The Huang (Yellow) River, a view from Pudong. Named for the yellow silt in its waters, the lower reaches of the river are considered the cradle of Chinese civilization, with archaeological sites dating back 7,000 years. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

The Huang (Yellow) River, known as “China’s sorrow” for its disastrous flooding throughout history, is China’s second longest, after the Yangzi (Chang) River. Named for the yellow silt in its waters, the lower reaches of the river are considered the cradle of Chinese civilization, with archaeological sites dating back 7,000 years. The Huang is an important source of hydroelectric power and water for irrigation.

The Huang (Yellow) River (or Huang Ho in Chinese) is the second-largest river in China, after the Yangzi (Chang) River, flowing approximately 5,464km (3,395 miles) from its origins in western China’s Bayan Harshan Mountains on the Qinghai–Tibet Plateau until it empties into the Bohai Gulf, an arm of the Yellow Sea. The Huang River derives its name from the ochre-yellow color of the silt in the water. Each year tons of silt are deposited on the riverbed. This has caused flooding throughout history that give rise to its designation as “China’s sorrow.”

The Huang River flows east and then northeast through Qinghai and Gansu provinces and Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region (AR); then through Inner Mongolia AR before turning south, forming the border of Shaanxi and Shanxi provinces. From there, the Huang turns east through Henan and Shandong provinces before emptying into the Bohai Gulf.

The lower basin of the Huang River is considered the birthplace of Chinese civilization because archaeologists have discovered sites there dating as far back as 5000 BCE; the emergence of the Yangshao culture (5000–3000 BCE) and the Longshan culture (3000–2200 BCE) on the North China Plain along the Huang River has also been chronicled.

On numerous occasions throughout China’s long history, the Huang River has overflowed its banks, causing extensive damage to nearby farmland and surrounding communities. Dikes have been constructed to prevent the flooding but are rebuilt continually. The river has also changed course many times, causing untold destruction. Because the river runs through very flat land, the water follows the natural law of least resistance and changes course frequently. During the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368), the Huang changed its course from northern to southern Shandong Province, flooding 7,769 square kilometers (3,000 square miles) of farmland. Between 1853 and 1855, the river again began flowing through northern Shandong Province, destroying large areas of farmland. And in 1938 General Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975) ordered his troops to destroy the dikes along the river in Henan Province to flood a valley to stop the advance of Japanese troops. Although the advance was stopped and many of the enemy killed more than 1 million Chinese civilians drowned.

In 1955 the government began a fifty-year construction program designed to control flooding and to harness the river for hydroelectric power and irrigation. One of the most important components of the plan is the San-Men Gorge Dam in western Henan Province. Begun in 1955 and completed in 1974, the dam helps to control flooding and to store water for a hydroelectric station. Another important dam is the Liu-Chia Gorge Dam, along the middle basin of the river. At this site the river is harnessed to produce hydroelectric power. The Liu-Chia hydroelectric power station was the largest and most productive in China until the Three Gorges Dam (on the Yangzi River) becomes operational in 2009. Although the Huang still overflows its bank almost every spring, flooding is under control and there have been no major floods on the river since the mid-1970s.

Further Reading

Cao Jinqing. (2005). China along the Yellow River: Reflections on rural society [N. Harman & Huang Ruhua, Trans.]. London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon.

Pavan, A. (2007). The Yellow River: The spirit and strength of China [C. Costa, Trans.]. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Penn, J. R. (2001). Rivers of the world: A social, geographical, and environmental sourcebook. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Sutter, G. (1995). The Yellow River [Honors class essay, Penn State University, 1995]. Available at

Man struggles upwards; water flows downwards.

水往低处流, 人往高处走

Shuǐ wǎng dīchù liú, rén wǎng gāochù zǒu

Source: Leitich, Keith A.. (2009). Huang (Yellow) River. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1086–1088. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Huang (Yellow) River (Huáng Hé 黄河)|Huáng Hé 黄河 (Huang (Yellow) River)

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