The Yellow River's Role in China's History

China's Yellow River

Yiming Li / Getty Images

Many of the world's great civilizations have grown up around mighty rivers—Egypt on the Nile, the Mound-builder civilization on the Mississippi, the Indus Valley Civilization on the Indus River. China has had the good fortune to have two great rivers: the Yangtze and the Yellow River (or Huang He).

The Yellow River is also known as the "cradle of Chinese civilization" or the "Mother River." Usually a source of rich fertile soil and irrigation water, the Yellow River has transformed itself more than 1,500 times in recorded history into a raging torrent that has swept away entire villages. As a result, the river has several less-positive nicknames as well, such as "China's Sorrow" and the "Scourge of the Han People." Over the centuries, the Chinese people have used it not only for agriculture but also as a transportation route and even as a weapon.

The Yellow River springs up in the Bayan Har Mountain Range of west-central China's Qinghai Province and makes its way through nine provinces before it pours its silt out into the Yellow Sea off the coast of Shandong Province. It is the world's sixth-longest river, with a length of about 3,395 miles. The river runs across central China's loess plains, picking up an immense load of silt, which colors the water and gives the river its name.

The Yellow River in Ancient China

The recorded history of Chinese civilization begins on the banks of the Yellow River with the Xia Dynasty, which lasted from 2100 to 1600 BCE. According to Sima Qian's "Records of the Grand Historian" and the "Classic of Rites," a number of different tribes originally united into the Xia Kingdom in order to combat devastating floods on the river. When a series of breakwaters failed to stop the flooding, the Xia instead dug a series of canals to channel excess water out into the countryside and then down to the sea.

Unified behind strong leaders and able to produce bountiful harvests since Yellow River floods no longer destroyed their crops so often, the Xia Kingdom ruled central China for several centuries. The Shang Dynasty succeeded the Xia around 1600 BCE and also centered itself on the Yellow River valley. Fed by the riches of the fertile river-bottom land, the Shang developed an elaborate culture featuring powerful emperors, divination using oracle bones, and artwork including beautiful jade carvings.

During China's Spring and Autumn Period (771 to 478 BCE), the great philosopher Confucius was born in the village of Tsou on the Yellow River in Shandong. He was almost as powerful an influence on Chinese culture as the river itself.

In 221 BCE, Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi conquered the other warring states and established the unified Qin Dynasty. The Qin kings relied on the Cheng-Kuo Canal, finished in 246 BCE, to provide irrigation water and increased crop yields, leading to a growing population and the manpower to defeat rival kingdoms. However, the Yellow River's silt-laden water quickly clogged the canal. After Qin Shi Huangdi's death in 210 BCE, the Cheng-Kuo silted up entirely and became useless.

The Yellow River in the Medieval Period

In 923 CE, China was embroiled in the chaotic Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period. Among those kingdoms were the Later Liang and the Later Tang dynasties. As Tang armies approached the Liang capital, a general named Tuan Ning decided to breach the Yellow River dikes and flood 1,000 square miles of the Liang Kingdom in a desperate effort to stave off the Tang. Tuan's gambit did not succeed; despite the raging floodwaters, the Tang conquered the Liang.

Over the following centuries, the Yellow River silted up and changed its course several times, breaking its banks and drowning surrounding farms and villages. Major re-routings took place in 1034 when the river split into three parts. The river jumped south again in 1344 during the waning days of the Yuan Dynasty.

In 1642, another attempt to use the river against an enemy backfired badly. Kaifeng city had been under siege by Li Zicheng's peasant rebel army for six months. The city's governor decided to break the dikes in hopes of washing away the besieging army. Instead, the river engulfed the city, killing almost 300,000 of Kaifeng's 378,000 citizens and leaving the survivors vulnerable to famine and disease. The city was abandoned for years following this devastating mistake. The Ming Dynasty fell to Manchu invaders, who founded the Qing Dynasty just two years later.

The Yellow River in Modern China

A northward course-change in the river in the early 1850s helped fuel the Taiping Rebellion, one of China's deadliest peasant revolts. As populations grew ever larger along the treacherous river's banks, so too did the death tolls from flooding. In 1887, a major Yellow River flood killed an estimated 900,000 to 2 million people, making it the third-worst natural disaster in history. This disaster helped convince the Chinese people that the Qing Dynasty had lost the Mandate of Heaven.

After the Qing fell in 1911, China plunged into chaos with the Chinese Civil War and the Second Sino-Japanese War, after which the Yellow River struck again, this time even harder. The 1931 Yellow River flood killed between 3.7 million and 4 million people, making it the deadliest flood in all of human history. In the aftermath, with war raging and the crops destroyed, survivors reportedly sold their children into prostitution and even resorted to cannibalism to survive. Memories of this catastrophe would later inspire Mao Zedong's government to invest in massive flood-control projects, including the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River.

Another flood in 1943 washed away the crops in Henan Province, leaving 3 million people to starve to death. When the Chinese Communist Party took power in 1949, it began building new dikes and levees to hold back the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers. Since that time, floods along the Yellow River have still posed a threat, but they no longer kill millions of villagers or bring down governments.

The Yellow River is the surging heart of Chinese civilization. Its waters and the rich soil it carries bring the agricultural abundance needed to support China's enormous population. However, this "Mother River" has always had a dark side to it as well. When the rains are heavy or silt blocks up the river channel, she has the power to jump her banks and spread death and destruction across central China.