The Grand Canal: The Longest Man-Made Canal in the World

As a sequel to “By-Water Logistics: The Secret Economic Gateway, Two Thousand Years Ago”, this article seeks to explore China’s Grand Canal, itself, in further detail.

The Grand Canal is the longest man-made waterway or artificial river (canal) in the world. In general, that usually means constructing a path for water on a passage of either dry lands with no pre-existing natural waterways or with pre-existing waterways that were not connected in any meaningful way. Also known as the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the passage starts in Beijing, passes through Tianjin, and the provinces of Hebei, Shandong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang, to the city of Hangzhou, linking the Yellow River and Yangtze River. Initial parts date back to the 5th century BC, or approximately 500 years before Christ was born, or, about 25 centuries ago. Isolated segments were further combined later on in the Sui dynasty, around 581–618 AD. The by-water connectivity ensured the Chinese primary economy thrived in past dynasties, and now, over 2000 years young, some parts of the canal remain commissioned, mainly functioning as a water-diversion conduit.The mega structure has been revered by historians and engenderers throughout history as its span far surpasses the next two longest in the world; the Suez and Panama Canals. 

The greatest height of the canal is reached in the Shandong Mountains, at a 42 m (138 ft) above sea water level. Ships did not have trouble propelling through elevations, though, after the pound lock was invented by Qiao Weiyue, a government official and engineer in the 10th century during the Song dynasty (960–1279). The Pound Lock, another “man’s great invention”, works by accumulating water into an integrated containing chamber with controlled water-locks (outlets) on each side until a certain height above that of the surrounding levels outside the gate is reached:

“It’s a type of lock that is used almost exclusively nowadays on canals and rivers. A pound lock has a chamber (the pound) with gate at both ends that control the level of water in the pound. In contrast, an earlier design with a single gate was known as a flash lock.

The distance between the two locks was rather more than 50 paces, and the whole space was covered with a great roof like a shed. The gates were ‘hanging gates’; when they were closed the water accumulated like a tide until the required level was reached, and then when the time came it was allowed to flow out.”

The great canal was applied for both economical purposes and served as a strategic geographical defense “tool” during war times, as well: “Barriers and outlets of the Yellow River were sometimes deliberately destroyed in order to flood advancing enemy troops during war times. This caused disaster and prolonged economic hardships. Despite temporary periods of desolation and disuse, the Grand Canal furthered an indigenous and growing economic market in China’s urban centers since the Sui period”. It facilitated convenient trading and enhanced China’s economy by the volumes. 

Different portions of the canal were built in different strategic geographical areas accordingly to the ruling dynasties that alternated from period to period, before finally being linked. For example, a large-scale expansion of the canal portion that resided in Luoyang was ordered when Emperor Yangdi of the Sui Dynasty moved the capital to Luoyang. Although astonishing visions and logistically intuition went into the greatest project of all time, the construction period and amount of human resources that rendered the project possible would prove it almost impossible to replicate by contemporary standards, mainly for economically reasons and labor cost (a different perspective to be shared, though, should, e.g., the US Army Corps of Engineers take charge): “primitive building techniques stretched the project over six years. Approximately half the peasant builders (about 3,000,000) died of hard labor and hunger before it was finished”. The project wasted so much manpower and money it was thought to have lead to the downfall of the Sui Dynasty.

As the major logistics venue for past dynasties, the Grand Canal interconnected otherwise isolated river systemsthat were scattered in logistically meaningless directions, and instead, turned them into a major artery for inhabitability. The gateway to civilization itself, if you may. All of a sudden, foods and goods and necessities were transportable between south and north: “Just as importantly, it greatly improved the administration and defense of China as a whole and strengthened economic and cultural intercourse between north and south”.

Nowadays, Boating on the old Canal is probably the best way to get a panoramic view of the mega landscape and historical areas, such as the preserved river towns in southern China that include “ancient dwellings, stone bridges of traditional designs and historical relics. Experiencing some of the local customs offers much delight to travelers. Tourists also have an opportunity to enjoy good food while appreciating the surrounding scenery”.

The Grand Canal is by far one of the greatest man-made mega structures ever build in the history of mankind. The magnificence and wondrous puts it right up there with its national iconic counterpart; the Great Wall of China, among the other 7 Wonders of the World: Chichen Itza, Christ the Redeemer, Machu Picchu, Petra, TajMahal, and Colosseum.

Compiled by  BLOG.SCGLogistics

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