The Yangtze River in China

The Yangtze River of China is the longest river in Asia and the third-longest river of the world with a length of 3915 miles flowing from Tibet to the city of Shanghai.

The Yangtze River, also known as the “Chang Jiang“, is the longest river in Asia (6,380 km) with a flow of 30,000 cubic meters of water every second. The Yangtze River is also the third-longest in the world after the Amazon and the Nile. This river originates in the Tanggula Mountains of Qinghai, with an extreme landscape of glaciers and snowy terrain dotted with moraines and swept by strong winds. Besides, the landscape is devoid of vegetation.

Introduction

Significance of the Yangtze River

As a cradle of civilization, the Yangtze River has been instrumental in the development of the cultural and historical landscape of China. It has served as a critical axis for transportation, irrigation, and sanitation for thousands of years. Economically, the river facilitates a network of trade and commerce that is vital to the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people. The fertile lands along its banks, enriched by the river’s alluvial deposits, are among the most agriculturally productive in China, supporting crops such as rice and wheat which are staples of the Chinese diet.

Yangtze River in China
Yangtze River in China

The river also plays a key role in China’s energy production. The construction of the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest power station by installed capacity, is a testament to the river’s impact on the country’s energy infrastructure. This colossal hydroelectric dam harnesses the power of the Yangtze, contributing to China’s renewable energy targets and helping to manage flooding, which has historically been a devastating problem along the river’s course.

As it flows from the snowy peaks of the Tibetan Plateau to the bustling metropolis of Shanghai, the Yangtze River passes through diverse landscapes, including dramatic gorges, dense forests, and expansive plains. It connects rural communities to urban centers and traditional ways of life to modern economies. The river is not just a physical feature on a map but a living, breathing entity that has shaped and continues to shape the economy, culture, and environment of China.

Brief History

Historical Importance of the Yangtze River

The Yangtze’s role in ancient Chinese civilizations

The basin of the Yangtze River has been a pivotal area for the development of Chinese culture, economy, and politics. Ancient Chinese civilizations benefited immensely from the fertile lands along the Yangtze, which facilitated the growth of agriculture, particularly the cultivation of rice. The river provided not only a source of irrigation but also a means of transportation and communication, which were crucial for trade and the exchange of ideas between different regions.

The river’s vast network of tributaries and the diversity of its ecological systems supported a rich variety of crops and contributed to the development of early settlements and complex societies. Notably, the Yangtze River Delta has been one of the most densely populated and economically dynamic areas in China since ancient times. The river also served as a natural barrier against invasions and played a critical role in military strategies.

Yangtze River View
Yangtze River View

Historical events that took place along the riverbanks

The Yangtze River has been a silent witness to many significant historical events. One of the most prominent was the Battle of Red Cliffs in 208 AD, a crucial engagement during the end of the Han Dynasty that led to the establishment of the Three Kingdoms. This battle fought at the riverbanks, underscored the strategic importance of the Yangtze as a military defense line and a means of transport for troops and supplies.

Throughout the centuries, the Yangtze has seen the rise and fall of dynasties, serving as a stage for rebellion and reform. The Taiping Rebellion in the mid-19th century, one of the largest civil wars in history, saw intense fighting along the river, causing significant changes in the region’s social and political landscapes. The river was also the site of the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842, which marked the end of the First Opium War and led to the opening of several ports for international trade, altering China’s foreign relations and economic trajectory.

In more recent history, the Yangtze played a role in the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Chinese Civil War, with key battles and movements of troops occurring along its vast expanse. The river’s strategic importance has consistently shaped the outcomes of China’s internal and external conflicts, proving that the Yangtze is not just a physical feature but a living artery of the nation’s historical narrative.

Yangtze Map

Route & Tributaries

The Yangtze River flows through the provinces of Qinghai, Yunnan, Sichuan, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangxi, Anhui, and Jiangsu. Besides, it crosses the huge settlements of Chongqing, Wuhan, Nanjing, and Shanghai.

The Yangtze River in China 1
Photo by Papayoung via Wikimedia Commons

Between Tibet and Sichuan

Firstly, the Yangtze River was called “The Tuotuo River” and from the first tributaries below 5,000 m, it is called “The Jinsha River” or “Golden Sands”, which flows southward bounding a natural boundary between Tibet and the Chinese province of Sichuan. Its course is parallel to those of the Mekong and Salouen rivers and Qumar He at 4,544 m is the first town it crosses. Besides, it is in this region that the river traverses the Tiger Leaping Gorge (a 2,000 m deep canyon).

