Yangtze River History: Past and Present

The history of Yangtze River can be dated back to 140 million years ago. Through the long-term geological evolution, the river became what we see today about 3 million years ago. Yangtze River bred the early Chinese civilization, promoted the development of agriculture and shipping in ancient China, and brought disasters like floods as well. Entering the 20th century, China began to manage and make full use of Yangtze River with supports of manpower, materials and money. Now, Yangtze River cruise has become a visiting card of China, and Three Gorges Dam has effectively controlled floods and generated a number of clean electric energy. However, the improper use also brought unprecedented pollution to Yangtze River. Fortunately, measures to curb pollution have been taken and the water quality and eco-system of Yangtze are being gradually improved.

Yangtze River’s Origin since 140 Million Years Ago and Formation 3 Million Years Ago

About 140 million years ago, current Qinghai-Tibet area rose continually and the Tanggula Mountains formed, pushing the Tethys Sea back toward the west. Mountains in the lower reaches of Yangtze River today and Sichuan Basin were formed at that time as well. Several rivers originated from those ancient mountains, which are the origins of Yangtze River.

40 million to 30 million years ago, the Himalayas came into being and the Tethys Sea disappeared. The upper reaches of Yangtze River now rose rapidly, thus the several separate rivers joined in one running through steep gorges to the east. The ancient west and east sections of the river basically formed.

Up to 3 million years ago, the Himalayas further rose and the Wushan Mountain was cut through with fluvial erosion effect. Then, the two sections of river met together and became a whole river. That is just the Yangtze River.

Yangtze River History in Ancient China before 20th Century

Yangtze River bred Chinese civilization and made great contributions to ancient China’s development since Neotenic Age. It is the mother river of China. How did the Yangtze River affect ancient China?

Yangtze River Cultivated Early Chinese Civilization

Since human came into being, rivers supported their life to a great extent. Yangtze River bred some ancient civilizations that has been proved with the relics unearthed of Neotenic Age, especially in the area of tributary Han River. The best-known civilization along Yangtze River is the Hemudu Culture in Zhejiang Province, where archaeologists found a large amount of rice, farm tools, primitive pottery pieces and wooden architecture remains. These discoveries proved Hemudu was one of the earliest places planting rice and making pottery. The farm tools show human had gotten rid of slash-and-burn cultivation. All these evidences tell us people on the banks of Yangtze River had an advanced life of their times.

Promote the Development of Agriculture, Shipping and Economy

Looking back to Yangtze River history, it is always the sources of living water, irrigation water and the natural waterway of transportation. With the water of Yangtze River, the agriculture had been greatly developed, and the Yangtze River Delta became the national granary of the country. Yangtze River itself has been a natural east-west shipping route, and the south-north Grand Canal cross it in Yangzhou, Jiangsu, which provided more convenient water transportation for people. The development of agriculture and shipping promoted the economic growth. The economy in the south developed rapidly, in particular, since Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589 AD). Until now, Yangtze River Delta is still one of the most prosperous regions in China.

Reverse: Frequent Flood Disasters for Thousands of Years

Yangtze River has also brought flood disasters to people. According to the records of Yangtze River history, the floods mainly happened in the section of Jianghan Plain, Hubei Province. In the past 2,000 years till early 20th century, more than 200 grand floods occurred. In 1560 AD in Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD), Yangtze River flooded and submerged the vast areas along the river. The section from Jingzhou to Yueyang seemed to be a sea. In 1931, a section of levees in Hubei breached, which led to the inundated area of 101,200 square kilometers (25 million acres), covering six provinces of Sichuan, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangxi, Anhui and Jiangsu. The number of flood-hit population was more than 28.9 million, among which 145 thousand people died.

Harness the Yangtze since Early 20th Century

Due to the frequent floods in Yangtze River Basin, people learned to build levees and dams quite early. In the history of Yangtze River, the levees had been very strong in Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420 AD), and the techniques of building levees and dams were improved significantly in Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279 AD).

Since 1949, the government renovated and strengthened the levees of Yangtze River completely. Not a few flood diversion areas, large and medium-sized reservoirs and drainage and irrigation stations were built, and the shipping routes were redesigned. In this way, the flood disasters are greatly controlled. However, flood did not completely eliminated. The deadly flood in 1998 caused direct economic losses of nearly $30 billion. 223 million people suffered from the damage and 3,004 persons died in the disaster. Thus it is necessary to found a complete system of flood prevention.

Yangtze River Cruise Tour since 1978

The Yangtze River cruise tour started in 1978 with the ship Kunlun once used by national leaders to have inspection tours on Yangtze River. An American travel agency rented the ship and ran it. Later, more ships were made for Yangtze River cruise with the better and better facilities and larger shipload. Up to now, there are multiple series of ships running on Yangtze River from several cruise companies. The Yangtze River cruise has been a popular travel program that attracts visitors from both home and abroad.

See more Yangtze River Cruise Tours

Three Gorges Dam marks a new age in Yangtze River history.

The construction of Three Gorges Dam was started in 1994 and completed in 2006. It is a milestone in the history of Yangtze River. It is the largest hydropower station, the largest-scaled water conservancy project as well as the most difficult construction in the world. Three Gorges Dam brings immeasurable benefits to China’s flood control, drought resisting, power industry, shipping business, aquaculture, tourism, South-to-North Water Transfer, water supply, farmland irrigation, etc. It is incomparable by any water conservancy facility nowadays.

Today: Tourism, Shipping & Pollution Situation

Yangtze River now is a welcomed travel destination with the cruise tour as the highlight. It treats a plenty of tourists every year.

Shipping has always been important in Yangtze River history from ancient time to the present. However, the shipping industry on Yangtze River declines in recent years because other cheaper and faster transportations are developed like railway transport. Even though it still plays an important role in the transportation system of China.

The improper use of the Yangtze River brought it serious pollution. Fortunately, it has caused the attention of the government and people. The pollution of Yangtze River reduced and was improved in the past a few years. However, its water quality is still not as good as before and ecological system is still weak. Great efforts still need to be made to control and improve the pollution.

- Last modified on Jan. 06, 2020 -
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