|Yellow River (Huang He)|
|Origin||Bayankala Mountains, Qinghai Province|
|Length||4845 km (3395 mi)|
|Source elevation||4500 m (14,765 ft)|
|Avg. discharge||2,571 m³/s (90,808 ft³/s)|
|Basin area||752 000 km²|
Yellow River or Huang He (Traditional Chinese: 黃河; Simplified Chinese: 黄河; Hanyu Pinyin: Huáng Hélisten ▶; Wade-Giles: Hwang-ho, sometimes simply called “the River” in ancient Chinese, Mongolian: Hatan Gol) is the second longest river in China (after the Yangtze River) and the seventh longest in the world, at 4,845 km (3,395 mi) long. Originating in the Bayankala 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 distance of 1900 km (1181 miles), and north-south distance of 1100 km (684 miles). Total basin area is 752,443 km² (467,456 sq. mi.). It is called “Yellow River” because of the ochre-yellow color of the muddy water in the lower course of the river. The river carries 1.6 billion tons of silt (loess) annually at the point where it descends from the Loess Plateau, and deposits silt in its bed wherever it flows slowly. The silt deposits are very fertile, and the area produces half of China’s cotton and more than half of China’s wheat.
The Yellow River is called the "Mother River of China" and "the Cradle of Chinese Civilization." Thousands of archaeological sites from the Neolithic period (c. 12,000 to 2,000 B.C.E.) indicate that settled agriculture began in China below the southern bend of the Yellow River. The Shang Dynasty flourished in the lower Yellow River valley from 1750 to 1040 B.C.E.
The Yellow River is also called “China’s Sorrow” because it is extremely prone to flooding. Between 602 B.C.E. and 1938, it flooded 1,593 times, and changed course 26 times. The hardships caused by the flooding have had a significant influence on Chinese history. In 1955, the government of the Peoples Republic of China developed a plan to control flooding and generate electrical power. Trees have been planted and tributaries in the watershed of the Yellow River have been dammed in an effort to control the river’s flow, and more than a dozen hydroelectric power plants have opened since 1960.
Early Chinese literature refers to the Yellow River simply as He (河), or "River." The first appearance of the name "Yellow River" (黄河) is in the Book of Han (汉书) written in the Western Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.–9 C.E.). The name "Yellow River" describes the perennial ochre-yellow color of the muddy water in the lower course of the river. (The yellow deposits are known as loess.) Sometimes the Yellow River is poetically called the "Muddy Flow" (Chinese: 濁流; pinyin: Zhuo Liu). The Chinese expression "when the Yellow River flows clear" is similar to the English expression "when hell freezes over."
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.
Due to its heavy load of silt the Yellow River is a depositing stream: that is, it deposits part of its burden of soil in its bed in stretches where it is flowing slowly. These deposits elevate the riverbed, which flows between levees in its lower reaches. Throughout history, Chinese peasants have built earthen dikes higher and higher, as high as twenty feet in places, to contain the river’s flow. When flooding occurs, 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 the natural levees and control floods.
The Yellow River Delta totals 8,000 square kilometers (4,970 square miles). However, since 1996 it has been reported to be shrinking slightly each year, through erosion.
From its sources, Gyaring Lake and Ngoring Lake, high in the Bayankala Mountains in Qinghai Province on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in the far west of China, the Yellow River loops north, bends south, creating the "Great Bend," and then flows generally eastwards across northern China to the Gulf of Bohai, draining a basin of 752,443 km² (467,456 sq. mi.), which supports 120 million people. The Yellow River basin has an east-west distance of 1900 km (1181 miles), and north-south distance of 1100 km (684 miles).
The river is commonly divided into three stages. However, different scholars have different opinions as to how the three stages are divided. This article adopts the division by the Yellow River Hydrology Committee.
The upper reaches of the Yellow River is a segment starting from the source in the Bayankala Mountains and ending at Hekou County of Inner Mongolia just before the river turns sharply to the north. This segment has a total length of 2160 km (3470 mi) and total basin area of 386,000 km² (51.3 percent of total basin area). Along this length, the elevation of the Yellow River drops 3496 meters (11,470 feet), with an average drop of 1 percent.
The upper reaches can be further divided into three sections: the source, valley, and alluvial plain section. The source section flows mainly through pastures, swamps, and knolls between the Bayankala Mountains and Anemaqen (Amne Machin) Mountains. The river water is clear and flows steadily. Crystal clear lakes are characteristics in this section. The two main lakes along this section are Lake Bob (扎陵湖) and Lake Eling (鄂陵湖), having capacities of 4.7 billion and 10.8 billion m³ (15.5 billion sq. ft. and 35.43 billion sq. ft.), respectively. At elevations over 4,260 meters (13,976 feet) above sea level, they are the largest two plateau fresh water lakes in China.
The valley section stretches from Longyang Gorge in Qinghai to Qingtong Gorge in Gansu. Steep cliffs line both sides of the river. The water bed is narrow and the average drop is large, so the flow in this section is extremely turbulent and fast. There are twenty gorges in this section, the more famous of these being the Longyang, Jishi, Liujia, Bapan, and Qingtong Gorges. The flow conditions in this section make it the best location to build hydroelectric plants.
