Yellow River of China — China Vacations

Yellow River(Huang He) is the second-longest river in China (after the Yangtze River) and the sixth-longest in the world at 5,464 kilometres (3,398 mi).Originating in the Bayan Har Mountains in Qinghai Province in western China, it flows through nine provinces of China and empties into the Bohai Sea. The Yellow River basin has an east-west extent of 1900 km (1,180 mi) and a north-south extent of 1100 km (684 mi). Total basin area is 752,443 km² (290,520 mi²).

The Yellow River is called “the cradle of Chinese civilization”, as its basin is the birthplace of the northern Chinese civilizations and is the most prosperous region in early Chinese history. But frequent devastating flooding largely due to the elevated river bed in its lower course, has also earned it the unenviable name “China’s Sorrow”. 

Early Chinese literature refers to the Yellow River simply as He, or “River”. The first appearance of the name “Yellow River” is in the Book of Han written in the Western Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 9). The name “Yellow River” describes the perennial ochre-yellow colour of the muddy water in the lower course of the river. The yellow color comes from loess suspended in the water.Sometimes the Yellow River is poetically called the “Muddy Flow”. The Chinese expression “when the Yellow River flows clear” is similar to the English expression “when pigs fly.” In Qinghai, its Tibetan name is “river of the peacock”.

Yellow river in culture

Mother river, China’s Sorrow : Traditionally, it is believed that the Chinese civilization originated in the Yellow River basin. The Chinese refer to the river as “the Mother River” and “the Cradle of the Chinese civilization”. During the long history of China, the Yellow River has been considered a blessing as well as a curse and has been nicknamed both “China’s Pride” and “China’s Sorrow”.

History of the changing Yellow river

The river is extremely prone to flooding. It has flooded 1,593 times in the last 3,000–4,000 years, while its main course changed 18 times, with at least 5 large-scale changes from 602 BC to present. These courses change are due to the large amount of loess carried by the river and continuously deposited along the bottom of the river’s canal. This sedimentation causes a natural dam to slowly accrue. Eventually, the enormous amount of waters have to find a new way to the sea, causing a flood in a new valley.

Ancient times

Historical maps from the Qin Dynasty (221 BC;206 BC) indicate the Yellow River was then flowing considerably north of its present course. Those maps show that after the river passed Luoyang it flowed along the border between Shanxi and Henan provinces, continuing along the border between Hebei and Shandong before emptying into Bohai Bay near present-day Tianjin.

The Xin dynasty (9-23AD) is also said to have fallen after major floods, occurring i n 11 AD, with the river changing its course from the north, near Tianjin, to the south of Shandong Peninsula.

Medieval times

A major course change in 1194 took over the Huai River drainage system throughout the next 700 years. The mud in the Yellow River literally blocked the mouth of the Huai River and left thousands homeless. The Yellow River adopted its present course in 1897 after the latest course change occurred in 1855. Currently, the Yellow River flows through Jinan, capital of the Shandong province, and ends in the Bohai Sea, yet the eastern terminus for the Yellow River has oscillated from points north and south of the Shandong Peninsula in its many dramatic shifts over time.

The course of the river has changed back and forth between the route of the Huai River and the original route of the Yellow River several times over the past 700 years. The consequent buildup of silt deposits was so heavy that the Huai River was unable to flow in its historic course after the Yellow River reverted to its northerly course for the last time in 1897. Instead, the water pools up into Hongze Lake and then runs southward toward the Yangtze River.

Floods on the river account for some of the deadliest natural disasters ever recorded. The flatness of North China Plain contributes to the deadliness of the floods. A slight rise in water level means a large portion of land is completely covered in water. When a flood occurs, a portion of the population initially dies from drowning, then by the spread of diseases and the ensuing famine.

In 1887 the river flooded the North China Plain causing an estimated 900,000 to 2,000,000 deaths.

Recent times

The river gets its yellow color mostly from the fine-grained calcareous silts which originate in the Loess Plateau and are carried in the flow. Centuries of silt deposition and diking has caused the river to flow above the surrounding farmland, making flooding a critically dangerous problem. Flooding of the Yellow River has caused some of the highest death tolls in world history, with the 1887 Huang He flood killing 900,000 to 2,000,000 and the 1931 Huang He flood killing an estimated 1,000,000 to 4,000,000 on the North China Plain.

In 1938, during the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Nationalist troops under Chiang Kai-Shek/Jiang Jieshi,broke the levees holding back the river in order to stop the advancing Japanese troops. This resulted in the flooding of an area covering 54,000 km² and took some 500,000–900,000(890,000) lives while an unknown number of Japanese soldiers were killed.

Another historical source of devastating floods is the collapse of upstream ice dams in Inner Mongolia with an accompanying sudden release of vast quantities of impounded water. There have been 11 such major floods in the past century, each causing tremendous loss of life and property. Nowadays, explosives dropped from aircraft are used to break the ice dams before they become dangerous.

Control the river mood

Some of the known flood defenses used in ancient times were ditches, walls (dams), levees, and rebound channels to route floodwaters around a blockage. But the solutions were merely local, and sometimes the dams were too small and weak. If the river broke down the defenses it caused far more damage than if none had been built.

Several dams and flooding projects have been constructed along the Yellow River preventing any further flooding of the river.


The Yellow River is notable for the large amount of silt it carries—1.6 billion tons annually at the point where it descends from the Loess Plateau. If it is running to the sea with sufficient volume, 1.4 billion tons are carried to the sea annually.

In modern times, since 1972 when it first dried up, the river has dried up in its lower reaches many times, from Jinan to the sea in most years, in 1997 for 226 days. The low volume is due to increased agricultural irrigation, by a factor of five since 1950. Water diverted from the river as of 1999 served 140 million people and irrigated 74,000 km² (48,572 mi²) of land. The highest volume occurs during the rainy season, from July to October, when 60% of the annual volume of the river flows. Maximum demand for irrigation is needed between March and June. In order to capture excess water for use when needed, and for flood control and electricity generation, several dams have been built, but due to the high silt load their life is expected to be limited. A proposed South-North Water Transfer Project involves several schemes to divert water from the Yangtze River, one in the western headwaters of the rivers where they are closest to one another, another from the upper reaches of the Han River, and a third using the route of the Grand Canal.

Due to its heavy load of silt the Yellow River is a depositing stream, that is, it deposits part of its carried burden of soil in its bed in stretches where it is flowing slowly. These deposits elevate the riverbed which flows between natural levees in its lower reaches. Should a flood occur, the river may break out of the levees into the surrounding lower flood plain and adopt a new course. Historically this has occurred about once every hundred years. In modern times, considerable effort has been made to strengthen levees and control floods.

The Yellow River delta totals 8,000 square kilometers (3,090 mi²). However, since 1996 it has been reported to be shrinking slightly each year through erosion.


According to China Exploration and Research Society, the source of the Yellow River is at 34 29 31.1N, 96 20 24.6E. The source tribituaries drain into Gyaring Lake and Ngoring Lake high in the Bayan Har Mountains in Qinghai Province in the far west of China. In the Zoige Basin along the boundary with Ganzu Province, the Yellow River loops northwest and then northeast before turning south, creating the “Great Bend”, and then flows generally eastward across northern China to the Gulf of Bohai, draining a basin of 752,443 km² (290,520 mi²) which nourishes 120 million people.

The river is commonly divided into three stages. However, different scholars have different opinions on how the three stages are divided. This article adopts the division used by the Yellow River Conservancy Commission.


[Source: Wikipedia]