Carved by Water - A Study of Chinese Hydrology and How It Shaped Chinese Culture and History


In modern historical discourse, humans have tendency to observe our development only within the narrow, subjective context of our own existence; we think not of our interactions with and reactions to our environment, but our interactions with and our reactions to each other. All the recorded rises and falls of our societies and cultures happen within the last mere 6,000 years. Even our existence as anatomically modern humans is limited to the last 200,000. But like every other organism eking out its existence on our hurtling pile of molten rock, the reason we have survived as a species is because we have adapted to best utilize the very elements that initially allowed our existence.

As products of these 200 millennia, a modern human might find it easy to see the logic of being preoccupied more by entities that one can engage in war and trade, but on a much more basic and pragmatic level humans have also concerned themselves with the seasons, the lives of crops, and the migration of clouds. In our post-modern world, humans have attained a level of technology where it seems as if the tables have turned- we are no longer ruled by natural phenomena, but rather we rule them. Mega dams, cloud seeding, and forest fire intervention are only a small sample of examples. Our knowledge of the phenomena that ordered the life and cycle of our species -the course of rivers, the phases of the moon, the migration patterns of animals, weather patterns– has transformed from common knowledge to the expertise of hobbyists or professionals. These phenomena, however, still influence our cultures and societies, both in the same ways they have for thousands of years, and in new ways born of our reciprocal influence on them, now on a scale we have never accomplished before.

Tracing back the trail of penultimate causes of human culture could lead us all the way back to the size and mild yellow nature of Sol, and to the cosmological factors that prevented Jupiter from transforming into a second sun, making ours a binary system. We could go even farther back to speculate on theories of the creation of our universe, but instead I prefer to focus on a development cosmologically far more recent, and planetarily ancient: water.

78% of Earth's surface is shadowed by water. The three molecule chemical makes up 98% of our bodies. The average human can survive no more than five days without it without ceasing brain and organ function. Water saturates our world above and below us, and it is equally fundamental to our relationship with food. It is impossible to overestimate the influence this simple compound has had on human existence and culture.

Different cultures have reacted differently to water. Some have venerated it, carving images to give face to the waters that they might worship. Hydraulic civilizations have fought wars to control water, and the Palestine-Israeli conflict still hinges on water rights. Others polluted their waters with their own waste, dead, and trash, until they had to ferment grains with their water just to make it potable.

The country now known as China has a long and complex relationship with water. While the many cultures that exist within its socio-political boundaries are by no means homogenous, as an independent center of agriculture,1), and because the historically dominant cultures were literate societies, China has a detailed record of its relationship with water. I would like to provide a general but holistic overview of how Chinese hydrology has shaped Chinese culture.

Between Two Rivers - The Yellow and the Yangtze

China is home to two of the planet's largest freshwater bodies, the Yellow River and the Yangtze. The third largest river in the world, the Yangtze is barely longer that the Yellow, but it carries 20 times more water.2) It is the Yellow River, though, that is known as the Mother of Chinese Civilization, The Pride of China, and China's Sorrow.

'Yellow River' is a literal translation of the Chinese name of the river, Huang He. 'Yangtze' on the other hand has no resemblance to the Chinese, and is probably a phonetic bastardization of a local or archaic name heard by missionaries. To the Chinese, the Yangtze is simply the “Long River,” or Chang Jiang. Since my purpose is to explore China's cultural and societal relationship with water, I have chosen to refer to the rivers by their Chinese names instead of their Western equivalents. Also, since both he and jiang mean “river,” I will omit the English term in the interests of avoiding a linguistic tautology.

In order to understand Huang He and Chang Jiang, though, we must first understand other basic elements of Chinese cultural geography. The most densely populated and agriculturally productive area of the Chinese landscape is eastern China, known as Inner China. Almost 95% of the Chinese population lives here. This area is then divided into roughly two regions, northern China and southern China, both culturally and geographically. The North China Plain is predominantly flat, while southern China is full of hills and valleys, and home to considerably more rivers. North China is also a much drier region, with desert-qualifying average rainfalls, while south China has abundant rain.

