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date: 05 March 2021

The Yellow River, the Chinese State, and the Ecology of North Chinafree

  • David A. PietzDavid A. PietzUniversity of Arizona


Flowing through the North China Plain, one of China’s major agricultural regions, the Yellow River has long represented a challenge to Chinese governments to manage. Preventing floods has been an overriding concern for these states in order to maintain a semblance of ecological equilibrium on the North China Plain. This region’s environment is heavily influenced by seasonal fluctuations in precipitation, leading to a long history of famine, particularly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when water management structures disintegrated with the deterioration of the imperial system. In the 20th century, new civil and hydraulic engineering techniques and technologies held the promise for enhanced management of the region’s waterways. After 1949, the new government of the People’s Republic used a hybrid approach consisting of the tenets of multipurpose water management combined with the tools of mass mobilization that were hallmarks of the Chinese Communist Party. The wide-ranging exploitation of surface and groundwater resources during the Maoist period left a long shadow for the post-Mao period that witnessed rapid consumption of water to fuel agricultural, industrial, and urban reforms. The challenge for the contemporary state in China is creating a system of water allocation through increased supply and demand management that can sustain the economic and social transformations of the era.

The Yellow River: Nature and Culture

Among all the major rivers of the world, few are more closely identified with state and society than China’s Yellow River. This identity is largely due to the unique hydrologic qualities of the river, which have impelled centuries of state management designed to maintain ecologic stability in the critical lower reaches of the river that flows through the important agricultural region of the North China Plain. To the present day, the legitimacy of political order remains dependent on keeping the river within a complex series of embankments that ties local societies to the state. At the same time, the unique qualities of the river, namely its high levels of sediment as it flows across the North China Plain, have posed an ever-present threat to these embankments and the relationship between state and society in the region.

The River and Ecology of the North China Plain

Flowing for nearly 3,400 miles from its origins in the Qinghai Plateau (3,395 miles), the Yellow River is the second longest in China, behind the Yangtze River, and the sixth longest in the world. The river traverses nine provinces before emptying in the Bohai Sea on the coast of Shandong Province. The river drains an estimated 290,500 square miles, home to over 200 million people. From its Qinghai origins, the river descends from east to west, with a major detour north in its midsection, descending a set of staircase plateaus before entering the North China Plain, a broad alluvial region where the current slows as it traverses a region that averages some 20 feet above sea level. It is in the midsection where the Yellow River turns abruptly to the north, then east, then back south again, to form a large inverted horseshoe. It is in this region that the river acquires its unique character, its ochre-colored pigment due to its high sediment content. As the river turns south on that inverted horseshoe, it enters the Loess Plateau—a region that is defined by large embankments consisting of loess—a type of soil somewhere between fine sand dirt (with particles measuring between 0.01 and 0.04 millimeters in diameter). The loess embankments are highly fissile and can shear off with heavy precipitation or the erosive effects of the river. It is in this region with heavy loess erosion that the Yellow River picks up its heavy burden of sediment.

Figure 1. The Yellow River valley.

Source: David Pietz, The Yellow River: The Problem of Water in Modern China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), xi. Courtesy of Harvard University Press.

Upon completing the “Great Bend,” the ochre-colored river abruptly turns eastward as it enters its lower basin. It flows across the North China Plain where the current slows considerably and where the sediment begins to settle on the river bottom and embankments. It is this sediment from the Loess Plateau that has defined the geomorphology of the North China Plain. This vast alluvial region has been formed by the regular floods of the river that have deposited massive amounts of sediment across the landscape as the river course migrated from north to south (and back again) with each flood occurrence. This alluvial plain provided the ecological foundations for the rise of agricultural communities. It is for this reason that the Yellow River is identified as the “mother river” of Chinese civilization (or the “cradle of Chinese civilization”). The hydrologic conditions of the river gave rise to large-scale agricultural pursuits that led to increasingly dense settlements and the articulation of governing institutions. It was, and remains, a fundamental tenet of governing statecraft in China to prevent the kinds of floods that previously formed the alluvial plain by expending enormous human and material capital to keep the Yellow River within levees. For many centuries, up to the present, the North China Plain has been of central importance to the Chinese state for several reasons. First, because the instability of the Yellow River, combined with the region’s highly differentiated precipitation annual patterns, have rendered the North China Plain one of China’s most ecologically vulnerable areas. Despite these climatic challenges, the region has long been one of the most critical agricultural regions for sustaining the Chinese state and empire. In the early 21st century, the region produces half of China’s wheat and one-third of its maize (corn) and cotton. At the same time, nearly one-quarter of China’s population resides on the North China Plain.

The combination of agricultural importance, high population density, and limited water resources have historically induced successive Chinese governments to exert an appreciable effort at maintaining some semblance of ecological and social stability by expending considerable resources to prevent floods (e.g., by building dikes along the Yellow River), and by mitigating the social consequences of famines that result from floods and droughts.

Figure 2. China’s hydrologic divide.

