Yellow River or Huang He River the Cultural Symbol Across Time and Space — History, Facts, and Symbolic Meanings

Yellow River or Huang He in Henan Province

Yellow River or Huang He in Henan Province, Photo by Guo Ping.

 

What is Yellow River or Huang He River?

 

Yellow River or Huang He River is one of the most important cultural icons with significant meanings, where had ancient civilizations originated and flourished, and had Chinese Culture formed and inherited.

 

For thousands of years, across time and space, the Yellow River nurtured countless people, witnessed the rise and fall of ancient empires of China, and encountered enormous challenges from humans. 

 

Therefore, the Yellow River has been respected as the cradle of ancient Chinese civilization and the Mother River of China.

Farmland and Ancient Buildings next to Yellow River or Huang He in Ningxia Province

Farmland and Ancient Buildings next to Yellow River or Huang He in Ningxia Province, Photo by Li Peng.

 

Why Yellow River or Huang He River is Called Yellow?

 

In ancient times, people only called it River (He), Grand River (Shang He), or Great River (Da He). 

 

Until Tang Dynasty (618 — 907), the Yellow River or Huang He has been widely used as its official name. 

 

Regarding why it is named Yellow, there are some possible reasons:

 

  • Named after Yellow Emperor or Huangdi, one of the most well-respected ancestors of Chinese people, whose kingdom originated and flourished in the Yellow River area;

  • In the Chinese Color symbolic system, yellow is one of the most orthodox and honorable colors, which is a suitable name for the mother river;

  • Long-term cultivation caused soil erosion, which turned the river into yellow color.

Yellow River in Jinshan Canyon (Boundary of Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Inner Mongolia Provinces)

Yellow River in Jinshan Canyon (Boundary of Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Inner Mongolia Provinces), Photo by Xu Zhaochao.

 

Important Data and Facts About Yellow River.

 

  • The Yellow River or Huang He River is 5464 kilometers (3395 miles) long;

 

  • It is the sixth-longest river in the world, the second-longest river in China;

 

  • The drainage area of the Yellow River is 795,000 square kilometers, include nine provinces;  

Yellow River Wetland National Nature Reserve of Henan

Yellow River Wetland National Nature Reserve of Henan, Photo by Dong Dongfeng.

  • The Yellow River had flooded over 1590 times in the recorded history of China, massively diverted over 20 times, and substantially diverted 6 times;

 

  • Yu the Great established the Xia Dynasty (about 2070 BC — 1600 BC) after having defeated a great flood of the Yellow River, the first exceptional success controlling huge flood in the ancient history of China;

Bronze Ritual Food Container (Suigong Xu) of the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 771 BC), with Inscriptions Recorded Yu the Great Defeating Huge Flood

Bronze Ritual Food Container (Suigong Xu) of the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 771 BC), with Inscriptions that Recorded Yu the Great Defeating Huge Flood — Poly Art Museum

  • Water in the Yellow River is not all yellow;

 

  • Originated in Qinghai Province, the Yellow River flow eastward into the Bohai Sea today, but also had flown into the Huanghai Sea in history;

 

  • In ancient times, people used to believe that the Yellow River was a grand river that flew from heaven, sourced on Mount Kunlun, a holy mountain in ancient Chinese Mythology;  

Stars Sea (Xingxiu Hai) in Source Area of Yellow River

Stars Sea (Xingxiu Hai) in Source Area of Yellow River, Photo by Gu Cheng. 

  • Over 400 wetland nature reserves and national parks are constructed in the Yellow River basin areas in recent decades;

 

  • Hukou Waterfall, the largest yellow waterfall in the world, second largest waterfall in China, is in the Hukou Town of the Yellow River basin.

Hukou Waterfall

Hukou Waterfall, Photo from Official Site of Yan'an Hukou Waterfall. 

 

Origin and Timeline of Major Civilizations of Yellow River.

 

Around 6000 BC — 5000 BC: Neolithic Cultures

 

During this period, some primitive tribes originated in the Yellow River Basin, including Peiligang Culture, Dadiwan Culture, and Cishan Culture.

Red-crowned Crane Bone Made Flute, Peiligang Culture (About 7000 — 8000 Years Ago)

Red-crowned Crane Bone Made Flute, Peiligang Culture  — Henan Antique Archaeology Institute (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Around 5000 BC — 3000 BC: Yangshao the Painted Pottery Culture

 

Yangshao was one of the most influential Neolithic cultures that developed mature agriculture and handicraft industry and were famous for their artistic painted potteries. 

