The Yangtze River is the longest and busiest river in Asia and the third longest river in the world after the Nile and the Amazon. The Chinese call it Chang Liang ("Long River") and use the name Yangtze only to describe the section of the river near the mouth. Yangtze means "child of the ocean."

The Yangtze flows 3,964 miles from its source, 21,700 feet up in the Kunlun mountains on the Tibetan Plateau, to the East China Sea near Shanghai. It drops spectacularly off the Tibetan plateau, and descends almost 10,000 feet in its first 600 miles, separated by massive ridges from the Mekong and Salween Rivers.

The Yangtze River then passes through five spectacular canyons, nine province, literally dividing China in half between north and south. After reaching the large city of Chongqing, at an elevation of 630 feet, it wanders through a massive alluvial plain and is navigable for large ships. Wuhan, 600 miles inland, is one of the river's major ports. Hankow, Hanyang and Wuchang are also important ports. The mouth at Yangtze Kiang, where the Yangtze empties into the sea, is 30 to 40 miles wide. Here, the Yangtze releases 8 million gallons into the East China Sea every second.

The Yangtze River Watershed encompasses 700,000 square miles (20 percent of China's total land area), encompasses 700 tributaries and accounts for 35 percent of China’s total fresh water resources. It carries three-fourths of China's internal waterway commercial, irrigates more than a third of China's agricultural output and produces 40 percent of the nation grain, 25 percent of its rice, 30 percent of its cotton, 48 percent of its freshwater fish and 40 percent of China's total industrial output. Flooded fields produce as many as three crops a year (two of rice and one of wheat) and every bit of land is used. Even the narrow dikes that divide the rice paddies are planted with sugarcane and mulberry trees.

Nearly 400 million people live in the Yangtze watershed. This is a 100 million than live in the entire United States. Put another way, it represents 35 percent of all Chinese, or nearly 8 percent of all the people in the world. More than 200 million people live along or near the Yangtze itself.

Many of these people get around on one of the 250 different kind or river craft ply the Yangtze's waters, including sampans (three-plankers), wubans (five plankers) and junks. In the old days, floating restaurants and hotels and luxury junks outfit with stages gave acrobatic and opera performances in towns along the river. Sichuan boatmen used to travel downriver in disposable boats that were dismantled and sold as building material, making the treacherous run journey upriver unnecessary.

Route of Yangtze River

Nanjing lies near the huge Yangtze delta. Suzhou Creek, which connects the Yangtze to Shanghai, is 12 miles upstream from the mouth. In this area the river is filled with passenger and cargo ships, fishing vessels, huge timber rafts, junks and sampans. A network of canals, including the Grand Canal, links the Yangtze to Beijing and other major Chinese cities.

The Yangtze Delta---which is located in Jiangsu and Zhejiang Provinces and Shanghai---is one of China’s primary economic and industrial engines. People here are known for working hard, producing all kinds of products and making money. In recent years prosperity has begun to spread up river. On businessman in Chongqing, told the Wall Street Journal that "The Yangtze River area can be Asia's next dragon." The Yangtze corridor now has China's largest concentration of industry, accounting for more than a quarter of the country growth. Incomes are increasing at a rate of 20 percent a year. Web Sites: Wikipedia Wikipedia . Map: China Highlights China Highlights Books : Single Pebble by Jon Hersey and River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2001).

Yangtze River Pollution: According to report by the Chinese Academy of Science released in April 2007 the Yangtze is seriously and largely irreversibly polluted. More than 600 kilometers and almost 30 percent of the major tributaries are in critical condition. In 2002, Beijing announced it was going to spend $5 billion to clean up the river but the river remains as polluted as ever.

The Yangtze River is polluted with 40 million tons of industrial and sewage waste. Half of China’s 20,000 petrochemical factories lie on its banks. About 40 percent of all waste water produced in China---about 25 billion tons---flows into the Yangtze, of which only about 20 percent is treated beforehand.

The pollution has taken its toll on aquatic life. Deformities to fish such as one or no eyes and misshapen skeletons and decreasing numbers of rare wild Chinese sturgeon in the Yangtze have been blamed on a paint chemical widely used in Chinese industry. The Chinese sturgeon has been around for 140 million years. It grows very slowly and was among the first class of animals to be protected in China. Harvests of aquatic life from the river declined from 427,000 tons in the 1950s to 100,000 tons in the 1990s. The Yangtze is in danger of becoming a “dead river” unable to sustain marine life or provide drinking water. See Yangtze River Dolphin, under Nature, Animals and Animals and Plants again.


