China’s Grand Canal (4th century BC to 2011 AD and still in use)

Encyclopedia Britannica says, “This ancient waterway was first constructed as early as the 4th century BC, was rebuilt in 607 AD, and has been used ever since.”

The Great Wall of China and the Grand Canal are examples of Confucianism and the Chinese work ethic. To understand the significance, we will compare it to the Suez and Panama Canals.

In the 19th century, the French built a canal 100 miles across the Isthmus of Suez. When it opened, the Suez Canal was only 25 feet deep, 72 feet wide at the bottom and 200 to 300 feet wide at the surface. About 20,000 ships use the canal each year. Source:

China first applied for World Heritage status for the canal in 2009

The Panama Canal was started in 1881 by the French but ended a failure [more than 2,000 years after China first built the Grand Canal]. The Americans finished the canal between 1904 – 1914. The canal was 51 miles long. Today, it handles over 12,000 ships a year. Source: The Panama Canal

When I was in grade school, we learned about the Panama Canal in glowing terms. I’m sure the French and British brag about the Suez Canal in their textbooks too.

Until my first trip to China in 1999, I had never heard of the Grand Canal, which is the oldest and longest man-made canal in the world at more than a thousand miles from Beijing to Hangzhou south of Shanghai.

The construction started several hundred years before the birth of Jesus Christ and was completed centuries later. The canal is still in use today. To finish it, the Pound lock was invented in the 10th century during the Song Dynasty. There are 24 locks and about 60 bridges. Source: Wikipedia

One example that China’s authoritarian, Confucian, collective culture is more than capable of innovation was the Pound lock pioneered by Qiao Weiyo,  a government official and engineer in 984 AD, which replaced earlier double slipways that had caused trouble and are mentioned by the Chinese polymath Shen Kuo (1031–1095 AD) in his book Dream Pool Essays (published in 1088 AD), and fully described in the Chinese historical text Song Shi (compiled in 1345 AD).

In the 18th century the West built the Suez and Panama Canals  that combined were 151 miles long. China first built the Grand Canal centuries before Christ, and when finished it was more than a thousand miles long. What do we learn about China and the Chinese?

Discover China’s other innovations in Ancient Chinese Inventions that Changed the World and the Chinese Crossbow and Other Inventions


Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of the concubine saga, My Splendid Concubine & Our Hart. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too.

Subscribe to iLook China.
There is a “Subscribe” button at the right- top of the screen.


This revised and edited post first appeared on April 30, 2010 as China’s Grand Canal

2 Responses to China’s Grand Canal (4th century BC to 2011 AD and still in use)

  1. Shannon Love says:

    The Grand Canal is easily the greatest engineering achivement of pre-industrial world. The Great Wall, the Pyramids etc are just piles of rocks by comparison. But it doesn’t indicate a superiority to the West in technology.

    You can’t compare it to the Panama Canal. The Panama canal is an industrial era project, it’s level changes a much greater, the ships its moves vastly larger and the difficulty in building it was mosquito born diseases, not engineering. The US completed the Canal after Walter Reed proved that mosquito’s carried Malaria and Yellow Fever. Once Mosquitos were controlled, then the canal was relatively easy to complete.

    The Suez canal is cut straight though solid rock, in a desert. The Grand Canal is actually a web of man-made canals connecting various natural lakes, marshes and rivers.

    The West never built the equivalent of the Grand canal because they had no need to. The Grand canal is the functional equivalent of Mediterranean sea. The classical West was built around the shores of the Mediterranean and therefore had no need for a grand canal (all though the Romans did build some.)

    All China’s natural rivers run Northeast to Southwest so China desperately needed a North-South water route. No such need existed in the West during the same period. The Grand canal didn’t actually exist B.C.E. (Before Common Era, previously B.C. Before Christ) only short sections of it existed to connect natural bodies of water. Not till circa 800 C.E. did it reach it’s full form.

    The west began to build canals at the start of the industrial era when the need to move bulk commodities like coal from interior regions arose. Prior to that rivers and costal sailing worked fine Europe has more navigable rivers per area than anywhere else plus a vastly higher percentage of the population lived close to the sea.

    If there’s a lesson to learned from the History of the Grand Canal its that technological excellence is not enough to advance society. China’s cycle of dynastic rising and collapsing, not only periodically shut down the canal, but also caused the loss of knowledge associate with it.

    • There is no comparison between an engineering feat like the Grand Canal, built by hand with hundreds-of-thousand if not millions of workers, that was started several centuries before the birth of Christ and the Panama and Suez canals built during the 3rd century of the industrial revolution. Without machines and explosives (gunpowder was invented by the Chinese in the 11th century after the Grand Canal was completed by hand) would the west have been able to build those two canals.

      In fact, using modern technology, the Chinese are building the South-North Water Transfer Project, the largest water pipeline project in history. Mao Zedong had discussed the idea for a mass engineering project as an answer to China’s water problems as early as 1952. He reportedly said, “there’s plenty of water in the south, not much water in the north. If at all possible; borrowing some water would be good.” The complete project was expected to cost $62 billion – more than twice as much as the Three Gorges Dam. By 2014, more than $79 billion had been spent, making it one of the most expensive engineering projects in the world.

      The West is technologically superior to China today and has been for the last few centuries, but China was technologically superior to the entire world for more than 1,000 years up until about the 15th century.

      The evidence was discovered by Joseph Needham in the 20th century. A bio by Simon Winchester reveals that China was once the world’s most technologically advanced country. Needham died not knowing why the Chinese stopped. I think they lost the ability to continue advancing in technology due to a few known factors.

      1. The Mongols brutally conquered China in the 13th century and ruled for about a 100 years before they were driven out.
      2. The Opium trade from India to China that led to 2 opium wars and widespread drug addiction that affected almost every family, wars started by the British Empire and the French in the 19th century based on capitalism and all out greed.
      3. The Qing Dynasty where another minority, The Manchu, from the north ruled China for more than two hundred years and didn’t trust the Han Chinese.
      4. The Opium Wars, China’s long Civil War between the Communists and Nationals, Japan’s invasion and World War II, and Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

      If the malignant narcissist President Littlefingers Donald Trump and his insane partner in crime Steve Gannon, who worships war and the destruction it brings and has been documented saying he wants to destroy global civilization and start over, don’t start another major war with China, in time, the odds favor that China will reclaim the title of most technologically advanced country on the planet. All China needs is stability for an extended period of time while Trumpism and the Alt-Right in America bring everything crashing down.

      It’s arguable that the malignant narcissist Littlefingers and Steven Bannon will do to The United States and Europe what Mao did to China during Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

Comments are welcome — pro or con. However, comments must focus on the topic of the post, be civil and avoid ad hominem attacks.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: