Lakes, Rivers and Canals
in Beijing

Beijing, China

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Beijing Guide

Beijing's Lakes, Canals, Springs and Wells

Considering the dry climate of Beijing (especially in winter) and that the Gobi desert is not far away, it is quite surprising how many lakes and canals exist in Beijing.

Beijing's Geography

Beijing municipal district is formed by the alluvial plain between the YongDing River and the ChaoBai River. This makes Beijing's geography similar to the ancient city of Mesopotamia in the middle east.

The Yonging River runs down from the TaiHang Mountains, carrying with it gravel and boulders, sometimes as big as beer barrels. Because of its heave silt and turbulent torrent during the high water season, the river used to change its course frequently, hence its former name, WuDing River, meaning 'capricious river'. But people wished it to be permanently stable, so it was renamed the Yongding River (meaning 'settled forever' in Chinese). The river has lived up to its auspicious name only in the past few decades, thanks to the dredging and reinforcement of the embankment undertaken by the government.

The Chaobai River drains the gullies of the Yanshan Mountains and flows to the east of Beijing. In the past few decades, some large dams have been built on the river to form the Miyun and Huairou Reservoirs. These provide the water for Beijing's canals and lakes as well as drinking water.

The Grand Canal of China

The Grand Canal of China, the longest man-made waterway in the world (by far), and the earliest (also by far), begins in HangZhou in East China (south from Beijing) and terminates in Beijing, running for a total length of 1,794 kilometers. Digging started in the late Spring and Autumn period (about the 5th century BC) and it was twice extended and widened, once during the Sui period and again in the Yuan Dynasty.

Because China's terrain slopes eastward-from the highlands and mountains in the west to the hinterlands on the shore of the Pacific, all the major rivers in China run west to east. The Grand Canal was the sole waterway for south-north transportation and communication. During the Yuan Dynasty, the docks at JiShuiTan in Beijing, then called the Greater Capital (DaDu), were crowded by boats loaded with grain from the south. 'Ji' is an ancient (probably the first) name for Beijing, dating from around 1000 BC; 'shui' means 'water'.

After the mid-19th century, motor roads and railways gradually replaced the Grand Canal for transportation. However, it is safe to say that without the Grand Canal, there would have been no prosperity for Beijing in ancient times.

Beijing's Lakes

In Beijing there are quite a few names of places that end with the word 'hai' (meaning 'sea' or 'lake') such as QianHai, BeiHai and HouHai. The word 'hai' dates from the time when the Mongols under Kublai Khan first entered Beijing to begin the Yuan Dynasty. With Mongolian territory having no sea border, the Mongols were delighted to see so many lakes in Beijing and called them haizi, meaning park in Mongolian. Later Haizi was simplified to hai and people wrote the Chinese character for hai.

Beijing's Wells

Being on an alluvial plain means that wells are a feasible way to extract ground water and in ancient times drinking water in Beijing was mostly acquired this way.

One of the busiest shopping districts in Beijing today is WangFuJing, which means 'Well of the Prince's Mansion'. Wangfujing owes its name to the fine quality of the water from two wells in side streets here. In the past, Beijing residents relied on water drawn form wells in lanes. Unfortunately, most of the wells produced salty or bitter water. Fine quality well water was sold at a good price. The imperial family only drank water from the springs in the Western Hills.

The Jade Spring in the Western Hills

Although most of the wells in Beijing produced bitter water, superb sweet water gushes out of the Jade Spring in the Western Hills.

Qing Emperor QianLong was the one Chinese emperor who traveled extensively throughout his land. After comparing the spring water in the Western-Hills with the water of other springs in various parts of the country, he concluded that the Jade Spring water was the best and conferred on it the title 'Spring of the First Order under Heaven'. In those days, the water of the Jade Spring was the monopoly of the imperial family.

Jade Spring Hill, or YuQuanShan, has become one of the eight favorite scenic spots in Beijing, for its spring and its beautiful landscape.

Beijing Guide