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Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal

Beijing Hangzhou Grand CanalBeijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal (京杭大运河, Jīng Háng Dà Yùnhé), a world cultural heritage site of China, is the earliest and longest canal in the world with the maximum project work. It starts from Beijing and finally to Hangzhou with a total distance of more than 1700 kilometers. Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal plays a great role in the development and exchange of economy and culture between southern China and northern China, especially in the aspect of the industrial and agricultural development in the canal line area. It is called the water great wall when compared with the Great Wall. The areas the Grand Canal cross include: 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 Qiantangjiang River.


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Formation & History of Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal

Beijing Hangzhou Grand Canal history mapThe formation of the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal generally comprised of three steps:-

The first step: During the Spring & Autumn Period, King Fuchai(夫差, Fuchai was a famous king, his kingdom being one of the superpowers of the time, which was largely located in east China, including today’s Shanghai, Hangzhou, Nanjing, Suzhou, and many developed cities in east China. He defeated Yue Kingdom and lost his kingdom just for a beautiful woman, Xishi, who was one of the four great beauties in ancient China) of Wu Kingdom, in a bid to contend for hegemony with other powers in north China, opened Han’gou Canal in 486 BC for linking Yangtze River and Huaihe River, which became one section of Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal. He also established the city of Yangzhou on the northern bank of Yangtze River for water transportation management.

The second step: It is the canal system created during Sui dynasty (581-618). Emperor Yang Guang ordered to further exploit Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal. Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal was generally centralized with 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 Canal and Gangou. 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. Generally, Emperor Yang Guang opened the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, only simply for appreciating Qionghua Flower, but indirectly it was greatly good for grain transportation by water-channel from south to north. Thanks to Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, Yangzhou became the most prosperous water city in southern China in Sui & 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 due to many years of neglect of management, and the political center of the empire had been shifted to Bejing, the emperor ordered to “straighten” the existing Canal by directly linking Huaihe River water system to the area surrounding Beijing. While “forgetting about” the central sections of the Sui Dynasty Canal linking Luoyang to both 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 ships or cargo-ships could directly arrive at Beijing by water. Usually, the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal of Yuan dynasty could be divided into seven sections: Tonghui River, Northern Canal, Southern Canal, Shandong Canal, Middle Canal, Inner Canal, and Jiangnan Canal.

Composition of the Grand Canal Today

The Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal as we see today mainly follows the route formed in the Yuan Dynasty. The modern course of the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal can be divided into seven sections, which are listed in the following table:-

SectionLocation / PathPresent Navigation Conditions      Remarks     
Jiangnan CanalHangzhou–Jiaxing –Suzhou–Wuxi–Changzhou–Zhenjiang Still heavily used today. Barge traffic carrying bulk materials like coal, bricks, construction materials, etc.
“Jiangnan” means “south of the Yangtze”.
The southernmost section of the Grand Canal.
Connecting the river systems of QIantang and Yangtze.
An important water transport route in the Yangtze River Delta region.
Li (Inner) Canal Yangzhou–Gaoyou–Baoying–Huai’anStill in heavy use. Navigable for 2000t vesselsConnecting Yangtze River, via Shaobo, Gaoyou, and Hongze Lakes, to Huai River system.
The earliest excavated section of the Grand Canal.
Zhong (Middle) Canal Huai’an–Luoma Lake–Weishan Lake (Shandong Province)
Still in heavy use.

Occassionally The former river course of the lower reaches of Si River.innavigable due to low water levels.
The former river course of the lower reaches of Si River.
Lu (Shandong) CanalWeishan Lake–Jining–Dongping Lake– Yellow River–Liaocheng-Linqing
South of Jining navigable.

Waterless at the point reaching Yellow River.

Flowing intermittently between Liaocheng and Linqing through a renovated stone channel.
The highest elevation of the Grand Canal (38.5 m above sea level) is reached at the town of Nanwang.
Southern CanalLinqing–Dezhou–Cangzhou-TianjinIndustrial exploitation and extraction of water have left the section of canal too low to be navigable. Connecting Yellow River to Haihe River in Tianjin city center.
Following the course of the canalized ancient Wei River.
Northern Canal Tianjin-Tongzhou (a suburb district on the edge of Beijing Municipality)Now mainly used as a drainage river course for Beijing. Tongzhou, a major terminus of the Canal, where a Grand Canal Cultural Park has been built.
Tonghui RiverTongzhou-Jishuitan Pond (northwest of the old city of Beijing)
Under the protection of Beijing Municipality.
Intended now mainly for tourism purposes.
Depending on the navigation conditions of Tonghui River, cargoes used to be either unloaded at Tongzhou and transported to Beijing by Land, or unloaded at Jishuitan Pond in the city of Beijing when Tonghui River was navigable.