Yangtze Floods: The Yangtze River frequently overflows its banks and fills huge plains with large amounts of water, causing catastrophic flooding. There are floods every year during the June-to-September monsoon season. On average at least several hundred people are killed in Yangtze River floods every year. Some years there are devastating floods.

The Yangtze is responsible for 70 to 75 percent of China’s floods. Floods on the river in the 20th century alone have killed more than 300,000 people. There were catastrophic floods on the Yangtze in 1931, 1935 and 1954 and 1998. Over 2,000 are believed to have died in the flood of 1991. Some 4,100 died in the floods in 1998.

In 1931, 140,000 people were drowned when Yangtze dikes gave way. A Yangtze River flood in 1954 killed 30,000 people outright and perhaps an additional 200,000 through starvation and disease. One villager who lived through it told the Washington Post, "The corpses were put in coffins but they could not be buried. They were just stacked up.” The Three Gorges Dam has reduced flood risks in the middle stretch of the river but the risks of flooding remains high on the lower stretches.

In 1996, there were large floods on the Huai River in Anhui province. Flood waters turned hilltop villages into islands; left pig and chickens on rooftops; and caused one lake to exceed its shore by five kilometers. A similar flood occurred in 1991. In the summer 1999, monsoon floods caused by the overflowing upper and middle Yangtze, left at least 400 dead and 1.84 million homeless. More than 66 million people were affected.

In the summer of 1998, the Yangtze experienced its worst floods in 44 years. More than 4,100 people were killed, 13.8 million were left homeless and 240 million people (a number equal to the entire population of the United States) were affected directly by the rising waters.

The floods submerged 21 million acres of land, affected 53 million acres and destroyed 11 million acres of crops. More than 5.8 million houses were destroyed. Dikes were blown up in Jianli County to save Wuhan, a city of seven million people 150 miles upstream. Even so waters reached waist level in downtown Wuhan. null

Some people were evacuated on short notice and lost most of their possessions. Some tied their stuff in trees above the flood water because they couldn't carry them. Soldiers and police were called in to evacuate a half million people, keep order, prevent looting and stop the flooding. Dramatic footage was shown on Chinese television of soldiers risking their lives to reach from trees to pluck victims from the raging waters and working hard to shore up dikes with sandbags.

Severe rainfall was the main cause of the floods but man-induced factors included deforestation of erosion-subverting forests in the Yangtze river basin and other areas also contributed to the disaster. Rain water absorbed by forests and vegetation flows more slowly to rivers and streams, preventing flooding.

Other problems included the inhabitation of vulnerable flood plains by large numbers of people (550,000 people were evacuated from an area in which 170,000 were evacuated in 1954); the silting up and development of lakes that previously absorbed flood waters; and the neglect of dikes. In 1980, $1.2 billion was earmarked for dike improvement. But by 1987, only $48 million had been spent. Some of the money was diverted to the Three Gorges Dam project. After the 1998 floods, dikes were reinforced at considerable expense and hundreds of thousands of people that lived near the banks were forced to relocate.

Yangtze Between Tibet and Three Rivers Gorge

Upper Yangtze
Here, the Yangtze flow through some of the roughest country in China, including some of the world's deepest valleys and gorges that are so steep and narrow, they funnel the Yangtze into a 200-meter-deep channel, making it the deepest river in the world. Many of the towns on the upper Yangtze are precipitously located on steep slopes. They have narrow streets that run parallel to the river and are connected by slick stone stairways that run perpendicular to the river. The Yangtze falls from an elevation of 5,200 meters to 2,500 meters in its first 600 miles.

Tiger Leaping Gorge

Tiger Leaping Gorge (a couple hours from Lijiang in Yunnan Province) is one of the world's deepest gorges: the distance between the Yangtze River and the top of Jade Dragon Snow mountain above is 12,000 feet. There is a popular two- or three-day, 17-mile hike in the gorge between the villages of Daju and Qiatou.