Source: David Pietz, The Yellow River: The Problem of Water in Modern China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015). Courtesy of Harvard University Press.

The Yellow River and the North China Plain in the Imperial Period

To gain a better understanding of the ecological challenges that faced political elites and local agriculturalists on the North China Plain during the imperial period and beyond, it is valuable to examine more completely the forces that have shaped the region’s environmental setting. The North China Plain is an amalgam of geomorphological features, climate, and soils. By the beginning of the late imperial period (c.1500–1911) this landscape was a product of these natural forces combined with centuries of human manipulation designed to maximize ecological stability and agricultural output.

The soils of the North China Plain were indelibly influenced by the periodic overlay of sediment that resulted from the episodic flooding of the Yellow River. Although these soils required regular fertilization due to intensive cultivation, the land was capable of producing superb harvests of small grains. Agricultural output in any given year, however, was shaped by climatic factors that could either generate too much water or too little. Too much water, either as a result of heavy upstream flows from rain or snowfall, or from intense summer storms over the North China Plain, could generate Yellow River flows that breached natural and artificial dikes. The propensity for this occurrence was facilitated by the inexorable rise of the riverbed as years of sedimentation elevated the bed relative to the dikes. The phenomenon of the “hanging river,” by which the bed of the Yellow River was significantly higher than the adjacent plain, generated massive flows of water cascading across the plain after a dike was breached.

A contrasting threat to the ecology of the North China Plain was drought. For much of the year precipitation patterns over the region are governed by continental weather systems that typically bring cooler and dry conditions. However, during the summer months monsoonal weather patterns predominate, bringing potentially heavy downpours. In such instances, the region is susceptible to floods and waterlogging. Problematically, precipitation patterns on the North China Plain are highly variable. In some years, the summer rains do not occur, aggravating the generally dry conditions prevailing throughout much of the year. The consequence was drought. Drought was the second scourge of the state and farmers of the region, and both occurred with sufficient regularity for the state to expend massive resources to contain the Yellow River between dikes, and to establish a system of state granaries throughout the North China Plain to augment food supplies to the market in times of drought.1

Yü the Great and the Yellow River

Although is it is possible to exaggerate the primacy of water management to statecraft during the imperial period, effectively managing the Yellow River was an important concern. Over the centuries of these efforts, historical memories accumulated of heroes and villains of Yellow River control, and myths were told and retold of early progenitors of such control that served to sanction continued state activism in the realm of water management. One of the early myths celebrating central authority prerogatives centered on Yü the Great, who in the prehistoric era is credited with creating discrete riverways that drained what had been a swampy morass on the North China Plain to create the conditions for the rise of agriculture and the state structure that it supported. Yü’s success in bringing ecological stability (and by extensions agricultural and political order) to the North China Plain conferred legitimacy to rule China’s reputed first dynastic period (Xia dynasty). Thus, the connection between “ordering the waters” and successful rule became a tenet of Chinese statecraft during the imperial period, and beyond.2

Controlling the Yellow River in the Imperial Period

The Chinese state began to develop an abiding interest in actively managing the Yellow River as early as the onset of the Common Era (Year 0). The state encouraged irrigation in the middle reaches of the valley, while committing major efforts to control the flow of the Yellow River downstream. This interest centered on encouraging irrigation development in the middle valley while committing to flood control in the lower valley. Most large projects were collaborative administrative tasks between local and central institutions. Smaller would typically be carried out by local elite leadership, but with the moral encouragement and occasional technical assistance of the state bureaucracy.3

Figure 3. Historical course changes of the Yellow River.

Source: David Pietz, The Yellow River: The Problem of Water in Modern China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), 17. Courtesy of Harvard University Press.

Regular dike maintenance was a requisite to maintain the effectiveness of the flood control system. But inevitably, the waters of the river pierced the dikes. At such time, renewed debate over the best technical approach to managing the Yellow River arose. Over the course of the imperial period, however, the range of choices available in these debates were largely narrowed by the overriding assumption of restricting the flow of the river through high embankments.

Indeed, the commitment to restricting the range of flow was largely bequeathed to modern hydraulic engineering approaches down to the present. For those water managers who could lay claim to success in controlling the river came rewards and a legitimate claim to a position among the pantheon of water heroes in China, most principal among them, Yü the Great.

During the Han dynasty (206 bce220 ce) the state embarked on an unprecedented effort to establish a system of defensive bulwarks and a rigorous maintenance regime. It was during this period that the basic pattern of Yellow River control was established—strong leadership by the central government. After a series of catastrophic control failures, the Han government appointed Jia Zhang in 69 ce to restore flood control structures. Jia adopted a threefold approach: (a) reducing the flow diverting water in the midsection for irrigation; (b) funneling sediment-free water from other riverways to the lower Yellow River; and (c) strengthening and widening the dikes in the lower section. Jia’s approach, which became one of the normative strategies to control the river, was premised on reducing the volume and power of Yellow River flow and constructing dikes some distance apart (widening) to allow the river to meander (again reducing the power of the flow in high-water periods).4

