Centuries- Old Water Transport
In China's long history, the Grand Canal has served the Chinese for more than 1,000 years, facilitating trade of goods between northern and southern China and demonstrating Chinese wisdom and resolve and achievements in water diversion technology and management. Today, the Grand Canal still plays a major role in transportation, flood control, irrigation and water supply after its continuous development and evolution.
Looking back on the Ancient Grand Canal
To build a canal or divert water in a vast space requires courage and aspiration. In the late Spring and Autumn Period, all the vassal states struggled to expand their territories, which resulted in frequent battles. King Fuchai (reign: 495–473 BC) of Wu State (12th century–473 BC) ordered to build a watercourse in the vicinity of Yangzhou for connecting the Yangtze River and Huaihe River via the Sheyang Lake with an aim to conquer the Central Plains.
After Emperor Yang (AD 569–618) of the Sui Dynasty (AD 581–618) ascended the throne, he ordered people to build a south-north canal, connecting many ancient channels, natural rivers and dry watercourses. This about-2,700-kilometre Grand Canal stretches through Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Shandong, Henan, Anhui, Jiangsu and Zhejiang and connects five bodies of water—the Yellow, Huaihe, Yangtze, Qiantang and Haihe rivers.
In 1280, the government of the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) initiated a large-scale renovation of the northern section of the Grand Canal of the Sui Dynasty.
Nine years later, the Huitong Canal was built to link Zaozhuang and Linqing and meet the Yongji Channel of the Sui Dynasty. In 1292, the government led to dredge the Tonghui River to connect Tongzhou and Dadu (in today's Beijing).
Therefore, the canal successfully connected Beijing and Hangzhou by virtue of natural watercourses and canals built in the Sui and Tang dynasties as well as
Tonghui, Huitong and Jizhou rivers, and the Beijing-hangzhou Grand Canal thus came into being. This 1,794-kilometre-long canal was about 900 kilometres shorter than the canal of the Sui and Tang dynasties by cutting corners.
The Zhedong Canal also has a long history, extending about 239 kilometres starting from Xixing Sub-district, Binjiang District, Hangzhou in the west and ending at the estuary of the Yongjiang River in Ningbo via the Cao'e River and Shaoxing.
Initially, the canal was excavated in Shaoxing in the Spring and Autumn Period and named Ancient Shanyin Watercourse. In the Western Jin (AD 265–316), He Xun (AD 260–319) led the canal's excavation from Xixing on the eastern bank of Qiantang River to the city of Huiji to build the Xixing Canal.
Later, this canal and the canal east of Cao'e River constituted a complete canal from the Qiantang River in the west to the East Sea in the east. This canal and natural watercourses of the Yaojiang and Yongjiang rivers constitute the Zhedong Canal.
Therefore, the Grand Canal inscribed on the World Heritage List consists of three parts: the Grand Canal of the Sui and Tang dynasties, the Beijing-hangzhou Grand Canal and Zhedong Canal.
Trade between Northern and Southern China
Emperors of different dynasties nearly had the same goal to acquire necessary supplies through water transportation when they excavated the canals. Thus, canals once shouldered an important duty to guarantee Beijing's food supply.
Such canal-based transportation of food was valued in the Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, so people built a canal network to supply the north with food from the south. In the process, they established water transportation and warehousing systems.
Canals didn't only help meet demands for food but also brought to the north silk, tea, bamboo, wood, lacquer, potteries and porcelains and other materials from the south. Meanwhile, some products such as pinewood, leather and coal were also transported from north to south. Transactions of goods offered more opportunities and options to people. In a relatively longer period, the canal-based economy was a main force driving China's economic growth.
Some hubs along canals developed into prosperous and vibrant cities such as Yangzhou. It took about three or four hundred years for Yangzhou to accumulate its wealth based on the salt trade along the canal. As a majority of China's salt was distributed nationwide via Yangzhou, it became an indispensable city for trade.
The Canal’s New Looks
Currently, Beijing has shifted the role of the canal from a transportation watercourse into a recreation and leisure public facility.
In recent years, a waterborne tour has opened to the public at Tongzhou Grand Canal Park. Tourists have a chance to view scenery along the canal by boarding an old-style ship. When the ship runs on the Grand Canal, tourists can view the Centuries- Old Development Way, Sailshaped Light Boxes, Stone Cluster at Water Source and other spots.
The ship turns back at the Water Transport Wharf, which is home to one street characterised by traditional crafts and snacks as well as old- style buildings. When the ship arrives at Grand Canal Forest Park on the lower reaches, the time- honoured Grand Canal looks as smooth as a mirror and rests beside a waterside urban landscape consisting of old bridges, willows, boats, green water and blue sky.
The 8-kilometre-long North Canal meanders through many scenic spots with canal culture, including a beautiful bank dotted with peach blossoms and willows, an ancient wharf, a moon-shaped island and maple and gingko forests.
The Grand Canal continues to diversify Beijing's urban sprawl as Tongzhou's residents pursue leisure and a healthy lifestyle. This tranquil canal sees Tongzhou developing into Beijing's urban sub- centre.
Water Transport Wharf along the Grand Canal in Tongzhou
Tongzhou Section of the Grand Canal