Beijing Hangzhou Grand Canal map

Currently, the navigable shipping distance of Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal is 1442 kilometers, traversing the provinces of Shandong, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang. Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal is 16-times longer than Suez Canal and 33-times longer than Panama Canal.

Significance of the Grand Canal: an imperial transport artery

Beijing Hangzhou Grand Canal
The ancient Chinese dynasties have opened and maintained the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal with the original purpose of facilitating
grain transportation from various regions of the empire to its political center. However, the actual effect of the Grand Canal far exceeds the initial intention of the emperors. As is determined by the geographical conditions in East Asia, most rivers in China flow in a generally west-east direction, with few exceptions in southeast China. The regions along the middle and lower reaches of Yellow River, which are the cradle of Chinese civilization, used to be the most developed, densely-populated, prosperous and culturally advanced area, while vast regions to both the south and the north of Yellow River, though fertile and with great potential for development, had yet to be developed. The lack of an efficient, convenient and cheap means of transportation between south and north China placed a painful restriction upon the economic and cultural exchanges as well as political integration between these regions. Then, the Grand Canal stepped in and managed to connect a large number of rivers – the five natural water systems of Yangtze, Huaihe River, Yellow River, Haihe River, and Qiantang River,- combining to form a grand network of water routes.

Thanks to Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, China’s southern and northern communication in the ancient time brought great help for southern economic development, and the agricultural produce that can be widely transported to the north area by this golden waterway. The Canal soon became the empire’s main artery of south-north transport, and the regions along the Canal developed into an important economic belt, dotted by a series of prosperous cities.

Beijing Hangzhou Grand CanalTake Tongjiqu Canal (the section of Sui Dynasty Canal between Luoyang and Huai’an) for example. The total transport volume of this section alone amounted to four million dan (or 664,000 metric tons) in an average year during the Tang and Song Dynasties, with a record high of 1,162,000 tons. Even today, the southern sections of the Canal are still being heavily utilized and cargo ships are seen sailing on the Canal, carrying vast amounts of bulk goods like coal, brick, sand, etc. The provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangsu, which the Grand Canal traverses, keep benefiting tremendously from this golden waterway. On the Wuxi section of the Grand Canal, for instance, the annual cargo movement is equivalent to five times that of the Shanghai-Nanjing railway (Wuxi section) and six times that of the Wuxi section of the Shanghai-Nanjing expressway.

The Grand Canal’s strategic significance also made it a focus for military operations in ancient times. As long as the Canal was severed, supplies from other parts of the empire to its political center would be cut off and have to come by through other routes which were far less convenient. The Battle of Suiyang (757-758 AD) during the An Lushan-Shi Siming Rebellion in Tang Dynasty was one of the severest in China’s military history. The Tang government troops, led by General Zhang Xun, fought till the end against the rebellious army to defend this city (which is today's Shagnqiu of He'nan Province)on the Canal. Though the city fell to the rebels after ten months of bitter warfare, a large government reinforcement troops soon arrived and retook the city. The Battle was significant in that it kept the resource-laden southern China free from threat for almost two years, enabling the empire to gather enough strength to strike back.

Historical Cities on the Grand Canal

Mankind relies on water for everyday living, drinking and transportation. And consequently, many cities, both in China and worldwide, have grown on a certain river, their history closely tied to it. Paris rests on the Seine, London on the Thames, Vienna on the Danube, Prague on the Vltava ... The most tangible legacy of the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal is perhaps the string of historical cities that have grown along its course. A total of thirty-five cities (prefecture-level or above) along the Canal have joined China’s grand program of applying for World Heritage status for the Grand Canal, most of which are well-known historical and cultural cities in China.

