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The Yangtze River, or Chang Jiang ( ), Tibetan: Bri-chu, is the longest river in China and Asia, and the third-longest in the world, after the Nile in Africa and the Amazon.

The river is about 6300 km long (3915 mi) and flows from its source in Qinghai Provincemarker, eastwards into the East China Seamarker at Shanghai. It acts as a dividing line between North and South China, although geographers generally consider the Qinling-Huai River line to be the official line of geographical division. As the largest river in the region, the Yangtze is historically, culturally, and economically important to Chinamarker. One of the dams on the river, the Three Gorges Dammarker, is the largest hydro-electric power station in the world. The section of the river flowing through deep gorges in Yunnanmarker province is part of the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areasmarker: a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The name Yangtze River, as well as various similar names such as Yangtse River, Yangzi River, Yangtze Kiang, etc., is derived from Yangzi Jiang ( ) , which, beginning in the Sui Dynasty, was the Chinese name for the river in its lower reaches, specifically, the stretch between Yangzhoumarker (扬州) and Zhenjiangmarker (镇江). The name comes from the ancient ferry crossing Yangzi Jin (扬子津, meaning "Yangzi Crossing"). From the Ming Dynasty, the name was sometimes written 洋子 (yángzĭ). Because it was the name first heard by missionaries and traders, this name was applied in English to the whole river. In Chinese, Yangzi Jiang is considered a historical or poetic name for the river. The modern Chinese name, Chang Jiang (长江/長江 Cháng Jiāng), literally means "long 'Jiang'" (Jiang is the classical Chinese of Yangtze, but now it means river) and may sometimes also be used in English. It is also known to many as the 'Main Street' of China.

Like many rivers, the river is known by different names over its course. At its source, it is called in Chinese the Dangqu (当曲, from the Tibetan for "marsh river"). Downstream, it is called the Tuotuo River (沱沱河) and then the Tongtian River (通天河, literally "river passing through heaven"). Where it runs through deep gorges parallel to the Mekong and the Salweenmarker before emerging onto the plains of Sichuanmarker, it is known as the Jinsha River (金沙江 Jīnshā Jiāng, literally "golden sands river"). The Three Gorges Dammarker on the river is the largest dam in the world.

The Yangtze was earlier known to the Chinese as simply Jiang (江 Jiāng), which has become a generic name meaning "river", or the Da Jiang (大江 Dà Jiāng, literally "great river"). The Tibetan name for the river is Drichu ( , lit. "river of the female yak"). The Yangtze is sometimes referred to as the Golden Waterway.


The river originates in a glacier lying on the west of Geladandong Mountain in the Dangla Mountain Rangemarker on the eastern part of the Tibetan plateaumarker. It runs eastward through Qinghaimarker, turning southward down a deep valley at the border of Sichuanmarker and Tibet to reach Yunnanmarker. In the course of this valley, the river's elevation drops from above 5000 m to less than 1000 m. The headwaters of the Yangtze are situated at an elevation of about . In its descent to sea level, the river falls to an altitude of at Yibin, Sichuan Province, the head of navigation for riverboats, and to at Chongqing. Between Chongqing and Yichang (I-ch'ang), at an altitude of and a distance of about , it passes through the spectacular Yangtze Gorges, which are noted for their natural beauty but are dangerous to shipping.

It enters the basin of Sichuan at Yibinmarker. While in the Sichuan basin, it receives several mighty tributaries, increasing its water volume significantly. It then cuts through Mount Wushan bordering Chongqingmarker and Hubeimarker to create the famous Three Gorgesmarker. Eastward of the Three Gorges, Yichangmarker is the first city on the Yangtze Plain.

After entering Hubeimarker, the Yangtze receives more water from thousands of lakes. The largest of these lakes is Dongting Lakemarker, which is located on the border of Hunanmarker and Hubei provinces, and is the outlet for most of the rivers in Hunan. At Wuhanmarker, it receives its biggest tributary, the Han Rivermarker, bringing water from its northern basin as far as Shaanximarker.

At the northern tip of Jiangxi, Lake Poyangmarker, the biggest freshwater lake in China, merges into the river. The river then runs through Anhuimarker and Jiangsumarker provinces, receiving more water from innumerable smaller lakes and rivers, and finally reaches the East China Sea at Shanghai.

