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Mountains and Rivers


Mountains. China is broken up into a sort of checker-board by intersecting mountain chains. One major range is traced from southwestern China northeastward through Shansi and western Manchuria. A parallel range extends from Guangzhou northward along the coast to the lower reaches of the Yangzi (Yangtze) River and then reappears in the Shandong Peninsula and along the Korean and Manchurian borders. Intersecting these two southwest-to-northeast ranges, three parallel mountain chains are spaced at roughly equal intervals from west to east. Across the center of South China the southernmost chain creates the watershed dividing the West River system of the Guangzhou region from the Yangzi Valley. In the extreme North another east-west range divides North China from the Mongolian plateau. The eastward extension of the massive Kunlun Mountains of northern Tibet creates the dividing line between the Yangzi and the Yellow Rivers, marking the boundary of North China and South China. Overall, this crosshatching of mountain ranges produces

several separate geographical regions, which contributed to the lack of economic and political unity during the imperial era (617-1644).

Yellow River. The Yellow River, approximately 2,700 miles in length and located in North China, is the fifth longest river in the world. It begins in Tibet at 14,000 feet, then drops precipitously to 5,800 feet within the first seven hundred miles and gradually descends in great bends through western and northern China. A wide but relatively shallow river, it is not navigable for deep-draft ships. After entering the North China Plain about five hundred miles from the sea, it crosses a wide floodplain. The riverbed slopes only about one foot per mile. Along the banks of the Yellow River there is a great problem with silt. In the summer flood season the waters from the great treeless mountain ranges to the west bring with them a heavy deposit of yellow silt, which gives the river its name. The river, continually building up its own bed, rose from ten to forty feet above the surrounding areas, and the imperial governments from the Tang dynasty(618-907) to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) had to construct dikes to keep it within its channel.

Insoluble Problem. Because of its alternating droughts and floods the Yellow River represented death, as well as life, to the Chinese. Only one breach in the dikes could spread water over hundreds of square miles and cut millions of peasants off from their provisions. When the river bursts the dikes, its mouth changes too, emptying into the Yellow Sea at various points. The immensity of the Yellow River problem was graphically demonstrated by the historic shifts of its bed from the north to the south of the Shandong promontory and back again. After 1191 water of the Yellow River primarily entered the Yellow Sea south of the peninsula. The Yellow River gave the Chinese an apparently insoluble problem, one that the Chinese emperors were never able to conquer.

Yangzi River. The Yangzi (Yangtze) River, the fourth longest river in the world, is 3,200 miles in length. With a catchment basin double the size of the Yellow River’s, the Yangzi collects double the amount of rainfall. In its upper reaches the Yangzi is called the “Golden River,” and it is navigable. In flood season the river dashes through the well-known Yangzi gorges above Hubei at fourteen knots. Joined by a great network of tributaries, the Yangzi itself takes an enormous volume of silt, approximately four hundred million tons a year, into the ocean. As a result, during the imperial era the Yangzi River extended the rich Shanghai delta region at the rate of about one mile in seventy years. The Dongting and Poyang Lakes serve as water catchment and storage basins for the lower Yangzi, but the rainy season can raise the water level in places as much as forty or fifty feet between the dikes. Disastrous floods, however, did not occur as much as they did with the Yellow River during the imperial era. The Yangzi River played an important role in the economic development of the Yangzi areas.


George B. Cressey, Asia’s Lands and People: A Geography of One-third of the Earth and Two-thirds of Its People (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963).

Leo J. Moser, The Chinese Mosaic: The Peoples and Provinces of China (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1985).

Christopher J. Smith, China: People and Places in the Land of One Billion(Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1991).

Mountains and Rivers

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