List of Thirty-Five Cities on the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal

Province / Municipality    Cities
HebeiLangfang, Cangzhou, Hengshui, Handan, Xingtai
He’nanAnyang, Hebi, XinXiang, Jiaozuo, Luoyang, Zhengzhou, Kaifeng, Shangqiu
ShandongDezhou, Liaocheng, Tai’an, Ji’ning, Zaozhuang
AnhuiHuaibei, Suzhou
JiangsuXuzhou, Suqian, Huai’an, Yangzhou, Zhenjiang, Cangzhou, Wuxi, Suzhou
ZhejiangJiaxing, Huzhou, Hangzhou, Shaoxing, Ningbo

The most important cities on the Grand Canal (both the Sui Dynasty Canal and that formed in Yuan Dynasty) include: Yangzhou, Huai’an, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Luoyang, Ji’ning and Linqing, to name but a few, the first four being called collectively "the Four Great Metropolises on the Grand Canal" during Ming & Qing Dynasties. The prosperity of the canal metropolises have been repeatedly depicted in Chinese classic poetry and literature over the past millennium and more. The convenience of transport by the Grand Canal helped shape many of them into major collection and distribution hubs or trade centers for bulk commodities like tea, silk, porcelain, lacquerware, and salt, etc. For example, the most important imperial granaries are located in Luoyang, Zhenjiang, Huai’an, Hangzhou and Beijing. Hangzhou and Yangzhou became two of the top three
foreign trade ports in Tang Dynasty, where commerce and handicraft industries also boomed to unprecedented levels. Yangzhou and Huai’an were both hubs for salt distribution, as southeast China used to be the largest salt production base. In Tang Dynasty, Yangzhou was the top metropolis of the empire in terms of economic prosperity. And Suzhou developed into a political and cultural, as well as commercial, center of southeast China during Ming & Qing Dynasties.

Today, the area in southeast China traversed by the Grand Canal is still the region with the degree of economic vitality unrivaled by any other area in China. And the Grand Canal is going on with its silent contribution to the development of the region.

Successfully got admitted into the World Cultural Heritage List

Beijing Hangzhou Grand Canal-world heritageBeijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal is a great project created by ancient working people and is considered as a living heritage of humankind. It is the second golden waterway of China, other than Yangtze River. Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal showcases the marvelous achievement of Chinese ancient water conservancy, leaving us rich historical and cultural heritages and borne many spotlighting cities and towns.

In 2006, the Grand Canal was included on the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List. In 2007, the Joint Office for World Heritage Application Program of the Grand Canal was established in Yangzhou. 35 cities of eight provinces, 132 heritage sites, and 43 canal sections along the Grand Canal will be involved in this grand program. 


On June 22, 2014 Beijing time, the 38th World Heritage Conference was held in Doha, Qatar. On the conference, China’s Grand Canal became a new World Cultural Heritage Site, and it is China's No. 32 world cultural heritage site. The good result finally came after eight years of great efforts. The application makes the concept of World Heritage protection widespread and popular along the Grand Canal in China’s eight provinces (municipalities) and among 170 million people. The Chinese government will abide by the relevant requirements of the "World Heritage Convention" and its operating guidelines, and continue to provide the best protection for the precious cultural heritage of the Grand Canal, and will continue to unite the various stakeholders to further strengthen regional cross-sectoral dialogue and coordination mechanism, discuss in depth giant linear cultural heritage in particular the protection, management and use patterns of living state cultural heritage, and let the Grand Canal that rich in spiritual content flow towards a sustainable future.

Hangzhou Section of the Grand Canal

Beijing Hangzhou Grand Canal-xiaohe historical streetThe history of Hangzhou is closely related to the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, which terminates at Hangzhou and, over history, has enabled the city to become an important transport hub and economic center in the area 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 canal into a leisure & 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 related to the Grand Canal. The visitor also has access to two landscape belts along the banks of the Canal, as well as three parks, six bridge ports and fifteen bridges. 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.
Beijing Hangzhou Grand Canal-Xixi Wetland

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 Xiang Ji Si Temple, transport service shops on the Xixing Classic Street, etc. Furthermore, Xiaohe Historical Street and Qiaoxi Block in Gongshu District have both undergone massive facelift to display to the visitor the ways of life at the ports of the Canal in old times.

While enjoying the Grand Canal as a tour resort, it is worth bearing in mind that the Canal is still alive, undertaking heavy workloads of transportation. The local governments have kept investing to maintain the Canal. 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. And a diversion waterway of about 40 kilometers will be excavated in Hangzhou area to set the canal  section free from cargo transport.

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