The Yellow River flows for 5500km through nine provinces, making it one of the world’s mightiest waterways. However, the vast quantity of silt the river carries along its twisted length – 1.6 billion tonnes a year – has confused its course throughout history, and its unpredictable swings have always brought chaos. From 1194 to 1887, there were fifty major Yellow River floods, with three hundred thousand people killed in 1642 alone. Another disastrous event in 1933 was followed in 1937 by further tragedy – this time man-made – when Chiang Kai-shek used the river as a weapon against the advancing Japanese, breaching its dykes to cut the rail line. A delay of a few weeks was gained at the cost of hundreds of thousands of Chinese lives.

Attempts to enhance the river’s potential for creation rather than destruction began very early, at least by the eighth century BC, when the first irrigation canals were cut. In the fifth century BC, the Zheng Guo Canal irrigation system stretched an impressive 150km; it’s still in use today. But the largest scheme was the building of the 1800km Grand Canal in the sixth century, which connected the Yellow and the Yangzi rivers and was used to carry grain to the north. It was built using locks to control water level, an innovation that did not appear in the West for another four hundred years.

Dykes, too, have been built since ancient times, and in some eastern sections the river bottom is higher than the surrounding fields, often by as much as 10m. Dyke builders are heroes around the Yellow River, and every Chinese knows the story of Da Yu, the legendary figure responsible for battling the capricious waters. It is said that he mobilized thousands of people to dredge the riverbed and dig diversionary canals after a terrible flood in 297 BC. The work took thirteen years, and during that period Yu never went home. At work’s end, he sank a bronze ox in the waters, a talisman to tame the flow (a replica of the ox guards the shore of Kunming Lake in Beijing’s Summer Palace). Today, river control continues on a massive scale. To stop flooding, the riverbed is dredged, diversion channels are cut and reservoirs constructed on the river’s tributaries. Land around the river has been forested to help prevent erosion and so keep the river’s silt level down.

Surrounded by colossal sand dunes, the Ningxia resort of Shapotou is probably the most spectacular place from which to view the Yellow River, but for most of its course it meanders across a flat flood plain with a horizon sharp as a knife blade. Two good places to witness this are at the Yellow River Viewing Point in Kaifeng and from the Yellow River Park outside Zhengzhou. To see the river in a more tempestuous mood, take a diversion to Hukou Falls, farther north on the Shaanxi–Shanxi border.

Travel offers; book through Rough Guides

China features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

The roof of the world: a first-timer's guide to Tibet

The roof of the world: a first-timer's guide to Tibet

The ‘roof of the world’ has exerted a magnetic pull over travellers and adventurers for centuries. This vast, high altitude desert has spawned myths and leg…

10 Nov 2016 • Stuart Butler insert_drive_file Article
Video: 10 Taiwanese street foods you need to try

Video: 10 Taiwanese street foods you need to try

Street food in Taiwan has a charm that restaurants just can't match. There's a distinct pleasure to be found in wandering through the labyrinthine stalls glo…

24 Oct 2016 • Colt St. George videocam Video
Beyond the Jade Dragon mountain: stunning pictures of Yunnan, China

Beyond the Jade Dragon mountain: stunning pictures of Yunnan, China

After a few weeks exploring the region, Rough Guides travel writer and photographer David Abram shares some of his favourite images of Yunnan Province, China. …

18 Oct 2016 • David Abram insert_drive_file Article
View more featureschevron_right

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month