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Economic Geography

The Grand Canal

The Grand Canal (Da Yunhe) ranks alongside the Geat Wall of China as the country's greatest engineering achievement. For centuries, the 1800-kilometre waterway has played a key role in the nation's trade. The first sections were dug about 400 BC, probably for military purposes, but the historic task of linking the Yellow and the Yangzi rivers was not achieved until the early seventh century AD under the Emperor Sui Yang Di, when as many as six million men may have been pressed into service for its construction.

The original function of the canal was to join the fertile rice-producing areas of the Yangtse with the more heavily populated but barren lands of the north, and to alleviate the effects of regular crop failures and famine. Following its completion, however the canal became a vital element in the expansion of trade under the Tang and Song, benefiting the south as much as the north.Slowly the centre of political power driffted south-by 800 AD the Yangtse basin was taking over from the Yellow River as the chief source of the empire's finances, a transformation that would bring an end to the long domination of the old northern capitals,and lead to Hangzhou and Nanjing becoming China's most populous and puwerful cities.

By the twelfth century, the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang had become the economic and political heart of China.The Song dynasty moved south and established a capital at Hangzhou and the Ming emperors subsequently based themselves in Nanjing.During this period,and for centuries afterwards,the canal was constantly maintained and the banks regularly built up.A Western traveller,Robert Morrison,journeying as late as 1816 from Tianjin all the way down to the Yangzi,described the sophisticated and frequent locks and noted that in places the banks were so high and the country around so low that from the boat it was possible to look down on roofs and treetops.Not until early in the twentieth century did the canal seriously start falling into disuse. Contributing factors included the frequent flooding of the Yellow River,the growth of coastal shipping and the coming of the rail lines.Unused ,much of of the canal rapidly silted up.But since the 1950s its value has once more been recognized,and renovation Changzhou,Wuxi and Suzhou (and on to Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province),is now navigable all year round,at least by flat-bottomed barges and the cruisers built for the tourist trade.Although most local passenger boat services along the canal have been dropped,the surviving services from Hangzhou to Suzhou or Wuxi will probably give you enough of a taste.It's fascinating rather than beautiful-as well as the frenetic loading and unloading of barges,you'll see serious pollution and heavy industry.North of the Yangzi,the canal is seasonably navigable virtrally up Jiangsu's northern border with Shandong,and major works are going on to allow bulk carriers access to the coal-producing city of Xuzhou,Beyond here,towards the Yellow River, the canal remains sadly impassable.