This has led to a huge difference in staple crops. The archetypal food of China, and the “neutral food” of traditional Chinese medicine is rice, but rice is an incredibly water-intensive grain. Because of the lower water resources of the north, northern Chinese agriculture uses a less water-intensive cereal, wheat. This difference in staple cereals in turn leads to a marked regional difference in staple foods. Southern Chinese eat more rice and rice-based products, while northern Chinese eat more wheat-based products like noodles, steamed bread, and stuffed buns.3)


All these factors both correlate to the two rivers that rule the two regions: Huang He has defined the history of northern China, while Chang Jiang has shaped southern China.

Huang He

Huang He is called the “yellow river” because the water is often literally yellow with silt, 90 percent of which originates from the Loess Plateau, an expanse of the sandy mineral loess spreading for hundreds of square kilometers that has been steadily eroding for 8,000 years. As a result, Huang He carries 90 pounds of silt for every ton of water, 70 times the amount of the Mississippi, and still twice the amount of silt carried by the Colorado, the second siltiest river in the world.4)

The silt made the Huang He basin incredibly fertile, which helped China become one of the few areas on the planet where agriculture arose independently. Agriculture is not the backbone of all human social systems, but with few exceptions it is the basis of so-called human “civilization,” ie complex social structures, commerce, craftsmen, high politics, cities, and complex disease. Agriculture in fertile areas leads to food surpluses, which leads to specialized craftsmen who do not have to grow food to support themselves, and usually, to class stratification.5) The portrait of classical China has always been of the empire, the Middle Kingdom, the font of so many discoveries borrowed by other cultures (including the Western world). In short, ancient Chinese civilizations were some of the most advanced and expansive our species has ever known, both for their time and for ours.

It is the Loess Plateau itself that is the “cradle of Chinese civilization,” It was on the plateau that the Han Chinese Civilization, the dominant ethnic group in modern times, rose to power and first unified the country in 220 BC.6) Even the legendary ancestor of all Han Chinese is known as the Yellow Emperor, or huangdi. Though it is called the “Pride of China,” Huang He is a fickle river. The river has changed course over 28 times in recorded history, roughly once a century. This was such an upheaval to the Chinese that when the river shifted course, the emperor was thought to have lost his divine sanctions. There have even been theories that the bubonic plague may have been carried to Europe when rats fled Huang He carving a new path.7) Recently, though, Huang He has begun to desiccate- to dry up, and not meet the sea. North China has always been drier than south China, but now it is rapidly becoming desertified.

Chiang Jiang

South China has always had a wetter, balmier climate than the north, with a much greater average rainfall, which is partly why the Chang Jiang carries almost 20 times more water.

Known as the “golden waterway” to the inhabitants that have plied it for 2,000 years, Chang Jiang's basin is now home to 3 million people and supports an 11 month growing season.8) Historically the river has served as the geographical boundary between north and south China. The lower Chang Jiang basin is also one of the areas where agriculture arose independently, but as we've saw earlier, the wetter climate allowed for wetter crops, like rice.

This regional geographic disparity has led to the Chinese saying “nán chuán bei ma,” or “south boat, north horse.” In the flat, geographically unified south, a horse was the most efficient means of travel, while in the south horses were far less useful because one had to cross all the rivers by ferry. Being inhospitable to riders made this region impregnable to Mongol invaders for 68 years, when the north had already been taken.9)

Chang Jiang was also once home to the endemic Chinese River Dolphin, or baiji. Once known as the “Goddess of the Chang Jiang,” the baiji is now considered functionally extinct due to pollution and human encroachment into its habitat in the form of river traffic. Chang Jiang is one of the most highly trafficked rivers in the world, used as a causeway into China's interior, thus bypassing the difficulties of land transport through south China's many mountains and valleys. The river is not without different perils, though. The river has always been known to be treacherous to ships because of its hidden shoals.


Both these rivers have proved blessings to China, but they are often difficult allies. Throughout China's entire history, its relationship with its rivers has shown a marked correlation: as technology increases, so do the Chinese people's efforts to conquer the river.

