Was the Grand Canal a substitute for Chinese ocean exploration?

Why their sudden inward turn, and why the Chinese state’s abandonment of the oceans?  Some historians, like Bruce Swanson, cite a power struggle within the bureaucracy between eunuchs and conservative neo-Confucians, dubbed “continentalists,” with the eunuchs ultimately losing out.  Another important factor was probably China’s reopening of its enlarged and completely renovated Grand Canal, an extraordinary feat of engineering that connected northern China to the increasingly populous breadbasket of the south.  At eleven hundred miles long, the canal was controlled by numerous locks, much like New York’s Erie Canal, which measures only one-third its length and was not built until four hundred years later.  In 1415 the state banned the shipment of grain to the north by sea to compel use of the canal, for which thousands of barges were built.  Such a decision would have dramatically reduced the need for shipping, and hence shipbuilding and the maintenance of fleets, leading to the halting of oceangoing ship construction altogether by Yongle’s successor in 1436.

That is from the new and interesting Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power, by Howard W. French.  I believe the definitive economic history of the Grand Canal remains to be written, it will be a major achievement when it happens.


The Chinese had more state bureaucratic competence than the Europeans, in part due to civil service testing.

Obvious point, but never thought of it that way. Thank you.

The 16th Century Jesuits brought the idea of civil service testing back to Europe from China. They were impressed with Chinese governmental competence.

They were all corrupt cheaters. See post from Friday 8/4.

Perhaps feudalism in Europe made internal projects politically and legally complicated, while the oceans were kind of a political blank slate for ambitious royals like Prince Henry the Navigator.

I think the main difference between China and Europe was the large offshore power called England, which was constantly interfering in European integration attempts (even too today). Anytime anyone started to become too strong in Europe with a chance of unifying it, the English would support the weaker power. But no-one could really take on the English as they were too strong due to the moat of the English channel. So Europe never unified, so individual Kingdoms, like Portugal, had the opportunity to diversify into exploration. Japan never really performed that role for China, maybe too far offshore or too inward looking?

England was a country of little consequence for centuries. The most its Frenchmen kings could manage was the despoiling and slaughter of French peasants on nasty raids.

+1 to dearieme

Before roughly 1350, the English weren't a major power. From 1066 to 1350, the English were pretty much a French possession.

At what point can we say England's influence significantly interfered with a continental power other than its occasional petty skirmishes with France?

Maybe it started with the Dutch Revolt of the late 16th Century and the Anglo-Spanish War?

Prior to that, I just don't see a continental monarch spending much time worrying about what England was up to.

England was certainly all up into the affairs of France for much the Medieval period-- but the rest of the Continent not so much.

But I think the Erie canal might be more impressive because of elevation rises: you're going into the mountains from sea level, whereas Beijing and Shanghai are both at sea level. I don't have Google Earth handy so I can't test this hypothesis but that's my guess.

Bonus trivia: the Chinese canceled the Nicaragua (New Panama) Canal! .

The construction of the Erie Canal was certainly impressive engineering wise and was a huge boost to NYC economically. But what impresses me most was that it was completed ahead of schedule and under budget.

Wikipedia confirms this is true: the Erie Canal has a rise of 565 feet, the Grand Canal only 138. It also had some impressive technical achievements, like crossing a viaduct in Rochester.

However, the available technology to build it was much superior. According to wikipedia, "Using a scraper and a plow, a three-man team with oxen, horses, and mules could build a mile in a year." While the Grand Canal was built with the labor of hundreds of thousands.

For what it worth, I am ordering the book because I liked the authors last book on Chinese involvement in Africa, which I thought was balanced and informative.


The Grand Canal originated 1400 years ago when the two east west rivers, Yellow and Yangtze rivers, were connected south to north, to speed river trade in the interior to support the army. The first section pretty much turned small water ways, marches, and wetlands into navigable water ways and canals.

As transport promotes trade which develops cities, development along the connected waterways promoted more trade, driving the need to expand the transport system.

Even in the several periods of collapse of a dynasty and chaos, existing transport shapes the economy and government, and governments need transport to maintain control.

I'm sure the requirement to use the Grand Canal was to collect tolls/taxes and regulate trade, rather than any policy of abandoning ocean trade.

And the Silk Road was overland from around the time of the beginning of what became the Grand Canal, so, the ocean required going the wrong direction.

At the other end of the Silk Road, Europe, water access to China and India was difficult, leading to the search for a direct route by heading west across the ocean. Unfortunately, the Americas were in the way. Thus either around the horn of Africa or overland. Until the Suez Canal eliminated the need to go by train to access the Indian Ocean.

The many waterways and the Grand Canal allowed China to develop like the US developed with rivers as far as they reached, and then the railroads.

Trade within the US is not by ocean. Why would you expect trade within China to be by ocean?

"Trade within the US is not by ocean. Why would you expect trade within China to be by ocean?"