Four of China's five main freshwater lakes contribute their waters to the Yangtze River. Traditionally, the upstream part of the Yangtze River refers to the section from Yibin to Yichang; the middle part refers to the section from Yichang to Hukou, where Lake Poyangmarker meets the river; the downstream part is from Hukou to Shanghai. It is home to many thousands of people.


Tombs on a hill facing the Yangtze as it flows by
Southbound ferry near Nantong

The Yangtze flows into the East China Seamarker and was navigable by ocean-going vessels up to a thousand miles from its mouth even before the Three Gorges Dammarker was built. As of June 2003, this dam spans the river, flooding Fengjiemarker, the first of a number of towns affected by the massive flood control and power generation project. This is the largest comprehensive irrigation project in the world and has a significant impact on China's agriculture. Its opponents argue that it will free people living along the river from floods that have repeatedly threatened them in the past and will offer them electricity and water transport—though at the expense of permanently flooding many existing towns (including numerous ancient cultural relics) and causing large-scale changes in the local ecology.

Opponents of the dam point out that there are three different kinds of floods on the Yangtze River: floods which originate in the upper reaches, floods which originate in the lower reaches, and floods along the entire length of the river. They argue that the Three Gorges dam will actually make flooding in the upper reaches worse and have little or no impact on floods which originate in the lower reaches. Twelve hundred years of low water marks on the river were recorded in the inscriptions and the carvings of carp at Baiheliangmarker, now submerged.

The Yangtze is flanked with metallurgical, power, chemical, auto, building materials and machinery industrial belts and high-tech development zones. It is playing an increasingly crucial role in the river valley's economic growth and has become a vital link for international shipping to the inland provinces. The river is a major transportation artery for China, connecting the interior with the coast.

The river is one of the world's busiest waterways. Traffic includes commercial traffic transporting bulk goods such as coal as well as manufactured goods and passengers. Cargo transportation reached 795 million tons in 2005. River cruises several days long, especially through the beautiful and scenic Three Gorgesmarker area, are becoming popular as the tourism industry grows in China.

Flooding along the river has been a major problem. The rainy season in China is May and June in areas south of Yangtze River, and July and August in areas north of it. The huge river system receives water from both southern and northern flanks, which causes its flood season to extend from May to August. Meanwhile, the relatively dense population and rich cities along the river make the floods more deadly and costly. The most recent major floods were the 1998 Yangtze River floods, but more disastrous were the 1954 Yangtze River floods, killing around 30,000 people. Other severe floods included those of 1911, which killed around 100,000, 1931 (145,000 dead), and 1935 (142,000 dead).

The Yangtze is very polluted, especially in Hubeimarker (Shashi District).


Afternoon light on the jagged grey mountains rising from the Yangtze River gorge
The Yangtze River is important to the cultural origins of southern China. Human activity was found in the Three Gorges area as far back as 27 thousand years ago, initiating debate over the origin of the Chinese people. In the Spring and Autumn Period, Ba and Shu were located along the western part of the river, covering modern Sichuan, Chongqing, and western Hubei; Chu was located along the central part of river, corresponding to Hubeimarker, Hunanmarker, Jiangximarker, and southern Anhuimarker. Wu and Yue were located along the eastern part of the river, now Jiangsumarker, Zhejiangmarker, and Shanghai. Although the Yellow Rivermarker region was richer and more developed at that time, the milder climate and more peaceful environment made the Yangtze River area more suitable for agriculture.

From the Han Dynasty, the region of the Yangtze River became more and more important to China's economy. The establishment of irrigation systems (the most famous one is Dujiangyanmarker, northwest of Chengdu, built during the Warring States period) made agriculture very stable and productive. By the Song dynasty, the area along the Yangtze had become among the most wealthiest and developed parts of the country, especially in the lower reaches of the river. Early in the Qing dynasty, the region called Jiangnan (that includes the southern part of Jiangsumarker, the northern part of Zhejiangmarker, and the southeastern part of Anhuimarker) provided 1/3-1/2 of the nation's revenues.