Of Blessings and Sorrows - Flooding in China

The factor that made ancient Chinese civilizations different from some complex civilizations, and more similar to others, was water. Water is always crucial, for hunter-gatherers and for empires, but some civilizations molded their power around it, while others did not. China falls into the former category. China is an example of what is known as a hydraulic civilization, or a civilization whose government has evolved around the paramount need to manage water resources.10)

In order to understand China as a hydraulic civilization, more specifically a series of hydraulic civilizations, we must examine how riverine flooding has shaped the fates and fortunes of the Chinese people. Through the Western lens, flooding is always seen as an event of terrible devastation, but in Asia flooding is as integral to life as the sun. For China, floods have been both. Both Chang Jiang and Huang He are infamous across centuries for their massive floods. Much like the flooding of the Nile, these floods have been the root of flood plain agriculture.

Just to demonstrate the scope of these floods, I would like to recount a few recent examples. In 1954 Chang Jiang cost 30,000 people their lives when it inundated 2.8 million hectares. Twenty-three years previously, the river swamped an area the size of the state of New York, creating 14 million refugees. Another 14 million were expelled from their homes in 1998 by a river swollen with heavy rains.11) Those floods happened in the last century alone.

We often think of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the most shattering acts of war in human history, and by their very nature they were. But in 1938, in a single flood Huang He killed more people than at the World War II bombings of Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Tokyo, Berlin, and Dresden combined. The flood was also an act of war, this time by the Chinese against the invading Japanese. In a desperate effort to stall the Japanese forces, Jiang Jieshi's (“Chang Kai-Shek” in Wade-Giles romanization) generals ordered a 400 year old dike demolished. It did halt the Japanese, for about a month, and killed 890,000 people. Huang He changed its course again and met the sea over 700 kilometers farther south, almost by the mouth of the Chang Jiang.12) This is only one example of a millennia of catastrophic floods, for which Huang He is also named “China's Sorrow.”

These floods are the reason why the autocracies of China have devoted themselves to hydraulics; they must not only use the water to feed an empire, they must control the rivers' wrath. Silt is beneficial for flood plain agriculture, but it is the bane of irrigation agriculture, which China quickly adopted as its people developed intensive agriculture practices. The earliest irrigation canals in China were built on Huang He, but had to be abandoned because of sedimentation when silt built up along the canal beds. In an effort to contain the Huang He during floods, the ancient Chinese built inner and outer dikes along the river, but they have suffered the same fate as the canals. So the engineers built the dikes higher, and still higher. Huang He is now known as the “hanging river” because the dikes rise an average of 3 to 6 meters above the plain, up to 13 meters higher in some places.13)

The southern Chinese managed Chang Jiang far less stringently until recent decades, when they began intensive building of high dams. As of 2007 the largest dam in human history is being built in the middle reaches of the river in an effort curb the floods, generate electricity, and provide water for irrigation agriculture. This kind of hydraulic management has a much more profound effect on the hydrology of a river than anything the ancient Chinese could achieve, for all their early engineering marvels (see later section “The New Great Wall and Rivers of Steel - Three Gorges Dam and the South-North Water Transfer Project).

Languages of Rivers and Plains - Chinese Rivers' Effect on the Evolution of Chinese Languages

Language is culture in microcosm, and relationships between languages demonstrate a direct correlation to relationships between groups of people. For the sake of continuity, I will constrain this section to the languages of north and south China, excluding the languages of western China such as Tibetan, and the desert languages of the northwest.

There has been a long debate among linguists about whether “Chinese” is a language with many dialects, or a family of many languages. I tend to agree with the latter theory, as even the languages of south and north China have vastly different roots and linguistic influences. They also, as we shall see below, developed completely differently.

Just as geography shaped Chinese subsistence and culture, it also directed the evolution of Chinese languages. Northern China's flat, unhindered plain meant that language spread easily. The dialects of this region are called the “Mandarin” dialects in English, and it is from these dialects that the Chinese Common Dialect, putonghua, arose. Dialects in this region are usually mutually intelligible across distances up to 2,500 kilometers.