The other normative approach to Yellow River management was championed most famously by Pan Jixun (1521–1595), who was appointed as the Imperial Commissioner of the Yellow River in 1565. Similar to the task faced by Jia Zhang and other Yellow River officials, he had to deal with restoring the integrity of flood defenses after an acute breakdown. What complicated Pan’s task, more so than that of Jia’s, was the construction of the Grand Canal that ran south to north from the lower Yangtze River valley to the imperial capital region of Beijing. The canal bisected the west-to-east flowing major rivers of the North China Plain—the Huai River and the Yellow River—complicating to no small degree the discharge of these waters. In fact, complications arising from this hydrologic complexity led to the Yellow River assuming the bed of the Huai River in its lower reaches. Pan argued against Jia’s idea of dissipating flow rates and building wide-set dikes to allow the Yellow River to meander. Pan felt that such a solution would not solve the ultimate siltation problem. Instead, Pan argued that the Yellow River should be permanently separated from the Huai, with close-set dikes that would force flow rates to increase as water traversed a smaller aperture. A faster flow would have the capacity to scour silt out to sea, thereby preventing the inexorable rise of the riverbed.5

Although the fundamental approaches to river management differed in important ways, the basic commitment to a system of defensive dikes remained consistent. What also remained consistent was the ultimate failure of either approach to permanently prevent the Yellow River from breaching its dikes. To be sure, both officials achieved a degree of success that legitimized their inclusion among the great water managers in Chinese history, but from the perspective of the late imperial period the Yellow River remained a threat to the stability of the North China Plain, and ultimately, to the Chinese state.6

Ecological Breakdown on the North China Plain during the Late Imperial Period

Ecological conditions on the North China Plain had reached a tipping point by the late 19th century. A combination of demographic expansion, climate variation, economic transformation, and political factors, namely weakened dynastic authority and the arrival of the West, generated environmental conditions that led Western observers to describe China, particularly the North China Plain, as the “land of famine.” Fueled by demographic growth that saw population more than triple between 1500 and 1800, China’s population-to-land ratio declined to unprecedented levels. The Qing state was profoundly aware of this threat to economic and political stability such a dynamic represented, and promoted agrarian policies that sought to maximize grain output. The consequences, however, included increased sedimentation in the country’s waterways from deforestation and other unsustainable agricultural practices. This, combined with the forces of climate variability and generally weak political capacity, spelled trouble for Yellow River control and environmental stability on the North China Plain.7

Consistent with what some scholars have cited as a “hydraulic cycle” in Chinese history, whereby new dynastic rule aggressively ordered the waters, but that a waning of these efforts was a hallmark of late dynastic polity, the management of Yellow River flood control measures suffered markedly from the mid-19th century. A momentous change of course of the Yellow River in 1855 seemed to reflect weakened state capacity. The river broke through its dikes in Henan Province and proceeded to inundate large tracts of land in Henan, Jiangsu, and Shandong Provinces. Eventually draining into the sea at two different locations north and south of the Shandong Highlands, the river remained uncontrolled for thirty years, causing widespread economic dislocation. Although the Qing government managed to rebuild the dike system in Henan to restore control flooding, the damage done and the continuing threat to the region earned the Yellow River the moniker of “China’s sorrow” by foreign observers. Famine in the late imperial period was also a prominent feature of the social, economic, and political life of the North China Plain during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Perhaps the most deadly famine in imperial history occurred between 1876 and 1879 when floods were followed by historic drought conditions. Some estimates number the dead at 9.5 to 13 million. Droughts, combined with regular floods, seemed to place North China Plain communities in an unrelenting battle for subsistence. Climate, combined with demographic growth, and hydraulic breakdown, generated ecological breakdown that lasted well in to the 20th century.8

The Yellow River in the Republican Period, 1911–1949

The long-standing state orthodoxy of maintaining rural stability through the control of water remained a central concern throughout the 20th century—across different states of a variety of political stripes. Put differently, “every effort to reconstitute a central state in China during the twentieth century included an acute awareness of the political mandate to reorder the waters on the North China Plain.”9 The major challenge was how to achieve this goal amid the ecological, social, cultural, and political chaos after the fall of the imperial order in 1911. The economic and social conditions that floods and famine engendered generated breakdown in social and political order that was evidenced by the rise of banditry and rebellion (e.g., Boxers) in the region. Any new political order that was to emerge in the 20th century had to address these conditions.10

The Internationalization of Yellow River Conservancy

Although successive governments in China during the 20th century sought to reimpose controls on the Yellow River similar to precedent, they had new tools at their disposal with China’s integration into global networks of science and technology. Although the challenge to unite China into one political system remained largely unrealized until 1949, beneath the surface of this political instability were new methods and tools that held the promise of rectifying the ecological imbalances of the Yellow River and the North China Plain. A product of this renewed ecological equilibrium would be renewed stability in the economic, social, and political realms.