 

Chinese people's common ancestors, Flame Emperor (Yan Di) and Yellow Emperor (Huang Di) were believed great leaders of the Yangshao Culture. 

Painted Pottery Basin with Human and Fish Patterns of Yangshao Culture (Around 5000 BC — 3000 BC), Believed the Same Time and Place that Yellow Emperor Huang Di had Lived

Painted Pottery Basin with Human and Fish Patterns of Yangshao Culture — National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Around 5000 BC — 3000 BC: Longshan Culture the Black Pottery Culture 

 

Longshan was famous for exquisite Thin Fetal Black Pottery and Jade Articles and is believed the empire that had been reigned by great King Yao and King Shun

Thin Fetal Black Pottery Chalice of Longshan Culture (Around 2500 BC — 2000 BC

Thin Fetal Black Pottery Chalice of Longshan Culture — National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying)

During these periods, some other cultures originated and flourished in other areas of China, such as Qijia Culture (around 2200 BC — 1600 BC) in the Northwest and Liangzhu Culture (Around 3300 BC — 2000 BC) in the Yangtze River area. However, they had disappeared because of war, or flood, or severe weather. 

Around 2070 BC — 1600 BC: Yu the Great and Xia Dynasty

 

When many civilizations were suffering from different types of severe weather, the Yellow River also encountered huge floods that lasted for years and caused catastrophic damages. 

 

Yu the Great, led people after decades of hard work, successfully defeated the huge flood, and then was supported as the king who later established the Xia Dynasty, the first hereditary kingdom in the ancient history of China. 

 

Their success, on the other hand, was the beginning of Chinese people's united, large-scale fights again the floods of the Yellow River. 

Bronze Wine Cup (Jue) Unearthed from Erlitou Site that Believed as Capital of the Xia Dynasty — Luoyang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

1600 BC — 1127: Economic and Political Center of Ancient Empires

 

Since then, most unified dynasties of China originated or set their capital cities in the Yellow River area, including Shang (1600 BC — 1046 BC), Zhou (1046 BC — 256 BC), Qin (221 BC — 207 BC), Han (202 BC — 220 AD), Sui (589 — 619), Tang (618 — 907), and Northern Song (960 — 1127) dynasties. 

Part of the Painting (Qingming Shang He Tu) Along the River During the Qingming Festival of the Song Dynasty
Part of the Painting (Qingming Shang He Tu) Along the River During the Qingming Festival by Artist Zhang Zeduan of the Song Dynasty
Part of the Genre Painting of the Capital City (Bianjing or Kaifeng) of the Song Dynasty by Artist Zhang Zeduan

Part of Painting (Qingming Shanghe Tu) Along the River During the Qingming Festival
Genre Painting of Capital City of Song Dynasty by Artist Zhang Zeduan (1085 — 1145) — Palace Museum

From 1127 to today: Important Culture Symbol of Chinese Culture

 

Since 1127, Southern Song Dynasty (1127 — 1279) was forced to establish its capital in southern China. Later, Yuan (1271 — 1368), Ming (1368 — 1644), and Qing (1636 — 1912) dynasties set Beijing as their capital cities, so is today's China.

 

At the same time, the Yangtze River area in the south has been developed, as well as the northeast, northwest, and southwest areas of China.

 

Yellow River, as the cradle of ancient civilizations, has been respected as the Mother River, as well as one of the most significant symbols of Chinese Culture

 

Impact and Importance of Yellow River to ancient China.

 

Agricultural Civilization

 

Since the Neolithic era, the Yellow River had formed many rich lands that are suitable for people to cultivate crops and has been nurturing and irrigating vast farmland in this drainage area for thousands of years.  

 

Hence, Chinese civilization had been an agricultural civilization until 1957. 

 

Click to Read More about Characteristics of Chinese Agricultural Civilization 

Farmlands on Basin of Yellow River in Shanxi Province

Farmlands on Basin of Yellow River in Shanxi Province, Photo by Dang Yongli.

Centralization of Authority

 

The success of Yu the Great had achieved in defeating huge floods showed the power of allied forces and resources, which later facilitated the centralized and unified Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC). 

 

Since then, centralization and collectivism became important elements of Chinese culture. 

Flood Discharge of Longyangxia Dam on Yellow River

Flood Discharge of Longyangxia Dam on Yellow River, Photo by Li Junbo.

Formation of Ancient Chinese Culture

 

The earliest cities, kingdoms, characters, bronze wares, calendars, ritual systems of China were all formed and developed in the Yellow River basin, which made it the cradle of Chinese civilization. 