Dongchuan City

At the level of Dongchuan City, it flows sharply northward and meanders through the Hengduan Shan Mountains in Yunnan. Then, it starts an inflection to the east where it is joined by major tributaries (Yalong, Min, and Jialing). The inflection makes a gigantic muddy stream swirling the wastes and makes them away from the 120 million people and farmers in the Sichuan basin.

Chongqing City

Before being joined by the Jialing, it crosses the immense agglomeration of Chongqing (one of the big inner cities of China with 30 million inhabitants). Chongqing also holds the record of acid rain for all East Asia and sulfurous clouds constantly overlook the sheltered valleys of this great industrial center.

The Three Georges

After being joined by the Jialing, the river crosses the gorges of the large medians of the river, called The Three Gorges consisting of three successive series of gorges.

The Three Gorges offer remarkable scenery that attracts many tourists allowing the development of a successful tourism industry with many boats sailing between Chongqing and Yichang. These gorges offer a mysterious atmosphere when mist and clouds of water droplets fill them and are enveloped by cliffs and rocky peaks. At the time of the floods in summer, the water level rises by more than 100 meters, so the navigation becomes very dangerous.

Poyang and Dongting Lakes

After the Three Gorges, the river continues its course toward the coast, wider and calmer here, and crosses several large lakes including those of Poyang and Dongting. Here you can find sturgeons, spoonbills, and alligators of China.

Final Route

Approaching the coast of the East China Sea, the river meanders through its “nine gut-shaped winding” before spreading over a vast delta, occupied by farmlands, lakes, ponds, countless islets, and thousands of hectares of reed beds.

China's Yangtze River
China’s Yangtze River

During this journey, the river receives the water of more than 700 tributaries, draining a watershed of 1.8 million square km. Each year, it pours nearly a trillion cubic meters of water into the China Sea, carrying thousands of tons of silt off the coast. The Yangtze-Kiang supplies the water for 40% of China’s lands and 70% of rice production. In 2015, many developments disrupted its flow and its ecosystem.

The most important tributary of the river is the Han River, which is 1,532 km and joins Wuhan on the left bank. Other tributaries are:

  • Gan River (758 km)
  • Jialing River (1,119 km)
  • Min River (735 km)
  • Dadu River (1,155 km)
  • Chishui River (523 km)
  • The Huai He (1,078 km)
  • The Wu Jiang (1,150 km)
  • Yalong (1,323 km)
  • The Xiang River (856 km), which joins the Dongting Lake
  • The Yuan Jiang (864 km), which joins the Dongting Lake
  • You Shui (477 km)
  • The Huangpu (97 km)
  • The Suzhou 1,257 km

Yangtze Names

Different names of the Yangtze River

Yangzi Jiang

In Chinese, the name Yangzi Jiang refers only to the downstream part of the river between Nanjing and the mouth. This name comes from the small town of Yangzi near Yangzhou. The Europeans retained this name and wrongly applied it to the whole river.

Shui

The river was once called Jiang Shui or simply “Jiang”. The word Shui in classical Chinese means the river in general, and Jiang was the proper name of the Yangtze River. The meaning of the word Jiang has expanded since then and now, it means “river” in general.

Chang Jiang

Nowadays, the whole river is called “Chang Jiang” in the Chinese language, which means “Long River”. However, traditionally, every part of the river has its name (especially in literature):

  • Tuotuo: from the glaciers of Mount Geladaindong to the confluence of Dangqu (in) in Qinghai
  • Tongtian He: From Qinghai to Yushu
  • Jinsha Jiangsu Sichuan: Located in upstream of Yibin, the tributary of the Min River was traditionally considered as the upstream part of the river until the Ming Dynasty.
  • Chuan Jiang: Between Yibin and Yichang
  • Jing Jiang: Between Yichang and Yueyang
  • Xunyang Jiangsu Jiangxi: Near Jiujiang
  • Wan Jiang: In Anhui Province
  • Yangzi Jiang: Downstream of Yangzhou or more widely between Nanjing and the mouth, this name also designates the whole river among Europeans.

