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When you hear the word “canal”, where does your mind take you? My mind is immediately brought to the State of New York in the United States of America; to a waterway called the Erie Canal. The images in my mind have long been pre-conditioned by an old song from 1905; a song which I learned in my childhood years of singing American folk songs. Let me share a bit of those lyrics. For those who know this song, the melody will flow freely back to enhance their full recall of when and where they had sung this simple song in years long gone. As with many folk songs, once heard, the tunes remain forever in the mind’s ear; building images for the mind’s eye to share once more.

I’ve got a mule and her name is Sal
Fifteen years on the Erie Canal
She’s a good old worker and a good old pal
Fifteen years on the Erie Canal
We’ve hauled some barges in our day
Filled with lumber, coal, and hay
And every inch of the way we know
From Albany to Buffalo

Low bridge, everybody down
Low bridge, for we’re coming to a town
And you’ll always know your neighbor
And you’ll always know your pal
If you’ve ever navigated on the Erie Canal

In the 1780s, the State of New York had begun debating the construction of a canal system. At the time, inland goods were transported by pack-animals. This was a very costly system of transportation. Luckily for New York, the state had a number of politicians who could envision the great economic and social benefits of transporting goods by a waterway system. By 1808, enough support was rallied to initiate a survey of the practicalities involved in building such a massive transportation system. Nine years later, construction began on what would become the 584 km east-west canal; starting where Albany meets the Hudson River and ending where Buffalo meets Lake Erie. In 1825, the canal was complete; numbering 34 locks and bridging elevation differences of 172 m along the route. The costs for transportation of goods dropped by 95%. An amazing feat of engineering; one which is known in the World of Man, yet, also one of which many of today have never heard.

Again, I ask: When you hear the word “canal”, where does your mind take you? Are you brought to places of grandeur or to places of simplicity? Are you brought to exotic lands far from your bed or to the sights just outside your window? Presumably, each person’s answer to these questions will be related to their own personal experiences and the associations which they construct from them. Just as I was firstly brought to a canal known from my childhood; I am now secondly brought to the country of the Netherlands; to canals known from my adulthood. It is here, in the Netherlands, where my working concept of canals has been developed. A team of so called “internationals” from “” explain the peculiarities of the Dutch canals and waterways to those yet uninitiated to the Waterworld of the Netherlands, “What we call canals are actually various kinds of waters of different names in Dutch, such as kanaal and vaart. Most often, people mean a gracht or singel, which are human-made waterways in or around a city, with streets on one or both sides. Singels were once used for defense purposes, and often encircle older parts of the city.”

The Netherlands

The Dutch had several reasons for developing their canals. Initially, the main incentive was the transportation of goods within the Lowlands which would eventually comprise the country of the Netherlands, and connecting water trade routes with their closest neighbors. In contrast to the State of New York, which was concerned with transporting goods from one end of the state to the other in a fairly straight trajectory of 584 km, the Dutch had more use for a network of canals than one long canal. The Netherlands is a small country with shorter distances to bridge when traveling by highway: Groningen to Amsterdam is 188.2 km, Amsterdam to Maastricht is 214.3 km, and Groningen to The Hague is 236.2 km. These are, of course, modern highway routes and not water routes. The large canals were relatively short; yet, the smaller canal systems were life arteries connecting cities and villages to the major waterways of the country. City planners found canals an ideal construction for meeting the needs of the city; allowing for transportation of goods, expansion of city borders, and defense, as well as solving their drainage and sewage issues. There were even “canal cities” being literally raised from the ground. The canals were dug and the ground which was dug up went to use in the raising of the level of the streets along the canals. The merchants then built their homes upon these raised grounds.

Europe had long been digging canals. The Netherlands did not invent the idea of canals. The Romans had inherited a fair amount of canal knowledge and expanded upon it for their own waterworks during their glorious Empire days. After the fall of the Romans, canal building lapsed into the forgotten mind of Europe. It was only when commerce expanded in the 12th century that the existing river navigation needed to be improved upon. Artificial waterways were constructed of “stanches” (flash locks), dams and water mills, and placed at intervals along the routes. “Such a lock, could open suddenly, releasing a torrent that carried a vessel over a shallow place. The commercially advanced and level Low Countries developed a system of canals using the drainage of the marshlands at the mouths of the Schelde, Meuse, and Rhine; about 85 percent of medieval transport in the region went by inland waterways.” – [Encyclopedia Britannica]. Since barges had to be towed over the weirs either manually or with windlasses, a Lock & Lock Basin system evolved which raised the boats from one level to the next. There was a primitive lock system in 1180 at Damme which connected Brugge to the sea. But, the first “modern pound lock” was built in 1373 in Vreeswijk, Netherlands: joining the canal from Utrecht with the Lek River. “Outer and inner gates contained a basin, the water level of which was controlled by alternatively winding up and lowering gate. In the 15th century the lock-gate system was much improved with the addition of paddles to control the flow of water in and out of the lock chamber through sluices in the gates or sides of locks.” – [Encyclopedia Britannica]


