Name: Date: Period: ______ CHINA`S SORROW ARTICLE #137

Name: ________________________________Date: ___________________
Period: _________
Natural disasters are tragedies that usually strike randomly and infrequently – unless
you happen to live in the Huang He River (colonially referred to as the Yellow River)
valley in China. In the space of just over 50 years between 1887 and 1943, some 10
million people drowned or died of famine and disease as the result of catastrophic
While particularly deadly, those floods were nothing new to the Huang He. Since 600
BC, the Chinese have recorded over 1,500 floods, earning it the name “China’s
Sorrow.” Across the world there are rivers with valleys more populous, the Yangtze
for instance. And there are those that flood more often, like the Nile. And there are rivers that carry far more
water than the Huang He, such as the Amazon. So why is the Huang He so deadly?
At the headwaters of the Huang He lies a vast plateau of loose material called loess, blown in from the Gobi
Desert. The loess erodes relatively easily, especially when carelessly farmed, and strong rains wash that loess
into the river. This unique combination of geography and geology makes the Huang He the most sedimentladen river in the world. A thousand miles away the river flattens out and slows. There, most of the sediment
settles to the river bed, raising it by an inch or two each year.
In an ultimately futile attempt to control the river, the Chinese built levees along the river’s banks. But to keep
up with the rising bed, the levees had to constantly be built higher. As the
centuries passed, the river bed rose above the level of the surrounding plains,
and so did the levees.
In some places, the bottom of the river bed stood as much as 10 meters above
the surrounding floodplain. The Huang He was literally suspended in the sky.
So stood the Huang He when in 1887, record spring rains and melting snow forced it overtop its 60 foot high
levees. Water flowing down the backs of the levees quickly eroded them and allowed the entire river, at that
point over a mile wide, out onto the floodplain. This inundation killed tens of thousands of people, and crop
failures from flooded farms killed as many as a million more.
This disaster would stand as the deadliest non-pestilential disaster in recorded history
were it not for another flood just 44 years later. In 1931, the Huang He claimed
between 850,000 and 4 million lives in what still stands as the worst natural disaster
in recorded history.
But the river wasn’t done; just two years later another severe flood killed 20,000. And in 1938, Chinese
Nationalist forces intentionally blew up the levees in order to stop the advance of Japanese troops. The river
again inundated massive parts of north-eastern China and slowed the advance of the Japanese. While debatably
militarily successful (a stalemate was reached in the north of China by 1940), this single act killed another
million Chinese citizens through famine. And cruelly, no longer confined to a channel, the river again flooded
in 1943 and killed millions more.
Its bloodlust apparently satiated, the Huang He has remained fitfully within its artificial banks since the end of
World War II. In 1956, A Soviet-designed dam was constructed at Sanmenxia in the first modern engineering
attempt to tame the mighty river. But the Soviet designers had little experience with high sediment loads, and
realizing their failure they withdrew before the project was complete. Less than 3 years after its completion, the
Sanmenxia reservoir had nearly entirely filled with sediment. Today the now-useless Sanmexia dam stands
quiet, its sediment-choked turbines long since removed.
Name: ________________________________Date: ___________________
Period: _________
For much of the year, the modern Huang He River does not even reach its mouth.
Thousands of miles of dikes, diversion channels, dams, and irrigation canals sap the
river’s strength. But heavy rains or a particularly warm spring can spell danger, as in
1958 when the Huang He’s flow doubled literally overnight. Millions of Chinese
laborers were mobilized to watch the levees for leaks and pile on sandbags. The river
rose within inches of flooding before it receded.
The next Huang He flood may be just months away, or it may lay quiet for centuries. But what is certain is that
the river has the power to overwhelm the devices humans have built to control it.
Unfortunately the risk of catastrophic flood has never been higher. Since the end of World War II, the Chinese
population has doubled and enormous new metropolises have sprung up along the banks of the Huang He. In
1996, the level of the river reached an all-time high despite river flow being much lower than it was in 1958.
Were widespread flooding to occur, there is nothing that could be done to stop it from inundating much of
north-eastern China. We can only hope that the sprawling cities above which China’s Sorrow literally stands
suspended in the sky can be evacuated in time.
1. Between the years 1887 and 1943, how many people have died as a result of catastrophic flooding of the
Huang He River? In what ways did they die?: ___________________________________________________
2. Since 600 B.C., how many recorded floods of the Huang He have there been?: _______________________
3. What geographic and geologic features make the Huang He River so deadly?: ________________________
4. Explain, in your own words, what is meant by “The Huang He was literally suspended in the sky”.:
5. What event “still stands as the worst natural disaster in recorded history”?: __________________________
6. What man-made attempts seem to “sap the river’s strength” for most of the year?: _____________________
7. Explain what is meant by the statement “Unfortunately, the risk of catastrophic floods has never been higher”
Give supporting details. _____________________________________________________________________