Agriculture Benefits

The Yangtze River As a Critical Agricultural Economic Zone

The Yangtze River basin is very large and the resources are abundant. Because of its antiquity, it has been the most important agricultural economic zone of China. Cereal yield accounts for 40% of China’s total output, while cotton production accounts for 1/3 of China’s total output. The Sichuan Basin is nicknamed “The Land of Plenty” and the areas of two lakes (Dongting Lake and Poyang Lake) are considered “the land where abounds fish and rice”. Besides, the Tai Lake area resembles “a paradise on earth”.

Natural Fish

The Yangtze River is also a warehouse of natural fish. The resources of freshwater fish are very rich with many species. Production accounts for 2/3 of China’s total production. The underground treasures are varied and of high quality.

Connection and Communication

On the axis of the Yangtze River, there is an “H” shaped structure composed of the surrounding areas, the coastal towns, and the vast regions of the West. The Yangtze River, especially between the rich coastal regions and the less developed Western regions, plays an important role of connection and communication.

The Link Between Trade Centers of China

Upon the influence of this long-term structure, the resources of the West, upstream of the Yangtze River, can enter the international markets by water. Trade centers like Shanghai, Nanjing, Wuhan, and Chongqing are linked together by the river.

Industry Transportation

The Yangtze River is also an important gateway for transporting industries, techniques, and information to western China.

Industries Along the Yangtze River

The industries along the Yangtze River are very strong. Currently, it is one of the most dynamic high-tech areas in China. The economic and technical benefits can have a big influence on the north and the south, while the economy can have good integration.

Aquatic Animals

Among the aquatic fauna, baiji or the Yangtze Dolphin used to live here; however, it officially disappeared at the end of the last quarter of 2007. Many species of the river are all likely to disappear if no measure is taken to preserve faunal wealth. Although the range of the Yangtze has been considerably reduced, in some areas of the river delta, some Chinese alligators could be found.

Transportation

The Yangtze River Transport

Given that China’s economy is growing very fast, the channels of the Yangtze River accept regularization and improvements constantly. In the 21st century, the transport of the Yangtze River is developing very fast. In 2007, the cargo load amounted to 1,123 billion tons, twice the size of Mississippi in America and 3 times that of the Rhine in Europe. Upon completion of the Three Gorges Dam, large-tonnage vessels (5000T and 10000T) may arrive at Chongqing, but only small boats may arrive at Yibin in Sichuan Province.

Great Nanjing Bridge over the Yangtze

The Great Nanjing Bridge on the Yangtze River is a two-tiered truss bridge over the Yangtze River between Pukou and Xiaguan in Nanjing City, Nanjing, China. Completed in 1968, it allows the crossing of the Yangtze River to the National Highway 104 to the upper level and the Beijing-Shanghai railway line to the lower level.

Historical Events

Floods of the Yangtze River (1931)

When the torrential rains hit southern China in August 1931, the excessive accumulation of water caused the overflow of the Yangtze River, killing nearly 3.7 million people. This unprecedented tragedy, known as the Great Flood of the Yangtze River, is considered the worst natural disaster of the 20th century (except for pandemics and deaths caused by diseases).

From 1928 to 1930, this region of China was overwhelmed by a great drought. Ironically, in the spring of 1931, the trend changed dramatically. Very heavy spring rains fell on the region, accelerating the snowmelt and exponentially increasing the water level of the rivers.

To outbid this rare phenomenon, the region was then swept by seven consecutive tropical cyclones, while there are generally two or three per year. These tropical storms were expected to further increase water runoff, while the water-saturated lands could no longer prevent a rapid increase in the Yangtze River in Huang He, as well as the Huai He River.

This sudden increase in the water level of the river caused an unprecedented flood, which ravaged a vast territory. The flood lasted two months because of the slow flow of the river and the enormous amount held by the dikes. In the Tung-Tin Lake area, the soil was flooded 100-150 km wide. The Bund in Shanghai is also flooded under 1.7 meters of water.

Interestingly, the largest hydropower station in the world called Three Gorges Dam is located in the river near the famous Three Georges. Here, over 100 billion kWh of electricity is produced in a year, which is sufficient for the needs of about 200 million people! Do you have more information to add? Feel free to leave your comments and thoughts for us. Besides, if you need more information, you can send your request using the comment section and our professional guides will reply as soon as possible.

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