There are three categories of waterways for navigation to be considered with canals: natural rivers, canalized rivers, and artificial canals. Each category is a unique construction with particular concerns to be met when using the waterways for navigation. “Natural Rivers” are especially subject to the effects of seasons. Things like frost, drought, and floods can cause movements of the channels and the formation of shoals. The keepers of these rivers need to control natural hazards as much as possible. It is advantageous to keep the river flowing on its predetermined course. This means that river banks and beds need to be stabilized. Side channels must be eliminated and major bends need to be eased. The cross section following the natural valley of the river requires uniformity. “Canalized Rivers” are constructed of locks. These provide a series of steps; with the length of the steps depending on the gradient of the valley and on the rise of each lock. These locks are used for the passing of vessels and for the passing of excess water, weirs and sluices are required. “Artificial Canals” are capable of running an “unnatural” course. They can run through hills and watersheds as well as crossing valleys and streams. The banks of artificial canals are susceptible to erosion and seepage. Protective measures need to be taken to assure the level of quality necessary for navigation. A great advantage of artificial canals is that their routes can be planned for efficiency. However, with greater ships or heavier traffic, storage reservoirs or pumps are needed to provide water for the locks and to compensate for evaporation losses.

Briefly mentioned above is that the Dutch used their waterways in their defense systems. They used water for defense in a number of ways. One way was structural: canals were built to serve as exaggerated moots around cities and villages to discourage invasions and to have a raised ground protection from which to fight off enemies from a greater vantage point. A complex system of man-made waterway networks was created and called the “Water Line”. Nick Owen wrote for the Atlantic Sentinel, “Work on the first Water Line began before the war with Spain ended in 1648. Between what was then the Zuiderzee in the north and the River Waal in the south, a series of dikes, sluices and fortifications were built to allow the Dutch to control the water level in times of war; just deep enough to stall enemy troops but shallow enough to prevent them using boots (like the Dutch had themselves). Cities like Alkmaar and Leiden were relieved by destroying nearby dikes and flooding the surrounding countryside, enabling the Dutch fleet to sail in and break the Spanish siege.”

The Dutch flooded their low fields on more than one occasion when faced with the threat of being overtaken by foreign forces. With the topic of the flooding of enemies, I find myself being thirdly brought to a canal of both length and network; this one being measured not only in distance and complexity, but in time as well. Beginning at a much earlier Age of Man than the Europeans, the Chinese began work on their canals one by one and through the timeline of their dynasties brought them together to created a thing of grandeur. Over the centuries canals were designed, created, used, and kept for different purposes. Comparisons of interest can be made between the late developing canals of the Americas, the innovative Dutch waterworks and the impressive survival of the Grand Canal throughout the long history of China. Being ancient is in and of itself not the most amazing aspect of China’s great canal. It was both innovative and timely in its developments. “China may have been ahead of Europe in canal building. Between 1280 and 1293 the 700-mile northern branch of the Grand Canal was built from Huai’an to Beijing. One section, crossing the Shantung foothills, was in effect the first summit-level canal, one that rises then falls, as opposed to a lateral canal, which has a continuous fall only. The Huang He (Yellow River) was linked to a group of lakes about 100 miles south, where the land rose 50 feet higher; and to overcome water lost through operation of the lock gates, two small rivers partially diverted to flow into the summit level.”- [Encyclopedia Britannica]

Stretch map

The comparison to Europe made above was with the canal developments from the Yuan Dynasty. Chinese history, on any subject, is best placed on a timeline of dynasties. Below, I give a very short paraphrasing of Sharon Drummond’s listing of the development of the Grand Canal per relevant dynasties; followed by her words of introduction to the Grand Canal.


  • Zhou Dynasty: 486 BCE: Began building the Grand Canal at the request of King Fuchai of Wu.
  • Sui Dynasty: 584 CE: Canals linked into a Unified System.
  • Sui Dynasty: 604-609 CE: Grand Canal completed in length from North to South, grain shipped from south to troops in north.
  • Northern Song Dynasty: 984 CE: Invention of the Double-Pound Lock.
  • Southern Song Dynasty: 1128 CE: “Leader of the Song Dynasty floods the Yellow River to hold back Jurchen invaders and ruins the canal.”
  • Yuan Dynasty: 1280s CE: Grand Canal unified inland navigation network of more than 2,000 km of artificial waterways linking 5 river basins.
  • Ming Dynasty: 1411-1415 CE: Grand Canal renovated.
  • Qing Dynasty: 1851-1855 CE: “Yellow River flooded and changed its course, causing a break in the canal in Shandong.”

