like the must-see tourist attraction that the Great Wall has, despite the fact that hundreds of ancient monuments and relics line its banks. Taken as a whole, the Canal represents a monumental tome of measureless historical value.

map of China's Grand Canal

Like the Great Wall, the Grand Canal is a source of national pride and defines a major cultural landscape in which it is the central engineering monument. But rapid development threatens many historical sites along its lengths. Recent efforts at having the Canal listed as a World Heritage Site have been beset by a myriad of problems. For one, Heritage Sites aren't supposed to have industrial functions, but the Canal carries three times the cargo that trains between Beijing and the Lower Yangtze region do annually. What's more, the Canal's superlative lengths cross dozens of jurisdictions, resulting in fragmented approaches to conservation.

The Grand Canal can no longer be cruised from end to end, but tourists visiting cities along the Canal have a chance to see parts of it in traditional Chinese water towns featuring narrow streets, Venetian-style canals and traditional houses. It's a virtual constellation of historical treasures, and tourists plying its waters have an unequalled opportunity to learn about the waterway most responsible for China's success as a civilization. Unlike the Great Wall, whose construction gauges the pathology of its builders, the Grand Canal serves as a barometer of the health of the dynasties that participated in its development.

The story begins with the Hong Gou canal, a work attributed to quasi-mythological Yu the Great, a man fabled to have been born out of his dead father's carcass. Enlisted by the emperor to combat chronic flooding, Yu's channels drained water-logged farmland and diverted excess water from the area now known as Suzhou

The Grand Canal as it is today


Today, Suzhou is considered the Venice of the East, with its many gardens, temples and classic Chinese canal scenes. Tourists on the Grand Canal circuit will definitely want to take a boat tour of the city and visit a few of its many attractions. Two that shouldn't be missed are The Garden of the Master of the Nets and Lion Grove — which has a limestone labyrinth you can actually lose yourself in.

Just next door to the north is Wuxi which, like Suzhou, stands on the shores of China's third largest lake, Lake Tai. Though there are fewer attractions here than in Suzhou, tourists on the Grand Canal trail will find that Wuxi, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in China, still has lots to offer, including the Lingshan Buddha, which stands taller than the Statue of Liberty, the Qing-era Plum Garden, incredibly beautiful and fragrant in late spring, and Turtle Head Isle with its many theme parks.

By 483 BC, the "Han-country Conduit" (Han Gou) connected the Yangtze River to the Huai River, near present-day Yangzhou. By utilizing Yu the Great's canal, the Duke of Wu subdued the Qi state to the north. Armies traded blows, but trade expanded to include cultural exchanges, silk and grain as well, allowing economies to flourish. 

Many historical attractions line the Canal's lengths

Today Yangzhou offers charming, tree-lined streets, a wealth of lush gardens, the famous Slender West Lake and a host of other attractions.

In 604 AD, Sui Dynasty expanded of the Grand Canal to reach Hangzhou in the south, as well as Beijing and Luoyang in the north. Having captured the imagination of Marco Polo, Hangzhou is a tourist hotspot known for its lush scenery and serene West Lake. In Hangzhou's Grand Canal Museum, you can learn about the canal in depth.

After completing the Yongji Channel in 609, Yangdi's massive naval flotilla sailed into what is now the North Korean border region in an abortive conquest of the Tang Dynasty. The Canal continued as the cornerstone of China's trade and communications infrastructure for the next 1,000 years.

Wetlock transfers done the old fashioned way
Wetlock transfers done the old fashioned way

In 1855, the Yellow River burst its banks and carved itself a new course to the sea, killing thousands and cutting the canal in half in the process. The massive flooding that ensued was seen as a manifestation of heaven's displeasure with the Qing Dynasty, and from that point on both the Qing and the canal went into decline. With the advent of railways, the canal eventually fell into disuse and neglect.

Coveting the global status that comes with possessing the world's greatest canals— Stalin's canals linking the Baltic, White and Black seas, Panama, and Suez — the Communists began restoration of the Grand Canal after emerging victorious in the civil war. Farmers, workers, students and soldiers were made to volunteer for the plan, part of the Great Leap Forward, but the project would come at great human cost. Of the nearly 160 million cubic meters of earth excavated over three years, only 3.7 million cubic meters were moved by machine. The project ultimately failed. Today, long stretches of the 1,800 kilometer-long waterway are polluted or impassable.

However, the canal is poised to make a comeback. Governments of Shandong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang Provinces plan to increase shipping capacity by 40 percent by 2012. Efforts are underway to protect the canal's ecology and historical relics which is good news for travelers eager to discover this amazing part of China's heritage. The Grand Canal is finally making a comeback.

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