The Yellow River (Huang He): the nurturing and cruel mother river

Travel, Culture | by Miller Wey
Posted: September 20th, 2012 | Updated: August 4th, 2014 | Comments

As the "mother river" (mǔqīn hé, 母亲河), she nourished the Han Chinese culture in the north, but when she overflowed her banks, fattened on sediment from China's loess plateaus in the north, she decimated whole towns and their people, gaining the less desirable nickname "sorrow of China" (Zhōngguó de yōuhuàn, 中国的忧患). Rulers and legends were made of those who could tame her, rebellions threatened civil order when the waters flooded or dried up. The Yellow River (Huáng Hé, 黄河) is as central to the history of China as the Nile is to Egypt or the Mississippi is to the United States, and retains just as much importance for China today.

Running 5,464 km (3,395 mi) from the mountains of Tibet, through northern China and out to the Bohai Sea east of Beijing, it's one of the three great rivers of China, along with the Yantzte River (Cháng Jiāng, 长江) and Mekong River (Láncāng Jiāng, 澜沧江). While the river doesn't carry cruise ships like the Yangtze or flow through multiple countries like the Mekong, the river offers amazing natural scenes and has collected centuries of history along her banks....

A cradle of Chinese civilization


Sometime around 7,000 BC, agriculture was developing around China. In the middle reaches of the Yellow River Valley, the fine, yellow loess soil provided excellent ground for planting. The climate at that time was much hotter and wetter, and the fertile region supported megafauna like elephants and rhinos in addition to humans. 

As Neolithic people moved from lives as hunter-gatherers to farmers, they formed communities. Living in villages of dug-out cave houses, the people of the Yangshao culture (Yǎngsháo wénhuà, 仰韶文化) raised livestock in enclosures, developed techniques for pottery and weaving, kept temples for worship and buried their dead in groups of graves nearby. The Longshan culture (Lóngshān wénhuà, 龙山文化) that succeeded them built houses entirely above ground, painted their homes with white lime and surrounded their towns with defensive walls.

The clan culture of the Longshan would in turn give way to the "Three Dynasties," northern China's earliest recorded kingdoms. Little evidence exists to confirm the existence of the first, the Xia Dynasty, outside of the remains of ancient cities from the same time, thought by some to be the 400-year dynasty's many capitals. Its semi-mythical founder, Yu the Great (Dà Yǔ, 大禹), was said to have tamed the waters of the Yellow River through irrigation and dredging and would serve as an example to future rulers.

Recorded history begins with the oracle bones (jiǎgǔ, 甲骨) of the subsequent Shang Dynasty (Shāng Cháo, 商朝). Bones, including the tops of cow skulls and turtle shells, were carved with questions to deities and touched with a hot iron so that they would crack, allowing diviners to interpret the answer, carving it on the bone as well. Even more is known about the Zhou Dynasty (Zhōu Cháo, 周朝). Contemporary to the late Shang, the first ruler of the Zhou Dynasty crossed the Yellow River with his massive army to defeat the Shang. These cultures contributed much to the development of culture in their region, some of which is still seen today. Chopsticks were first used during the Shang Dynasty to move food from communal plates to individual plates (although food was still eaten by hand), and they developed Chinese characters. During the Zhou, increasing urbanization and warring with competing kingdoms saw the rise of inner and outer city walls. Parts of walls built by the Zhou and other kingdoms along their northern borders to defend against incursions by northern tribes would later join the Great Wall. The worship of ancestral deities and the making of offerings began during this time and in the later part of the Zhou Dynasty, during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods, influential thinkers like Confucius, Lao Zi, Mencius and Zhuangzi composed some of Chinese culture's most influential works, creating the philosophical traditions of Confucianism and Daoism.

A mother's cruelty

The waters of the Yellow River start from glaciers and springs and become rivulets in the Bayan Har Mountains (Bāyánkālā Shānmài, 巴颜喀拉山脉) of Qinghai Province. The headwaters of the river begin near the market town of Maodi (Mǎduō, 玛多), some 600 km (370 mi) from Lanzhou, and continue eastward until turning north along the Gansu-Sichuan border and back south, forming the Ordos Loop (Èěrduōsī, 鄂尔多斯) around the North Central China Plain, before twisting east into the sea. During its path through the loess plains around the Ordos Loop, the river picks up massive amounts of the yellow silt.

This sediment, three times as much as that found in the Mississippi, collects at the river bottom and sides, making the river shallower and higher. In some places, it reaches as high as 10 m (30 ft) above the surrounding floodplains. A small rise in water level can breach these banks and the floods have left thousands dead. Unable to return to the elevated riverbed, the Jiangsu were driven to join gangs in increasing numbers after dramatic flooding and came together as the Nian Rebellion (Niǎnjūn Qǐyì, 捻军起义) during the same time the Qing government was fighting the Taiping Rebels. That same flooding has been harnessed as a weapon as well, with destruction of dikes and levies being used to fight rebellion during the Ming Dynasty and the invading Japanese during World War II (although the waters drowned plenty of Chinese as well).

Consequences of development

Historically, man has also contributed to these floods unintentionally, like over-farming and deforestation resulting in erosion that increases sediment in the river. More recently, China's rapid development, with numerous dams built on the river and excessive amounts of water taken from the river for agriculture and industry, have resulted in the flow of sediment and water actually declining, forcing whole towns to move as water sources dry up. During the 1990s, the flow dried up periodically before even reaching the sea. In addition, chemical runoff into the river from agriculture and industry has built up to such levels that 50% of the river is considered biologically dead. Some 150 million people are dependent on the river, which becomes unfit for even industrial or agricultural use in one particularly bad section around Shanxi Province. These consequences have not gone unnoticed, however. Protests and environmental watch dogs have pushed the government into making stricter laws on pollution, more protected areas have been established and regulations have been put into place to limit how much water can be pulled from the river. Finding the right balance between development along the Yellow River will be especially important for China, with half of its population dependent on the 15 percent of the country's fresh water found in northern China.

What to see on the Yellow River

  • The First Bend in the Yellow River - A bus ride away from Jiuzhaigou or Songpan, the river forms a large S-shape as it turns north across the flat Zoigê Grasslands near the market town of Tangkor (Tangke).
  • Xining - Capital of Qinghai Province, this city was once an important stop on the Silk Road along the Yellow River.
  • Kaifeng - One of China's ancient capitals, it boasts a number of historic structures, including its city walls.
  • Lanzhou - Another stop on the Silk Road, this Yellow River city is a major hub and a good stop-over for destinations nearby.
  • Xi'an - Ancient capital and one of China's must-see cities, it's a great place to learn about Chinese history. The Banpo Museum is the site of a prehistoric Yangshao village and the Shaanxi Museum offers artifacts from the area's long, rich history.
  • Yan'an - The caves carved into the yellow loess hills around Yan'an are fascinating. The city is also close to the dramatic Hukou Waterfall.
  • Anyang - One of China's most ancient capitals, Anyang is located in the Yellow River Valley. Oracle bones were first found at the Yin Ruins in Anyang.
  • Great Wall at Pian Guan - Two China greats: the Great Wall and the Yellow River meet at this spot near Taiyuan.
  • Zhengzhou - Explore more Shang ruins and the enjoy the view at the Yellow River Park.
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