Beginning in the 1910s, Yellow River management became integrated into a global circulation of hydraulic engineering discourse. Engineers from North America, Europe, and Japan traveled to China to advise on Yellow River management. Chinese students went abroad to study hydrology and civil engineering, and foreign and domestic entities established institutions of higher education modeled on Western educational patterns that offered training in hydraulic and civil engineering. The sum total of this remarkable intellectual and institutional exchange was to introduce the notion of “multipurpose” water management to Yellow River management. With little alternative, the first step was to rebuild and restrengthen Yellow River dikes. With new technologies, however, the production uses of controlled water flows could be extended beyond flood control to include improved river transportation networks, expanded irrigation, and power generation.11 At the same time as the “internationalization” of Yellow River management, important continuities remained from the imperial period that would shape management approaches during the entire 20th century, and beyond. The continuing challenge of feeding a large and growing population, the “technological lock-in” of restraining the Yellow River through levees, the commitment to central management of the river, and finally, the enduring source of “ordering the water” as a source of political legitimacy all powerfully remained in the ecosystem of Yellow River control. The challenge for efficient management of the river during the contemporary period has been to accommodate the new tenets of multipurpose water management within these enduring commitments to Yellow River management.

Coinciding with the fall of the imperial system in 1911, and the ensuing two decades of political and social fragmentation of the Warlord period, ecological conditions on the North China Plain had deteriorated with a seemingly inexorable cycle of flood, drought, and famine. During this period there were multiple efforts to restore a sense of ecological equilibrium, often led by prominent engineers from Europe and the United States. One of the most well-known of these engineer-adventurers was O. J. Todd, a hydraulic engineer with significant experience in major civil and water engineering in California and elsewhere. Todd traveled throughout the North China Plain offering management plans for the Yellow River and the Grand Canal. Representative of many foreign consultants, Todd’s plans tended to oversimplify the complex hydrological conditions of the Yellow River, and underestimate the political and social challenges of implementing and maintaining water management installations. Nonetheless, many of the plans offered by Todd and other foreign engineers served to introduce critical multipurpose water management methods that were to utilize every drop of water toward productive purposes (i.e., power generation, transport, irrigation, and flood control). A development that would prove equally important to the tenor of water management for generations in China was the introduction of domestic training institutions that began training Chinese engineering specialists based on curricula firmly embedded in the goals and methodologies of multipurpose water management. The graduates of these institutions, combined with a cadre of engineering trained in foreign universities, formed the backbone of Yellow River management for much of the 20th century.12

The reassertion of nominal central administrative control over China by the Nationalist government in 1927, led by Chiang Kai-shek, sparked an effort to construct central administrative units to organize human and financial resources to implement modern water management techniques on the Yellow River. The modernizing government established the Yellow River Conservancy Commission (YRCC) in 1931 to recruit foreign and domestic water experts to formulate plans to establish effective control over the river that had largely been absent since the late 19th century. The aggressive plans developed by the YRCC, however, never came to fruition. Fragmented political control of the mid and lower sections of the river, as well as social instability in the lower sections of the river engendered by conditions of privation, prevented the government from establishing local institutional control to realize engineering plans. In addition to these domestic challenges, the invasion of Japanese forces from Manchuria, beginning in 1937, led to the Nationalist government ceding control of the lower Yellow River. Before completing its control over this region, however, Japanese forces were stalled temporarily on the North China Plain as Nationalist forces blew up a Yellow River dike near Huayuankou (Henan Province) to generate a massive inundation to forestall Japanese forces. The tactic proved to be of little utility in stopping the invasion, but it succeeded again in flooding large swaths of the North China Plain and, yet again, creating large-scale famine and loss of life.13

The immediate postwar period brought the return of the Nationalist government to Nanjing from its wartime capitol in Chongqing, and the return of Western advisors, primarily American, to cooperate in formulating water management plans for the major rivers in China. The first task was to plug the breach in the Yellow River dike near Huayuankou. Beyond this, however, the Nationalist government, faced with the new existential threat of communist forces, accomplished very little with regard to systematically addressing hydraulic conditions on the North China Plain. Small-scale dike and irrigation work was implemented in local areas controlled by the Communist Party of China (CCP), but by and large, any large-scale engineering projects on the Yellow River and in the North China Plain would have to await the type of political control the CCP was able to attain after 1949.

The Yellow River and the North China Plain during the People’s Republic, 1949 on

The lower Yellow River valley and the North China Plain has experienced profound political, social, cultural, and environmental change since the CCP established the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. The CCP’s goal of building communist modernity remained consistent, but the means to reach that end differed quite dramatically during different periods (or “movements”) in China after 1949. In the management of water, alternating approaches reflected important differences among CCP leadership. During one period, namely, the early/mid-1950, early 1960s, and again in the post-Mao period (1978–) the developmental pendulum swung toward management characterized by international cooperation, technical expertise, and central management. At other times, namely during the Great Leap Forward (GLF) and the Cultural Revolution, the state valorized self-reliance, local knowledge and practices, and local management in the conduct of water management. At times, Mao advocated both approaches simultaneously, the so-called “walking on two legs” approach. Through all the swings in policies, through all the swings in water management approaches, two things remained constant during the post-1949 period: (a) China managed to control the Yellow River; and (b) it developed water resources (both surface and groundwater) to such a degree as to cast a long shadow of scarcity over the post-Mao period.

