Mapping the Empire's Watery Ways: The Chinese Grand Canal in History, Literature, and Art

Fri, Jan 11, 2019, 3:00 pm to Sun, Jan 13, 2019, 2:00 pm
202 Jones
Council of the Humanities at Princeton University
Program on East Asian Studies at Princeton University
James P. Geiss and Margaret Y. Hsu Foundation

Workshop Overview

For many, the most obvious architectural symbol of Chinese imperial power is the Great Wall. Yet in the imperial period the Grand Canal was arguably much more important.  Undoubtedly it was much more successful. Whereas the Great Wall served as a symbol of demarcation (between China and its neighbors), the Grand Canal—a monumental interconnected system of rivers, canals, sluices, dams, and dikes—instead served as a symbol of integration, communication, and connection. Presently China is once again asserting its presence and seeking to integrate, whether internationally through monumental investments such as the “One Belt, one Road Program” or domestically through its much-lauded high-speed railway network.  As such, it is perhaps time to revisit the ways in which the Chinese imperial state sponsored and maintained similar networks of integration. This three day workshop proposes to do just that by bringing together a group of scholars from a diversity of disciplines—art history, history, literature, digital humanities—to discuss this singular piece of human engineering.


To get a sense of the scope of the Canal’s monumentality, consider the following. The first parts of the Canal were dug in the 5th century BCE and it was used continuously until the mid-nineteenth century.  By the 6th century, the Canal stretched over more than one thousand miles, connecting the economically rich south of China with the militarily powerful north.  It was a crucial conduit for the transport of tribute grain, measuring in at an estimated 400 million liters each year by the Ming dynasty.  The Canal played a crucial role in terms of flood control, serving to keep the annual floods of the Yellow River at bay, and in terms of military conquest functioned as a crucial conduit for connecting the central Chinese plains with the furthest reaches of empire and beyond (as was the case when the Canal was used for the invasion of Korea in the 6th century).  Its upkeep, repair, and supervision involved tens of thousands of workers and officials and was central to repeated imperial visits and tours during the late-imperial period.  Not surprisingly, the Grand Canal has cast an enormous shadow not only in terms of imperial governance and political thought, but also in terms of the natural environment, the science of hydraulic engineering, economic development, international diplomacy, as well as the literary and art-historical imagination.

The Workshop

To do justice to the multifaceted history of this grand imperial undertaking, the workshop aims to bring together scholars who share an interest in the Grand Canal, but hail from different disciplinary backgrounds—social history, history of science, environmental history, comparative and Chinese literature, global and Chinese art history, the history of architecture.  Specifically, the workshop aims to connect concerns that belong to the social sciences and history, ranging from economic to environmental history, from statecraft to history of science, with a more humanistic approach, most notably the depiction of the Grand Canal in literature and art history, China and the West. The hope is that by speaking across these disciplines in a disciplined and focused fashion, we will learn to appreciate the Grand Canal in a more three-dimensional fashion.

Participating in the Workshop

The workshop will take the form of shared readings and documents.  There are no formal papers that will be given at that workshop.  Instead, each participant will share a few pages from documents that they think are illuminating of the kind of approach they are interested in.  Participants are asked to read all of the documents distributed beforehand.  Discussion of the documents will be led by the individual scholar who submitted the documents.

People who have not been invited to the workshop are welcome to attend the workshop, but are asked to prepare for the the discussion by similarly reading through the documents submitted.  In order to gain access to the documents, please register or contact the workshop organizers.

The workshop is organized by Paize Keulemans ( and Elijah Greenstein (, and will be held January 11-13, 2019 in 202 Jones Hall, Princeton University.

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