The Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal is the earliest and longest man-made canal in the world. With a total distance of more than 1700 kilometers, it starts from Beijing and ends in Hangzhou. The Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal plays a great role in the development and exchange of economy and culture between southern and northern China, especially in the aspect of the industrial and agricultural development in the canal line area. It is called the "Great Water Wall", an allusion to the Great Wall. The Grand Canal crosses through Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei Province, Shandong Province, Jiangsu Province, and Zhejiang Province. It links five great water systems in China: Haihe River, Yellow River, Huaihe River, Yangtze River and Qiantang River.
The History of the Grand Canal
The formation of the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal generally comprised of three steps.
The first step: During the Spring & Autumn Period, by King Fuchai (夫差). Fuchai was a famous king, his kingdom being one of the superpowers at the time. It was largely located in east China, and included today's Shanghai, Hangzhou, Nanjing, Suzhou, and many other developed cities of east China. He defeated the Yue Kingdom but lost his own kingdom for a beautiful woman, Xishi, who was one of the four great beauties (in ancient China) of the Wu Kingdom. In a bid to contend for hegemony with other powers of north China, he opened the Han’gou Canal in 486 BC, to link the Yangtze and Huaihe Rivers. This became one section of Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal. He also established the city of Yangzhou to act as a water transportation management center on the northern bank of Yangtze River.
The second step: This was the canal system created during the Sui Dynasty (581 - 618) by Emperor Yang Guang to further exploit the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal. At this time, the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal was generally centralized at Luoyang, the then East Capital (while the West Capital was Xi'an); it was comprised of three sections. The first section was called Yongjiqu Canal, which starts from Luoyang in the south to Beijing in the north; the second section was comprised of Tongjiqu and Gangou Canals. Tongjiqu Canal starts northward from Luoyang to Huaihe River in the southeast area, and Han'gou was from Huai’an to Yangzhou; the southern section was named Jiangnan River (or Jiangnan Canal), which stretched from Zhenjiang in the north to Hangzhou in the south. It is generally believed that Emperor Yang Guang opened the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal for aesthetic reasons, simply to appreciate the Qionghua Flower, but indirectly, it became advantageous for grain transportation by water-channel from south to north. Thanks to the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, Yangzhou became the most prosperous water city in southern China in the Sui and Tang dynasties.
The third step: This took place during the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. The Mongols took over the reign of China in the 13th century, and relocated its capital to Beijing. As various sections of the canal had become silted up because of many years of neglect and mismanagement, and the political center of the empire had been shifted to Beijing, the emperor ordered the “straightening” of the existing canal by directly linking the Huaihe River water system to the area surrounding Beijing. While “forgetting about” the central sections of the Sui Dynasty Canal linking Luoyang to both the southern and northern regions, the new canal utilized much of the old canal, with renovation, dredging, and widening engineering projects carried out in various sections. As a result, the new Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal had a total length of 1794 kilometers, as compared with over 2700 kilometers of the Sui Dynasty Canal. The many cargo-ships could travel directly to Beijing by water. Generally speaking, the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal of the Yuan Dynasty could be divided into seven sections: Tonghui River, Northern Canal, Southern Canal, Shandong Canal, Middle Canal, Inner Canal, and Jiangnan Canal.
Hangzhou and the Grand Canal
The history of Hangzhou is closely related to the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, which terminates at Hangzhou and, over its long history, enabled the city to become an important transport and economic hub in ancient China.
The Grand Canal traverses the metropolitan area of Hangzhou for a length of around eleven kilometers. In recent years, while taking care to protect and renovate the canal by dredging, supplying water, and restricting navigation and transportation on the canal, the local government also carried out a series of tourism development projects, turning this section of the canal into a leisure and entertainment resort serving both local residents and travelers. The China Grand Canal Museum is built near Gongchen Bridge, giving the visitor a thorough, detailed knowledge of the history and culture as it relates to the Grand Canal. The visitors also has access to two landscape belts along the banks of the canal, as well as three parks, six bridge ports and fifteen bridges. A water-bus service on the Hangzhou section of the Grand Canal is now available, offering the visitor a chance to enjoy the Grand Canal’s scenery in less than two hours.
Other sites of historical interest along the Hangzhou section of the Grand Canal include: Hangzhou Customs Administration of former Qing Dynasty, Fuyi Granary, the Fengshan Water Gate on the Canal (built in Yuan Dynasty), Stone Pagoda at Xiangji Temple, transport service shops on the Xixing Classic Street, etc. Furthermore, Xiaohe Historical Street and Qiaoxi Block in Gongshu District have both undergone massive facelifts to display to visitors the ways of life at the ports of the canal in old times.
While enjoying the Grand Canal as a tourist resource, it is worth bearing in mind that the canal is still commercially alive, undertaking heavy workloads of transportation. The local governments have kept investing in the maintenance of this essential transportation route. A new plan has been drawn up recently to upgrade the Zhejiang section of the canal to China's Class III inland river navigation standards, making it navigable for vessels of the 1000t class. In addition, a planned diversion waterway of about 40 kilometers will be excavated in the Hangzhou area to divert cargo transport from the tourist canal section.