“Since China’s major rivers – the Huang He and Chang Jiang – flow from west to east and there is no natural communication north to south except by way of coastal route, the Chinese dug the Grand Canal as a safe, inland water route between the two major rivers, in the process connecting a number of minor regional rivers. Constructed around 605 CE to serve commercial as well as military considerations, the canal was extended several times, most notably to the Hangzhou in 610 and eventually in 1279 to Dadu, the great Mongol (Yuan Dynasty) capital. During the Ming and Qing dynasties which followed the Mongol dynasty, the Grand Canal ensured that Beijing, the great successor imperial capitals to Dadu, had sufficient grain from the southern rice bowl areas. The Grand Canal is the longest artificial waterway in the world and has a long history of barge traffic along its course. Although many parts of it fell into disrepair over the years, today it is still possible to traverse the man-made Grand Canal from Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province northward 1801 km to Beijing.”

As often is the case when researching and writing about Chinese history, different sources give slightly different dates. This is also true for statistics concerning the Grand Canal. Everyone seems to be in agreement that the Grand Canal is the longest in the world and was mostly dug by hand; yet the given length of the canal is presented to be between 1,107 – 1,801 km. The mentions of the exact year of when the canal system began also varies; 540 – 486 BCE. We know that the four great rivers are joined together by the Grand Canal: Yellow River, Yangtze River, Huai River, Qiantang River; although the names given are at times as diverse as the statistics. Educators tell us that the water levels in the Grand Canal have always been traditionally maintained by the use of stone gates. This system of gating allows water to enter or leave the canals when deemed necessary to prevent flooding. Gates are then opened to divert water into lakes.

Brown Boats, village

Madeleine Zelin is one such educator, working for Columbia University’s Asia for Educators program. In her course material she writes of the Ming and Qing eras to describe and explain the use of the Grand Canal over the more recent past. “The Grand Canal was a major conduit for grain, salt, and other important commodities. Any taxes that were paid in kind were paid in grain, which was shipped along the Grand Canal. Thus, control of the Grand Canal was of critical importance to the government. To a certain extent, the state itself facilitated the movement of goods to market by locating Beijing, its capital, far to the north, away from the rich and prosperous rice growing areas of Southern China. This resulted in a natural market for the demand of goods in the North, if for no other reason than to feed the imperial household and court. This was one of the reasons why it was so important to keep the Grand Canal working.” Another reason was that the Caoyu system financed the upkeep of the canal. This system gave the Imperial government a monopoly on the transportation of grain and any strategic raw materials. The Caoyu system assured a continued supply of taxes, food for the populace and the troops, and gave stability to the land; all through the means of maintaining the Grand Canal. The Grand Canal also contributed to the infrastructure of China; with the building of dikes, weirs, bridges while at the same time increasing the sophistication of the use of materials such as stone, rammed-earth, and clay mixed with straw.

All seemed well on the Grand Canal front of the Qing. Yet, nothing would be farther from the truth. The Qing could control neither the weather nor the rebellions of the late 19th century. Flooding broke the dikes of Huang He and the river shifted its course northward to where it still runs to this day. The section of the Grand Canal between Xuzhou and Huaiyin was disrupted as the river’s new course cut across the canal between Linqing and Jining. The timing of the flooding was foreboding as the Taiping had sent their Northern Expedition along those routes; adding to the chaos and the mayhem of the times. The days of the Grand Canal were to change greatly in the years which followed; mirroring the mixture of uncertainty and hope during the turbulent years of the 20th and the 21st centuries. “After the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) and the Nian Rebellion (1853-1868), the use of the canal as the major supply line to Beijing was abandoned, and the canal gradually fell into disrepair in its northern sections. After 1934 the Chinese government carried out extensive works on the canal between Huaiyin and the Yangtze: ship locks were constructed to allow medium-sized steamers to use this section, which was dredged and largely rebuilt. New work was begun in 1958 to restore the whole system as a trunk waterway able to carry ships up to 600 tons. Between 1958 and 1964 it was straightened, widend, and dredged; one new section 40 miles (65 km) long was constructed, and modern locks were added. The canal can now accommodate medium-sized barge traffic throughout its length. The main traffic, however, is concentrated in the southern half. The canal is also used to divert water from the Yangtze to northern Jiangsu province for irrigation, making possible double cropping of rice.” – [Encyclopedia Britannica]

