Ancient China Simplified
by Edward Harper Parker
Public Domain Books
Chapter XXI - Public Works
It is difficult to guess how much truth there is in the ancient traditions that the water-courses of the empire were improved through gigantic engineering works undertaken by the ancient Emperors of China. There is one gorge, well known to travellers, above Ich’ang, on the River Yang-tsz, on the way to Ch’ung-k’ing, where the precipitous rocks on each side have the appearance and hardness of iron, and for a mile or more–perhaps several miles– stand perpendicularly like walls on both sides of the rapid Yang- tsz River: the most curious feature about them is that from below the water-level, right up to the top, or as far as the eye can reach, the stone looks as though it had been chipped away with powerful cheese-scoops: it seems almost impossible that any operation of nature can have fashioned rocks in this way; on the other hand, what tools of sufficient hardness, driven by what great force, could hollow out a passage of such length, at such a depth, and such a height? It is certain that after Ts’in conquered the hitherto almost unknown kingdoms of Pa and Shuh (Eastern and Western Sz Ch’wan) a Chinese engineer named Li Ping worked wonders in the canalization of the so-called CH’ENg-tu plain, or the rich level region lying around the capital city of Sz Ch’wan province, which was so long as Shuh endured also the metropolis of Shuh. The consular officers of his Britannic Majesty have made a special study of these sluices, which are still in full working order, and they seem almost unchanged in principle from the period (280 B.C.) when Li Ping lived. The Chinese still regard this branch of the Great River as the source; or at least they did so until the Jesuit surveys of two centuries ago proved otherwise; it was quite natural that they should do so in ancient times, for the true upper course, and also Yiin Nan and Tibet through which that course runs, were totally unknown to them, and unheard of by name; even now the so-called Lolo country of Sz Ch’wan and Yiin Nan is mostly unexplored, and the mountain Lolos are quite independent of China. The fact that they have whitish skins and a written script of their own (manifestly inspired by the form of Chinese characters) makes them a specially interesting people. Li Ping’s engineering feats also included the region around Ya-thou and Kia- ting, as marked on the modern maps.
The founder of the Hia dynasty (2205 B.C.) is supposed to have liberated the stagnant waters of the Yellow River and sent them to the sea; as this is precisely what all succeeding dynasties have tried to do, and have been obliged to try, and what in our own times the late Li Hung-chang was ordered to do just before his death, there seems no good reason for suspecting the accuracy of the tradition; the more especially as we see that the founder of the Chou dynasty sent his chief political adviser and his two most distinguished relatives to settle along this troublesome river’s lower course, as rulers of Ts’i, Yen, and Lu; the other considerable vassals were all ranged along the middle course.
The original Chinese founder of the barbarian colony of Wu belonged, as already explained, to the same clan or family as the founder of the Chou dynasty, and in one respect even took ancestral or spiritual precedence of him, because the emigrant had voluntarily retired into obscurity with his brother in order to make way for a third and more brilliant younger brother, whose grandson it was that afterwards, in 1122 B.C., conquered China, and turned the Chou principality, hitherto vassal to the Shang dynasty, into the Chou dynasty, to which the surviving Shang princes then became vassals in the Sung state and elsewhere. Even though the founder of Wu may have adopted barbarian ways, such as tattooing, hair-cutting, and the like, he must have possessed considerable administrative power, for he made a canal (running past his capital) for a distance of thirty English miles along the new “British” railway from Wu-sih to Ch’ang-shuh, as marked on present maps; his idea was to facilitate boat-travelling, and to assist cultivators with water supplies for irrigation.
In the year 485 B.C. the King of Wu, who was then in the hey-day of his success, and by way of becoming Protector of China, erected a wall and fortifications round the well-known modern city of Yangchow (where Marco Polo 1700 years later acted as governor); he next proceeded for the first time in history to establish water communication between the Yang-tsz River and the River Hwai; this canal was then (483-481) continued farther north, so as to give communication with the southern and central parts of modern Shan Tung province.
