the Grand Canal
The Grand Canal is the world's longest man-made waterway, being 1,800 kilometers long. The canal connects the present cities of Beijing in the north and Hangzhou in the south, which served as dynastic capitals in the past, and contains 24 locks and 60 bridges. Since most of China's major rivers flow from west to east, the fact that the Grand Canal runs north and south provides it as an important connector between the Yangtze River valley and the Yellow River valley, and other minor river systems. It is being restored as a water-diversion conduit.
The series of waterways in eastern China is not only very long, but also very old, which makes the Grand Canal a masterpiece of both the ancient and the new. The oldest section, that between the Yangtze River and the Huang He, was constructed during the 4th and 5th centuries B.C.
The building of the canal began in 486 B.C. during the Zhou Dynastry. It was extended during the Qi Dynastry, and later by Emporor Yangdi of the Sui Dynasty during six years of furious construction from 605-610 A.D.
The shifting of China's "breadbasket" from the wheat and millet producing regions of the north to the rice fields of the south prompted Sui Dynasty emperors in the 6th century to construct the canal linking this productive southern region to the northern captials. Beginning in 584, existing portions of the canal, dating as far back as the Zhou danasty, were linked together into a unified system that streched some 1800 kilometers.
The southern section connected the north to Yangzhou on the Yangtze river. A branch built in 608-609 that led to the Beijing region was designed to supply the armies protecting the north and northeastern frontiers. The Grand Canal greatly improved the administration and defense of China and served to increase the economic interdependence of the north and south.
The political unity under the Sui made it possible to build the Grand Imperial Canal. Building techniques were primitive, and the peasants, who did most of the work, endured much suffering. About half of the six million men recruited to build the Canal died at their work. This contributed to the downfall of the shortlived Sui Dynasty (589-618).
This "artificial Nile" accomplished for China what the real Nile had done for Egypt thousands of years ago. It integrated the north and the south and formed the basis for a unfied national economy. It also restored the authority of the imperial officials who were needed for the administration and maintenance of the Canal. Hence the foundations were laid for the brilliant epoch of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) as China emerged as the most powerful state in the world.
Older than the Great Wall of China, the world's most famous man-made waterway, the Grand Canal, is a construction marvel that has outshone its rival defensive wonder for more than two millennia; right up to the present day.
Whereas the Great Wall, despite its gigantic scale, failed to repel the Mongol invaders from central Asia, the Grand Canal has functioned as a vital transporation artery for China continually for 26 centuries.