China Geography

The Yangzi River

China Geography

This is an article about the mighty Yangzi (Yangtse) River taken from SACU's China Now magazine, first published in 1988.

About the Yangzi River

The Yangzi is an extraordinary river in a number of ways. It is at the same time one of the country's most important transport routes, carrying a huge amount of cargo and passengers, yet also one of its most formidable barriers. The north and south of the country were for centuries effectively cut off from one another by this huge river, treacherous for its floods and the vast amount of water it drains from the heart of the Asian continent. It carries twenty-one times more water than the Yellow River. Such is the power it has had over the imagination that in the minds of Chinese people, it is seen as the division between the two halves of the country in cultural matters as well. North of it are wheat and dry grain eaters; to its south, rice is the staple.

Yangzi gorge
Yangzi Gorges. 1986

The length of the river (6,300 km) makes it the third longest in the world. It was not bridged until 1957, when a road-rail link at Wuhan was built. This increased the potential for north-south movement, for even after the coming of railways, people and cargo had to make their way by ferry when going on the Beijing to Guangzhou (Canton) line. Similar problems troubled travel between Beijing and Shanghai, until 1969 with the completion of the famous combined road and rail affair at Nanjing, which spans the 1.5 km-wide river.

Such a river is of course immensely useful for transport, and throughout history it has provided a major route for goods and people in its middle and lower reaches. As the extract from Isabelia Bird's 19th century expedition shows, by using teams on the banks it was also possible to pull boats upstream and maintain a traffic even into the heart of Sichuan province. Today, the maintenance of the channel and locks around the Gezhouba dam project means that 3,000 ton ships can travel up as far as Chongqing. It is navigable over nearly half its total length, and with its seven hundred tributaries forms a navigable network of 70,000 km, carrying more than four-fifths of the country's water-borne freight.

Yangzi Junk
Highly decorated design to the bluff bows of a trading junk. The eyes are directed downwards to the river to see the way

While this immense traffic helps to knit the country together, the river still imposes its image as a boundary on Chinese thinking. It marks the border between grain yield target areas; north of it farmers are expected to get less because of the shift in weather patterns between the north and south. This has affected tax rates in agriculture and how much was expected to be sold to the state. Such matters also regulate the official attitude to winter heating of urban homes, factories, schools and other public buildings. If you are unlucky enough to live just south of the river where it can still get very cold (e.g. in Hangzhou) there is no entitlement to heating. Not many miles to the north, on the other side, heating is permitted!

From its origins in the arid plateau-land of Qinghai the Changjiang passes through nine of the country's provinces, from the sparsely inhabited homelands of nomads, through the Sichuan basin and lower valley which are some of the most agriculturally productive parts of the country. Its middle reaches are carved through the spectacular gorges in the mountains which separate Sichuan from the rest of China. It is home to a unique species of freshwater dolphin, and provides an important livelihood to fishers. At its mouth is Shanghai, a key city in the current modernisation of China. The river is going to be of growing importance to this effort.

The name of the River

The earliest recorded name for the Yangzi River was simply jiang, now a general term for rivers in Chinese. Later it came to be known as Da Jiang 'Great River', or Chang Jiang 'Long River'. It is still called Chang Jiang in modern Chinese.

The name Yangzi (Yangtse), as used in European languages, is not used in China to refer to the whole river. So how did the European name originate? One theory is based on the fact that a traveller named Navarette, who went to China from Macau in 1658, was so impressed by the huge breadth of the river that he described it in his journal as 'the son of the ocean'. This phrase when translated into Chinese is yang zi jiang. Its pronunciation is the same as that of the name which had been used for a short section of river between Zhenjiang and Jiangdu in Jiangsu Province. Gradually the character used in the place name was substituted for the one meaning 'ocean', and the name Yangzi Jiang came to be used for the whole river. This name was most commonly spelt on English maps as 'Yang Tse Kiang' using the Wade Giles system.

Different stretches of the river have their own names in Chinese. The highest reaches near the source in Tibet are the Tongtian He, 'the river leading to heaven'. The next stretch, as far as Yibin, in Sichuan province upstream from Chongqing, is known as the Jinsha Jiang, 'golden sands river'. (Some sources suggest that this refers to gold panning which used to take place here.) Below Yibin the name Da Jiang 'great river' is used locally; another name for the stretch from Yibin to Yichang, which flows mainly through Sichuan province, is Chuan Jiang. From Fengjie to Yichang the river flows through the gorges and is also called Xia Jiang 'gorge river'. Finally, moving hundreds of miles east, it is worth remembering that the water front in Shanghai is not the Yangzi itself, but a tributary of it, the Huangpu Jiang.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2006 reprinted from SACU's magazine China Now 126, Page 19, September 1988

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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