Historically, the Yangtze became the political boundary between north China and south China several times (see History of China) because of the difficulty of crossing the river. This occurred notably during the Southern and Northern Dynasties, and the Southern Song. Many battles took place along the river, the most famous being the Battle of Red Cliffsmarker in 208 AD during the Three Kingdoms period.

Politically, Nanjingmarker was the capital of China several times, although most of the time its territory only covered the southeastern part of China, such as the Wu kingdom in the Three Kingdoms period, the Eastern Jin Dynasty, and during the Southern and Northern Dynasties and Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms periods. Only the Mingmarker occupied most parts of China from their capital at Nanjingmarker, though it later moved the capital to Beijing. The ROC capital was located in Nanjingmarker in the periods 1911-1912, 1927-1937, and 1945-1949.

The arrival of steamships

Early history

The first merchant steamer in China, the Jardine, was built to order for the Firm in 1835. She was a small vessel intended for use as a mail and passenger carrier between Lintin Islandmarker, Macaomarker, and Whampoa. However, after several trips, the Chinese authorities, for reasons best known to themselves, prohibited her entrance into the river. Lord Palmerston, the British Foreign Secretary who personified gunboat diplomacy, decided mainly on the "suggestions" of Jardine to wage war on China. In mid-1840, a large fleet of warships appeared on the China coast, and with the first cannon fire aimed at a British ship, the Royal Saxon, the British started the first of the Opium Wars. British warships destroyed numerous shore batteries and enemy warships, laid waste to several coastal forts, indiscriminately bombarding town after town with heavy cannon fire, even pushing up north to threaten the Imperial Palace in Beijing itself. The Imperial Government, forced to surrender, gave in to the demands of the British. British military superiority was clearly evident during the armed conflict. British warships, constructed using such innovations as steam power combined with sail and the use of iron in shipbuilding, wreaked havoc on coastal towns; such ships (like the Nemesis) were not only virtually indestructible but also highly mobile and able to support a gun platform with very heavy guns. In addition, the British troops were armed with modern muskets and cannons, unlike the Qing forces. After the British took Cantonmarker, they sailed up the Yangtze and took the tax barges, a devastating blow to the Empire as it slashed the revenue of the imperial court in Beijing to just a small fraction of what it had been.

In 1842, the Qing authorities sued for peace, which concluded with the Treaty of Nanjing signed on a gunboat in the river, negotiated in August of that year and ratified in 1843. In the treaty, China was forced to pay an indemnity to Britain, open five ports to Britain, and cede Hong Kong to Queen Victoria. In the supplementary Treaty of the Bogue, the Qing empire also recognized Britain as an equal to China and gave British subjects extraterritorial privileges in treaty ports.

U.S. and French conflicts

The US, at the same time, wanting to protect its interests and expand trade, ventured the USS Wachusett six-hundred miles up the river to Hankow in about 1860, while the USS Ashuelot, a sidewheeler, made her way up the river to Ichang in 1874. The first USS Monocacy a sidewheel gunboat began charting the Yangtze River in 1871. The first USS Palos an armed tug was on Asiatic Station into 1891, cruising the Chinese and Japanese coasts, visiting the open treaty ports and making occasional voyages up the Yangtze River. From June to September 1891, anti-foreign riots up the Yangtze forced the warship to make an extended voyage as far as Hankow, 600 miles upriver. Stopping at each open treaty port, the gunboat cooperated with naval vessels of other nations and repairing damage. She then operated along the north and central China coast and on the lower Yangtze until June 1892. The cessation of bloodshed with the Taiping Rebellion, Europeans put more steamers on the river. The French, not to sit idle and get rice crumbs, engaged the Chinese in war over the rule of Vietnam. The Sino-French Wars of the 1880s emerged with the Battle of Shipu having French cruisers in the lower Yangtze.
China Navigation Company was an early shipping company founded in 1876 in London, initially to trade up the Yangtze River from their Shanghai base with passengers and cargo. Chinese coastal trade started shortly after and in 1883 a regular service to Australia was initiated. Most of the company's ships were seized by Japan in 1941 and services did not resume until 1946. Robert Dollar was a later shipping magnate, who became enormously influential moving Californian and Canadian lumber tothe Chinese and Japanese market.

