The Yellow River or Hwang Ho River as it is known in its native China, is situated in a region of the country often referred to as the ‘cradle of civilisation’. The river flows through the heart of the northern territories of China and is steeped in folklore and heritage. From ancient times it was an arterial route of China, used to transport trade goods and troops, to otherwise inaccessible battlefields.
Geographical location and Hydrology
The Yellow River is the second-longest river in China at 3,395 miles long. The Yellow River drains the country’s third largest basin, an area of some 290,000 square miles. The river rises Tsinghai province on the Tibetan plateau and crosses six provinces before falling in to the embayment of the Yellow Sea (Anon, 2009).
In the lower reaches of the river, silt is washed clean from the banks amid the turbulent waters and often results in flooding for the local inhabitants. The yellow or (“Hwang”) reference to the river comes from the fine yellow-coloured loess sediment that is washed in to the sea (Anon, 2009).
The Yellow River originates at an altitude of around 15, 000 feet in the Pa-yen-k’a-la Mountains, on the eastern plateau of Tibet (Anon, 2009). In its upper reaches the river crosses two major lakes, namely the Cha-ling and O-ling lakes. These are vast shallow lakes and cover an area of 40 square miles and abundant in fish.
The lower basin of the Yellow River is a vast featureless plain, interrupted only by the low hills of the central Shantung province (Anon, 2009). The area was thought to have been formed 25 million years ago when the major rivers in China convened in this one spot to form the vast flood plain. As a result the area has huge deposits of silt, and is extremely fertile. Consequently the area is one of China’s principal agricultural regions (Anon, 2009). The Yellow River carries an average annual volume of about 13.4 cubic miles of water down to the sea, a rate of about 62,500 feet per second (Anon, 2009).
The Hwang Ho is also the world’s muddiest river, carrying about 57lbs of silt per cubic yard of water, compared with 2 pounds for the Nile River, and 22 pounds for the Colorado River (Anon, 2009). Overall the river carries to the sea, up to an astonishing 1.52 billion tons of silt per year. This is partly due to the loose loess sediment in the lower basin, steepness of the slopes, rapidity of the current and a lack of forested areas and reservoirs (Anon, 2009).
In recent times, the rapid economic development of China has led to increased pollution, and therefore a diminishing water quality of the Yellow River. Conversely as populations grow there has been a increase in the demand for drinking water, which the polluted Yellow River cannot provide, which has led to prolonged water shortages.
Folklore and history of the Yellow River
From ancient times, as far back as the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. 220 A. D.) people used inflated sheep skins tied together to form a raft to cross the mighty swirls of the river. Rafts of varying sizes were made, but the biggest was thought to be capable of carrying up to 30 tons of goods (Anon, 2009).
The Yellow River is also known by a rather more ominous title – ‘China’s Sorrow’ – and for good reason. The Yellow River has menaced the 50,000,000 people who live and work along its banks since time immemorial. Prone to rapid flooding and turbulent tidal waves, the Yellow River is a constant concern for local inhabitants all along its massive flood plain.
According to Todd (1942) the river flood plain has little high ground and sudden surges of water often leave farmers with nowhere to flee. Over the centuries the violent and mysterious nature of the water has led generation after generation to form a superstitious fear of the river. There are various tales and stories relating to the people who were carried off by serpents and dragons beneath the water, never to be seen again.
However, in 1942 the river became useful when it acted as China’s natural defensive barrier against the invading Japanese, which halted their blitzkrieg-like progress (Todd, 1942).
The Yellow River today
Today, popular tourist attractions along the Yellow River include the Three Gorges, including the Xiaolangdi scenic area, which houses an enormous dam. Here visitors can observe the hundred foot waves that come off the top from specially constructed viewing platforms.
Also, stopping off at Xian, on the major bend in the Yellow river, will allow visitors to visit the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. Another top attraction is the spectacular Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, composed of thousands of life-sized horses, soldiers and chariots.
Anonymous. (2001). The Yellow River. Encyclopaedia Britannica 2001 Edition.
Todd, O. J. (1942). Taming Flood Dragons along China’s Hwang Ho. National Geographic Magazine, Feb 1942, pgs 205-234. From the complete National Geographic DVD collection.