South China, on the other hand, is criss-crossed by rivers and studded with mountains, and such terrain leads to a much more diverse group of languages, the most prominent of which is Cantonese. Communities that were only separated by small range of mountains might still have completely mutually unintelligible languages. The linguist S. Robert Ramsey theorizes that southern Chinese dialects shared traits in common not because of the shortest distance between them, but rather where the nearest market was. Small farming villages would all come together to trade, and take each others words home. One example he cites is the city of Taishan in Guangdong Province, only 96 kilometers away from the provincial capital, but because of the natural barriers of the several rivers, the dialect is incomprehensible to speakers of the dialect from the capital, while cities twice as far away are understandable.14)

Of Wind and Water - Feng Shui

The term feng shui might ring faddish in the Western ear. This ancient Chinese practice has been co-opted by many New Age entrepreneurs marketing a happier home, better sex life, and increased business profits to the suburban middle and upper class. One guide to increasing business profits the principles of Feng Shui in the Journal of Accountancy declares:

“Half art, half mysticism, Feng Shui … is the ancient practice of placement design to achieve harmony with the environment and a salutary effect on health and prosperity. Feng Shui holds that arranging certain elements according to traditional guidelines can influence outcomes in all areas of life. It has become a popular way to improve the ambience of a home, and entrepreneurs are turning to it to reduce stress and enhance business possibilities. Reports say real estate mogul Donald Trump's buildings incorporate feng shui, Virgin Atlantic Airways founder Sir Richard Branson uses it and Texas First National Bank and Mutual of New York apply it in their offices.”15)

Rodika Tchi, principal of a feng shui consulting firm in Vancouver, has written numerous internet guides on how to order one's life according to the practice on, ranging from where to best place one's aquarium, how to best synchronize the sensual chi of one's bathroom and bedroom, and how to better one's sex or romantic life. She says in her article “What is Feng Shui - Feng Shui Theory and Feng Shui Tools”:

“Feng Shui is an ancient art and science developed over 3,000 years ago in China. It is a complex body of knowledge that reveals the ways to balance the energies of the environment to assure health, wealth and good fortune for people inhabiting it.[…] In Chinese culture gentle wind and clear water have always been associated with good harvest and good health, thus “good Feng Shui” came to mean good livelihood and fortune, while “bad Feng Shui” came to mean hardship and misfortune. Feng Shui is based on the Taoist vision and understanding of nature, particularly on the idea that the land is alive and filled with energy. The ancient Chinese believed that the land's energy could either make or break the kingdom, so to speak.”16)

Due to these representations, feng shui might be interpreted as nothing but superstition and fortune telling, ranking high with throwing pennies in wells and palm reading. Even in modern China, feng shui is popularly denounced as superstition, though there are still some who practice it as an indoor aesthetic designed to harmonize energy and bring wealth, health and happiness. Even scholars of Chinese culture and history often refer to feng shui as “geomancy,” or divination, lending to its mystical air.

Feng shui's relationship to water must be traced back to when the practice was not an aesthetic of luck, but a set of defined rules for choosing human settlements. All of these visions of feng shui have a few elements in common.

Firstly, they all agree on the meaning of the name. Feng is “wind” in Mandarin, and shui is “water.” Secondly they agree that feng shui deals with the harmonious arrangement of elements in one's environment to garner the most positive energy, more correctly known as chi. Thirdly they agree that this arrangement works in accordance with geomagnetic directions (north, east, southwest, etc.), and celestial bodies such as the sun. Essentially they all agree that feng shui is a practice on the principals of spatial orientation.

Western and modern Chinese manifestations of feng shui stem from the Li Ch'i (“arranging chi”) school. The older school, Luan Tou (“mountain peak”) is recognized as the progenitor of the practice.17) Where Li Ch'i emphasizes the use of the feng shui compass lou pan and calculations based on the time of a person's birth, Luan Tou bases home site selection on environmental factors such as topography, climate, weather, flora, and hydrology.

