The Huang He (Yellow River) is both ‘the Cradle of Chinese Civilization’ and ‘China’s Sorrow’. Only slightly shorter than the Yangtze, at 5,464 km (3,398 mi), it loops northwards from the Bayan Har mountains, then sweeps east, each year bringing 1.6 billion tons of fine-grained silt from the Loess plateau to the huge flat basin of the north China plains. That silt makes farming a joy – but at any time it can also be lethal. Silt replenishes the land. The Yellow River gets its name from its rich, fine-ground, golden mud. Unfortunately for the farmers, the only way the river can spread its bounty is by flooding the fertile fields; and the Huang He has flooded a recorded 1,593 times in four millennia, with catastrophic effects.
The worst of all was in 1887. The centuries of building and repairing the levees had pushed the river’s main course higher and higher. It was banked up as much as 23 m (70 ft) higher than the surrounding land. After a long summer of non-stop heavy rain, millions of farmers squelched through their sodden fields, waiting for the inevitable. It came as a tidal roar. As the Huang He spilled over its banks, it tore down its levees, sweeping aside over 300 villages, 11 major cities, and millions of people. Already soaked, the land could absorb nothing. The floodwater created an instant lake the size of Lake Ontario, then seeped relentlessly forward over more than 50,000 square miles destroying everything in its path. A fierce wind completed the devastation. For several days it was impossible to effect rescue or repair 1 and by then diseases like typhus and dysentery had taken hold on survivors. Famine was inevitable.
It was the deadliest flood in history. ‘China’s Sorrow’ had fulfilled its reputation.
When was the Yellow River Flood: September 28 1887
Where was the Yellow River Flood: Huayenkou, near Zhengzhou, Henan Province, China
What was the Yellow River Flood death toll: 900,000 died in the first onrush and another estimated 1.3 million drowned. A further estimated three to four million died from flood-related, waterborne diseases, with a carpet of muddy silt 2.5 m (8 ft) deep, the most fertile fields in China were a desert which had to be cleared by bare hands and wheelbarrows. Yet with truly Confucian resilience, millions of Chinese farmers regained their land within two years. Their resignation seems to be hereditary – like their ancestors, they lived with the inevitable.
You should know:
On occasion, the Chinese have sought to harness the Huang He as a natural defense. In 1938, Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Kuomintang and the National Government, ordered the river levees to be blown up in order to halt the invading Japanese. The flood stopped the rapidly advancing troops in their tracks, but a military stalemate ensued. Disastrously, Chiang’s order to flood the plain inadvertently killed more than 0.5 million Chinese farmers.