Most people do the hike in two days. They take the bus or get a group together for minibus to Qiatou (which is more difficult get back from than Daju) in the morning. They hike the first day to Walnut Grove, where there are a couple of small guesthouses, and then hike the next day to Daju, where you can catch a local bus or minibus to Lijiang. See the Lonely Plant guides for more details.

A road has been carved into one side of Leaping Tiger Gorge for cars and buses. Work is being done on a road on the other side.Web Site: Travel China Guide (click attractions) Travel China Guide ; Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Chongqing, Three Gorges, See Separate Sections

Yangtze After Three River Gorge

Yangtze After Three River Gorge is only 12 meters feet above sea level. Here the river broadens in some areas to a width of over a mile and becomes one of the world's busiest waterways. The pollution here is terrible, and it is not unusual to see corpses floating down the river. Before the river finally reaches the East China Sea, near Shanghai, it passes the Grand Canal. In this area many canals are linked to the Yangtze.

Yichang (down river from the Three Gorges Dam in Hubei Province) is the terminus of many Three Gorges river trips and the closest city to the Three Gorges Dam. It boasts a new bridge over the Yangtze.

Tourist Office: Yichang Tourism Administration, 17 Hezuo Rd, 430017 Wuhan China, tel. (0)-717-283-3107, fax: (0)- 717-281-7868 Web Sites: Travel China Guide Travel China Guide Map: China Maps China Maps Hotel Web Site: Sinohotel Sinohotel Budget Accommodation: Check Lonely Planet books; Getting There: Yichang is accessible by air, bus train and Yangtze river boat. Travel China Guide (click transportation) Travel China Guide Lonely Planet (click Getting There) Lonely Planet

Jingzhou (near Shashi, down river from Yichang in Hubei Province) is an ancient city near the modern town of Shashi. Situated on a piece of land fought over many times in China's past, it contains a polygon-shaped wall built in 1644. The wall is 25 feet high, 30 meters thick and 6 miles in length. The earthen wall and moat inside the outer wall are unique in this part of China. Inside the inner walls are many cultural relics, burial mounds and tombs damaged in the floods.

Web Sites: Travel China Guide Travel China Guide Hotel Web Site: Sinohotel Sinohotel Budget Accommodation: Check Lonely Planet books.

Yueyang (down river from Jinzhou in Hunan Province) is old-style Yangtze River town with markets selling straw sandals and Mao statues, and old men smoking foot-long pipes. Its main attraction is a temple honoring the Han Dynasty general, Zhang Fei, built in the A.D. third century to honor his battlefield victories. The temple has been dismantled and rebuilt on high ground to protect it when the waters behind the Three Gorges dam rise.

Web Sites: Travel China Guide Travel China Guide Hotel Web Site: Sinohotel Sinohotel Budget Accommodation: Check Lonely Planet books; Getting There: Yueyang is accessible by air, bus train and Yangtze river boat. Travel China Guide (click transportation) Travel China Guide

Yueyang Pagoda (Yueyang) is one of three most famous pagodas south of the Yangtze River. Over 60 feet tall and made of wood, the three-story structure contains orange tiled roofs that look like a helmets, huge namnu pillars and a huge red terrace that supports the entire building.


Dongting Lake (between Hunan and Hubei province) is a 2,820-square-kilometer lake which lies on the Yangtze River. Over the centuries it has played a vital ecological role by absorbing the flood waters when the Yangtze River surges in the summer and providing wetlands for migrating birds.

The Communists built huge dikes around the lake to reclaim fertile land for agriculture. The plan turned out to a mistake. Farmers that lived below the dikes suffers through several flood. After 1998, when many people died and severe flood resulted after some of dikes broke, some of the dikes were removed and famers were resttled and the lake was freed to ebb and flow with Yangtze’s waters.

Wuhan (in Hubei Province five days down river from Chongqing) is the home of China’s only legal horse racing track and one of China’s largest cities, with a population of around 8 million. Situated on top of Snake Hill along the Yangtze River, Yellow Crane Pagoda. is one of the three famous pagodas south of the Yangtze River. It has been rebuilt many times because of fire, most recently in 1985. It has five stories, rises 170 feet into the air and is supported by 72 huge pillars. The pagoda's upturned yellow-tiled eaves look like heavily made-up eyelashes. Linking Snake Hill to Wuhan is the mile-long Yangtze River Bridge, the first steel bridge built across the mighty Yangtze. In the eastern suburb of Wuhan is East Lake a fairly large recreation area surrounded by forests and small mountains.

