The Yangtze

Measuring some 3,915 miles (6,300 km) long, the Yangtze (also Yangtse,
Yangzi, or Chang) claims third place among the world’s longest rivers.
This wondrous yet formidable river originates on the southeast edge of the
great steppes of central Asia. Rising almost due north from Calcutta in the
Tibetan highlands of western China, the Yangtze flows east for some 500
miles (805 km) and then makes a great dip toward the south before heading
to the northeast. In its path to the East China Sea, the Yangtze never
leaves China but crosses 10 of the country’s provinces, including Szechwan
(Sichuan). While not as richly branched as the Amazon, the Yangtze still
receives input from at least 700 tributaries.
A tumultuous waterway, the Yangtze ranks second after the Amazon
in terms of discharge. Fed by copious amounts of melting snow and
also heavy rains, the river’s flow is 10 times greater than China’s Huang
Ho (Hwang River, Huanghe; also known in English as the Yellow River).
The Yangtze’s watershed encompasses 698,265 square miles (1,808,500
km²), or one-fifth of China’s surface area. The silt load of the Yangtze
averages 520 million tons per year, the fourth largest in the world. The
Yangtze is also known to be one of the most dangerous rivers in the world;
untold thousands have lost their lives in its treacherous waters or while
working on its dams and bridges.
The river looms large in Chinese history, culture, and commerce; rice
was first cultivated along its banks some 11,000 years ago. The Yangtze
provides water not only for irrigation purposes but also for drinking and
washing. Known to many Chinese as the Chang, or Long, River, the Yangtze
serves as the country’s main thoroughfare, connecting China’s vastfarmland to its industrial centers. Fishing boats, cruise ships, and freighters
crowd the waterway from Shanghai to Chunking (Chongqing), a distance
of 1,490 miles (2,399 km), and also ply the 1,114-mile- (1,795-km-) long
Grand Canal to Peking (Beijing). The city of Shanghai, home to 11 million
people, sits at the river’s mouth. Altogether, some 400 million people populate
the river’s banks, and 80 percent of all river traffic in China takes place
on the Yangtze.
Although pristine in its upper reaches, the Yangtze becomes progressively
dirtier and more densely populated as it approaches the sea. In its
lower regions, the river has become China’s unfortunate sewer, carrying the
human waste and industrial effluents of its many cities downstream. Indeed,
one of the major challenges facing China this century is the need to abate
pollution while continuing down the path of increasing industrialization.
The Yangtze River begins its journey in Tibet and reaches the East China Sea some 3,915 miles (6,300 km) later.
The Yangtze G 45
Ancient Or igins
The Yangtze River first formed millions of years ago, a by-product of continental
drift. Although the process itself took many millennia, the Ch’ing-hai
(Qinghai) Plateau, from which the Yangtze descends, rose from the Earth’s
crust some 40 million years ago when the Indian subcontinent and Eurasia
crashed into one another, forming a single landmass. The force of this collision
in turn deformed the Earth’s crust, pushing the Himalayas skyward
and causing lifting of the plateau. At the same time, a vast inland sea formed
in western China. As the sea began to drain east, its flowing waters etched
out a drainage channel. This drainage channel became the Yangtze, which
eventually worked its way to the East China Sea.
China’s other great rivers, including the Huang Ho, formed at the same
time, originating from the same massive drainage basin. Because the plateau
tilts slightly to the east, China’s major rivers flow from west to east,
discharging their contents into the East China Sea. Smaller tributaries flow
north and south but empty into eastward-flowing streams. In this way, all
flowing water eventually moves east toward the sea.
From W estern China to the E ast China S ea
The source of the Yangtze is the Wu-lan-mu-lun River, which originates
on the slopes of the southern Kunlun mountain range in China’s western
Ch’ing-hai Province near the border of the Tibet. From modest beginnings
and a width measured in feet, the river grows rapidly as it loses elevation; by
the time its flow reaches the ocean, the Yangtze spans some nine miles (15
km). The river changes so drastically, in fact, as it moves downward that the
Chinese refer to it by four different names: the High Yangtze, the Upper
Yangtze, the Middle Yangtze, and the Lower Yangtze.
High Y angtze
The high river holds a mythical place in Chinese culture, representing a
location largely bypassed by the modern world. Here, on a barren landscape,
water tumbles from mountain glaciers some 21,000 feet (6,100 m)
high. Made from melting snow, small streams flow downward from several
snowclad peaks. They come together on the plateau, where they give rise to
the Yangtze. Thereafter the river continues its downward plunge, dropping
hundreds of feet per mile. Heading first east and then south, the Yangtze
moves quickly across the windswept Ch’ing-hai Plateau.
The landscape at this altitude is inhospitable to life, and so the region
is sparsely populated. Winters on the alpine plain are bitter cold, and the
growing season is short. Largely isolated from the rest of the world, the Tibetans
who live here under Chinese rule eke out a living in much the same
way as their ancestors did. They till the land with yaks and rely on human
G Rivers
and animal power; electricity in the region is rare. The people call the river
the Chin-sha-chiang (Jinshajiang), which means “Golden River,” a name
that refers to the small amount of fi ne gold sand carried by the current.
Upper yangtze
After descending from the Ch’ing-hai Plateau and straightening its path eastward,
the Yangtze forces its way through mountains called the Wuhan range.
Called the Upper Yangtze, this formidable 500-mile (800-km) stretch of
fast-fl owing water passes between the cities of Chunking (Chongqing) and
I-chang (Yichang).
Here—for millions of years—the Yangtze has churned through mountainous
limestone-rich peaks, its powerful waters carving out three legendary
gorges. Today enormous limestone cliffs—towering and forbidding and
spectacular—line each side of the Yangtze’s deep channel as seen in the
color insert on page C-3 (top). Adding to the river’s evocative beauty as it
hurtles seaward is its curious zigzag path. At points, the river makes rightangle
turns so abruptly that it appears to dead-end.
The three gorges lie at separate points along a horizontal 150-mile (241-
km) stretch of the Yangtze but are collectively known as the Three Gorges.
Each is uniquely perilous. They are—in the order in which they appear as
one heads downstream—the Ch’u-tang (Qutang), the Wu Hsia (Wuxia),
and the Hsi-ling (Xiling).