City, bridge

Now that we know the story of the Grand Canal has a happy-ever-after-fairytale-ending in the 21st century, with travel resumed and rice plants watered, let us now return to the time of the late Qing Dynasty to meet up with the Taiping’s Northern Expedition. This ambitious military operation manifested itself after the Taiping had captured Nanjing, killed the Manchu garrison and their families, and settled into the task of creating the Heavenly Kingdom’s new society for all of China. The plan was to move confidently north to Beijing, take the capital, and simply destroy imperial China where it stood. The Northern Expedition was meant to fulfill the Taiping’s heavenly destiny, as quickly as possible, because Heaven was waiting impatiently. “In an effort to end the Qing dynasty, the Taiping send an expedition of 70,000 warriors north toward Peking in May 1853. However, preparations are inadequate for the severe northern winter and many of Hong’s soldiers fall victim to the weather. No supply lines are kept open to Nanjing and the constant foraging of the troops enrages the local population. This northern expedition never reached beyond the city of Tianjin, about seventy miles from Peking. By May 1854, the army has been surrounded by government troops and the Qing commander is able to divert water from the Grand Canal and flood the Taiping camps. Here amidst the water and mud, while clinging to makeshift rafts, many of their faithful meet their deaths at the hands of the Manchu forces. The remainder of the expedition is driven back toward Nanjing and is completely annihilated in March 1855, at Lianzhen.” – [Lester K. Buehler]

Buehler gives a very cursory rendition of the Northern Expedition. He is not alone in doing so. For some reason, most sources follow this example of presenting the most barest of facts about this military campaign; a campaign which had lasted just short of two whole years. Two years is a long time for those on a military campaign and two years is a very long time for those who are on the receiving end of the military actions. Also to be considered is that the Northern Expedition was not the only Taiping military operation being carried out during this period. The Taiping had three major armies. They had one to defend their new Heavenly Kingdom capital, Tianguo. They had a second which was given the task of retaking and holding the Yangtze River Valley. And, they had a third joint force composed of both the Northern Expedition and the Western Expedition. This third joint force was split into a two directional force to encircle Beijing; one army approaching directly and the second army encircling the west and northern areas of China, with the intention of meeting up together in Sichuan after the capture of Beijing.

What most sources fail to mention is that the Taiping had many sailing vessels for moving troops. The Qing had virtually no navy at the time. The Taiping were accustomed to sailing the Yangtze in order to avoid Qing blokkades on land. The Northern Expedition would begin their journey on the waterways of Southern China. The Taiping had boats anchored on the river between Yangzhou and Zhejiang. The commanders of the Northern Expedition were all given titles of Marquis. Li Kaifang: the Marquis of Barbarian Submission. Lin Fengxiang: the Marquis of Barbarian Elimination. Ji Wenyuan: the Marquis of Barbarian Pacification. The barbarians referred to were those of the Manchu regime in Beijing. “The boats moving east from Nanjing, together with those awaiting them en route, reached a total of roughly a thousand, and onto them poured the Taiping northern expeditionary army in Yangzhou. They then sailed to the west bank toward Nanjing. Some of them entered a waterway to a place called Luhe, while certain armies landed at Pukou, across the shore from Nanjing, and proceeded to march to the northwest.”- [Shunshin Chin]. This meant that the commanders had chosen for a roundabout route to reaching Beijing; whereas, the most direct route was due north from Yangzhou. The reason the Taiping were taking this more lengthy alternate route was because they had information saying there was a large Qing army moving south in their direction.

Military camp

Unbeknownst to the Northern Expedition, their campaign was beginning most unfortunately. Little did they know that the information about the Qing, was planted into the heads of Taiping spies, by order of a very clever man. “In fact, Jiangsu Provincial Surveillance Commissioner Zha Wengjing, who oversaw the construction work on the Yellow River dikes at Jiangpu, had passed on this information intentionally. The Taipings did have excellent military spies who intentionally sought out the nature of conditions in the north, yet they were completely taken in by Zha Wenjing’s artificial ploy, which compelled them to take the circuitous route toward the capital….In fact, the idea of a Large Qing Army moving south was a complete hoax.” – [Shunshin Chin]. Zha had sent secret orders to the farming families of Chizhou and Xuzhou, telling them to quickly store up military provisions. The more secretly they went about their actions, the more the Taiping spies believed that the Qing Army was truly on its way south. Forcing the Taiping to take the alternate route resulted in an exhausted Northern Expeditionary Army with depleted ammunitions.