Luan Tou feng shui is as old as Chinese civilization, and it simply dictates that human dwellings should have protection from bitter northern winds in the form of a large mountain (Hsuan Wu), that they should be open to the south to maximize solar exposure, and that the central area for human habitation should be flat grassland (Ming Tang). The two primary factors, however, are the eponymous elements of wind and water. According to Luan Tou feng shui, water attracts chi, while wind disperses it.18)

Chi can be a difficult concept to translate, but it is best understood as the ancient Chinese concept of life's energy. If we take this definition under pragmatic terms, it is easy to see how water would collect it and wind wash it away: Water is essential to human survival, as well as to the plants and animals humans depend on for subsistence. Water also means another route open for trade. Wind, on the other hand, especially the harsh northern winds of China, erodes topsoil, causes greater wear on structures, factors into stronger storms, and dries out the soil.

Luan Tou feng shui makes many specific remarks about water, some that to our eyes might seem merely common sense, but to an evolving humanity in China served as rules for survival. In his journal article on an evolutionary and ecological perspective of feng shui, Han Ke-Tsung lists several of these dictums then provides each with a possible evolutionary/ecological explanation, such as the following examples.

“13) A river curving inwards should flow between Ming Tang and An Shan.

  • “In a meandering channel, flow patterns alternately transport sediment from the concave bank and deposit it near the convex bank. This erosional and depositional process is the way the stream dissipates its energy.” […] An ideal Feng Shui site located at the side of the convex bank of a river prevents it from being continually eroded by the flow, which results in potential hazard in the future.

14) The river should not be noisy, muddy, rapid, or yellow in color.

  • A muddy or yellow river indicates the water probably is polluted or has a high concentration of sediment or algae which is not suitable for drinking, irrigating, bathing, or even washing. It may also imply low food productivity for aquaculture. A rapidly flowing stream with noise indicates a huge amount of rushing water, which may cause flooding or an erosion hazard and is dangerous for transportation or wading.


16) A river with many curves, or a great quantity of water, maximizes Feng Shui since it can prevent Ch'i from blowing away and accumulates it instead.

  • “In comparison with the habitat conditions prevailing within a straight channel, a meandering channel is physically far more diverse and can therefore sustain more complex faunal and floral communities, which in turn are an integral component of the self-cleaning ability of a stream system” (Peterson et al. 1992, 301). Thus, a river with many curves indicates high food productivity for aquaculture and a diverse, stable ecosystem. Similarly, a great quantity of water provides sufficient resources, such as water and aquatic plants and animals.


20) If the river or lake is on the right, Hsueh should also be on the right side. The reverse also holds true.

  • This criterion makes Hsueh not too far away from the water resource. Therefore, the benefits of this resource, such as increased humidity, decreased temperature, purified air, modified microclimate, and availability of water and aquatic plants and animals for everyday life, can be easily accessible to the dweller.”19)

Thus the ideal water situation led to good fortune- if “fortune” is interpreted functionally as clean water –good for humans, crops, and livestock– a diverse and healthy ecosystem, a source of aquaculture, and a route for trade.

Luan Tou Feng Shui also dictated where people could bury their dead, and specifically not to bury them over springs. This is another pragmatic guideline to avoid a decomposing body releasing toxins directly over a water source.

Eventually Luan Tou Feng Shui branched into the Li Ch'i school, transforming from a practical set of guidelines to a Chinese aesthetic that has reigned in Southeast Asia for 3,000 years. Villages and the capitols of dynasties alike were located and designed according to feng shui, and the houses and emperors' palaces that filled them.20) When geographical circumstances did not conform to feng shui, cartographers would often flip the map of cities and palaces so that it looked like they did.21)

Now this aesthetic has been carried over to the West, where it is affecting the fortunes of New Age aficionados and business moguls alike- 3,000 years of influence reaching out into the post-modern world, all because of the rivers of China.

The New Great Wall and Rivers of Steel - Three Gorges Dam and the South-North Water Transfer Project

Of the 45,000 large dams (defined as over 15 meters high) humans have built on the planet, over half have been built in China. Most were built in the last 35 years.22) In the next several years the river basin with the highest number of large dams, the Chang Jiang, will be home to the world largest superdam- 185 meters tall and two kilometers wide, holding back 40 billion cubic meters of water for over 600 kilometers.23)

The Three Gorges Dam is one of the most internationally controversial public works projects in human history since the National People's Congress approved its construction in 1992. Built on one of the most heavily dammed rivers in the world, the Three Gorges Dam will hold back Chang Jiang and radically alter the hydrology and ecology of the river's basin, As Chairman Mao wrote when he envisioned the dam in 1956 24):

“Walls of stone will stand upstream to the west to hold back Wushan's clouds and rain till a smooth lake rises in the narrow gorges. The mountain goddess if she is still there will marvel at a world so changed.”