After emerging from the Qingtong Gorge, the river comes into a section of vast alluvial plains, the Yinchuan Plain and Hetao Plain. In this section, the regions along the river are mostly deserts and grasslands, with very few tributaries. The flow is slow and on both sides of the river. The Hetao Plain has a length of 900 km (559 mi) and width of 30 to 50 km (19 to 31 mi). It is historically the most important irrigation plain along the Yellow River.
The part of Yellow River between Hekou County in Inner Mongolia and Zhengzhou in Henan constitutes the middle reaches of the river. The middle reaches has a length of 1206 km (749 mi) and basin area of 344,000 km² (213,752 sq. mi.; 45.7 percent of the total basin area), with a total elevation drop of 890 meters, and average drop of 0.074 percent. There are 30 large tributaries along the middle reaches, and the water flow is increased by 43.5 percent during this stage. The middle reaches area contributes 92 percent of the river's silts.
The middle stream of the Yellow River passes through the Loess Plateau where substantial erosion takes place. The large amount of mud and sand discharged into the river makes the Yellow River the most sediment-laden river in the world. The highest recorded annual level of silts discharged into the Yellow River is 3.91 billion tons in 1933. The highest silt concentration level was recorded in 1977 at 920 kg/m³. These sediments later deposit in the slower lower reaches of the river, elevating the river bed and creating the famous "river above ground." In Kaifeng, Yellow River is ten meters above the ground level.
From Hekou County to Yumenkou, the river passes through the longest series of continuous valleys on its main course, collectively called the Jinshan Valley. The abundant hydrodynamic resources stored in this section make it the second most suitable area to build hydroelectric power plants. The famous Hukou Waterfall is in the lower part of this valley.
In the lower reaches, from Zhengzhou to the sea, a distance of 786 km (489 miles), the river is confined to a levee-lined course as it flows to the northeast across the North China Plain before emptying into the Bohai Sea. The basin area in this stage is only 23,000 km² (14,292 sq. mi.; 3 percent of total basin area). The total drop in elevation of the lower reaches is 93.6 m (307 feet), with an average drop of 0.012 percent.
The silts received from the middle reaches form sediments here, elevating the river bed. During 2,000 years of levee construction, excessive sediment deposits have raised the riverbed several meters above the surrounding ground. Few tributaries add to the flow in this stage; nearly all rivers to the south drain into the Huai River, whereas those to the north drain into the Hai River.
Tributaries of the Yellow River
- White River (白河)
- Black River (黑河)
- Huang River (湟水)
- Zuli River (祖厉河)
- Qingshui River (清水河)
- Dahei River (大黑河)
- Kuye River (窟野河)
- Wuding River (无定河)
- Fen River (汾河)
- Wei River (渭河)
- Luo River (洛河)
- Qin River (沁河)
- Dawen River (大汶河)
Hydroelectric Power Dams on the Yellow River
Between 1960 and 2001, twelve hydroelectric power stations were built on the Yellow River:
- Sanmen Gorge hydroelectric power station (1960)
- Sanshenggong hydroelectric power station (1966)
- Qingtong Gorge hydroelectric power station (1968)
- Liujia Gorge hydroelectric power station (1974)
- Yanguo Gorge hydroelectric power station (1975)
- Tianqiao hydroelectric power station (1977)
- Bapan Gorge hydroelectric power station (1980)
- Longyang Gorge hydroelectric power station (1992)
- Da Gorge hydroelectric power station (1998)
- Li Gorge hydroelectric power station (1999)
- Wanjiazhai hydroelectric power station (1999)
- Xiaolangdi hydroelectric power station (2001)
Provinces and Cities on the Yellow River
Originating in the Bayankala Mountains, the Yellow River now passes nine Chinese provinces, Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu, Ningxia, Inner Mongolia, Shaanxi, Shanxi, Henan and Shandong. The mouth of the Yellow River is located at Dongying, Shandong.
Major cities located along the Yellow River include, starting from the source: Lanzhou, Wuhai, Baotou, Kaifeng, and Jinan.
The lower Yellow River valley is considered the birthplace of Chinese civilization. Thousands of archaeological sites from the Neolithic period (c. 12,000 to 2000 B.C.E.) indicate that settled agriculture began in China below the southern bend of the Yellow River. The best known of these sites is Banpo Village, near modern X’ian, which dates to 4,000 B.C.E.. Pottery from the Yangshao culture (c. 5000 – 3000 B.C.E.) and the Longshan culture (c. 3000 to 2200 B.C.E.) has been found in many places along the Yellow River and Lower Yangzi, and on the North China Plain. The Shang Dynasty flourished in the lower Yellow River valley from 1750 to 1040 B.C.E..
