When I told Beijingers what my itinerary for their city included, they nodded along. The Forbidden City, of course. Tiananmen Square, yes. The Great Wall, naturally.
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And then, when I listed my final stop – one almost as monumental as the Great Wall, as connected to the emperors as the Forbidden City and even more consequential to Beijing’s history than Tiananmen Square – they paused.
“The Grand Canal?” they asked. “Are you sure?”
If few Beijingers make it out to the Grand Canal, even fewer travellers do. The canal is a relatively well-known attraction in southern China, where barges and cruise ships alike ply the 2,500-year-old route. In Beijing, less so: hardly anyone realises that the canal runs an entire 1,794km north from Hangzhou to Beijing’s suburb of Tongzhou, located 35km west of Tiananmen Square.
Yet few spots are more important to Chinese history than this: the longest, oldest manmade waterway in the world, nine times longer than the Suez Canal. Without the canal, Beijing never would have been China’s capital. And without the canal, China may not be China at all – all reasons why, in June 2014, Unesco finally inscribed the Grand Canal on its World Heritage List.
I didn’t care if locals were perplexed. I had to see it.
As we drove west along highway 103, four lanes of traffic running in each direction, one building under construction loomed after another. People on scooters checked their iPhones at a stoplight; a concrete mixer churned behind them. As we crossed a bridge, I caught a quick glimpse of water beneath us. And then it vanished.
Whether the canal goes largely ignored by locals today or not, the workers who build here are continuing a millennia-old tradition: one of investing human capital in projects on the kind of scale the world has never before seen. Work began on the canal in 486 BC, but it wasn’t until a 7th-century expansion that the canal was brought to the magnitude it’s known for today: in 605, a 1,000km canal was cut from Luoyang to Qingjiang (now called Huaiyin), and three years later, 1,000km were built on to today’s Beijing. In 610, another 400km was cut from Zhenjiang to Hangzhou.
The project took more than three million peasants to complete. Half are estimated to have died from the hard labour and hunger. The canal’s further facelifts, including a major intervention in the 13th Century, took even more manpower. When Kublai Khan moved the empire’s capital to Beijing in 1271, eliminating the need for a section to go to the previous capitals of Kaifeng or Luoyang, he ordered that the canal be made more direct – creating today’s 1,794km Beijing to Hangzhou route. The project took four million slaves some 10 years. According to Unesco, in fact, the canal was “the world’s largest and most extensive civil engineering project prior to the Industrial Revolution”.
Like any major route, the canal played several roles, all of them indispensable to the empire. Food security was one: the Yangzi River Delta was China’s breadbasket, but the Yangzi itself flowed from west to east. As any ruler knew, hungry locals were more likely to rebel, and unfed soldiers couldn’t be counted on to keep both the peasants and potential invaders in check. And so (before Kublai Khan’s overhaul), the Grand Canal allowed barges to transport rice from the Yangzi to the Yellow River and on to Luoyang and Kaifeng, with an adjoining tributary allowing transport even further west to Xi’an, another of the ancient capitals. Meanwhile, wheat, which was grown in the north, could be sent south. By 735, no less than 149,000,000kg of grain was being shipped along the canal each year. Other goods, from cotton to porcelain, were also traded, helping China’s economy bloom. And the canal became a lifeline for communication, with government couriers running messages up and down the waterway.