Transportation in Ancient China


In Chinese jiaotong or “transportation” has a broader meaning than it does in English; although it mainly refers to the transport of people or things, the primary focus here, it also includes the movement of information in postal or telecommunication systems and the like, and by implication the transmission of language and words, as well as symbols and images.


China has a long history of road development. Already in remote antiquity, the ancient Chinese cleared paths and trails to facilitate travel on land and made boats to use on water. After generations of exploration and expansion, roads gradually were constructed and completed in China, and land, water, and ocean transportation networks were eventually formed. Land routes included the chidao, a national expressway-like highway created for imperial and associated official use during the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE), and the five-chi wide road (1 chi = 33.33 centimeters) also of the Qin dynasty linking what are now Sichuan and Yunnan provinces as part of the empire. Zhandao or plank roads predate the imperial era, with their development connected to the Qin state’s earlier expansion into Sichuan in the Warring States period (475–221 BCE). The overland “Silk Road,” encompassing various northern and southern trade routes westward from China existed to some extent in pre-Han dynasty (times before 206 BCE) China, but it was in the first half of the Han that these greatly developed. Among noteworthy later land routes was the network of official “horse roads” of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). Significant water routes within China include the Hangou (Han Waterway)  dating to the late Spring and Autumn period (770–476 BCE) which linked the Yangtze and Huai rivers in Jiangsu province; this was a precursor of the much longer Grand Canal of the Sui dynasty (581–618) that ran from Hangzhou to Beijing connecting the Yangtze and Yellow river-based regions of China. The Ling (Magic Transport) Canal of Guangxi province dates to the Qin dynasty and it enabled travel between the Xiang River of central China and the Li River that flows southward. Ocean routes of importance in Chinese history include: the “Maritime Silk Road,” from China to southern and western regions of pre-imperial origin but especially flourishing from the Tang dynasty (618–907) onward; the pioneering eastward travels, possibly reaching Japan in 219 BCE. and 210 BCE, of Xu Fu (b. 255 BCE); and the various itineraries followed by the Ming dynasty Zheng He (1371–1433) on his seven voyages through the “Western Seas” to Southeast Asia, South Asia, West Asia, and East Africa. 


While building roads and opening up new routes, the ancient Chinese also constantly improved existing as well as inventing new means of transport based on their actual transportation needs. There were more and more types of land and water vehicles and vessels; their speed constantly increasing and their load-bearing capacity rising. Over time, too, people began to domesticate cattle, horses, and other livestock that could be used to convey goods. After vehicles were invented, oxen, horses, and other livestock were used to pull carriages, carts, wagons and the like. China’s vast territory with its many natural geographical differences is the cause of the varieties of the means of transport used by people in its diverse regions. For example, camels are a common conveyance of goods and individuals in the relatively dry region of Northwest China; boats are the main means of transport in areas south of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River that are crisscrossed by rivers and streams. In China’s hilly and uneven southwestern region “litter chairs” made of bamboo and carried on the shoulders of two people are still widely used. However, after the Song dynasty (960–1279), a more comfortable sedan chair was invented and became increasingly popular.


Construction of transportation facilities has also been highly regarded in China throughout its history. During the Spring and Autumn, and the Warring States periods, many states set up checkpoints or outposts at strategically important places. At junctions where there were no bridges to connect water and land routes, ferries were established to facilitate travel. After the Qin and Han dynasties, many official checkpoints were set up at ferry crossings for taxation as well as for security purposes. Also during the Qin dynasty, a system of roadside precincts  or official guest houses where travelers could stay or rest was begun, with a long-distance wayside pavilion set up every ten li (during the Qin one li was about 576 meters; in later times it ranged from 323 meters to today’s 500 meters) and a short-distance precinct house set up every five li. Bridges were the major means of transport for crossing waterways and gorges.  


After traffic routes were established, services that facilitated passengers and freight were also developed. During the Spring and Autumn, and the Warring States periods, hostels, post-station lodges and so forth were set up at the capitals and major traffic routes in each state, where foreign envoys or court officials were hosted. In addition, along roads there appeared privately owned guesthouses called private inns. In the early Qin and Han periods, a nation-wide network of post-stations was initially established; during the Sui and Tang, government post-stations on both land and water routes became quite luxurious and spectacular. At the same time, the system of private inns also developed rapidly.


Since their earliest beginnings in dynastic China postal and relay stations had always been combined as one service station. Postal service was also provided at relay stations. However, during the Song dynasty postal and relay services were formally separated. Subsequently relay stations were mainly in charge of receiving various levels of court officials, while postal stations were only in charge of managing communication matters. From the Yuan (1271–1368) to the Qing (1644–1911) dynasties, transportation services became ever more prosperous. The growth of many cities and towns along major roads was closely related to the rise of transportation services near them. Revenue from such services became a major force in economic development that could not be overlooked.


Written records in Chinese and other languages provide important historical information about transportation in China. Among the most important of these sources are: Shanhai jing or Guideways to Mountains and Seas dating to the Han dynasty or earlier which reflects ancient conditions of transportation; Da Tang Xiyu ji or Account of the Western Regions during the Great Tang, compiled in 646 of a westward journey undertaken from 626–645 which describes the flourishing communications between East and West during the Tang; Livre des merveilles du monde or Book of Marvels of the World, better known as The Travels of Marco Polo, reputedly recounting thirteenth century experiences which describes the very advanced transportation system developed during the Yuan dynasty; Xu Xiake youji or The Travel Notes (or Diaries) by Xu Xiake (1587–1641) and Tianxia shuilu lucheng or Water and Land Routes of the Realm by Huang Bian (fl. 1570) vividly bring to life the realities of communication and transportation during the Ming dynasty. Almost all of these historical records were written by authors who had personally traveled to the places described and thus are the result of on-site observation. 

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