 

 

Harmony and Balance between Obeying and Fighting Against Nature

 

As the Mother River, Yellow River is called "China's Sorrow", for its frequent floods and catastrophic destruction to people throughout history.

 

Therefore, ideas of "harmony" and "balance" have been core concepts of Taoism and Confucianism, between human and nature, ruling class and civilians, human and other humans, etc. 

Laoniu Bay of Yellow River in Shanxi Province and Inner Mongolia

Laoniu Bay of Yellow River in Shanxi Province and Inner Mongolia, Photo by Chang Guojun.

 

Features and Cultural Symbolizes of Yellow River in ancient Chinese Poems.

 

 

Beauty and Magnificence of Yellow River

 

  • 黄河之水天上来,奔流到海不复回。Li Bai (701 — 762)

 

The Yellow River comes from the sky, rushing into the sea and never come back. (Translated by Xu Yuanchong)

 

  • 黄河西来决昆仑,咆哮万里触龙门。Li Bai 

Comes from the west Yellow River slits Mount Kunlun, roars for miles it rushes toward Longmen. 

  • 黄河远上白云间,一片孤城万仞山。Wang Zhihuan (688 — 742)

 

The Yellow River rises to the white clouds, The lonely town is lost amid the mountains proud. (Translated by Xu Yuanchong)

Yellow River and Helan Mountain in Guidegou Geology Park in Ningxia Province

Yellow River and Helan Mountain in Guidegou Geology Park in Ningxia Province, Photo by Guo Zhihong.

  • 白日依山尽,黄河入海流。Wang Zhihuan

 

The shining sun merges into the mountains, the Yellow River flows into the sea.

 

  • 秋水时至,百川灌河。Zhuang Zi (about 369 BC — 286 BC)

 

Flood surges in autumn, hundreds of rivers flow into the Yellow River.

 

  • 大漠孤烟直,长河落日圆。Wang Wei (701 — 761)

 

Lonely straight smoke rises from the boundless desert, the round setting sun hangs over the endless Yellow River. 

Sunset and Yellow River or Huanghe River

Sunset and Yellow River or Huanghe River, Photo by Gu Cheng.

Flood and Destruction of Yellow River

  • 黄河怒浪连天来,大响谹谹如殷雷。Wen Tingyun (about 812 — 866)

The angry surges of Yellow River rushing from the sky, like roaring thunder striking on earth. 

  • 吹沙走浪几千里,转侧屋闾无处求。Wang An'shi (1021 — 1086)

 

Surges and winds rush sand (of Yellow River) for thousands of miles, the flood takes away homes of millions.

 

  • 九曲黄河万里沙,浪淘风簸自天涯。Liu Yuxi (772 — 842)

 

Nine Bends Yellow River carries tens of thousands of miles of sands, the waves surge by the wind comes from afar.

Sandy Yellow River in Jinshan Canyon (Boundary of Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Inner Mongolia Provinces)

Sandy Yellow River in Jinshan Canyon (Boundary of Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Inner Mongolia Provinces), Photo by Xu Zhaochao.

Warfares and Braveness

 

  • 黄河冰已合,意又向南牧。Rong Yu (about 740 — 800)

The Yellow River iced up, nomads are about to march south. 

 

  • 将军发白马,旌节度黄河。Li Bai (701 — 762)

 

General riding white horse setting off to battle, taking emperor's commands and army crossing the Yellow River.

 

  • 明月黄河夜,寒沙似战场。Li Liufang (1575 — 1629)

 

The moon is shining light on Yellow River, whose cold sands look like the ruthless battlefields.

Emotions and Feelings

 

  • 黄河落天走东海,万里写入胸怀间。Li Bai (701 — 762)

 

Yellow River comes from heaven and rushes to the sea eastward, as broad as your big heart. 

 

  • 黄河若不断,白首长相思。Li Bai

 

My pining for you lasts as long as the endless Yellow River. 

Yellow River or Huang He River next to Meidai Mountain of Luoyang City

Yellow River or Huang He River next to Meidai Mountain of Luoyang City, Photo by Gu Cheng.

Cities and Residences

 

 

  • 天波忽开拆,郡邑千万家。Wang Wei (692 — 761)

 

On the breach that Yellow River merges with the sky, is the beautiful home to tens of thousands.

  • 黄河九曲流,缭绕古边州。Lu Lun (739 — 799)

Bends of the Yellow River surround countless ancient border cities.

Ancient Buildings on Laoniu Bay of Yellow River in Shanxi Province and Inner Mongolia

Ancient Buildings on Laoniu Bay of Yellow River in Shanxi Province and Inner Mongolia, Photo by Gu Cheng.