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

November 26, 2011

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.

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