River Has Long Reflected China's Glories, Sorrows

The massive Sanmenxia Dam was built in the 1950s. i i

The massive Sanmenxia Dam in Henan province was built in the 1950s. Across it are painted eight characters that read, "When the Yellow River is at peace, China is at peace." Andrea Hsu, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Andrea Hsu, NPR
The massive Sanmenxia Dam was built in the 1950s.

The massive Sanmenxia Dam in Henan province was built in the 1950s. Across it are painted eight characters that read, "When the Yellow River is at peace, China is at peace."

Andrea Hsu, NPR
Zhang Juwen is a former boatman who now makes his living as a farmer. i i

Zhang Juwen, 74, lives in Zhuzhuang village on the Yellow River. He once worked as a boatman, but the river is too shallow for that kind of work now. Andrea Hsu, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Andrea Hsu, NPR
Zhang Juwen is a former boatman who now makes his living as a farmer.

Zhang Juwen, 74, lives in Zhuzhuang village on the Yellow River. He once worked as a boatman, but the river is too shallow for that kind of work now.

Andrea Hsu, NPR
Map i i
Alice Kreit, NPR
Map
Alice Kreit, NPR
Zhang Tongli, head of the Henan province section of the South to North Water Diversion Project i i

The massive South to North Water Diversion Project will bring billions of gallons of water from the Yangtze River in the south northward to Beijing and other parts of water-starved northern China. Zhang Tongli, head of the Henan province section of the project, says the project will take 30 years to complete. Andrea Hsu, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Andrea Hsu, NPR
Zhang Tongli, head of the Henan province section of the South to North Water Diversion Project

The massive South to North Water Diversion Project will bring billions of gallons of water from the Yangtze River in the south northward to Beijing and other parts of water-starved northern China. Zhang Tongli, head of the Henan province section of the project, says the project will take 30 years to complete.

Andrea Hsu, NPR
The sun sets over the Yellow River near Sanmenxia dam. i i

The Yellow River, shown here near Sanmenxia dam, has long been a reflection of the glories and the sorrows of China's past. Andrea Hsu, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Andrea Hsu, NPR
The sun sets over the Yellow River near Sanmenxia dam.

The Yellow River, shown here near Sanmenxia dam, has long been a reflection of the glories and the sorrows of China's past.

Andrea Hsu, NPR

The Chinese used to compare the Yellow River to a dragon. They would say it had a head made of brass, a tail made of iron, but a waist made of tofu.

The wobbly banks of the river have given way countless times over the centuries, taking millions of lives and earning the river the name "China's sorrow."

In the last half century, though, things have changed along the river, as the government has taken steps to harness and control it.

Legitimacy and the River

On the massive Sanmenxia Dam, built in the 1950s, are painted eight characters that read, "When the Yellow River is at peace, China is at peace."

That phrase draws on a legend about a Chinese leader called Yu the Great. He was supposedly the first leader to succeed in controlling the Yellow River floods, and he went on to found China's first dynasty. He set an important precedent, of a Chinese ruler establishing his legitimacy — his right to rule China — by bringing the Yellow River under control.

To some extent, that viewpoint still holds today, but the problem has been reversed. The river has been tamed, by dams large and small. Now, the issue is not too much water — but too little.

Receding Waters

Zhuzhuang village sits beside the river, not far from the ancient city of Kaifeng. There, 74-year-old farmer Zhang Juwen shuffles through the piles of autumn leaves that line the dirt path outside his house.

For years, Zhang worked on the Yellow River as a boatman, shipping goods up and down it. But for the past couple of decades, the river has been too shallow for that kind of work.

Zhang used to live right on the bank of the river. His house hasn't moved, but the river has. Due to dams upstream, the waterway has receded to a channel along the middle of the river bed several hundred yards away.

But Zhang has no doubt about the dams.

"It's great that the water's controlled," he says. "Now, they just open the dam and let water out when they want it, and there are no more floods."

Diverting Southern Waters

The concerns of people living along the river have been soothed by the government's insistence that all is under control.

"Water levels on the river are not something that we ordinary people can do anything about," says Zhang Jun.

"That's a government issue. And they've begun a huge project to bring water from the south, the South to North Water Diversion Project."

The diversion project — a massive government undertaking — will bring billions of gallons of water from the Yangtze River in the south northward to Beijing and other parts of northern China.

Zhang Tongli, head of the Henan province section of the project, says it's the largest water engineering project in the world, with a price tag of many billions of dollars. It's not expected to be fully completed for another 30 years.

The channels will not feed into the Yellow River, but will pass under the river in specially built underground channels. The thinking is that by shipping water north, the strain of overuse on the Yellow River will be relieved. Like the Great Wall — or, more recently, the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River — it's a classic imperial project, still possible under China's one-party system.

River Reflects Dream of Renewed Greatness

From this spot, the river heads silently toward the coast, lacking the industrial, demographic crescendo of the Yangtze River as it approaches Shanghai to the south. The Yellow River ends more with a whimper than a bang, exhausted as it reaches the sea. In fact, for three years in the 1990s, the river dried up completely before reaching the sea, alerting the government to the water crisis it is now trying to address.

The Yellow River has for so long been a reflection of the glories and the sorrows of China's past, and that is still true today. Even amid the renaissance of ancient cities along its banks in inland China, the river has become a part of the environmental emergency now threatening China's growth.

It's clear that balancing the need for growth with the increasing need to protect the environment will be one of the crucial tensions inside China in the coming decades. And perhaps managing that tension will be what decides whether China's dream of greatness again can be fully realized — the country's future reflected in the muddy waters of the Yellow River.

This story was produced for broadcast by NPR's Andrea Hsu.

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