China’s Mighty Ditch, the Grand Canal

I’ve heard China’s critics allege that China could never compete with a democracy when it comes to innovation. Yet for thousands of years China was ruled by autocratic all-powerful emperors, and China was the most advanced and wealthiest country in the world until about the time the Portuguese arrived. Encyclopedia Britannica reports, “Early in the 18th century the Portuguese found that they could import opium from India and sell it in China at a considerable profit.”

One Chinese innovation is the Grand Canal, and it wasn’t built overnight. It took centuries and more than one dynasty to complete. In fact, work on the first segment of the Grand Canal started in BC 486, and even after the canal was completed centuries later; it was renovated by the Ming Dynasty between 1411 and 1415 AD.  The Ming also renovated the Great Wall.

It could be said that China’s Grand Canal is the opposite of China’s Great Wall, because it’s a ditch and not a wall. Until my first trip to China in 1999, I’d never heard of the Grand Canal, and it is still in use today while the Great Wall is just a tourist attraction.

Is there anything in Europe and/or the United States that’s been around for more than 2,500 years that’s still in use today?

While building the Grand Canal, the pound lock was invented in the 10th century during the Song Dynasty.  Without the pound lock there’s be no Panama or Suez Canals.  According to Encyclopedia.com, “The ancestor of the modern lock is the flash lock. It originated in China and is believed to have been used as early as BC 50.”  The pound lock, an improvement of the flash lock, was also invented in China.

The first pound lock in Europe was built in the Netherlands in 1373 AD, and Leonardo de Vinci improved the pound lock in the 15th century. Did Marco Polo, who lived in China from about 1271 – 1295, bring back the concept of the pound lock? After all, while in China, Polo traveled extensively and probably used the Grand Canal to get around.

A report from Boston’s University of Massachusetts says, “The Grand Canal of China is not only the world’s oldest canal, it is far longer than either Suez or Panama. At 1,795 kilometers (or 1,114 miles) it has 24 locks and 60 bridges, and claim to the title of longest canal. Building began in 486 B.C. with an important extension decreed in the third century, BCE during the Qin Dynasty.”

To understand the significance, it helps to compare the Grand Canal to the Suez and Panama Canals. In the 19th century, the French built the Suez Canal, more than two millennia after the Chinese started to build the Grant Canal and about a thousand years after the pound lock was invented. 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 and is 120.11 miles long. China’s Grand Canal is almost 10 times longer.

Construction on the Panama Canal was started in 1881 by the French but was a failure. The United States eventually stepped in and finished that canal between 1904 – 1914, and when finished, it was only 51 miles long.

A timeline of the Great Wall shows that the first segment was built between BC 685 – 645, and it was 398.5 miles in length, almost 8 times longer than the Panama Canal.

Discover Wu Zetian, China’s only female emperor

Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the unique love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

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