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Grand Canal - Construction

The excavation of the Grand Canal may be compared with the Great Wall in magnitude. The Grand Canal, called in Chinese Yii-ho (Imperial River), Yiin-ho (Transport River), or Yuliang-ho (Tribute-bearing River), extends from Tientsin, in Chihli, to Langchow, in Chekiang, a distance of over 1,000 miles. According to the best accounts, it was commenced in the sixth century BC and finished only in AD 1283. Digging started in the late Spring and Autumn period (about 5th century BC) and it was twice extended and widened, once during the Sui period and then in the Yuan Dynasty.

The section of the Canal between the Yangtze and the Hwai River is both the most ancient and the most interesting. It was opened in 486 BC, and at the time was fed by the Yangtze. The most ancient part is the central section, between the Yangtze and the Hwai rivers. The southern section, from Hangchow to Chinkiang, on the Yangtze, was constructed from AD 605 to 617. The Herculean task of linking the Yellow River and Yangtze River began in earnest in 604 AD, when the second Sui dynasty Yang Di emperor toured Luoyang (now the city in Henan Province). The following year, he moved the capital to Luoyang and ordered a large-scale expansion of the Grand Canal. The Emperor Yangdi had the waterway dug from his capital at Luoyang to Beijing in the north and to the Yangtzei River basin.

This southern portion of the Grand Canal, extending from Hangchow to Chinkiang, was constructed between 605 and 617 AD. Due to the differences in terrain and water levels, locks and dams had to be built along the way. The main difficulties to contend against were an influx of the salt waters of the Ts'ien T'ang Gulf and floods from the Yangtze. The 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. This project was thought to have been wasteful of manpower and money, which resulted in the downfall of the Sui Dynasty in 618 AD.

The magnificent sea-wall on the coast of the Ts'ient'ang Gulf was not constructed until 910 AD, but embankments of a strong description were existing at an earlier date. So much damage would result to the silk districts of Soochow, Kahsing and Hoochow from an invasion of salt water that no water connection has been made between the Gulf and the Canal. Prom the Yangtze the entrances to this section of the Grand Canal are very small. The chief entrance is near Tant'u, ten miles below Chinkiang.

It was not until 1071 AD that the waters of the Canal flowed from north to south. The length and size of the Yellow River and the absence of any mouth of the Hwai River on the coast seem to have blinded Europeans to the importance of the latter river. It is the Hwai which drains the north of Kiangsu, of Auhwei and the province of Honan. In its course it receives seventy-two tributaries^ from the S.W. corner of Shansi downwards. The Yellow River drains but little of the country on either side. The Wei on the North and the Hwai on the South receive almost the whole rainfall of the surrounding districts. For commercial purposes the River Hwai is the more important, and this fact was evidently realized when the Canal was first constructed some 2,500 years ago.

The northern and most recent section, extending from the old bed of the Yellow River to Tientsin, was completed by the Emperor Shitsu in the three years 1280-1283 AD. By the time of the Yuan dynasty (1206-1368), the final stretch of the canal was completed, linking Beijing all the way to Hangzhou. Many of the bricks and stones used to build Beijing's temples and palaces arrived via the canal. By the time of the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279), political power had shifted south to Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, as the Song emperors moved their capital to Hangzhou and the Ming emperors established themselves in Nnjing.

As the canal passes mostly through alluvial soil, the chief labor problem of the builders was in making the banks, rather than in digging the channel. In some places the bed was cut down from forty to seventy feet, but no groat obstacles were encountered. The banks were formed by building stone facings, and also by using the natural soil in combination with the thick stalks of the gigantic native millet.

No machinery except that of the simplest character was used in digging the canal. With the Chinese, machinery is intended merely to assist and not to replace hand labor. Consequently the expenditure of human effort in the construction of the Grand Canal was enormous. Any estimate of the cost of the waterway would be a mere guess; but it is probable that if the labor had been paid for on a fair commercial basis it would have amounted to much more than the $120,000,000 required to build the Suez Canal.

Some of the work was performed in equal portions by soldiers, workmen, and the inhabitants both of the towns and rural districts. Each family within a certain radius was required to furnish a man of between fifteen and fifty years of age, to whom the Government paid nothing but his food. The soldiers to whom the lot fell to work on the canal, received an increase in pay, which was made up for by the specially hired laborers receiving no pay at all on certain days of the month. The method of operation was simply by hand shovel and bucket, horses and donkeys being used at times to convey the excavated earth to the bank.

In places where the soil was clayey, it was cut into blocks by shovels, and tossed from hand to hand by coolies standing in rows from the workings to the bank. Where the clay would not retain its form well enough to permit of tossing, it was carried in baskets suspended at the ends of bamboo shoulder poles.

For ninety miles between the Hoangho and Yangtse rivers, the Grand Canal is an elevated waterway, carried over the country on embankments twenty feet high and of varying thickness. The canal along this elevated structure is about 200 feet wide, and the current runs at a rate of about three miles an hour. The mound of earth which supports the water is kept together by retaining walls of stone; and so stanch is the work that the lapse of centuries has seen no damage caused by break to the cities and towns which stand on the lower level along the route.

The route of the Grand Canal is from Hang-chau, south of the Yangtse Kiang, to Tientsin and Peking; and in its course it cuts both the Yangtse and Yellow (Hoang-ho) rivers, as well as several smaller streams. The channel varies greatly in width, in some parts following the beds of rivers, winding in and out for many miles without a lock. There is not a lock for 380 miles north of Chinkiang.

The contrivances for locks along the canal were very simple stout boards, with ropes at each end of them, being let down edgewise over each other through grooves in the stone piers. Boats were dragged through and up the sluices by means of ropes communicating with large windlasses worked on the bank, which hauled them safely but very slowly. Artificial basins were hollowed out in the banks of the canal at these locks, where boats might anchor securely. The sluices which kept the necessary level are of very rude construction. Soldiers and workmen were constantly in attendance at these sluices, and the danger to boats was diminished by coils of rope hung down at the sides to break the force of possible blows. The lock officials often keep long lines of boats waiting behind a closed lock by making daily promises to open, but delaying day after day in the hopes of securing additional "inducements."

The canal was fed by innumerable creeks and rivers, the current flowing in one direction from the highest point (the influx of the Yun-ho), and in the other direction beyond it. Part of the water of the Yun-ho runs south, and part north; and a great stone facing has been built along the side of the canal opposite its inflow, to break the force of the current. Here a temple was built to the Dragon King, or genius of the watery element, who had the canal in his keeping. To concentrate the waters of the Yun-ho and other rivers at this point, in order to secure an adequate supply for the canal, an engineer named Sung Li, in the service of the Emperor Hang-wu, in 1375, employed no fewer than 300,000 men at one time. He accomplished his object in seven months.

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Page last modified: 02-07-2012 18:29:03 ZULU