Yangtze River

    Snaking its way 6,300 kilometres from western Chinas Qinghai-Tibet Plateau to the East China Sea, the Yangtze River stretches nine provinces and serves as a drain for 695,000 square miles of land. It is less in length only to the Amazon and Nile, and spans so many regions that it has acquired half a dozen names. In the high Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, the Tibetans title it Dri Chu?Female Yak River. The Chinese in the area know it as Tongtian He, Travelling-Through-the-Heavens River. Where it borders Sichuan and runs through Yunnan, it is referred to as Jinsha Jiang, River of Golden Sand. Often the word Wanli prefixes the common Chang Jiang (Long River), designating it Ten Thousand Li River. Only in the lower reaches does this great flood go by its name common to foreigners: Yangtze. 

    For over two centuries the Yangzte has served as a transportation highway and commercial thoroughfare. Ocean-going vessels can navigate up the river for 1000 km and steamers can travel as far as Yichang, 1600 km from the sea. A quarter of Chinas ocean-going cargo enters the river between Shanghai and the sea. Shanghai is known as the gateway to the Yangzte, spanning the Huangpu tributary just south of the rivers mouth. As Chinas largest metropolis, Shanghai is an active hub of river commerce with thousands of boats crowding its harbour. Towering commercial ships stand out against the industrial shores, and countless junks, weather and sea-worn vessels topped with browning quilted sails, navigate the congested waterways.

    Other important cities dot the shore of the Yangzte, but perhaps none equal the historic significance, both triumphant and tragic, of Nanjing. Dating back at least two and a half millennia, the Southern Capital has seen eight dynasties including the celebrated Ming in all of its cultural splendour. Nanjing has become associated with calamity since the Japanese devastated it in 1937. Destruction, mass murder, and torture desecrated this prized city ultimately claiming 150,000 civilian lives. The Rape of Nanjing is better forgotten for the Chinese who now trade a great deal with Japan. Nanjing now boasts some of Chinas most advanced technology and a prestigious university. The city stands as a symbol of Chinese strength and self-sufficiency, a monument of the people on their great river.

    Every year the Yangtze deposits massive amounts of silt (more than 170 million cu m/6 billion cu ft annually), that helps make up the Jiangsu Province, a large plain used to grow rice. The fertile plains provide one of the most profitable areas of agriculture in China. Today China accounts for 35% of the worlds rice production. Rice is the worlds single most important food crop and a primary food for more than a third of the worlds population. China seeks to provide for its increasing population with improved agricultural technology and increase in fertile land. The Yangtze provides crucial irrigation to the Jiangsu Province which continues to produce abundant harvests.

    Aside from its transit, economic and agricultural importance, the Yangzte winds through some of Chinas most scenic country. The common Chinese saying, If you havent travelled up the mighty Yangzte, you havent been anywhere, well describes the rivers range of picturesque landscapes. North of the Himalayas at the Yangtzes origin (elevation 4900 m), the Tibetan Plateau has mighty glaciers and enduring snows which continuously melt into the Yangtze. Winding south and leaving the high country, the river meets the world-renowned Three Great Gorges which tower above it in the western Wu Shan (Witch Mountains). Known in the past for their dramatic beauty as well as religious and historical sites, the Three Gorges have recently received much attention due to the building of the controversial dam. The Yangtze stretches 192 km through the Three Gorges, Xiling, Wu, and Qutang. The perilous Xiling Gorge, furthest down river, often stands shrouded in mists. It threatens weary river vessels with whirlpools, rapids, and water cannons that can easily leave even large watercraft upside down. It is known for its skying walls and the accelerated river beneath them. The Wu Gorge is tranquil and quiet with a deep valley and twelve peaks along its shores. Qutang Gorge boasts great magnificence in a brief eight-kilometre distance. Its scenic shores contain the Meng Liang Staircase, the ancient Plank Road, and the Seven Gate Cave.

    Traditionally the Yellow River civilisation of the Han culture has received the most attention in research of ancient Chinese history. Not until recently has the Ba and Chu cultures of the Yangzte River civilisation caught the interest of archaeologists and historians. Serious archaeological work began in China in the 1920s focusing mainly on the Yellow River valley. In the 1970s work reached the more difficult terrain around the Yangtze. As awareness of the cultural richness of the area has increased, so has the threat of losing it. Chinese archaeologists hurry to examine and explore the historical sites and cultural artefacts along the Yangtze that will be submerged beneath the river once it is dammed.