This is deeply ignorant of history. Before railroads in the mid-19th century, land-based transport of goods was uneconomical, and almost everything traveled by water. Coastal ocean shipping routes were critical to US trade well into the 19th century. Banning shipment by sea routes was very unusual in the 15th century, to say the least.

mulp: there is not and never was a rule affecting commerce or industry that's a bad idea.

Heh. I failed to detect the pro-regulatory aspect of the comment. The requirement to use the canal probably also lowered productivity, which, as we all know, is a good thing, since workers get more free money from the money tree.

We used to ship crude oil from Texas to NE refineries by water. Then we needed to build pipelines to avoid the threat of Nazi u-boats.
Meanwhile the Jones Act, which requires expensive US built and crewed vessels for intra US maritime movements, discourages US marine trade in a similar way to that old Chinese regulation.

The extensive tug and barge trade on the east coast and inland rivers really argues against the US build/crew rules being a huge impediment.

If you look back on the mid-house tankers built in the late 50s, they had crews in the high 30s and only displaced a little over 20,000 tons. A single tug and barge with 10 people can move the same amount now.

"I’m sure the requirement to use the Grand Canal was to collect tolls/taxes and regulate trade, rather than any policy of abandoning ocean trade."


The mystery (to me) is that the Chinese didn't seem to have any taste for oceanic exploration at all. Sending a large fleet to show the flag in well known waters is not exploring.

China's history is a history of cycles, with periods of order and stability that accounted for economic progress and great achievements (such as the canal) followed by periods of disorder and instability that accounted for foreign domination and economic stagnation or decline. To appreciate Cowen's cyclical view of history one need only look at the history of China. Can China break the cycle? The government in China intends to break the cycle, which is why they place such a high priority on order and stability even if it means sacrificing individual freedom and dissent. No, I am not condoning it, but providing an explanation. What some accept as needed disruption in Washington today others see as chaos leading to disorder and instability, what China seeks to avoid. Ironically, order and stability were considered "conservative" priorities. In a famous essay, titled Why I am Not a Conservative, Hayek explores the confusion attached to "conservative" and "liberal". "Conservatism proper is a legitimate, probably necessary, and certainly widespread
attitude of opposition to drastic change," he wrote. By contrast, "[l]iberalism is not averse to evolution and change; and where
spontaneous change has been smothered by government control, it wants a great deal of change of policy." The confusion is greater today than when Hayek wrote the essay. Americans elected Donald Trump president not in spite of his disorder but because of it; indeed, his support among intellectuals was based almost entirely on his penchant for disorder (the "flight 93 election"). Having observed the chaos during the first six months, however, Trump's intellectual supporters now approve the drastic (some say desperate) move to bring General Kelly into the administration to impose order and stability. When Cowen laments "complacency" and the need for "disruption", he is expressing the same confusion Hayek expressed in his famous essay. In many ways we are prisoners of our experiences. For China, that means fear of disorder and instability. America's history is short, as are the memories of most Americans. So here we are at a crossroads, not sure of the path ahead or even of the path we prefer. China, on the other hand, with its long cyclical history, knows the path it wishes to avoid.

"For China, that means fear of disorder and instability. America’s history is short, as are the memories of most Americans. "

Also, America has tended to become stronger after periods of world instability. The most notable being the Revolutionary period, World War 1, World War 2, the break up of the USSR.

The period following the Revolutionary War was marked by disorder and instability; indeed, many feared the new nation would not survive. The economic depression following the Revolutionary War was worse than any in the history of America. The populist uprising at the time came from the left, and supported and helped implement state laws for debtor relief and the issuance of paper money. The constitutional convention was called in response to the populist uprising, the convention delegates being the elite who opposed state debtor relief laws and state issuance of paper money for selfish reasons: they were of the creditor class who stood to lose from such measures. While it's true that the populists opposed taxes that would be sent to the national government, they did so because the taxes collected went to repayment of the war debt held by the elites. It's a fiction that the founders were revolutionaries. What they wanted was to restore order and stability. The Tea Party Patriots were as ignorant of American history as Donald Trump is about most any subject.

I assume JWatts' Revolutionary period is the revolutions of the 1840s - 1870s in Europe.

Must your aversion to Trump infect even a post on Chinese history?

Also: I stopped taking this seriously when you wrote: "China ... knows". There is no monolithic thing called China that knows. (But there are some very cagey individuals in the politburo who know that instability is potentially dangerous to any warlord clique, however beneficial instability might be to one or two of their number.)

Notice how this windbag likes to respond to himself. He's no mulp.

The city where I came from sits in the southern part of the Grand Canal. It's a short 10 min walk from my childhood house to the canal. The canal is mostly for commerce, not for exploration or even recreation, even sometimes it does serve the purpose, such as Qian Long emperor visited the southern part of the China via the canal.

The answer to the question "Why their sudden inward turn" is very simple. Which is China, historically speaking, had been always inward country before 1978 and it's not sudden. The Chinese mind of "centrality" (The Zhong in Zhong Guo - China's Chinese version - means central) tends to think China is the center of the universe. So it's not surprising Chinese had withheld the belief they did't need to look for things outside for several centuries before Deng's opening up.

