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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 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 before taking a large loop around Shaanxi province picking up its 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 was the cradle for the creation of Chinese Civilization. Farming the rich alluvial covered lands close to the River generated predictable harvests giving the settlers an edge 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 led to 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.

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

In the distant past, it was not called ‘Yellow River’ as 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 agricultural development that has greatly increased the loess load that the river transports and so its color has changed to yellow. It was only after the Han dynasty that it was called the ‘Yellow River’. The Chinese character for yellow is huáng originating from a picture of a precious object - a Jade pendant. Yellow 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.

Yellow river, view, river
The Yellow River

Henan and Hebei provinces are named after the river (“river north” and “river south”). The low flow rate makes the Yellow River not readily navigable as it is relatively shallow, unlike the Yangzi it has not been able to be used to transport goods and produce.

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

The curse of the river is that the high load of sediment is often deposited in huge banks, silting up the river. These banks gradually build up and eventually block the river flow and cause flooding 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, 26 times in 3,000 years, most recently in 1853. The god of the Yellow River was 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 on the waters. Up until fairly recently it was considered unlucky to rescue a person from drowning in a river. Everyone made an offering to the god to guarantee a safe crossing, usually in the form of a jade ring. In the Western Han dynasty it changed course twice in only six years. 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 continued 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 invasion. This event was an historical echo of the flood in 1642 when the governor of Kaifeng broke the banks of the Yellow River to end the siege by rebel leader Li Zicheng causing about 300,000 deaths. The floods make the river 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 led to only a few large cities being built close to its banks on its lower stretches. Chang'an the ancient capital of China at present day Xi'an is built on the Wei River a tributary of the Huang River.

After the formation of the P.R.C. a flood defense plan was drawn up with Soviet help. A large dam at Sanmexia (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 and no longer produces power, and has very limited flood defense potential. The dam at Luijiaxia above Lanzhou is in clearer water and has been more successful. There is concern that current defenses can prevent minor flooding events but will not prevent a one in a 100 year major flood.

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