The Grand Canal forms a vast inland waterway system in the north-eastern and central eastern plains of China, passing through eight of the country’s present-day provinces. It runs from the capital Beijing in the north to Zhejiang Province in the south. Constructed in sections from the 5th century BC onwards, it was conceived as a unified means of communication for the Empire for the first time in the 7th century AD (Sui Dynasty). This led to a series of gigantic worksites, creating the world’s largest and most extensive civil engineering project ensemble prior to the Industrial Revolution. Completed and maintained by successive dynasties, it formed the backbone of the Empire’s inland communications system. Its management was made possible over a long period by means of the Caoyun system, the imperial monopoly for the transport of grain and strategic raw materials, and for the taxation and control of traffic. The system enabled the supply of rice to feed the population, the unified administration of the territory, and the transport of troops. The Grand Canal reached a new peak in the 13th century (Yuan Dynasty), providing a unified inland navigation network consisting of more than 2,000 km of artificial waterways, linking five of the most important river basins in China, including the Yellow River and the Yangtze. Still a major means of internal communication today, it has played an important role in ensuring the economic prosperity and stability of China over the ages.
Ever since the 7th century and through successive Chinese dynasties up to modern-day China, the Grand Canal has been a powerful factor of economic and political unification, and a place of major cultural interchanges. It has created and maintained ways of life and a culture that is specific to the people who live along the canal, whose effects have been felt by a large proportion of China’s territory and population over a long historical period. The Grand Canal is a demonstration of the ancient Chinese philosophical concept of the Great Unity, and was an essential element in the unity, complementarity and consolidation of the great agricultural empire of China down the ages.