Yichang or Ichangmarker, from the sea, is the head of navigation for river steamers; oceangoing vessels may navigate the river to Hankow, a distance of almost 1000 km (almost 600 mi) from the sea. For about inland from its mouth, the river is virtually at sea level.

The Chinese Government, too, had steamers. It had its own naval fleet, the Nanyang Fleet, which fell prey to the French fleet. The Chinese would rebuild its fleet,only to be ravaged by another war with Japan (1895) , Revolution (1911) and ongoing inefficiency and corruption. Chinese companies ran their own steamers, but were second tier to European operations at the time.

Navigation on the upper river

Steamers came late to the upper river. The three gorges and the strong current hindered plans. Achibald Little attempted a voyage with the Lee-Chuan, and the Kuling, delays and weak enginesmeant that he only succeeded in the first vessel in 1898. Little soon built the first truly successful boat, the Pioneer, about 1899—she plied the river for two more decades and was even the flagship for the Royal Navy on the China Station. There were a few commercial steamers on the upper river by the turn of the century and the Boxer Rebellion. The Commercial firms of Jardine Matheson, Butterfield and Swire, and Standard Oil had their own steamers on the river. Until 1881, the India and China coastal and river services were operated by several companies. In that year, however, these were merged into the Indo-China Steam Navigation Company, Ltd., a public company under the management of Jardines. The Jardine company pushed inland up the Yangtsze River on which a specially designed fleet was built to meet all requirements of the river trade. For many years, this fleet gave unequalled service.Jardines established an enviable reputation for the efficient handling of shipping. As a result, the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company invited the firm to attend to the Agency of their Shire Line which operated in the Far East. Standard Oil ran the tankers Mei Ping, Mei An, and Mei Hsia.

Navy ships

With the Treaty Ports, the European powers and Japan were allowed to float navy ships into China's internal waters. The British, US and French did this. A full international fleet featured on Chinesewaters: Austro-Hungarians, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, and German navy ships came to Shanghaii and the treaty ports. The Japanese engaged in open war with the Chinese twice, and Russians twice, over conquest of the Chinese Qing empire-- in the First and Second Sino-Japanese War 1895, and 1905;and the Russo-Japanese war of 1904. Incidently, both the French and Japanese navies wereheavily involved in running opium and narcotics to Shanghai, where it was refined into morphine. It was then transhipped by liner back to Marseille and France (ie. French Connection) for processing in Germany and eventual sale in the US or Europe.
JN Izumo in Shanghai, 1937; she sank riverboats in 1941
In 1909 the gunboat USS Samar changed station to Shanghai, where she regularly patrolled the lower Yangtze River up to Nanking and Wuhu. Following an anti-foreign riots in Changsha in April 1910, which destroyed a number of missions and merchant warehouses, Samar sailed up the Yangtze River to Hankow and then Changsa to show the flag and help restore order. The gunboat was also administratively assigned to the Asiatic Fleet that year, which had been reestablished by the Navy to better protect, in the words of the Bureau of Navigation, "American interests in the Orient." After returning to Shanghai in August, she sailed up river again the following summer, passing Wuhu in June but then running aground off Kichau on 1 July 1911.

After staying stuck in the mud for two weeks, Samar broke free and sailed back down river to coal ship. Returning upriver, the gunboat reached Hankow in August and Ichang in September where she wintered over owing to both the dry season and the outbreak of rebellion at Wuchang in October 1911. Tensions eased and the gunboat turned downriver in July 1912, arriving at Shanghai in October. Samar patrolled the lower Yangtze after fighting broke out in the summer 1913, a precursor to a decade of conflict between provincial warlords in China. In 1919, she was placed on the disposal list at Shanghai following a collision with a Yangtze river steamer that damaged her bow.The Spanish boats were replaced in the twenties by the Luzon and Mindanao were the largest, Oahu and Panay next in size, and Guam and Tutuila the smallest. China in the first fifty years of the twentieth century, was in low-grade chaos. Warlords, revolutions, natural disasters, civil war and invasions contributed. Yangtze boats were involved in the Nanjing Incident in 1927 when the Communists and Nationalists broke into open war. The Chiang's massacre of theCommunists in Shanghai in 1927 furthered the unrest, US Marines with tanks were landed. River steamers were popular targets for both Nationalists andCommunists, and peasants who would take periodic pot-shots at vessels. During the course of service the second USS Palos protected American interests in China down the entire length of the Yangtze, at times convoying U.S. and foreign vessels on the river, evacuating American citizens during periods of disturbance and in general giving credible presence to U.S. consulates and residences in various Chinese cities. In the period of great unrest in central China in the 1920s, Palos was especially busy patrolling the upper Yangtze against bands of warlord soldiers and outlaws. The warship engaged in continuous patrol operations between Ichang and Chungking throughout 1923, supplying armed guards to merchant ships, and protecting Americans at Chungking while that city was under siege by a warlord army