Xiucheng Li and C.A.Curwen give an interesting footnote in the book, “Taiping Rebel: The Deposition of Li Hsiu-ch’eng”. In this footnote, number 68, an accounting of the events of the Northern Expedition is provided for the reader. The English translations were made and printed long before the invention of Pinyin. This makes recognition of the names in this text a bit difficult; but, not impossible. The text begins with the naming of the commanders: Lin Feng-hsiang, Li K’ai-fang, and others, followed by, “…set out from Yang-chou on 8 May 1853 with a force of 20,000. After taking P’u-k’ou on 13 May, they went north-west into Honan, taking Kuei-te on 13 June. They then intended to cross the Yellow River to the north, but being unable to obtain any boats there [they] were obliged to move westward along the river, through K’ai-feng and Cheng-chou to Ssu-shui. Here they found boats and started the crossing on 28 June. But, they had already lost twenty-two valuable days by failing to cross at Kuei-te. Then, because of government resistance at Huai-ch’ing in August, they had to pass into Shansi, making a long detour before re-entering Honan at Wu-an. By mid-October they were 60 li from Pao-ting and there was a consternation in Peking. 30,000 people left the capital and the Emperor was on the point of fleeing. But, instead of continuing the advance north the Taipings thought to take advantage of the reported weakness of Tientsin, and moved to attack it. They reached a point about 50 li from the city but were prevented from advancing further by flood water. The Taipings then dug in and prepared to spend the winter, having possibly miscalculated the strength of the resistance which their proximity to the capital would produce. There followed a desperate campaign which lasted for three months. The Taiping suffered considerably from the cold and from shortages of supplies. There numbers, augmented by recruits were now about 40,000. On 4 February their food supplies ran out and they began to withdraw down the Grand Canal, hoping to meet up with the relief force which had been sent, too little and too late. Lin Feng-hsiang was defeated and captured at Lien-chien on 7 March 1855; Li Kai-fang, besieged at Kao-t’ang-chou, broke out with only 800 men and was captured on 31 May.”

Yellow River

Bits and pieces of the Northern Expedition story come together with the splicing of different source information. Yet, the story is still incomplete in the telling. The magnitude of the two year expedition does not come to expression and there are gaps of events and gaps of understanding. In another source, “East Asia: A New History”, Hugh Dyson Walker counts the accumulated forces of the Northern Expedition between 70,000 and 80,000; composed primarily of Guangxi veterans and new recruits. From Walker, I learn that the troops made exceptionally good time during their initial march. They avoided large cities and left no supply lines behind them as they made their run northward. Then, for some reason (perhaps being in need of supplies), the Taiping changed their strategy and began attempts to take cities. The resistance the Taiping met in their march northward was much greater than what the veterans had known on their way from Guangxi to Nanjing. Not only was their progress considerably delayed by the resistance; the time and effort being spent was taking its toll on the troops. Bringing them into the cold north much later than had been anticipated was a disaster for these southern warriors; suffering from freezing temperatures and frostbite. Twice the Northern Expedition would become trapped by water; first by an act of God, later by an act of Man; each proving disastrous for the Taiping. “By May, 1854, the Qing armies have surrounded the remaining Taiping forces with earthworks and divert the waters of the Grand Canal into the Taiping camp at Lianzhen, wiping out the Taiping Army. The Taiping commander Lin Fengxiang was captured and executed.”- []

In assessment of the Northern Expedition, the failure of the Taiping can be attributed to critical tactical errors. It was a grave mistake of the Taiping to besiege Huaiqing for two months. After abandoning the siege, the Taiping marched to Tianjin instead of going directly to Beijing. If they had immediately proceeded to Beijing and attacked, then Beijing would have fallen. Instead, Beijing was allowed to prepare its army and to regroup for a successful counterattack. The mitigating circumstances which the Northern Expedition had faced were; severe weather, shortage of provisions, and poor strategy by its commanders. The Taiping Northern Expedition went down in the annals of history as being a complete and utter failure on the part of the Taiping. Instead of using their strengths on the waterways of Southern China, the Taiping crossed over into the unpredictable and unfamiliar waters of the North. Poor judgement and an impatience driven by greed motivated the Taiping to act hastily and the Northern Expedition met an early grave, drowned in the waters of the Northern Grand Canal. The Qing maintained control of Beijing and the historic Grand Canal. The main body of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom would continue to exist under siege in Nanjing for another nine years before the Qing would finally remove their kingdom from the World of Man forever.

Yellow Sea, East China Sea

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