The Yellow river has always symbolised China's dream of greatness. But can this unnavigable waterway survive China's transformation into an economic superpower?by Rob Gifford / July 26, 2008 / Leave a comment
If geography is destiny, then China’s path was always going to be a hard one. Its people have for thousands of years struggled to hold back its deserts, conquer its mountains and tame its rivers. The Yangtze is the longest and most dangerous of its waterways, but it is the Yellow that is known as the “Mother River.” Chinese civilisation emerged along the banks of the Yellow river, and its waters have washed a steady stream of hope and despair down the centuries. Today, a shallow shadow of its former self, it represents a new dilemma for China’s future.
The Chinese used to say that the Yellow river was a dragon, with a head of brass, a tail of iron but a waist of tofu. Its middle reaches, between Hancheng and Kaifeng, were often in flood, killing millions of people and threatening the emperor with the ensuing unrest. Almost exactly midway between its source and the coastal delta is the Sanmenxia dam, which features eight huge red characters on its downstream face—huang he an lan guo tai min an (“When the Yellow river is at peace, China is at peace”). This phrase reaches back to the legend of Yu the Great, whose statue stands not far from the dam. He was, they say, the first to control the Yellow river floods; not coincidentally, he is said to have founded China’s first dynasty, the Xia, and since that time, the legitimacy of China’s rulers has been linked to the ability to control the Yellow river.
The Sanmenxia dam is modern proof that the Yellow river has been tamed, perhaps too much so. Holding back the water has also held back silt, causing big problems upstream. But beyond the dam and its floodgates, the river banks now rarely give way like tofu. Man no longer needs to be protected from the river. The problem now is how to protect the river from man. Mother River is not only shockingly polluted but slowly failing—in three of the last ten years of the 20th century, the river failed to reach the sea, drying up in the province of Shandong, several hundred kilometres short of its natural end at China’s east coast. My own recent journey along the length of the river—from source to sea—is therefore a journey into China’s future, as well as its past.