Over many centuries, the Grand Canal was built to connect the Yellow River with other Chinese rivers to facilitate the transportation of grain and other goods from southern China to the imperial capitals of Kaifeng, Luoyang, and Beijing. The Northern Song Dynasty established their capital at Kaifeng, near the junction of the Grand Canal and the Yellow River.
Flooding and Changing of Course
The Yellow River is called “China’s Sorrow” because it is extremely prone to flooding. Between 602 B.C.E. and 1938, it flooded 1,593 times, and changed course 26 times. Historical maps from the Qin Dynasty indicate the Yellow River was flowing considerably north of its present course. Those maps showed that after the river had passed Luoyang, it flowed along the border of Shanxi and Henan Provinces, and continued along the border of Hebei and Shandong before emptying into Bohai Bay near the present-day Tianjin.
Beginning in 1194, the Yellow River flowing to the north changed its course southwards by running into the Huai River. Over the next seven hundred years, the course of the river changed back and forth between the route of the Huai River and the original route of the Yellow River several times. The consequent built up of silt deposit was so heavy that the Huai River was unable to flow through 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 southwards towards the Yangtze River.
The changes in the course of the Yellow River have had a historical humanitarian and political impact on China. Near the end of the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1279 – 1368), when the river changed its course from northern to southern Shandong province and flooded an area of three hundred square miles, the Chinese peasants believed that the disaster was an omen that the Mongols had lost the “Mandate of Heaven” to rule China, and rose up in rebellion. When the river reverted to northern Shandong from 1853 – 1855, it destroyed the northern section of the Grand Canal and flooded large areas of farmland. In 1898, during the Boxer Rebellion, a flood and subsequent drought caused famine in many areas, causing unrest which contributed to the overthrow of the Qing dynasty and the establishment of the Republic of China in 1911.
Floods on the Yellow River account for some of the deadliest natural disasters ever recorded in human history. The flatness of North China Plain contributes to the deadliness of the floods. A slight rise in water level completely covers a large portion of land in water; when a flood occurs, a portion of the population initially dies from drowning, followed by deaths from diseases spread by the flood and then the ensuing famine.
- In 1887 the river flooded the North China Plain causing an estimated 900,000–2,000,000 deaths.
- In 1931 the river flooded the North China Plain causing an estimated 1,000,000–4,000,000 deaths.
In 1938, during the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Nationalist troops under the orders of Chiang Kai-Shek blew up the dikes holding back the Yellow River in Huayankou, Henan Province, in order to stop the advancing Japanese troops. This resulted in the flooding of an area covering 54,000 km² (177,165 sq. mi.) and the death of 500,000-900,000 people. Another 11 million were left without food or shelter. The dike was repaired with American assistance in 1947.
In 1955, the government of the Peoples Republic of China developed a plan to control flooding and generate electrical power, which included large-scale water conservation projects on the upper reaches of the river. Trees have been planted and tributaries in the watershed of the Yellow River have been dammed in an effort to control the river’s flow.
Since 1972, the lower reaches of the Yellow River, from Jinan to the sea, have dried up almost annually; in 1997 the dry period persisted for 226 days. The low water volume is due to increased demands for irrigation, which multiplied by a factor of five since 1950. By 1999, water diverted from the river served 140 million people and irrigated 74,000 km² (45,982 sq. mi.) of land. The highest water volume occurs during the rainy season, from July to October, when 60 percent of the volume of the river flows, but water for irrigation is needed between March and June. Several dams have been built to capture excess water for use when needed, and for flood control and electricity generation, 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.
- Dorothy Perkins, Encyclopedia of China the essential reference to China, its history and culture. (Roundtable Press, 2000, ISBN 978-0816043743), 602
- Yellow River Delta Shrinking 7.6 Square Kilometers Annually, China Internet Information Center. Retrieved November 21, 2007.
- Yellow River: Geographic and Historical Settings. Excerpts from George Leung's "Reclamation and Sediment Control in the Middle Yellow River Valley," Water International 21(1) (March 1996): 12-19. Retrieved November 28, 2012.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- National Geographic Society (U.S.). Journey into China. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 1982. ISBN 0870444379
- Pan, Lynn. China's sorrow journeys around the Yellow River. London: Century Pub, 1985. ISBN 9780712607322
- Pearce, Fred. When the rivers run dry water, the defining crisis of the twenty-first century. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2006. ISBN 0807085723
- Perkins, Dorothy. Encyclopedia of China the essential reference to China, its history and culture. Roundtable Press, 2000. ISBN 978-0816043743
- Ravenholt, Albert. The Yellow River can the Communists tame "China's sorrow?": a letter from Albert Ravenholt. New York, NY: American Universities Field Staff, 1955.
- Sinclair, Kevin. The Yellow River: A 5000 Year Journey Through China. (Based on the television documentary). Child & Associates Publishing, Chatswood, Sydney, Australia, 1987. ISBN 9780895351920
All links retrieved May 23, 2023.
- Tibet is melting and turning into desert YouTube.
- Can China save the Yellow—its Mother River? National Geographic May, 2008.
- Yellow River Delta Earth Observatory.
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