Traditionally, it is believed that the Chinese civilization originated in the Yellow River basin.

In ancient times, it was believed that the Yellow River flowed from Heaven as a continuation of the Milky Way.

As the birthplace of ancient Chinese civilization, the basin was the most prosperous region in early Chinese history. There are frequent devastating floods and course changes produced by the continual elevation of the river bed, sometimes above the level of its surrounding farm fields.

The Yellow River is one of several rivers that are essential for China’s existence. At the same time, however, it has been responsible for several deadly floods, including the only natural disasters in recorded history to have killed more than a million people. The deadliest was a Yuan dynasty 1332–33 flood that killed 7 million people.

Qikou town along Yellow River in Shanxi Province

Treated either historically or mythologically, the story of the Great Flood and the heroic attempts of the various human characters to control it and to abate the disaster is a narrative fundamental to Chinese culture. Among other things, the Great Flood of China is key to understanding the history of the founding of both the Xia dynasty and the Zhou dynasty, it is also one of the main flood motifs in Chinese mythology, and it is a major source of allusion in Classical Chinese poetry.

It was during the reign of Emperor Yao that the Great Flood began, a flood so vast that no part of Yao’s territory was spared, and both the Yellow River and the Yangtze valleys flooded. The alleged nature of the flood is shown in the following quote:


Great Yu controls the flood

Great Yu’s approach seems to have involved an approach more oriented toward drainage and less towards containment with dams and dikes.

“The inundating waters seemed to assail the heavens, and in their extent embraced the hills and overtopped the great mounds, so that the people were bewildered and overwhelmed. I opened passages for the streams throughout the nine provinces and conducted them to the seas. I deepened the channels and conducted them to the streams.”

—Yu the Great, quoted according to tradition.

After his work in controlling the flood waters, Yu became sole respected emperor and went on to found the Xia dynasty.

By staff editor


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