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Friends who tamed the Yellow River, source of life and death

THE YELLOW RIVER (黃河) is hailed as the great mother of China. It rushes out from the high plateau in the west to flow to the east with its silty water, and on the way, it feeds hundreds of millions of people, and also provides hydro-electricity to the north parts of the country. The river at present seems so well controlled that every part is used. However, this calm situation took generations to set in place, over hundreds or even thousands of years.

The Yellow River hailed as great mother of China. Image: Wikimedia Commons

For this story has another side, which is very different. It’s called the Yellow River, because it carries silt – and so much of it, that the water channel literally reshapes itself as it moves. The result is that the river has been the cause of many of China’s greatest water disasters. The challenge of solving the flooding problems has exercised Chinese minds, from the great flood of 4,000 years ago, to similar challenges relatively recently.


In 1676, the 15th year of the reign of Emperor Kangxi (康熙皇帝), during the Qing Dynasty, a devastating flood overwhelmed a vast area covering most of Henan Province (河南省). The waves were taller than any local architecture, brushing away all the homes (and livelihoods) of people on the land.

The heavy rain did not stop until the river water had drowned hundreds of thousands of people. Under the dark gray sky floated bodies of humans and animals, and from overhead came the miserable crying of children who had been sent to tree tops in the area as the flood surged into the villages.

The Yellow River was the cause of many of China’s water disasters in history. Image: Wikimedia Commons

At the same moment, in the Forbidden City in Beijing, the 23-year-old Emperor Kangxi looked pale. He was standing in the heavy rain, facing the Jing Hill (景山) and praying to his ancestors in heaven. As a monarch who had eliminated his first political enemy early at 16, he normally felt strong – but the emperor felt helpless in solving this issue. You cannot fight a river with a sword.


In fact, the Qing empire was not only being subsumed under floods but was also having to defend itself from human attackers in the southwest. The problems multiplied each other. The breached dykes interrupted the delivery of supplies. This meant the people living along the river were dying, and the soldiers on the front line were starving.  

Portrait of Jin Fu. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Fortunately, the then Grand Secretary Mingju (納蘭明珠) recommended a capable talent named Jin Fu (靳輔) to the emperor as a man who could help.


Like other boys in feudal China, Jin Fu had begun to prepare for the Imperial Examination at a very young age. He was diligent and polite and entered the political arena when he was 16. In the six years following 1671, the 38-year-old Jin was provincial governor of Anhui Province. Because of his justice and capability, local people praised him highly.

One day, Jin was accredited to be Governor-General of the Yellow River (河道總督). On his way to the appointed post, he would meet a man who would become his lifelong partner in harnessing the power of the great waterway.

Jin Fu stopped by a temple in Handan, Hebei Province (河北邯鄲), and a poem on the wall attracted his attention. Looking at the words, he concluded that the poet was not a good scholar because he said the pursuit of being an official was like an illusory dream of fame and reputation.

The poet was Chen Huang (陳潢), who worked under the name Hebo (河伯), the river god of China. They met, and the poet told Jin that compared with the ordinary “eight-legged essay” (八股文) (a standard writing format), the harnessing of the river was a much more meaningful and exciting job. The poet shared his opinions, and some of the experiences he had gathering traveled along the Yellow River in the past. Jin was inspired, and realized that the young man in front of him would be the most helpful partner he could work with.


However, poet Chen Huang did not have any achievements in the Imperial Examination. Thus he could not get a title or position in officialdom. He just joined Jin’s team as an ordinary worker at the beginning. As soon as they arrived at the affected area, they found the situation was worse than they had imagined because of the previous governor’s corruption. The flood damaged the shoddy dams, and workers’ efforts became useless due to the improper positions of the dams.

Jin Fu and Chen Huang as portrayed in a popular TV show, The Long River.

Chen had rich experience in explorations in Ningxia (寧夏) and other northwestern regions. In his opinion, if the Henan river channel was not flowing smoothly, the downstream Jiangnan river channel would accumulate silt and be challenging to manage. Focusing only on the downstream areas would be to treat the symptoms but not the root cause, and it would be challenging to solve the problem of the Yellow River flooding year after year.

Therefore, Jin Fu shifted the focus of river control to the middle reaches of the Yellow River and the Huaihe River (淮河), thus significantly reducing the threat of a breach in the middle reaches of the Yellow River, and the middle and lower reaches of the Huaihe River.


Jin Fu first built substantial barriers on both sides of the Yellow River east of Huaiyin (淮陰), extending from the river coast to the seashore for 20 miles, and made several embankments and dams along the Huaihe River and Hongze Lake (洪澤湖) to the west of Huaiyin to make sure the river never stopped flowing.

This caused the force of the water, which scoured the silt at the bottom of the river, to be increased. The function of the Yellow River’s self-powered sand removal was greatly enhanced.

The Yellow River in Henan’s Sanmenxia. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Jin Fu also built several water-reducing dams in the counties along the canal from Huaiyin to Yangzhou (揚州) to prevent the water from breaking barriers when the Yellow River was diverted from the channel. This would prevent the flooding or breaching of the canal but could also irrigate farmland around the canal.


Because Jin and Chen managed the river well, the number of floods in the Yellow River was significantly reduced. Their water control model roughly followed a system by Pan Jixun (潘季馴) called the “blasting water and flushing sand” method. This had been used in the Ming Dynasty and made different improvements in combination with specific forms of water flow control.


The story of the two friends does not have a happy ending, in particular for Chen, who became caught up in a fight between officials and merchants over new land that was revealed when the flood waters cleared. Political infighting led to Chen being jailed, where he eventually died.

Still, their work on the river gave them a place in China’s history, and they are both remembered. Their story has been immortalized in books and even in an exciting recent TV drama series.

The Yellow River carries silt and its water channel reshapes itself as it moves. Image: Wikimedia Commons

But going back to actual history, a new governor took Jin’s office to continue the construction, but the new leader, who had scornfully criticized Jin and Chen’s strategies, ended up copying the same methods to keep the power of the Yellow River in check.

This at least gave the Emperor something to laugh about.

Image at the top by Junyao Yang/Unsplash

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