1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Hwang Ho

HWANG HO [Hoang Ho], the second largest river in China. It is known to foreigners as the Yellow river—a name which is a literal translation of the Chinese. It rises among the Kuen-lun mountains in central Asia, its head-waters being in close proximity to those of the Yangtsze-Kiang. It has a total length of about 2400 m. and drains an area of approximately 400,000 sq. m. The main stream has its source in two lakes named Tsaring-nor and Oring-nor, lying about 35° N., 97° E., and after flowing with a south-easterly course it bends sharply to the north-west and north, entering China in the province of Kansuh in lat. 36°. After passing Lanchow-fu, the capital of this province, the river takes an immense sweep to the north and north-east, until it encounters the rugged barrier ranges that here run north and south through the provinces of Shansi and Chihli. By these ranges it is forced due south for 500 m., forming the boundary between the provinces of Shansi and Shensi, until it finds an outlet eastwards at Tung Kwan—a pass which for centuries has been renowned as the gate of Asia, being indeed the sole commercial passage between central China and the West. At Tung Kwan the river is joined by its only considerable affluent in China proper, the Wei (Wei-ho), which drains the large province of Shensi, and the combined volume of water continues its way at first east and then north-east across the great plain to the sea. At low water in the winter season the discharge is only about 36,000 cub. ft. per second, whereas during the summer flood it reaches 116,000 ft. or more. The amount of sediment carried down is very large, though no accurate observations have been made. In the account of Lord Macartney’s embassy, which crossed the Yellow river in 1792, it was calculated to be 17,520 million cub. ft. a year, but this is considered very much over the mark. Two reasons, however, combine to render it probable that the sedimentary matter is very large in proportion to the volume of water: the first being the great fall, and the consequently rapid current over two-thirds of the river’s course; the second that the drainage area is nearly all covered with deposits of loess, which, being very friable, readily gives way before the rainfall and is washed down in large quantity. The ubiquity of this loess or yellow earth, as the Chinese call it, has in fact given its name both to the river which carries it in solution and to the sea (the Yellow Sea) into which it is discharged. It is calculated by Dr Guppy (Journal of China Branch of Royal Asiatic Society, vol. xvi.) that the sediment brought down by the three northern rivers of China, viz., the Yangtsze, the Hwang-ho and the Peiho, is 24,000 million cub. ft. per annum, and is sufficient to fill up the whole of the Yellow Sea and the Gulf of Pechili in the space of about 36,000 years.

Unlike the Yangtsze, the Hwang-ho is of no practical value for navigation. The silt and sand form banks and bars at the mouth, the water is too shallow in winter and the current is too strong in summer, and, further, the bed of the river is continually shifting. It is this last feature which has earned for the river the name “China’s sorrow.” As the silt-laden waters debouch from the rocky bed of the upper reaches on to the plains, the current slackens, and the coarser detritus settles on the bottom. By degrees the bed rises, and the people build embankments to prevent the river from overflowing. As the bed rises the embankments must be raised too, until the stream is flowing many feet above the level of the surrounding country. As time goes on the situation becomes more and more dangerous; finally, a breach occurs, and the whole river pours over the country, carrying destruction and ruin with it. If the breach cannot be repaired the river leaves its old channel entirely and finds a new exit to the sea along the line of least resistance. Such in brief has been the story of the river since the dawn of Chinese history. At various times it has discharged its waters alternately on one side or the other of the great mass of mountains forming the promontory of Shantung, and by mouths as far apart from each other as 500 m. At each change it has worked havoc and disaster by covering the cultivated fields with 2 or 3 ft. of sand and mud.

A great change in the river’s course occurred in 1851, when a breach was made in the north embankment near Kaifengfu in Honan. At this point the river bed was some 25 ft. above the plain; the water consequently forsook the old channel entirely and poured over the level country, finally seizing on the bed of a small river called the Tsing, and thereby finding an exit to the sea. Since that time the new channel thus carved out has remained the proper course of the river, the old or southerly channel being left quite dry. It required some fifteen or more years to repair damages from this outbreak, and to confine the stream by new embankments. After that there was for a time comparative immunity from inundations, but in 1882 fresh outbursts again began. The most serious of all took place in 1887, when it appeared probable that there would be again a permanent change in the river’s course. By dint of great exertions, however, the government succeeded in closing the breach, though not till January 1889, and not until there had been immense destruction of life and property. The outbreak on this occasion occurred, as all the more serious outbreaks have done, in Honan, a few miles west of the city of Kaifengfu. The stream poured itself over the level and fertile country to the southwards, sweeping whole villages before it, and converting the plain into one vast lake. The area affected was not less than 50,000 sq. m. and the loss of life was computed at over one million. Since 1887 there have been a series of smaller outbreaks, mostly at points lower down and in the neighbourhood of Chinanfu, the capital of Shantung. These perpetually occurring disasters entail a heavy expense on the government; and from the mere pecuniary point of view it would well repay them to call in the best foreign engineering skill available, an expedient, however, which has not commended itself to the Chinese authorities.  (G. J.)