Highlights of Chinese Culture and History

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The Grand Canal

The Grand Canal in China is generally regarded as the oldest and longest man-made canal in the world. It begins in the north at Beijing and ends at Hangzhou, traversing on its way south the four provinces of Hebei, Shandong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang. This has earned it the name of the Jing-Hang Canal. With a total  length of 1,794 kilometers, the canal links up the five large rivers of Haihe, Huanghe (the Yellow River), Huaihe, Changjiang (the Yangtze River) and Qiantangjiang. In ancient times, it served as the main artery of communication between north and south.

Far back in the Spring and Autumn and Warring States Periods, King Fu Chai of Wu ordered the digging of a canal between the Yangtze and the Huaihe River, called at that time Hangou, for the purpose of transporting troops and provisions northwards to attack the State of Qi. In the year A.D. 605, Emperor Yang Di of the Sui Dynasty succeeded to the throne. In pursuit of extravagant personal pleasures, he gave orders to have another capital established at Luoyang which he called "the Eastern Capital." For the purpose of facilitating the transportation of goods and materials from the south to the north so that rare and precious fauna and flora could be collected from all parts of the country for his palace at Luoyang,and also in order to tighten his control over the country and to launch wars of expansion against other countries, Emperor Yang Di of Sui levied a million laborers to build a great canal with Luoyang as its center.

It took almost six years to complete the project. By the end of 610 when it was done, this gigantic undertaking had involved more than 150,000,000 man-days of work. The "Daoji Ditch" from Luoyang to the Huaihe River alone took more than five months, using a total of over a million man-days. In some places, even women were forced to join in the digging. Numerous men and women died of starvation, fatigue and illness due to the harsh and primitive living and working conditions, and many were simply beaten to death by overseers.

Emperor Yang Di of Sui also ordered the building of roads on both sides of the canal for his exclusive use. The roads were lined with willows to protect the canal banks. As soon as the project was completed, the emperor set out for Jiangdu to enjoy the rare Qiong flowers there with a retinue of 200,000 men aboard several thousand boats.

On the day of their departure,Emperor Yang Di and Empress Xiao Hou boarded separately two large four-stored dragon boats on which were built palatial suites and over a hundred elaborately decorated rooms. Several thousand richly ornamented ships carrying maids, servants, civil and military officials, nobilities, Taoist priests and Buddhist nuns and monks followed in their wake. Then came several thousand other boats with guards and weapons aboard. Sailing bow to stern, this spectacular armada of gorgeous vessels took up a hundred and more kilometers on the canal. On the banks were eighty thousand boat trackers and two escorting cavalry troops. It was indeed a spectacular and awe-inspiring sight with colorful banners flying both on the boats and along banks. At night, the vessels were brightly lit, and the sound of gongs beating and drums thumping reverberated through heaven and earth. What an extravagant display of pomp and luxury!

On his way, the emperor demanded the choicest and most exquisite foods and tribute from the officials of every county town along the canal. This caused a great deal of burdens to the common people. Large amounts of uneaten delicacies were dumped into the canal while the people were reduced to destitution and misery.

At Jiangdu, Emperor Yang Di made a big display of his imperial power and abandoned himself to all kinds of extravagant pleasures.Often thousands of even tens of thousands of men were pressed into service and an immense amount of money was squandered. What was even more preposterous was that Emperor Yang Di always determined the merits of his officials by the tribute they paid, promoting those who offered more and demoting those who gave less. As a result, officials along the canal resorted to ruthless extortion of the common people who were the true victims. At the end of six whole months of wanton abandon, Emperor Yang Di returned with pomp and circumstance to the Eastern Capital Luoyang.

After that, Emperor Yang Di would go on "inspection tours" almost every year, resulting in the depletion of the national coffer and bringing disaster to the broad masses. Mounting popular anger and revolt led to a series of peasant uprisings throughout the country. In A.D. 618, Emperor Yang Di was killed at Jiangdu by his general Yuwen Huaji and some other officials, and the Sui Dynasty came to an end.

The canal built in the reign of Emperor Yang Di of Sui, however, played an important part in improving communication between north and south, promoting economic and cultural exchange and strengthening the unification of the country. Later, during the Yuan Dynasty,the Grand Canal was extended further,resulting in the full-size Beijing to Hangzhou canal as it is today.

The Grand Canal, like the Great Wall, is an extremely stupendous project in the history of Chinese civilization.


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