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The Grand Canal

Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal = JīngHáng Dà Yùnhé = 京杭大运河

Say "jeeng-hahng dah yoon-huh"

The Grand Canal The Grand Canal
S. Harnsberger photo
Click for Grand Canal Slideshow

Having existed even before the city, the Grand Canal is another of Gaoyou’s defining features. I’m sure a book could be, and probably has been, written on the history of the canal. Here is a condensed history.

Known to the Chinese as Jing-Hang Da Yunhe was built to its maximum length in 1291. At 1794 kilometers long (1115 miles), is the world’s longest man-made waterway. The canal runs from Beijing in the north, south to Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province. It connects  the Haihe, Yellow, Huaihe, Yangtze and the Qiantang Rivers. These five major rivers run east-west, and with the canal boat travel is possible through much of eastern China. The canal passes through six provinces; Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Shangdong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang.

The portion of the canal that passes through Gaoyou is actually constructed on top of the surrounding plain. i.e. the bottom of the canal is at approximately the same elevation as the city streets. Over the centuries this has helped contribute to massive flooding in the region during wet years.

Construction began on the first portion of what was to become the Grand Canal in 486 B.C., during the Zhou Dynasty (1122-221 B.C.). This first section connected the Yangtze River at Yangzhou (40 miles south of Gaoyou) north through present day Gaoyou to Huai He (approx. 45 miles north of Gaoyou). The leader of the Kingdom of Wu (present day Jiangsu Province) built the canal to transport troops north to do battle with the Kingdom of Qi (present day Shandong Province). During these ancient times, teams of horses, oxen and men moved the boats up and down the canal, by pulling the boats from paths on the dikes adjoining the canal.

During the Sui Dynasty (AD 589-618), Emperor Yangdi launched a major construction campaign, lasting from AD 605-610, to dig new channels and tie smaller canals together to form the Grand Canal. This project would allow the transportation of rice from the fertile fields in the south to the cities in the north. Up to 6 million peasants were conscripted to build the canal, with as many as 3 million dying in the process.

Emperor Yangdi was notable for his extravagances. Among them were massive processions of boats carrying his entourage as he traveled on the canal. These processions have been said to have reached 40 miles in length. The tremendous expense and loss of life from the building of the canal, and the Emperor’s other projects, contributed to the downfall of the Sui Dynasty.

The Tang Dynasty that followed the Sui became one of China's most notable dynasties in part because of the infrastructure that the Grand Canal provided.

By 1291, during the Yuan Dynasty, the northern portions of the canal extending to just outside Beijing were completed. During the following centuries, the usable length of the canal fluctuated as maintenance levels varied. Today many portions of the Grand Canal, most notably the northern parts, are silted over and no longer navigable.

During the 1950’s the canal through Gaoyou went through a mayor reconstruction. Today this portion of the canal is vibrant and busy waterway, with heavy boat and barge traffic. The tree-lined dike on the east side of the canal is a nice place to take a morning walk and reflect on the thousands of years that the canal has brought commerce to the city.

Resources for “The Grand Canal”

  • A book available for purchase at the China Post office in Gaoyou, Gaoyou - A Famous Historical and Cultural City Author and publisher unknown.
  • Dorothy Perkins, Encyclopedia of China (Checkmark Books, 2000) Pg 188


Jing-Hang Da Yunhe (京Jīng = Beijing, 杭Háng = Hangzhou, 大Dà = Grand, 运Yùn + 河hé = Canal)

Copyright 2009 - Charles Day