His object was to facilitate the conveyance of stores for his armies, then engaged in bringing pressure upon Ts’i (North Shan Tung) and Lu (South Shan Tung). He succeeded in getting his boats to the River Tsi, running past Tsi-nan Fu, and to the River I, running past I-thou Fu, thus dominating the whole Shan Tung region; for these two were then the only navigable rivers in Shan Tung besides the Sz. The River Tsi is now taken possession of by the Yellow River, which, as we have shown, then ran a parallel course much to the westward of it; and the River I then ran south into the River Sz, which, as already explained, has in its lower course, in comparatively modern times, been taken possession of permanently by the Grand Canal; but the upper course of the Sz, now, as then, ran past Confucius’ town, the Lu metropolis, of K’ueh-fu. In 483 B.C. the same king cast his faithful adviser (of Ts’u origin) into the canal by which the waters of lake T’ai Hu now run to modern Soochow, and thence to Hangchow. Ever since that date the unfortunate man in question has been a popular “god of the waters” in those parts. It follows, therefore, that the Wu founder’s modest canal must have been from time to time extended, at least in an easterly direction. It was only after the conquest of China by Ts’in, 250 years later, that the First August Emperor extended this system of canals northwards and westwards, from Ch’ang-thou Fu to Tan-yang and Chinkiang, as marked on the modern maps. Thus the barbarian kings of Wu have found the true alignment of our “British”, railway for us; and, so far as the northern canal is concerned, have really achieved the task for which credit is usually given to Kublai Khan, the Mongol patron of Marco Polo. Kublai merely improved the old work. The ancient Wu capital was 10 English miles south-east of Wu-sih, and 17 miles north of Soochow, to which place the capital was transferred in the year 513 B.C., as it was more suitable than the old capital for the arsenals and ship-building yards then, for the first time, being built on an extensive scale by the King of Wu.
The first bridge over the Yellow River was constructed by the kingdom of Ts’in in 257 B.C., on what is still the high-road between T’ung-thou Fu and P’u-chou Fu. Previous to that date armies had to cross the Yellow River at the fords; and, as an instance of this, it may be stated that the founder of the Chou dynasty in 1122 B.C. summoned his vassals to meet him at the Ford of Meng, a place still so marked on the maps, and lying on the high-road between the two modern cities of Ho-nan Fu and Hwai- k’ing Fu; thus there was no excuse for the feudal princes failing to arrive at the rendezvous. It was not far from the same place, but on the north bank of the river, that Tsin in 632 B.C. held the great durbar as Second Protector, on the notorious occasion when the puppet Emperor was “sent for” by the Tsin dictator. To conceal this outrage on “the rites,” Confucius says: “The Son of Heaven went in camp north of the river.” To go on hunt, or in camp, is still a vague historical expression for “go on fief inspection," and it was so used in 1858, when the Manchu Emperor Hien-feng took refuge from the allied troops at Jehol in Tartary.
The first thing Ts’in did when it united the empire in 221 B.C. was to occupy all the fords and narrow passes, and to put them in working order for the passage of armies. As even now the lower Yellow River is only navigable for large craft for 20 miles from its mouth (now in Shan Tung), it is easy to imagine how many fords there must have been in its shallow waters, and also how it came to pass that boats were so little used to convey large bodies of troops with their stores.
The great wall of China of 217 B.C. was by no means the first of its kind. A century before that date Ts’in built a long wall to keep off the Tartars; and, half a century before that again, Ngwei (one of the three powerful families of Tsin, all made independent princes in 403) had built a wall to keep off its western neighbour Ts’in; both these walls seem to have been in the north part of the modern Shen Si region, and they were possibly portions of the later continuous great wall of the August Emperor, which occupied the forced energies of 700,000 men. There is a statement that the same Emperor set 700,000 eunuchs to work on the palaces and the tomb he was constructing for himself at his new metropolis (moved since 350 B.C. to the city of Hien-yang, north of the river Wei, opposite the present Si-ngan Fu). This probably means, not that eunuchs were common in those times as palace employes, but that castration still was the usual punishment inflicted throughout China for grave offences not calling for the penalty of death, or for the more serious forms of maiming, such as foot- chopping or knee-slicing; and that all the prisoners of that degree were told off to do productive work: although humiliatingly deformed, they were still available for the common purposes of native life, and their defenceless and forlorn plight would probably make it an easier matter to handle them in gangs than to handle sound males; and if they died off under the rough treatment of task-masters, they would have no families to mourn or avenge them in accordance with family duty; for a eunuch has no name and no family. The palaces in question were joined by a magnificent bridge on the high-road between Hien-yang and Si-ngan. This very year a German firm has contracted to build an iron bridge over the Yellow River at Lan-thou Fu, where crossed by Major Bruce.