Building of the Grand Canal Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Yangdi, the second emperor of the Sui Dynasty, integrated the fragmentary waterways between the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers into a nationwide water transportation system known as the Grand Canal.

Summary of Event

Yang Guang (Yang Kuang), known as Yangdi Yangdi , the second emperor of the Sui Dynasty Sui Dynasty (581-618), is often associated with canal building, but it was his father, Wendi, who initiated construction of the canal system. In 584, Wendi Wendi (Sui emperor) decided to build a canal from the capital at Chang’an (present-day Xi’an) eastward to the strategic Tong Pass near the confluence of the Wei and Yellow Rivers. This canal, known as Guangtong Qu (“canal for expanded communication”), allowed the government to resolve the problem of food shortage by transporting grain from the fertile plain in eastern China to the capital region, a food-deficient and heavily populated area. Wendi also constructed a granary at the eastern end of the canal to serve as a center of grain storage for distributing food supplies to the capital and other regions during famines. [kw]Building of the Grand Canal (605-610) [kw]Grand Canal, Building of the (605-610) [kw]Canal, Building of the Grand (605-610) Grand Canal (China) China;605-610: Building of the Grand Canal[0240] Transportation;605-610: Building of the Grand Canal[0240] Engineering;605-610: Building of the Grand Canal[0240] Economics;605-610: Building of the Grand Canal[0240] Wendi Yangdi

Shortly after he succeeded to the throne, Yangdi expanded the canal system. By 610, he had completed the Grand Canal (Dayunhe), the world’s largest manmade waterway stretching more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) in length. Because the major rivers in China flow from west to east, the Grand Canal, running north to south, was significant in that it integrated several regional waterways into an empire-wide system of water communication. Tongji Qu, Han Gou and Jiangnan He were the three canals that were built between the Yellow and Yangtze rivers, and Yongji Qu was the only section constructed north of the Yellow River.

Tongji Qu Tongji Qu (canal for effective communication), built under the order of Yangdi in 605, linked the newly established eastern capital at Luoyang on the Yellow River with the Huai River Valley and connected with another old canal to the Yangtze River. All the links in this canal followed the courses of earlier waterways and transformed the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers into a well-integrated network of inland river communication. As many as five million men and women were mobilized to carry out the construction work, and an imperial road was built along the canal banks. To further expand into Yangzhou city on the Yangtze River, Yangdi incorporated into this canal the ancient Han Gou Han Gou (Han waterway), first built in the early fifth century b.c.e. and restored by Wendi as Shanyang Qu Shanyang Qu (Shanyang canal) in 587.

The portion of the Grand Canal south of the Yangtze River was Jiangnan He Jiangnan He (canal in the Lower Yangtze Valley). Completed in 610 and more than 270 miles (435 kilometers) long, this canal was built on existing rivers in the Lower Yangtze Valley. It reached the eastern side of Lake Tai and connected Hangzhou Bay with the Yangtze River.

These three canals directly connected the Yellow and Yangtze River systems, two of the greatest and most changeable rivers in the world. Using the canals, boats could easily transport grain from the rice-growing fields of the area south of the Yangtze River to the capital region without having to sail along the East China coast. Granaries were built at many places along the route so that grain could be stored if flood or low water levels hindered transportation.

The longest section of the Grand Canal was Yongji Qu Yongji Qu (canal for everlasting prosperity), north of the Yellow River and more than 620 miles (998 kilometers) in length. This canal followed the course of a river descending southward from the Taihang Mountains and merged with the Wei River to flow northeastward to Beijing. Built largely for strategic reasons and finished in 609, the canal allowed the government to supply the troops stationed at China’s northeastern frontier. Between 611 and 614, Yangdi sent huge expeditionary forces along this canal to attack the kingdom of Koguryŏ, which controlled the part of Manchuria east of the Liao River and the north of the Korean peninsula.


The Grand Canal was of great political, economic, and social significance. After many decades of civil war and political disintegration, China had recently become unified under the Sui government. The Grand Canal demonstrated the wealth and power of the dynasty. In times of crisis, the government could easily distribute resources and send large numbers of soldiers to the troubled regions. Strategically, the canal system integrated the southern and northern frontiers into the heart of China and laid the framework of a highly centralized imperial state.

As a great work of hydraulic engineering in seventh century China, the Grand Canal was the first fully integrated nationwide water transportation system and performed the same function as the River Nile did for Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea for Constantinople in the medieval era. This inland river system formed the basis of a unified economy. Although the Lower Yangtze Valley was the major economic area, the political center was located at the food-deficient region in the north. The canal system enabled the government to transport grain from the rest of the country to support the growing population in the capital region. In the long run, it laid the foundation for the brilliant epoch of the Tang Dynasty (T’ang; 618-907), widely regard as China’s golden age. Parts of the Grand Canal are still in use today, especially the sections south of the Yangtze River.

Despite these advantages, Confucian scholars who wrote the dynastic history were very critical of Yangdi for building the Grand Canal. They often compared Yangdi with Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of the short-lived Qin Dynasty (Ch’in; 221-206 b.c.e.), who created a unified and centralized imperial state but exhausted national resources in building the Great Wall. They also regarded the Grand Canal as a key factor leading to the collapse of the Sui Dynasty. The Kaihe zhi (seventh century; record of the opening of the canal), an anonymous Sui text, throws light on the effect of canal construction on the people. Reportedly, more than five million workers had been mobilized to work, and every fifth family had been required to send one person to supply and prepare food for the workers. Those who failed to comply with the official regulations were severely punished, and more than two million people were said to have died. These figures reveal the tremendous loss of human life that occurred as a result of the construction. Because Yangdi completed the Grand Canal in such a quick and ruthless manner, he provoked much discontent against his rule and failed to attain a long period of peace and stability. It was the succeeding Tang Dynasty that enjoyed all the benefits from and owed much of its prosperity to the Grand Canal.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Needham, Joseph, and Wang Ling. Introductory Orientations. Vol. 1 in Science and Civilisation in China. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1965. The brief section on the Sui Dynasty is recommended as an introduction for the general reader.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Needham, Joseph, Wang Ling, and Lu Gwei-Djen. Civil Engineering. Part 3 in Physics and Physical Technology, Vol. 4 in Science and Civilisation in China. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1971. The section on hydraulics discusses the significance of the Grand Canal from historical, environmental, and technological perspectives.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roberts, J. A. G. A Concise History of China. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. Contains a concise overview of the Sui and Tang Dynasties.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roberts, J. A. G. Prehistory to c. 1800. Vol. 1 in A History of China. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. Contains a summary of the Sui Dynasty.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wright, Arthur R. “The Sui Dynasty (581-617).” In Sui and T’ang China, 589-906. Vol. 3 in The Cambridge History of China, edited by Denis Twitchett and John K. Fairbank. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979. Provides a concise account of the major events in the Sui Dynasty, including the construction of the Grand Canal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wright, Arthur R. The Sui Dynasty: The Unification of China, A.D. 581-617. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978. Presents a comprehensive analysis of the history of the Sui Dynasty.

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