The British had a series of Insect class gunboats which patrolled between Chungking and Shanghai. Cruisers and destroyers and Fly class vessels also patrolled. The most infamous incident was when USS Panay and HMS Bee in 1937,were dive bombed by Japanese airplanes during the Nanking Massacre. The Europeans were forced to leave the Yangtse River with the Japanese takeover in 1941. The former steamers were either sabotaged or pressed into Japanese or Chinese service.

See also

Major cities along the river

A loading point for coal barges on the Yangtze River


The main crossings by the province names in the order of downstream to upstream are:


Jiangsumarker and Shanghai:








By 2007, there are two dams on the Yangtze river: Three Gorges Dammarker and Gezhouba Dammarker. The third one Xiluodu Dammarker is under construction. More dams are in planning stage, such as Wudongde, Baihetan, and Xiangjiaba.


A shipyard on the banks of the Yangtze building commercial river freight boats

The Yangtze River has over 700 tributaries. The major tributaries (listed from upstream to downstream) with the locations of where they join the Yangtze are:

Protected areas


The Yangtze is home to at least two critically endangered species: The Chinese Alligator and the Chinese Paddlefish. (This is the only other place besides the U.S. that is native to an alligator species.) In December 2006, the Baiji (Chinese River Dolphin) was declared functionally extinct after an extensive search of the river revealed no signs of the dolphin's inhabitance; however, one was sighted soon after.

The Finless Porpoise is also found in the river.


  • Cheung Kong Holdings, from the Cantonese form of Chang Jiang and named after the river, is the name of the holding company controlled by Li Ka-Shing, one of Asia's richest tycoons.
  • In 2004 Martin Strel from Sloveniamarker swam the river from the Tiger Leaping Gorgemarker to Shanghai ( .
  • In 1342 the Yangtze River in Jiangsu Province was reported to have run dry. Water completely disappeared for a day and the riverbed became visible. This event occurred again on January 13, 1954.
  • The river was first rafted from source to mouth in 1986 by all-Chinese teams attempting to beat a Sino-American team to the first descent. Ten of the rafters drowned. The event was widely followed by the Chinese press, and became a source of national pride.
  • As the Yangtze is undergoing a transformation due to the Three Gorges Dam, Canadian documentary filmmaker Yung Chang made an award-winning documentary called Up the Yangtze.

See also

Scenery on the river


  1. International Rivers, Three Gorges Dam profile, Accessed August 3, 2009
  2. Xinhua - English
  3. Xinhua - English
  4. Early Homo and associated artefacts from Asia
  5. 枝城长江大桥 Zhicheng Bridge over Yangtze River
  6. ScienceMode » River Dolphin Thought to be Extinct Spotted Again in China
  7. According to p. 140 of the 986th edition of Australian Chinese Daily magazine published on 18 August 2007.
  8. Yangtze River Pictures

Further reading

  • Grover, David H. 1992 American Merchant Ships on the Yangtze, 1920-1941. Wesport, Conn.: Praeger Publishers.
  • Van Slyke, Lyman P. 1988. Yangtze: nature, history, and the river. A Portable Stanford Book. ISBN 0-201-08894-0
  • Winchester, Simon. 1996. The River at the Center of the World: A Journey up the Yangtze & Back in Chinese Time, Holt, Henry & Company, 1996, hardcover, ISBN 0-8050-3888-4; trade paperback, Owl Publishing, 1997, ISBN 0-8050-5508-8; trade paperback, St. Martins, 2004, 432 pages, ISBN 0-312-42337-3

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