Yangtze at Wuhan
Tourist Office: Hubei Tourism Administration, 2 Building, Qingshiqiao Block Hanyang, 430050Wuhan, Hubei China, tel. (0)-27-484-3024, fax: (0)- 27-482-2513 Web Sites: Travel China Guide Travel China Guide Maps: China Map Guide China Map Guide ; Joho Maps Joho Maps Subway Map: Urban Rail.net Urban Rail Hotel Web Site: Sinohotel Sinohotel Budget Accommodation: Check Lonely Planet books; Travellerspoint (click China and place in China) Travellerspoint Getting There: Wuhan is accessible by air, bus train and Yangtze river boat. Travel China Guide (click transportation) Travel China Guide

Wuhu (in Anhui Province, 60 kilometers up river from Nanjing) is the home Chery, the Chinese car maker with ambitions of making it big in the United States. The city had 700,000 people in the early 2000s but was growing fast as car parts suppliers and auto-related businesses have began sprouting up. Wuhu sits in the east bank of the Yangtze. In 1876 it was declared a city where the British could engage in trade. The British responded by quickly opening a opium processing plant. In 1992, during the Deng era, Wuhu was declared a free trade city,

Web Sites: Travel China Guide Hotel Web Site: Sinohotel Sinohotel Budget Accommodation: Check Lonely Planet books; Travellerspoint (click China and place in China) Travellerspoint Getting There: Wuhu is accessible by air, bus train and Yangtze river boat.

Yangtze Delta

Yangtze Delta is 200 miles wide and laced with canals. Shanghai is in the southern side of it and Nanking is on the west side and kind of marks its beginning. It was originally a wetland then a rich agricuultural area and now is beong developed very quickly. Some Chinese geographers claim that the Yangtze River Delta is the most productive agricultural land in the world, and getting more productive all the time as new paddy soil is created.

The delta has a few protected areas left. In some places there are cities, In others there are factories. Place that have been urbanized or industrialized are full of fish farms and vegetable fields. Areas that are filled with reed also have roads and trucks that are used to carry the reed out. Yancheng Reserve in the Yangtze Delta is home to red-crowned cranes, reed parrotbills. Oriental storks and the world’s last 2,000 or so black-faced spoonbills. Web Site: Wikipedia Wikipedia

Cixi is a thriving municipality in the Yangtze Delta In 2007 it boasted exports of $4 billion from 20,000 private companies and only one state-owned company. Jonathan Franzen wrote in The New Yorker, “So many locals own or manage factories that resident population is nearly equaled by the population of migrant workers who do the ordinary jobs.” The “wetland parks” set up in a former area of reeds and swamps of the Yangtze Delta and largely devoid of bird life.

Yangtze at Nanjing

Nanjing (also known as Nanking, around a 240 kilometers west of Shanghai) has been the site of many important historical events. After the Mongols were driven out in the 14th century, it was the capital of China for about 50 years. It was selected because it was less vulnerable to attacks by horsemen than cities further north. In the 1860s, the Taiping rebellion was centered in Nanjing and ultimately defeated there.

What most people know it for is the Rape of Nanking. In 1937, the Japanese army attacked Nanjing to gain control of its important port and knock out a large contingent of the Chinese army, in the process committing horrible acts. They gang raped young women, butchered Chinese men and cut open pregnant women and had their pictures taken next to the fetuses. No one how many Chinese were killed but scholars estimate that between 140,000 and 300,000 troops and unarmed civilians died.

See Nanjing Jiangsu Province

Shanghai See Separate Section

Image Sources: Province maps from the Nolls China Web site. Photographs of places from 1) CNTO (China National Tourist Organization; 2) Nolls China Web site; 3) Perrochon photo site; 4) Beifan.com; 5) tourist and government offices linked with the place shown; 6) Mongabey.com; 7) University of Washington, Purdue University, Ohio State University; 8) UNESCO; 9) Wikipedia; 10) Julie Chao photo site; 11) NASA; 12) Xinhua

Text Sources: CNTO, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

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