River and Region during the Maoist Period, 1949–1978

In order to build a modern industrial economy, the leaders of the CCP keenly understood the necessity of: (a) stabilizing the hydrologic conditions of the Yellow River; (b) increasing the agricultural productivity of the North China Plain through expansion of irrigation; and (c) introducing multipurpose projects to provide for flood control, enhanced transportation networks, irrigation development, and power generation. The most aggressive projects focused on developing surface and subsurface irrigation capabilities, as well as building large two large dams on the lower reach of the Yellow River.

There was a substantial expansion of irrigated agriculture during the first Five-Year Plan (1953–1958), largely based on the Soviet model of economic management that focused on central planning and resource allocation. A key project, largely completed in the first several years after 1949, was the People’s Victory Canal, designed to bring water to large parcels of land in Henan Province between the Yellow and Wei Rivers. The scale of the first phase of the project suggests the power of the new government to mobilize the agricultural sector. The project involved 10,000 laborers, 5,241 water channels, 2,547 miles of channels, 775,000 m3 of earth, 80,000 horse carts, and 26,000 oxcarts.14 These and similar large engineering projects inspired the vision behind the formulation of the 1955 Yellow River Plan that placed even larger-scale irrigation goals in the context of multipurpose water utilization.

Conceived by engineers from the YRCC, the Yellow River Plain was audacious. As a quintessential multipurpose plan premised on the Soviet model of capital-intensive, central-planning, and high-technology inputs, the 1955 plan emphasized the construction of a myriad of small- and large-scale reservoirs along the river to impound river for irrigation, transport, power generation, and river transport. Only a fraction of the project envisioned by the plan would come to fruition, but the aggressive attitude toward re-engineering the landscape on the North China Plain would continue for the next forty years. What changed was the means to achieve the goals envisioned by the Plan. Already by the time the Plan was introduced, Mao began to envision an even greater leap into larger-scale agricultural production. This change of means was most fully reflected in the policies of the GLF.15

The GLF represented a period of massive expansion of irrigated agriculture in China. Mao reasoned that by motivating the capacity of local manpower, local knowledge, and local management, the agricultural workforce could accomplish an expansion of irrigated agriculture well beyond efforts managed by the state. The Farmland Irrigation Campaign of 1957–1958 was the opening act of the GLF. Mao felt that the Soviet model was proving inadequate. Igniting industrial development required increasing agricultural output as rapidly as possible. The key was getting more water to the fields to increase agricultural output, and the way to accomplish this was a large-scale campaign- style mobilization of rural cadres and peasant labor. The outcomes of the Farmland Irrigation Campaign were encouraging. The original target for the 1957–1958 winter season of 43.9 million newly irrigated mu set in September was revised to 61.8 million mu in October, then to 92 million mu in November. The substantial expansion of irrigated agriculture through mass mobilization suggested that even greater gains could be achieved if rural society could be reorganized collectively to focus on agricultural pursuits. It was this premise that led to the creation of the communes and the hypermobilization of the GLF.16

The GLF (1958–1960) quickly became a social and economic disaster. Rural society was organized into communes to achieve remarkable output targets in a short period, but the movement simply drained workers’ moral and physical resources. Likely the largest instance of famine in human history, 25–40 million Chinese died as a result of the overzealous demands placed on rural society. Much of the focus of communes was expansion of irrigation networks to bring ever more water to the generally dry North China Plain. The zeal with which these projects were promoted by local officials often led to inadequate construction and indifferent consideration of drainage once fields were watered. The net result of the GLF on the North China Plain was high rates of mortality, large tracts of salinized fields, and near total exhaustion for those who escaped starvation. The grain output for 1959 and 1960 was considerably below the annual average for the years before the GLF. Through it all, however, the total acreage of irrigated acreage likely expanded. However compromised these fields may have been through substandard construction, the GLF likely contributed to a longer-term capacity to feed a population that experienced profound growth beginning in the 1950s.

Following the chaos of the GLF, it became increasingly clear to local officials and central economic actors that surface waters on the North China Plain were being exploited at unsustainable rates. This realization helped launch the “groundwater campaigns” of the 1960s and 1970s. The rapid development of groundwater irrigation was made possible by the development of small-scale pumps that could be operated cheaply and efficiently to extract the groundwater resources on the North China Plain. By 1963, more than 10,000 pumping stations were established in China. This second wave of irrigation in China, development from 1965 to the early 1970, witnessed the development of 1.2 million wells by 1973. Groundwater irrigation brought China’s total irrigated farmland to 650 million mu (43 million hectares), representing nearly half (45 percent) of all farmland in China.17

In addition to large-scale irrigation development, the second major thrust of “directing the waters” of the Yellow River and the North China Plain was the attempt to build the Sanmenxia Dam across the main stem of the river. Reflective of Soviet-style developmental impulses suggested by the 1955 Yellow River Plan, the dam was largely constructed during the mass mobilization years of the GLF. Designed with Soviet technical advice, the dam proved contentious from the very beginning as several Chinese engineers questioned the wisdom of constructing a large dam and reservoir on a waterway that carried as much silt as the Yellow River. The engineers responsible for the design of Sanmenxia claimed it was key to the hydraulic stability of the North China Plain. The flow of the Yellow River would be regulated to attenuate flooding threats downstream. The large reservoir behind the dam would impound silt to allow the river to run clear to the sea. Finally, regulated seasonal flows of Yellow River water could reliably support irrigation and transport.

