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The Yellow River - huáng hé

Yellow River,Huang He

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] gathering its waters from Qinghai before taking a long detour north into the Gobi desert, changing its mind and heading south to meet the Wei River and then turning north east to the sea.

Yellow comes from the color of the river's waters, for the river carries a heavy load of silt (loess) picked up from an extensive plateau in Shaanxi, Shanxi and Gansu. It is perhaps the muddiest major river in the world. 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. The source of water from far away glaciers producing a steady, reliable flow throughout the year in the upper stretches. The control of the river for irrigation led to many technological innovations. In the Spring and Autumn period kingdoms had to co-operate in order to manage the waters, which was another spur to cultural development.

The river was not always called ‘Yellow’ as just ‘The River’ would do. May be, long ago, the land was rich in forests and it is the man made agricultural development that has greatly increased the loess load that the river transports and so its color. It is 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 loess is called 'Yellow Earth' ( huáng tǔ). The river and its color has been very important to the development of Chinese culture.

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. Heading 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 silt on the way. It then heads directly east between Shanxi and Henan to reach the sea in Shandong. 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 used to transport goods.

Yellow River
Photo by Amphylite, available under a Creative Commons license.

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. e Beyond Kaifeng the river was too difficult to tame, the channel to the sea changing frequently over the centuries, 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 a jade ring. In the Western Han dynasty it changed course twice in only six years. Sometimes the river reached the sea to the south of Shandong in Jiangsu Province. The river is now entombed in high 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 artificial channel high above.

Devastating floods occurred in 1931 (about 2,000,000 deaths) and 1887 (about 1,500,000 deaths). 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. These 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. Detailed records of the floods and flood defenses go back over 4,000 years.

Yellow River,Lanzhou
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. 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 became 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 defenses can prevent minor flooding events but will not prevent a one in a 100 year major event.

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