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The Yellow River - Huáng Hé

Yellow River,Huang He
Yellow river, view, river
The Yellow River in Ningxia

The Yellow River ( Huáng Hé ) Hwang Ho WG) is at the heart of China, both historically and geographically. It is the second longest river in China after the Yangzi 3,400 miles [5,472 kms]. Rising in Qinghai province close to the source of the Yangzi at 13,000 feet [3,962 meters] it heads over the mountains to Lanzhou, Gansu the ancient gateway city of China. Turning north into the dry Gobi desert it irrigates the ancient city of Yinchuan, Ningxia before taking a large loop around Shaanxi province picking up its heavy load of loess silt on the way. It then turns north-east between Shanxi and Henan to reach the sea in Shandong.

Yellow comes from the color of the river's waters, for the river carries a heavy load of silt (loess called Yellow Earth ( huáng tǔ in Chinese) picked up from an extensive plateau in Shaanxi, Shanxi and Gansu. It is perhaps the muddiest major river in the world, not only due to the silt but because of evaporation and infiltration in its lower half. The river can carry as much as 82 pounds [37 kgs] for every cubic meter of water. This heavy load of silt is both a great bonus and a curse. Like the lower Nile where the regular deposition of rich alluvial silts gave birth to the Egyptian Civilization, the Yellow River valley was the cradle for the creation of Chinese Civilization. The settlers who farmed the rich alluvial covered lands close to the River produced regular good harvests which gave them an advantage over the wandering herdsmen and hunters. In the upper stretches, the water from far away glaciers producing a steady, reliable flow throughout the year. The control of the river for irrigation was made possible by many technological innovations. In the Spring and Autumn period separate kingdoms had to co-operate in order to manage the waters, which was another spur to cultural development. It is said that the coordinated mass effort needed to tame the Yellow River is the very reason that a strong central government was needed in China.

Yellow river, waterfall, river
Hukou Waterfall on the Yellow River


It was only after the Han dynasty that it was called the ‘Yellow River’ previously just ‘The River’ would do. May be, in these days the land was rich in forests and it is the man made clearance of forest and farming methods that has greatly increased the loess load that the river transports and so its color has changed to yellow. The Chinese character for yellow is huáng based on a picture of a precious object - a Jade pendant. Yellow or perhaps a better translation 'golden' has been the color of Emperor's robes since the Tang dynasty and the name of the legendary Yellow Emperor ( huáng dì) founder of China. The river and its color has been very important to the development of Chinese culture.

The provinces of Henan and Hebei are named after the river (their names literally mean “river north” and “river south”). The low flow rate of the lower stretches of the Yellow River make it difficult to navigate as it is so shallow; it has never been able to transport large quantities of goods and produce unlike the Yangzi.

Yellow river, view, river, bridge
The Yellow River in northern China

China's Sorrow ( Zhōng guó de tòng)

kàn look

Made up of [ mù eye radical 109, shǒu hand]


Combines a hand and eye as if gazing into the distance
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The curse of the river is that the high load of sediment is often deposited in huge banks, silting up the river. The river banks gradually build up and eventually block the water flow, causing floods as the river seeks a new course. Beyond Kaifeng the river was too difficult to tame, the channel to the sea changed frequently over the centuries, in all 26 times in 3,000 years, most recently in 1853. In the Western Han dynasty it changed course twice in only six years. The god of the Yellow River was called He Bo . To appease the river god a human sacrifice was made every year up until the end of the Zhou dynasty; a beautiful girl was chosen and she was shackled to a marriage bed that was set upon the waters. For many centuries it was considered unlucky to rescue a person from drowning in a river as it would anger the god by removing the 'gift'. Everyone made an offering to the god to guarantee a safe crossing, usually in the form of a jade ring. In 30BCE fears of a flood led to the building of a cast of a gray horse decorated with jade emblems to offer to the waters. This attempt did not lower the level of the river and the local population fled to higher ground. The shamans held their ground, reciting their incantation and at last the flood started to abate and the governor was richly rewarded. Sometimes the river reached the sea much further south, even in Jiangsu Province to the south of Shandong. The river is now entombed in towering man-made levees running 33 feet [10 meters] above the level of the plain. The defenses need continuous maintenance and re-modeling as the silt builds up in the channel high above.

Devastating floods occurred in 1931 (about 2,000,000 deaths) and 1887 (about 1,500,000 deaths). Detailed records of the floods and flood defenses go back over 4,000 years. The flood in 1938 (about 800,000 deaths) was deliberately caused by Chiang Kaishek in an attempt to hold back the Japanese occupation of China. This event was an historical echo of the flood in 1642 when the governor of Kaifeng broke the banks of the Yellow River to raise the siege of rebel leader Li Zicheng causing about 300,000 deaths. The floods make it by far the world's most deadly river. From this sad history the poetic name for the river ‘China's Sorrow’ can be appreciated.

Yellow River, Lanzhou, Gansu
Lanzhou with Yellow River seen from seen from Tianshui Road Bridge Photo by RThiele , available under a Creative Commons license .

The dangerous and meandering course of the river has made it unwise to build large cities to be built close to its banks on its lower stretches. Chang'an an ancient capital of China at present day Xi'an is built on the Wei River a tributary and not on the Huanghe River itself, only Kaifeng has been built close to its perilous waters.

Sanmenxia Dam

Chinese proverb


Shēn lín qí jìng [shen lin qi jing]
body face its border
Present and observing
To be present at a location. A witness to an event

After the formation of the P.R.C. a flood defense plan was drawn up with Russian help. A large dam at Sanmenxia (on the Shanxi-Henan border) was completed in 1960 with the aim of controlling floods and generating electric power. However, as many Chinese had warned, the dam soon silted up. Remedial work was needed in 1964 to re-engineer the outflows. This work also failed and the dam now causes flooding of the Wei River. Sanmexia has limited flood defense potential and generates only 25MW of electricity. Much further upstream, the dam at Luijiaxia above Lanzhou is in clearer water and has been more successful.

Xiaolangdi Dam

Overseas Aid

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To provide the necessary river control a new dam was needed further downstream from Sanmenxia. The concept was approved in 1991 and construction was completed in January 2001. It generates hydro-electric power (up to 5 billion KWh) from six huge turbines. However the river flow is not always adequate to drive it at full power. The problem of silt build up has been solved by an annual high pressure venting of water over a ten day period in June/July. The regulation of water and silt flow has reduced the need for constant maintenance of the lower Yellow River defenses. This flushes out all the silt accumulating behind the dam. It has proven much more successful than Sanmenxia and adequately controls the waters, making a flood of Henan and Shandong only likely to occur once every few centuries rather than every few decades.

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Citation information: Chinasage, 'Yellow River : Huang He', last updated 18 Nov 2016, Web,

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