While there has been much international debate over the many drawbacks of the Three Gorges Dam, the purpose of this section is not to add another overall critique to the fray. Instead I would like to briefly detail on how this superdam will profoundly alter the hydrology of Chang Jiang, and the material historical culture of the Chinese.

The rationales for constructing the mega dam are fourfold: firstly, China is in an energy crisis, with a crippling dependence on coal, an outdated technology with disastrous ecological and health effects; secondly, the Chinese government claims the dam will help control the Chang Jiang's devastating floods; thirdly the reservoir kept behind the dam can be diverted for irrigation and for counteracting the desiccation of Huang He; fourthly the reservoir will supposedly allow greater, safer trade into China's heartland, previously obstructed by the dangers of Chang Jiang's shoals.

For these four major rationales, there are four basic ways the hydrology of Chang Jiang will alter: siltation, flooding, habitat alteration, and water reduction.

First I would like to examine siltation, as it is a major concern of every Chinese dam. Siltation is what happens when silt builds up behind a dam wall, reducing the capacity of the reservoir as it piles higher. Siltation has several consequences, the first being that mentioned above. In China, a recently innovated way to relieve siltation is to periodically discharge all of the reservoirs along a river and let the water carry the silt out to sea, like an artificial flood.25) However this process also has the consequence that discharged silt will not contribute to alluvial soils because it is being carried down the river too fast. It will instead empty out of the mouth of the river.

Another consequence of siltation is reduced dam efficiency. When the silt level rises behind a dam, meaning the reservoir is shallower, that means that the water released through the sluice gates to power the turbines of a hydro-electric plant is moving at a far less powerful pace. As a nearby example, Three Gate Gorge dam on Huang He only produces 250 megawatts of the 1,000 projected because of silt buildup behind the dam.26) The Three Gorges Dam is projected to provide 18,000 megawatts, or 85 billion kilowatt hours of electricity, which would cut down China's coal usage by 40 to 50 million tons.27) If this projection was cut by three quarters, however, and the dam only produces 4,500 megawatts, there is no way the Chinese economy can recoup the $25,000,000,000 (and mounting) upfront cost of building such a monumental dam.

Silt has been the blessing of Chinese agriculture, and by extension, Chinese civilization, but it is floods that have carried the silt to fertilize the river basins. In this way the floods are a gift, but in their devastating cost to life and property, they are a curse. For thousands of years the rulers of China have been trying to protect the Chinese people from floods with dams and dikes, but since the formation of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the era of new, nature-defying technology has given new fervor to the task. Proponents of the Three Gorges Dam claim the dam will protect inhabitants of the lower basin from Chang Jiang's floods. Basic geography, however, shows that the lower half of the Chang Jiang, which is still fed by several tributaries which drain floodwaters into the main river, will be unaffected. Therefore Three Gorges Dam can only stop the floods of the upper reaches, and partially abate the fury of the superfloods that rage the entire course of the river. This of course, will only hold true if the dam has the structural integrity to withstand the might of these floods.

The operative factor in whether or not the dam can hold back the force of the water is not entirely due to the strength of the dam itself, but rather the capacity of the reservoir: quite simply, it needs to be large enough to hold all the water. Even if siltation is properly dealt with and the reservoir maintains its maximum capacity, the second challenge is keeping the reservoir empty enough to catch a flood. Logically, dam operators would have to empty the reservoir during flood season. Flood season is monsoon season, but it is also the peak growing season, when the stored reservoir waters are needed most for irrigation. These contradicting priorities add another level of complexity to the issue of how Three Gorges Dam will effect flooding on the Chang Jiang.

The issue of the 600 kilometer reservoir itself leads to a third issue of how the dam will change Chang Jiang's hydrology, habitat alteration. This alteration applies both to aquatic and terrestrial habitat, and it will effect humans, other animals, and plants.

