High rain fall caused the Yellow River to overtop its banks leading to a widespread flood and the deaths of 900,000.
Throughout China’s history, on both of its major rivers, flooding has always been a common experience. This has been especially true on the Yellow River, locally known as the Huanghe, because of the large volume of loess silt that it carries. This kind of light silt can easily be dislodged from the side of the river and carried along by the stream. At the lower reaches of the river, where the land is relatively flat the speed of the river decreases, much of the silt is deposited. The dykes on both sides of the river were originally built to prevent river overflows that would destroy the farmlands, the only source of livelihood for the peasants who own and work the farms. From time to time, however, sudden heavy rainfall can make the river overtop these dykes and flood the neighboring farms. That is what happened in 1887 when the worst flood in Chinese history occurred. The Yellow River overtopped its dikes in Henan Province in the lower reaches of the river. Five thousand square miles were inundated. Eleven large towns and hundreds of villages were destroyed. Nine hundred thousand people died, and two million were left homeless. “River of Sorrow” is another name that has been given to the Hwanghe and it is easy to understand why.
The process by which a catastrophic flood occurs is tied to both the amount of silt and the height of the dykes. Throughout most of its history, the Huanghe was not dredged so there was always a slow buildup in the level of the river compared with the surrounding land. Earthen dykes supported by stones were built on the sides of the river and periodically raised to higher levels as the river rose so that river water was always below overtop level. Thus, in the thousands of years over which farming was carried on beside the river, the overall picture was of a river flowing along at a high level above the adjacent land. When the river overtopped its banks the damage caused was enormous because of the advantage of height. The kinetic energy in the water leaving the river enabled it to wash away large segments of the dykes. The overflow of water then continued until it reached the lowest point in the broken dykes. It took some time for the water to drop to this level and then the hard manual work of rebuilding the dykes had to be undertaken.
As a precaution against flooding, people had to watch the weather and the level of water in the river. As soon as the water level became too high, an army of people was supposed to rush to the scene and raise the level of the dykes. It was not always possible to identify the right moment to do this or to get people in place in time to do this corrective work. In the year 1887, heavy rains poured right through the latter part of summer and into September. On the twenty-eighth of that month, a major collapse of dykes took place unexpectedly and water began to spill all over the land on both sides. The province of Henan where this happened has an average elevation above sea level of six hundred feet or less, very different from the mountainous regions from which the Yellow River had come. Henan is close to the sea and close to the mouth of the Yellow River. It is often referred to as the North China Plain. Immediately after the break in the dykes the alarm was sounded and a large number of people rushed quickly to the river in the hope of repairing the breaches. Before they could reach the river, the breaks had expanded to more than 2,000 feet in length. There was little that could be done. Many of the people tried to run or walk upstream in order to reach a level above that of the flooded area, but they were caught in the fast-moving huge volume of water and drowned.
The breaches in the dykes took place near the city of Zhengzhou and, within an hour, a lake as big as Lake Ontario had formed on the adjacent plain. People from the city attempted to reach as many victims as they could by rowing around in small boats. Some of the peasants were able to reach terraces that were slightly higher than the water level and there they waited for someone to reach them. Others desperately tried to stay alive by clinging to straw barrows. The overall temperature is quite low by the end of September and on the day of the tragedy there was a strong wind that made everyone feel colder than it was. It was slow work for the small boats as they tried to go from terrace to terrace and take people to safety. Often there would be as many as a hundred families on one terrace. Some homes were still erect though under water and survivors stood on these as long as they could before either hunger or cold took over and they lost their lives. Here and there an old tall tree was standing and people of all ages were seen clinging to branches in the hope that help would arrive. One family, knowing that it had no chance of surviving, placed a baby on top of a chest along with some food and a piece of paper with its name, and this chest stayed afloat long enough for the child to be rescued.
There was very little organization or resources for the rescue work. Foreign missionary societies shared their meager food supplies with survivors but their food supplies did little for the starving thousands. One report described the situation as thousands of people all around, stunned and hungry, crying out for food. Efforts by individuals and government agencies continued unabated all through the winter months. It took a lot of time because there was so little organization in China at that time for dealing with emergencies. When the water finally stopped residents saw a plain on which there lay a heap of loess mud about eight feet deep. As it dried out, the whole region looked like the Sahara Desert rather than the green fertile plain that was there a few days before. People unfamiliar with life around the Yellow River often wonder why peasants insist on living and working in such dangerous areas. The same people also wonder why peasants live and work very close to volcanoes. The answer in both instances is the same: it is near volcanoes that the best soils for farming are found.
The cleanup of the farm fields and the rebuilding of the dykes had to be undertaken immediately despite the approaching cold weather of winter. Farm work in this part of China is a year round activity. Furthermore, the danger of a new flood would increase once the warmer weather of the following year came around. Every person was familiar with the routine for dyke repair. Thousands of tons of earth had to be moved in wheelbarrows and, in the process of both removing the mud from their farms and rebuilding the dykes, almost all of it had to be passed from place to place by hand buckets. The stones needed for the work had to be carried in ox carts from places as far away as a hundred miles.
Thousands of feet of damaged dyke were subject to constant crumbling and when wet the silt facing was slippery. From the top of the dyke the river may be forty feet below, so it is easy to imagine the amount of work that had to be done to build up the dyke to prevent any further breaches. It was a common experience for workers to see their fellow laborers lose their footing and fall to their death in the river. It was not until the early part of 1889 that the dykes were finally closed. By that time the spread of disease had added its troubles to all that had been experienced from the flood and the famine.
In ancient times, dykes would often be deliberately broken in order to flood the fields of an attacking enemy but no one was prepared for the use of that same technique in the twentieth century. In the 1930s, years before World War II began, China was invaded by Japanese soldiers in flagrant violation of international agreements and by 1938 had captured and destroyed large areas of the country. In June of that year, a large part of the Japanese army was about to march westward across the North China Plain, a few miles south of the Yellow River, in order to capture a major railway juncture. The Chinese government of that time decided that its only hope of survival was to use the age-old method of breaking the dykes. This they did and it certainly stopped the Japanese advance, but there were terrible unexpected consequences from its action. The Yellow River flooded an area of about nine thousand square miles and drowned half a million Chinese peasants. Millions of others were left homeless. The plain remained flooded until the end of World War II and the surrender of Japan, seven years later. In 1947, with help from the United Nations, China returned the Yellow River to its former channel and two million acres of farmland was once again in productive use.