I’ve been sidetracked by other things, so have not gotten beyond my spot in Chapter 7 of the book I am reading, The Early Chinese Empires, by Mark Lewis. Meantime, I couldn’t resist peeking into China’s Imperial Past by Charles O. Hucker. If at all, my intent is only to read so far as the Qin and the Han, unless it proves terribly interesting; but I may not at all.
It’s fun to compare how different writers approach the same theme. This is not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison, but close enough. Here’s Lewis, from the introduction:
Rivers erode rock and soil in the western highlands and carry it down into the plains, where it is deposited as silt. Moving swiftly in narrow channels through the mountains, the Yellow River carries off a great deal of soil. In most rivers in the world, a silt content of 5 percent is considered high, but the Yellow River has been known to carry as much as 46 percent, and one of its tributaries carries 63 percent. This huge concentration of silt makes the water murky and explains the origin of the river’s name. For the last 500 miles of its course, there are no major tributaries, so the river slows down and deposits its sediments.
Over time, as the bottom of the channel gradually rose, the river overflowed its banks. Dikes were built ever higher to prevent flooding, and in some places the river started to flow above the surrounding countryside. Today, in a stretch of about 1,100 miles, the Yellow River moves along 11 yards above the plain. But dikes do not control silting, and floods continued to occur on an ever larger scale. On more than 1,500 occasions during the history of imperial China the Yellow River burst its dikes, destroying farmland, killing villagers, and earning its description as “China’s sorrow.”
In sharp contrast [with the Yangtze], the Yellow River in the north has an awesomely malevolent aspect. It brings from Tibet the water on which northern agriculture depends, and it regularly deposits new layers of enriching mud on the North China plain. But these benefits come at a high price. The Yellow River carries a heavier burden of silt than any of the world’s other great rivers, and its sedimentation creates shifting sandbars that impede navigation across the plain. It has therefore not been the useful traffic artery that the Yangtze has been for the south. What is worse, the Yellow River has no natural, permanent channel across the plain to the Pacific. It is confined between dikes. Its sedimentation proceeds at such a rate that the river bed rises rapidly, and the dikes must be built higher and higher, until in places the river flows through aqueducts above roof level. When the dikes break, the river inundates thousands of square miles. On receding, it finds a new temporary channel, and the diking begins anew. Cyclically, the Yellow River has even shifted its outlet to the sea from north of the rocky Shantung peninsula to the south and back again; and on occasions of such major changes of channel its floods have been catastrophic. For such reasons, the Chinese have traditionally referred to the Yellow River as “China’s Sorrow.”