Travel: The Grand Canal 

Rice paddies and silk farms along China’s ancient waterway are giving way to heavy industry

click to enlarge The Grand Canal in Suzhou
  • The Grand Canal in Suzhou

Stretching 1,800 km from Hangzhou in the south to Beijing in the north, China's Grand Canal is the longest man-made waterway in the world. It took a very long time to build, but then the fellows who dug it didn't have backhoes or dump trucks. In fact they didn't even have decent wheelbarrows and shovels — but what they lacked in tools they made up for in numbers.

More than six million peasants were conscripted to toil on the project and working conditions were so bad that an estimated 50 per cent of them died on the job. But it's unlikely that Yangdi, second emperor of the Sui Dynasty, was troubled by such details as he sailed triumphantly into Beijing in 611 AD.

On his first voyage, Emperor Yangdi, aboard the ornately carved, four-deck royal barge, led a procession of a thousand lesser craft carrying members of the court. Eighty-thousand coolies, assisted by "the loveliest girls in the empire," were conscripted to haul the procession upstream. Forty new palaces were built on the banks of the canal for overnight accommodation. The Emperor so enjoyed the trip he organized others but, perhaps understandably, his enthusiasm was not widely shared.

On his third excursion Yangdi was hung by disgruntled members of his own crew.

Yangdi's death in 618 marked the end of the short-lived Sui Dynasty but not of his canal. The original scattering of ditches was linked together. Wiers, dams and levees were built, channels were deepened and widened, boat-locks and a hand-powered ship-lifting winch were installed. By 1271, when the Yuan Dynasty under Kublai Khan moved the capital to Beijing the Grand Imperial Canal was a busy transportation corridor providing a vital link between the fertile rice-producing areas of the Yangtze estuary in the south and the densely populated but barren lands of the north. For the next six centuries the canal funneled an astonishing tonnage of freight from the farms and factories of the Yangtze lowlands north to Beijing. Ten-thousand rice barges were joined on the canal by other ships carrying salt, cloth, bamboo, and timber — and, of course silk for the emperor and his court. Even the bricks in the Forbidden City and the Ming Tombs came up the Grand Canal.

When the railway took over in 1902 long distance canal transport was officially abandoned but segments of the old waterway are still used for local shipping. Between Hangzhou and Suzhou the canal and its myriad interconnected waterways is not only the main supply artery for the farms and factories that radiate out from Shanghai, it has also become a major tourist attraction. We could have taken a passenger boat between the two cities but we opted instead to explore some of the lesser towns and waterways along the way.

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