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An imperial canal: AD c.610

Yang Ti's great waterway, built by the forced labour of hundreds of thousands of men and women, joins the southern port of Hangzhou to the Yangtze downstream of Nanjing and then to the Yellow River, in the heart of northern China. Continuing up the Yellow River, and transferring to the River Wei, a boat will reach the twin capitals of Loyang and Xi'an.

The economic need for the canal is that northern China, with its crops of wheat and millet, is no longer self-sufficient. Its increased population consumes much of the rice harvest of the south, which can now be dragged more conveniently north in barges. But Yang Ti's name is not 'Emblazoned Emperor' for nothing. The canal also suits his own imperial style.

The emperor commissions special barges, known as dragon-boats. He and his retinue move along the canal in these barges, at a stately pace, behind thousands of palace servants - dressed in green brocade and heaving on green ropes. The procession, on occasion, is 100 kilometres long.

The dynasty of Yang Ti is short lived, but his canal remains one of the marvels of China, travelled on by every visitor to the northern cities before the arrival of the railway. It is a bustling thoroughfare, with villages, inns and tea-houses along its banks. A Japanese visitor of the 9th century marvels at the scene and notes in his diary that this splendid waterway 'was dug by Yang Ti of the Sui dynasty'.

Along this great Chinese thoroughfare the rice harvest of the Yangtze is conveyed to the centres of political power in the north.

From the 13th century there is a new northern capital. Kublai Khan establishes himself at Beijing, which becomes the capital of the Mongol or Yüan dynasty. The Mongols extend the Grand Canal all the way north to join Beijing's river at T'ien-ching.

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