Seems like China was always a legend in its own mind. Actual achievements not so impressive, outside of the field of mass murder.

This is a rude, mean and small-minded comment.

Not entirely. Only if it is intended as a racial slur directed at the Chinese. I'm reading Edgerton's "Sick Societies." The history of our species is riddled with societies that imagined themselves to be at the pinnacle of human accomplishment, or at the very least were complacently incurious about other modes of life.

Asserting that China has no accomplishments other than mass murder is a racial slur. It's an offensive generalization that Chinese are stupid killers. If we were having a conversation about the Hoover Dam or the Erie Canal, and you made a point about the dam/canal and American history in general, and you even drew on your own experience as an American, it would be rude and mean for me to respond that Americans, you included, are delusional mediocrities with a talent for mass murderer. Its not different here. And RB's intent does not matter. He should be accountable for the words he chooses. If he has manners, he will apologize and explain his mistake. If not, we know that his words reflect the man.

Mao is estimated to have killed 65,000,000 people - he holds the record, more than Hitler, more than Stalin. His political descendants control China even today. Chinese expats have done quite well in other countries and certainly here in the US. As for their civilization's achievements, please enlighten me. I didn't say they had none, but I think China's reputation is overrated. Modern China likes to throw its weight around, and its neighbors are starting to wake up.

Estimates for the death toll during Mao's rule range from 20 million to 55 million. Frank Dikötter estimates around 45 million.

A death toll of 65 million would have been about 10% of China's population. This would have been less than the death toll of the Irish under British rule during the Great Famine, where it's estimated 13% to 19% of the Irish population died and from which the Irish population level has never recovered.

I read on that topic years ago and I got an amateur theory. The way European and Chinese explorations were initiated was a bit similar, a state funded project to achieve non-economic goals. But China gave huge resources to the project, while Portugal had strictly limited resources, the land income of military monastic orders (Order of Aviz, Order of Christ) that became under-employed after Portugal ended reconquista. Crusades in Morocco were tedious and rather fruitless. Henry the Navigator, younger brother of the king got the history changing idea of sending ships further south than Morocco even though nobody knew what they will encounter. But risking few lives was exactly what military orders were doing: taking care of the younger sons of nobility so they would not become highway robbers, rebels etc. However, even "rich" orders had scant resources in a kingdom with one million inhabitants so as soon as possible explorations were aimed to give some profit and sustain themselves. One should also note that ships that were seaworthy in the stormy seas of western Atlantic were seaworthy pretty much everywhere. After some 30 years, explorations that had budget fitting the dedicated budget of the orders started to yield increasing profits, and after 70 years Africa was circumnavigated and reaching Asian trade routes and lucrative markets became imminent. Then the neighboring Spanish hopped onto the bandwagon etc. Later European monarchs from countries closer to the mercantile center of Europe actively supported piracy and other "omnivorous" sources of profit. In other words, the continuation of expeditions beyond the lifetime of Henry the Navigator had good economic case.

Zheng Ho was a friend of the Chinese emperor and he got approval and budget to build Treasure Fleet that informed barbarians about the glory of the Empire of the Center. The ships were huge and magnificent, but following the traditional Chinese shipbuilding that allowed to navigate without difficulty in the zone of Trade Winds, but probably not so much beyond that. Circumnavigation of Africa would require sustained effort and decades of initially fruitless technological progress. Ships were loaded with beautiful products from state supervised manufactories, e.g. porcelain, and were bringing back "gifts from barbarians", that could delight the emperor but were not justifying the huge expense. Having a giraffe in the imperial menagerie was a success that Confucian scholars in the administration of the empire did not appreciate, they would rather trim the budget and decrease taxes. And once the patron and friend of Zheng Ho was replaced with his successor the program was abolished.

It is easy to see that China could not achieve through "explorations" what they were getting anyway by foreign traders visiting their ports. More irrational was the lack of military navy that would defend the coast against Japanese pirates. In the same time, That was actually related to the renovation of the Grand Canal. That renovation was related to the change of capital from Nanjing or Beijing, and the change of focus in the foreign affairs from the south-central sea cost to the steppe of Manchuria and Mongolia, and internally, the calamities faced by the coastal Chinese were neglected to focus on the danger from the nomads. Basically, for a huge empire internal politics are much more important that whatever happens beyond the borders, and the directions of foreign policy are mostly dictated by the internal circumstances of the ruling elite. Some contemporary states come to mind...

Outstanding comment

Was the Erie Canal a substitute for space exploration?

The key word was re-opening, the wars surrounding the conquest and fall of Yuan was bad for the infrastructure, No stable dynasty would fail to restore it. Especially one that had its initial capital on the Yangtze.

Nope. Grain shipping by coast hugging ships is entirely distinct from oceanic exploration. Inhibiting one likely doesn't affect the other too much.

Look at fishing, trade in luxuries, competition between states, navigation technology, substitution for overland routes, etc. That's what drove oceanic exploration in the medieval-early modern West, *not* coast hugging grain trade a la the Roman Empire.

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