The Yellow River: China’s Blessing and Curse

The Chinese call the Yellow River the “Mother River” and “the Cradle of Chinese Civilization” because it is thought that the original Chinese people first came from the Yellow River basin. This muddy waterway takes its name from its yellowish appearance, due mostly to an excess of silt. It is also the 2nd longest river in China and, like its big elder brother, the Yangtze, originates in the mountains of Qinghai Province.

The massive Yellow River, called huang he, literally “yellow river”, stretches for over 5,000 km from the Bayan Har mountains of western China to its mouth at Kenli in the east. The Yellow River is mentioned in some early Chinese texts, and was first called “Yellow River” in the Book of Han, from the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – 9 A.D.)

The Yellow River has long been thought of as both a blessing and a curse in Chinese culture. Since it was the birthplace of the Chinese people, the Yellow River is beloved by the country. On the other hand, the flat plains that the Yellow River flows through make it prone to flooding, which is why some have given it the untoward title, “China’s Sorrow”.

Breathtaking scenery dots the periphery of the Yellow River as it creeps across nine provinces before emptying into the Yellow Sea in Shandong Province. Much of the landscape along the river is stark, dry desert, making the wide, muddy Yellow River that much more austere.

The Yellow River is so named because the water does appear to be ochre-colored. This is because large amounts of loess silt tend to hang in the water, making it look murky and dirty. There is a saying in Chinese, “when the Yellow River runs clear,” which is akin to the English phrase “when pigs fly”. This saying, which is meant to indicate the slim chances of something happening, also implies the river’s notorious sullied coloring.

From the Yellow River flow dozens of tributaries, and a handful of hydroelectric dams also make use of its powerful waters. Hundreds of thousands of people make use of the river for electricity, nourishment, water and transport.


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