The optimism of the Sanmenxia engineers proved illusory. Several years after the completion of the dam in 1960, it became clear that the rate of siltation behind the dam was not sustainable. The discharge outlets had to be raised to avoid complete siltation, and in 1964 debates at the highest level of the state led to the operating principle of the dam being changed from “impounding water and storing silt” to “retaining floodwater and discharging silt.” The challenge of managing silt remained, as it had for centuries, the fundamental problem of Yellow River control. Although a large dam was constructed across the main stem of the river at Xiaolangdi (Henan Province) was completed in 2000, the challenge remains of how to most effectively use the dam to flush silt from the lower reaches of the river. The relative failure to completely solve the silt issue has required the state’s continued commitment to maintain the complex networks of dikes—a legacy of the imperial period.18

The Yellow River and North China Plain in the Post-Mao Period (1978–)

With the end of Mao and Maoism in the late 1970s, China, under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping and his successors, embarked on fundamental restructuring of economic and social relations. The forces unleashed had a profound impact on the water resources of the North China Plain. The rapid expansion of industrial output, the restructuring of the rural economy, urbanization, and changes in the structure of water demand generated an increase in water consumption while, at the same time, introducing an array of pollutants to surface waterways. These new pressures on the water resources of North China were layered atop a historically challenged region for water, and further intensified the considerable exploitation of those resources during the Maoist period.

The impact on North China’s water resources of the restructuring of agriculture, industry, and urban life reignited talk of an “ecological crisis,” reminiscent of the perceptions of the region during the late imperial and Republican periods. Comparative data reveals increasing challenges of increased water usage. Total available water resources dropped from 41.9 billion m3/year during 1956–1979 to 32.5 billion m3/year during 1980–2009. On a per capita basis, the decline of water resources was even more revealing. As a consequence of demographic growth on the North China Plain (whose population increased from 57 million in 1980 to 133 million in 2009), per capita water availability plunged from 735 m3/year in 1952 to 302 m3/year in 2009. In comparison, total national water resources per capita were 2,079 m3/year in 2009 (the global per capita 2009 average was over 6,225 m3/year). As per capita supply declined, overall consumption of water skyrocketed. Household demand in 2009 increased by 144 percent over 1980.19 In addition to the large utilization of surface water since 1949, the aggressive development of groundwater that began in the 1960s generated significant drawdowns of aquifers on the North China Plain, in some instances generating land subsidence issues near the capitol region.

At the same, pollution has degraded significant surface water resources. Beginning in 1978, China began approving an environmental regulatory structure that borrowed many concepts and practices from Western countries. Where environmental regulation has buckled is in its implementation at local levels where officials typically garnered opportunities for upward mobility by promoting economic growth over environmental protection. An expansion of unregulated small enterprises, increased use of inorganic fertilizers in the countryside, and ineffective urban wastewater mechanism were elements of a suite of pollutants that generated increasingly serious and obvious evidence of limited quantities of water for human consumption.

During the 1990s two watershed events occurred to drive home the potential limitations of water quality and quantity issues on China’s economic and political stability. First, in the early 1990s, the Huai River experienced an increasingly toxic cocktail of pollutants that rendered the river unfit for any use. Reported widely by the Chinese press, the state responded quickly with a massive Huai River cleanup project. Second, in 1997, the Yellow River went dry some 430 miles inland from its mouth on the Bohai Sea. The dry-up was a shock to many who considered the river “the mother of Chinese civilization.” In fact, the river had experienced desiccation upstream from its mouth since the 1970s that were reflections of the large-scale exploitation of water in the Maoist period. But the extent of this dry-up was indeed a wake-up call for China’s leaders who were increasingly attuned to the connection of environmental health and social, economic, and political stability.20

Figure 4. The South-to-North Water Diversion Project.

Source: David Pietz, The Yellow River: The Problem of Water in Modern China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), 320. Courtesy of Harvard University Press.

