The Yangzi River has carved out deep gorges in China’s countryside over the centuries. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

The Yangzi (Chang) River is the third-longest river in the world at 6,276 kilometers and the longest river in Asia. It rises in the Kunlun mountain range on the border of Tibet and Qinghai Province and flows south until it empties into the East China Sea near Shanghai. The Yangzi derives its name from the ancient kingdom of Yang, which settled along its banks.

The Yangzi (Chang) River, known as the “Changjiang” (Long River) in Chinese, begins in the Kunlun Mountains and flows south through the high mountain valleys in Qinghai, Tibet, and Yunnan provinces before veering northeast at Shiigu. Thence the Yangzi flows through Sichuan Province before it enters the scenic Three Gorges region. Then it crosses central China through Hubei, Hunan, Jiangxi, Anhui, and Jiangsu provinces before emptying into the East China Sea at Chongming Island, 16 kilometers north of Shanghai. The Yangzi, stretching the length of the country, has been the unofficial boundary line between north and south China. In fact, no bridge was built over the eastern stretch of the river until 1969, when the Changjiang Daqiao Bridge was constructed at Nanjing.

The Yangzi has been prominent in the development of trade and culture throughout China’s history. As far back as the Neolithic period (8000–5500 BCE), settlements existed along the lower Yangzi. Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE) founder Qin Shi Huangdi constructed canals and waterways to facilitate trade from Yangzhou to Guangzhou, a distance of 1,931 kilometers. Since that time the Yangzi has been the main transportation route across central China as it flows through many of the nation’s industrial and economic centers. Since the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) the Yangzi River delta has become a center for cultivating and shipping rice.

Almost 2,900 kilometers of the Yangzi is navigable all year. In the early 1990s the Yangzi and its major tributaries drained an area of 1.8 million square kilometers—one-quarter of China’s cultivated land—in which 386 million people lived. Its network of rivers and canals carries 85 percent of China’s domestic waterborne traffic and passes through many of its major cities, including Kunmin, Chongqing, Wuhan, Chengdu, Shanghai, and Nanjing. The gross value of industrial products of the areas along the Yangzi is about 40 percent of China’s total.

Given its potential as an inexhaustible hydroelectric resource, the Chinese government began construction of the Three Gorges Dam in 1985 and completed it on 8 October 2008. Located in the Xilingxia gorge near Sandouping, Yichang, Hubei, the Three Gorges Dam is the largest hydroelectric power station in the world and is expected to help control the annual flooding of the Yangzi River valley. When fully operational the dam is expected to generate 22,500 megawatts of electricity that will provide 10 percent of electricity consumption in China.

The project is not without controversy. Construction of the Three Gorges Dam has displaced over 1.2 million people, uprooted numerous villages and towns the length of the reservoir as well as flooded over important archaeological and historical sites. In addition, the project has been plagued by corruption, spiraling costs, technological problems, human rights violations and resettlement difficulties.

Further Reading

Chetham, D. (2002). Before the deluge: the vanishing world of the upper Yangtze River. New York: Palgrave.

Huang, Phillip C. C. (1990). The peasant family and rural development in the Yangzi Delta, 1350-1988. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Jackson, S., & Sleigh, A. (2000). Resettlement for China’s Three Gorges Dam: Socio-economic impact and institutional tensions. Communist and Post-Communist Studies, 33(2), 223–241.

Qing, D. (1998) The river dragon has come! The Three Gorges Dam and the fate of China’s Yangtze River and its people, Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Van Slyke, L. P. (1988). Yangtze: Nature, history and the river. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Wang, H. (1989) Exploring the Yangtze: China’s longest river, San Francisco: CA: Ching Book and Periodicals Inc.

Source: Leitich, Keith. (2009). Yangzi (Chang) River. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2555–2556. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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