For freshwater fish species and the critically endangered baiji, the Three Gorges Dam means a radical change from a riverine ecology to a lake habitat. To species unadapted to such an environment, such a change alone is devastating. Increased river traffic also contributes to the decline in populations and species variety, as will the 265 billion gallons of untreated sewage and industrial waste that will accumulate in the reservoir from factories and cities upstream.28)

Terrestrially, the Chang Jiang basin is China's richest farmland, 30,000 hectares of which will be flooded when the reservoir fills,29) raising many questions about China's ability to feed it's people when it is already a net-importer of grains. When those 30,000 hectares flood, a total of nearly 2 million people will have been displaced in the largest such exodus in human history. This will end 2,000 years of agriculture along those 600 kilometers, and the waters will also bury several prominent historical sites, along with 19 cities, 326 towns and 1,300 villages30) and countless undiscovered archaeological sites. Some of the historical sites include Tang Dynasty poetry carved into the cliffs, ancient carvings of carp that record high water marks for the Chang Jiang, and two temples.

The final element in the alteration of the river's hydrology is water loss. It may seem paradoxical that a structure designed to contain water could lose it, but there are several factors that make this true, both inherent and due to the plans of the Chinese government. Dam reservoirs naturally expand the surface area of the body of water. This greater surface area means that more water will come into contact with solar heat, so more water is evaporated.

Also, one of the main functions of dam reservoirs is storing irrigation water, and in addition to this the Chinese government plans to use the Three Gorges Dam reservoir to pipe water not only to distant cities, but to Huang He to fight the desiccation of the river. Thus people in Beijing will drink Chang Jiang water via Huang He, by rivers of steel.

The South-North Water Project is just as ambitious as the Three Gorges Dam, and in its own way, far larger in scope. Three Gorges will trap 40 billion cubic meters of water,31) and the South-North Water Project plans to siphon 45 billion more away from Chang Jiang to parched urban areas32) and to replenish the dessicating Haung He. Even though the river carries more water than the reservoir will hold, this is a phenomenal amount of water to transfer.

This $60,000,000,000 will transfer the water by three main routes. The first will enlarge a reservoir on a major tributary of Chang Jiang, the Danjiangkou reservoir on the Han. The water will be diverted from the reservoir by a six meter wide canal “as long as France,” and will even tunnel beneath Huang He to reach its destinations. The second diversion will reroute water from where Chang Jiang meets the ocean using the Grand Canal, which is over 2,500 years old. This water will be sent to the enormous city of Tianjin. The third and final route will divert water from the Chang Jiang's glacial source in Tibet and push it 120 kilometers toward Huang He, to replenish the dwindling northern river. The first two routes are intended to relieve the Huang He of the burden of the cities they will water, while the third will actually feed into the river.


Both these projects are massive in scale, their circumstances have never been successfully tested, and neither has their scope. Both raise an interesting philosophical point, though, which lends itself to the pragmatics of human survival. China is now manipulating the two rivers that molded its culture, politics, and subsistence for two thousand years, and reshaping them. This is not only changing the geographical Chinese landscape, but the terrain's underlying hydrology, which will have consequences on vast areas of China's ecology. What remains to be seen is how these human-wrought changes will affect Chinese culture, politics, and subsistence, if they succeed, or if they fail.

See Also


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  • Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel. New York: W. W. Nortan, 2005.
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  • Pearce, Fred. When the Rivers Run Dry: Water - The Defining Crisis of the 21st Century. Boston: Beacon Press, 2006. 107-122; 219-230; 259-266.
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  • Ras67. “Agricultural Regions of China,” Wikimedia Commons 2010. <> (Accessed December 19, 2013).
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  • Tchi, Rodika. “What is Feng Shui - Feng Shui Theory and Feng Shui Tools,” About (2007).<> (accessed November 28, 2007).
  • Walton, Linda A. “Southern Sung Academies and the Construction of Sacred Space,” in Landscape, Culture, and Power in Chinese Society, ed. Wen-hsin Yeh, 23-49. Berkeley: University of California.
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1) Jared Diamond. Guns, Germs, and Steel. (New York: W. W. Nortan, 2005), 98.
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