The government has responded to the growing pressures of water constraints, and the public pressures that have accompanied them, by a combination of measures to increase supply and to manage demand. Consistent with engineering solutions that have been a hallmark of Chinese water management, the state has invested large sums to build the South-to-North Water Diversion Project to divert water from the Yangtze River valley to the North China Plain through three designated routes. The largest engineering project since the Grand Canal in China, the routes, if all completed, will divert some 45 billion m3 of water annually to the North China Plain. Complementing net additions to the water supply of North China are incremental steps to address consumption. Agriculture remains the single largest consumer of water on the North China Plain, but allocation challenges have become a bottleneck as industrial and urban users demand more water. The state has introduced a series of price reforms in the water sector to encourage efficient use of water, and as a mechanism to allocate to higher-value uses. This combination of command and market mechanisms is viewed as the solution to contemporary solutions to the centuries-old challenge of managing the waters of the Yellow River and the North China Plain.21

Last, the potential impact of climate change on Yellow River flows have commanded the attention of researchers and policy actors since the late 1990s. Although significant reduction of snowpack in the source region of the Yellow River would increase flows in the short term (adding to flood management concerns), over the long term flows would be reduced, adding to the water supply challenges on the North China Plain.22

Discussion of the Literature

Early comment on the Yellow River and the North China Plain focused on the economic privation of the region. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Western sojourners to China often viewed the region as afflicted by constant famine, generated by drought or famine. Reports from the likes of Alexander Wylie, Ney Elias, James Morrison, and Timothy Richards typically commented on the difficult environmental and social conditions of the region, often equating such conditions with a need of reform in China. It is largely from this reportage from missionaries and adventurers that the West was exposed to the notion of the Yellow River as “China’s sorrow,” and China as the “land of famine.” In the early 20th century famine conditions were also reported carefully by organizations such as the China International Relief Commission.

From the first several decades of the 20th century there is a rich literature on diagnoses and prescriptions of Yellow River and Grand Canal management by a number of Western technical experts. The first of these technical reports emanated from the Society for the Promotion of Dutch Engineering Works Abroad in 1889, which was contracted by the Qing government to report on Yellow River management. In the early 20th centuries similar technical reports were filed by individuals such as O. J. Todd and John Freeman, established engineers from the United States who were hired as central and provincial officials to offer perspectives on the newly professionalized discipline of hydraulic engineering. Indeed, Yellow River management became an international topic of engineering interest as Hubert Engels, considered the father of modern engineering in Europe, and others from Europe wrote reports on China’s water management challenges.

With the nominal reunification of China under the Nationalist government in 1927, a variety of reports were generated by the government, primarily the YRCC. Some of the most comprehensive of these reports were authored by Li Yizhi, often considered to be one of China’s greatest engineers of the 20th century. Other reports from international organizations like the League of Nations and, from the postwar period, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration provide a rich source for understanding the goals of multipurpose water management and the attempt to apply such principles to the North China Plain.

Early interpretive analysis of Yellow River management, and water control more generally in China, was offered by Chi Ch’ao-ting, who connected regional development with water management, and Karl Wittfogel (Oriental Despotism), who viewed the successful management of water as mandating a form of totalitarian control by imperial governments in China. Subsequent scholarship convincingly showed the multiple ways by which local interests, not directly responding to central mandates, managed water in accordance with local conditions. Beginning around 1980 a rich set of scholarship on the Yellow River and North China Plain appeared. From an institutional history perspective, Charles Greer authored a synthetic look at the management of the Yellow River over time (Water Management in the Yellow River Basin in China). Inspired by the perspectives of social and economic history, Elizabeth Perry (Rebels and Revolutionaries in North China) and Kenneth Pomeranz (The Making of a Hinterland) examined the social and political effects of ecological breakdown on the North China Plain. For superb exploration of the complex bureaucratic processes of water management in the post-1949 era see Policy Formulation in China by Kenneth Lieberthal and Michel Oksenberg.

Over the last several decades there has been a spate of superb books on the Yellow River during the imperial and contemporary eras. Randall Dodgen examines the role of “Confucian engineers” in 19th-century management, while Lillian Li offered a magisterial work on famine in North China (Fighting Famine in North China). In addition to books by David Pietz (Engineering China and The Yellow River), two books by Micah Muscolino (The Ecology of War in China), Ling Zhang (The River, the Plain, and the State), and an article by Ruth Mostern (“Sediment and State in Imperial China”) all employ unique analytical paradigms with regard to the study of the Yellow River.

