In 1363 the largest naval battle in China’s history took place in Lake Poyang between a Mongol general of the Yuan dynasty and the soon-to-be first emperor of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644).

Jiangxi Province’s Lake Poyang, aside from being China’s largest freshwater lake and a sanctuary for migratory birds and endangered species, is the metaphorically rich setting for legends retold throughout China’s long history. In the twenty-first century it retains its scenic splendor, but the lake and its wildlife inhabitants are threatened by environmental change.

China’s largest freshwater lake, a favorite destination for birding, is Lake Poyang, located in Jiangxi Province. With a surface area of about 3,585 square kilometers and an average depth of 8.4 meters, it provides habitat for a half-million migratory birds, most notably in winter the endangered white crane. The lake is fed by the Gan and Xiu Rivers, which connect to the Yangzi (Chang) River through a channel.

Attractions of Lake Poyang include Dagu Hill, an island in the lake that, when seen from a distance, looks like a large shoe floating in the blue water. Thus the hill is also known as “Shoe Hill.” Another well-known spot in the lake is Nanshan Hill, near Duchang County, famous because a Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) legend tells of a farmer living on the hill who turned down Emperor Wudi’s offer of the fame and rank associated with a government position. Named “Farmer Rock,” it is said to rise from water like a humble old man, and is the main attraction of Nanshan Hill.

In 1363, during the late Yuan dynasty (1279–1368), the largest naval battle in Chinese history took place as General Chen Youliang (1320–1363) fought Zhu Yuanzhang (1328–1398), the first emperor of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), in the Battle of Lake Poyang. As legend recounts, Chen’s wife often watched the skirmishes from what is now called Lake-View Pavilion, frustrated that neither side seemed to dominate. She suggested a strategy to her husband, which he initially rejected but eventually used to win the ultimate battle. On his way home General Chen decided to play a trick on her, knowing she would be awaiting his return, and he laid down his commander-in-chief banner as he approached the shore. Seeing the banner flung down, his wife thought that her husband had lost the battle—had been killed because he had failed to take her advice. Distraught, she jumped into the lake and died.

In modern times environmental issues affect the Lake of Poyang. Sand dredging, an important local source of revenue, has become a mainstay of regional economic development. High-density dredging projects have been the principal cause of death of the local wildlife population. In 2007 Chinese scientists warned that the Chinese finless porpoise, known locally as “river pig,” might follow the baiji, the Yangzi River dolphin, into extinction. Scientists warn that only about 1,400 porpoises survive, with between 700 and 900 in the Yangzi River and 500 in Lake Poyang and Dongting Lake. Since 2002 the Chinese government has enforced a fishing ban on a 333,000-hectare area of the lake from 20 March to 20 June—the breeding season.

Further Reading

Spring fishing ban on China’s largest freshwater lake. (2002, February 21). People’s Daily, p. 3.

Zhang Kejia. (2007, March 9). Poyang Lake: Saving the finless porpoise. China Youth Daily, p. 5.

Source: The Editors. (2009). Poyang, Lake. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1792–1793. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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