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Grand Canal of China


The Grand Canal of China (known as Jinghang Canal or Jinghang Grand Canal,京杭大运河, or 大运河,; pinyin: jīng háng dà yǚn hè or dà yǚn hè), is the largest ancient artificial river in the world.

In the year of 604, Emperor Yang Guang of Sui Dynasty left Chang’an (in Xi'an), the capital, and made his rounds in Luoyan. In 605, the emperor gave an order to build two projects: transferring the capital from Chang’an to Luoyang (in Henan) and excavating the Grand Canal linking Beijng and Hangzhou. It cost over six years to build the Grand Canal linking all the canals along it and connecting Haihe, Huanghe, Huaihe, Yangtze and Qiantangjiang rivers. The Grand Canal starts north in Beijing and ends south in Hangzhou of Zhejiang with a total length of 1,794 kilometers, passes Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Shandong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang.

According to the itineraries published by Père Gandar, the total length of the canal is 3630 li, or about 1200 miles. A rough measurement, taking, account only of the main bends of the canal, makes its length 850 miles. After leaving Hangzhou the canal passes round the eastern border of the Lake Tai, surrounding in its course the beautiful city of Suzhou, and then trends in a generally north-westerly direction through the fertile districts of Jiangsu as far as Jinjiang on the Chang Jiang.

In this, the southern section, the slope is gentle and water is plentiful (from 7 feet at low water to 11 feet, and occasionally 13 feet at high water). Between Suzhou and Jinjiang the canal is often over 100 feet wide, and its sides are in many places faced with stone. It is spanned by fine stone bridges, and near its banks are many memorial arches and lofty pagodas.

In the central portion of the canal, that is between Jinjiang and Qingjiangpu, at which latter place it crosses the dry channel which marks the course of the Huang He (Yellow River) before 1852, the current is strong and difficult to ascend in the upward (northern) journey. This part of the canal skirts several lakes and is fed by the Huai He as it issues from the Hsingtso lake. The country lying west of the canal is higher than its bed; while the country east is lower than the canal, The two regions are known respectively as Shang-ho (above the river) and Ssia-ho (below the river). Waste weirs opening on the Ssia-ho (one of the great rice-producing areas of China) discharge the surplus water in flood seasons.

The northern and considerably the longest section of the canal, extends from the old bed of the Yellow river to Tientsin. It largely utilizes existing rivers and follows their original windings. Between Xingjiangpu and the present course of the Yellow river the canal trends north-northwest, skirting the highlands of Shandong. In this region it passes through a series of lagoons, which in summer form one lake -- Chow-yang. North of that lake on the east bank of the canal, is the city of Tsi-ning-chow. About 25 miles north of that city the highest level of the canal is reached at the town of Nan Wang. Here the river Wen enters the canal from the east, and about 30 miles farther north the Yellow river is reached. On the west side of the canal, at the point where the Yellow river now cuts across it, there is laid down in Chinese maps of the 18th century a dry channel which is described as being followed by the Yellow river before it took the channel it abandoned in 1851-1853.

The passage of the Yellow river to the part of the canal north of this stream is difficult, and can only be effected at certain levels of the river. Frequently the waters of the river are either too low or the current is too strong to permit a passage. Leaving this point the canal passes through a well-wooded and hilly country west of Tung-p'ing Chow and east of Tung-ch'ang Fu. At Lin-ching Chow it is joined at right angles by the Wei river in the midst of the city. Up to this point, i.e. from Tsing-kiang-pu to Lin-ching Chow, a distance of over 300 miles, navigation is difficult and the water-supply often insufficient. The differences of level, 20 to 30 feet, are provided for by barrages over which the boats -- having discharged their cargo -- are hauled by windlasses. Below the junction with the Wei the canal borrows the channel of the river and again becomes easily navigable. Crossing the frontier into Chih-li, between Te Chow and Tsang Chow, which it passes to the west, it joins the Peiho at Tientsin, after having received the waters of the Keto river in the neighbourhood of Tsing Hien.

The most ancient part of the canal is the section between the Yangtsze and the Huai He. This part is thought, on the strength of a passage in one of the books of Confucius, to have been built c. 486 BC. It was repaired and enlarged in the 3rd century AD. The southern part, between the Chang Jiang and Hangzhou, was built early in the 7th century AD (initially named as Jiang Nan He (江南河). The northern part is stated to have been constructed in the years 1280 to 1283. The northern portion of the canal is now of little use as a means of communication between north and south. It is badly built, neglected and charged with the mud-laden waters of the Yellow river. The central and southern portions of the canal are very largely used.

Initial text from the "China" article of 1911 EB. Please update as needed.