Primary Sources

  • Babcock Cressey, George. China’s Geographic Foundations: A Survey of Its Land and Its People. New York: McGraw Hill, 1934.
  • Elias, Ney. “Notes of a Journey to the New Course of the Yellow River, in 1868.” Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London 40 (1870): 1–33.
  • Freeman, John R. “Flood Problems in China.” Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers 85 (1922): 1405–1460.
  • Jameson, Charles Davis. “River, Lake and Land Conservancy in Portions of the Provinces of Anhui and Kiangsu, North of the Yangtze River.” Far Eastern Review 9, no. 6 (November 1912): 247–251.
  • League of Nations’ Communication and Transit Organization. Report by the Committee of Experts on Hydraulic and Road Questions. Geneva: League of Nations, 1935.
  • Ministry of Water Conservancy. Small Hydropower Development in China. Beijing: China Water Resources and Electric Power Press, 1980.
  • Republic of China, Supreme Economic Council, Public Works Commission. “Preliminary Report on the Yellow River Project by the Yellow River Consulting Board” (1948), Percy Othus Collection, Pennsylvania State University Special Collections, 1/08, 7.
  • Shaoqi, Liu. “The Present Situation, the Party’s General Line for Socialist Construction and Its Future.” In Communist China, 1955–1959: Policy Documents with Analysis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962), 416–438.
  • Todd, Oliver J. Development of Water Power at the Yellow River Falls and Elsewhere in South and Central Shansi to Aid in Irrigation and Industrial Expansion: A Report from Surveys Made in 1934 for Shansi Water Conservancy Commission. Beijing: China International Famine Relief Commission, 1934.
  • Todd, Oliver J. The China That I Knew. Palo Alto, CA: Author, 1973.
  • Todd, Oliver J., and Eliassen, S. “The Yellow River Problem.” Proceedings of the American Society of Civil Engineers 66, no. 8, pt. 2 (October 1940): 346–453.
  • Tse-tung, Mao. “Preface to ‘Socialist Upsurge in China’s Countryside.’” Communist China, 1955–1959, 117–118; and the “Draft Program for Agricultural Development, 1956–1967.”In Communist China, 1955–1959: Policy Documents with Analysis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962), 119–126.
  • Xiaokang, Su, and Luxiang, Wang. Deathsong of the River: A Reader’s Guide to the Chinese TV Series Heshang. Ithaca, NY: Cornell East Asia Series, 1991.
  • Zihui, Deng. Report on the Multi- Purpose Plan for Permanently Controlling the Yellow River and Exploiting Its Water Resources. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1955.

Further Reading

  • Carin, Robert. Irrigation Schemes in Communist China. Hong Kong: Union Research Institute, 1963.
  • Chengrui, Mei, and Dregne, Harold E. “Review Article: Silt and the Future Development of the Yellow River.” The Geographic Journal 358 (2003): 7–22.
  • Chi Wenshun. “Water Conservancy in Communist China.” China Quarterly 23 (1965): 37–54.
  • Dodgen, Randall. Controlling the Dragon: Confucian Engineers and the Yellow River in Late Imperial China. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001.
  • Economy, Elizabeth. The River Runs Black. 2nd ed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010.
  • Greer, Charles. Water Management in the Yellow River Basin of China. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979.
  • Huang, Philip. The Peasant Economy and Social Change in North China. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1985.
  • Josephson, Paul. Industrialized Nature: Brute Force Technology and the Transformation of the Natural World. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2002.
  • Li, Lillian M. Fighting Famine in North China: State, Market, and Environmental Decline, 1690s–1990s. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007.
  • Muscolino, Micah. The Ecology of War in China: Henan Province, the Yellow River, and Beyond, 1938–1950. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • Oksenberg, Michel. Policy Formation in Communist China: The Case of Mass Irrigation Campaign, 1957–1958. PhD dissertation, Columbia University, 1970.
  • Pannell, Clifton W., and Ma, Laurence J. C. China: The Geography of Development and Modernization. London: Edward Arnold, 1983.
  • Perdue, Peter. “Is There a Chinese View of Technology and Nature?” In The Illusory Boundary: Environment and Technology in History. Edited by Martin Ruess and Stephen Cutcliffe, 101–119. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010.
  • Perry, Elizabeth. Rebels and Revolutionaries in North China, 1845–1945. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1983.
  • Pietz, David. The Yellow River: The Problem of Water in Modern China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.
  • Pietz, David. Engineering the State: The Huai River and Reconstruction in Nationalist China, 1927–1937. New York: Routledge, 2017.
  • Pomeranz, Kenneth. The Making of a Hinterland: State, Society, and Economy in Inland North China, 1853–1937. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.
  • Shapiro, Judith. Mao’s War against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  • Smil, Vaclav. “Controlling the Yellow River.” Geographical Review 69, no. 3 (July 1979): 253–272.
  • Tan Liangshang et al. “Climate Patterns in North Central China during the Last 1800 Years and their Possible Driving Force.” Climate of the Past 7 (2011): 685–692.
  • Will, Pierre-Étienne. “Un cycle hydraulique en China.” Bulletin de l’Ecole Française d’Extrême-Orient 68 (1980): 261–288.
  • Wittfogel, Karl. Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1957.
  • Xu Jiongxin, “A Study of Long Term Environmental Effects of River Regulation on the Yellow River of China in Historical Perspective.” Geografiska Annaler, Series A, Physical Geography 12 (1968): 61–72.
  • Yu Liansheng, “The Huanghe (Yellow) River: A Review of Its Development, Characteristics, and Future Management Issues.” Continental Shelf Research 22, no. 3 (February 2002): 389–403.
  • Zaccone, Mary. Some Aspects of Surplus Labor, Water Control, and Planning in China, 1949–1960. PhD dissertation, University of North Carolina, 1963.
  • Zhang, Ling. The River, The Plain, and the State: An Environmental Drama in Northern Song China, 1048–1128. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019.