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                                       ------Judy Bonavia

  The Grand Canal zigzags some 2,500 kilometres (1,554 miles) down the length of eastern Yangtze RiverChina and remains the longest man--made waterway in the world. In ancient times it was crucial in the transportation of grain from the fertile Yangtze delta to the relatively barren north, and in developing communications across the vast territory that the waterway system served. From the Yellow River valley, from which Chinese civilization sprang, culture and learning spread southwards along the canal, until by the Tang dynasty (618-907) such cities as Yangzhou and Hangzhou had themselves become centres of art and philosophy.

  The first link in this canal system was constructed in the fifth century BC by the King of Wu to facilitate his invasion of the Kingdom of Ji to the north.Other canals were constructed as political and economic demands arose. It was the Sui emperor Yangdi who, in the seventh century, set about creating an inter-communicating system linking his capital of Luoyang with the rice lands of the Yangtze River plains. The network was extended to the northern city, later called Bejing, to supply his armies, then fighting the Koreans. Tens of thousands of men and women were conscripted to labour on these projects,and to plant trees along the banks.

  Ma Shumou, the emperor's cruel overseer, was known as Mahu--'Ma the Barbarous'. Yangtze RiverYangzhou mothers to this day chastise their children by threat-ending 'Mahu will get you'. It was reputed that during the building of the Grand Canal he demanded a daily meal of a steamed two--year old child.

  During the Tang dynasty (618--907) over 300,000 tons of grain were shipped northwards annually under the escort of 120,000 soldiers.

  When the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1279--1368) established its capital in present--day Bejing, the need for a rapid supply of grain, unimpeded by pirates along the sea route, led to the digging of a direct canal northwards,which shortened the route by some 700 to 800 kilometres (435 to 500 miles).The Reduced length of 1,782 kilometres (1,108 miles) was bordered by a paved highway allowing travellers to cover Yangtze Riverthe distance in 40 days.

  Throughout its history the canal supplied not only the essentials of life but also the luxuries. Scholars and officials traveled on it to and from the capital for imperial examinations or affairs of state. Emperor Yangdi's retinue, in magnificent boats styled as dragons, tigers and birds, was pulled by 80,000 trackers along it.

  During the Qing dynasty (1644--1911) official corruption, flooding and silting caused the gradual decline of the Grand Canal. Twelve thousand bridges span the canal, which in recent years has been dredged and repaired.Water from the Yangtze is being diverted along this age-old channel for irrigation of the northern plains and the cities of Beijing and Tianjin.
Stretches of it are now open to tourism.


What to See in ZhengJiang (1)

What to See in ZhengJiang (2)

• The Grand Canal