“Whoever controls the river, controls China”, or so said Hu the great. Hu was referring to the Huang He (Yellow River) located in central China, which was the start and support of Chinese civilization eight hundred and fifty thousand years ago, and still maintains that standard of support for many Chinese people today. The Huang He has made contributions primarily to the areas of democratization, industrialization, geography, imperialism, and traditionalism, thereby making the Chinese people the longest living culture.
Like Hu the great, Mao Tse-tung had very strong views regarding the control and influence of the river. Mao felt that conquest of the Huang He was vital to political control of China, probably stemming from ancient beliefs of the river being controlled by a superior force, and if a prospective ruler can be that superior force, then the ruler will have absolute power. On October 1, 1949, Mao successfully “controlled” the river and formed a republic until his death at age eighty four in 1976. Unfortunately (or fortunately, however one chooses to look at it), Mao found that he enjoyed power, and chose to bring communism into the country, communism being an authoritarian government. Mao Tse-tung was not the only ruler preoccupied with control of the river, ancient rulers based their power on astrological indications, and the power associated with the river. These ancient rulers (kings and empires) lived in cities located in the river valley, this was the source of dynastic rule (which controlled China from it?s founding to 1911). It was also said that the ruler in the valley was the ruler under heaven, and the tombs of ancient kingdoms show China as being an endless cycle of ruin and decline, brought on by astrological indications. The lack of government being emphasized on reason, rather on the heavens gives way to China?s lack of democratization. A result of this is isolation from outside culture, and since China wouldn?t allow foreign influence, much chance was not given for invasion, thereby contributing to China being the longest standing civilization.
Not all positives resulted in China?s isolation, however. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the western world was undergoing an industrial and agricultural revolution, putting them very much ahead of the Chinese people. In a desperate attempt to catch up, the Chinese turned to the Yellow River for power and prestige. The contributions were a double edged sword; water and electric power was produced, and there are currently four working plants with two under construction, water wheels provide irrigation of the land, silt fertilizes land, cotton is mass produced, and with a monetary incentive, markets work hard at selling products. On the reverse side, however, the Huang He is called China?s Sorrow because of the destructive flooding the river has done more than 1500 times in the past 3500 years, causing many deaths and homelessness. The first recorded flood was in 2085 BCE, and since then not many improvements have been made to better protect the people. The river overflows as a result of too much silt building up at the bottom, causing the level of the river to rise and spill onto it?s banks, and depositing alluvial soil (which happens to be fertile and excellent for growing crops). Attempts have been made to create explosions in the water, thereby breaking up the silt build-up. Unfortunately, this is only a temporary solution, and would have to be done weekly to have any effect, however this procedure creates an enormous financial burden for the country, which they are not earning elsewhere as a result of their lack of modernization, causing the citizens to seek for other ways to prevent the flooding, in order to prevent the extermination of the people.
The majority of the knowledge regarding the Huang He falls into the geographical category, it being that the river is a microgeographic feature. The river is approximately three thousand miles long, and begins up in the Tibetan mountains, passes through Mongolia, and ends in the Yellow Sea. The river undergoes many falls and gorges, the largest being a fifteen thousand foot drop. There is much pressure on the river to cultivate the land, and one half of the volume of the river is sent to desert regions for farming. The river is shaped like a dragon, which is the most probable region for one of the country?s symbols to be a dragon. The size of the river has very much contributed to the isolation of China, as well as the uneven distribution of people. Many foreign invaders have historically been intimidated by the Yellow River, and fear that if they do successfully reach the Chinese people, the vastness of the river, as well as the threat of the river overflowing will cause death, and force the invaders out, thereby making their efforts useless. Internally, the width and length of the river has caused an interesting spread in the placement of people. The majority of people do not want to live on the Huang He?s bank since there is always the threat of the river exploding it?s banks. As a result, there are not many people (other than the transhumance) who live within a ten mile radius of the river, and as a result of China?s other macro (mountains) and micro (rivers) geographic features, the populated areas usually have a very high population density (119 people per square kilometer) which can be harmful (overcrowding equals lack of jobs, food, and shelter), but can also be helpful since people can help each other survive, thus greatly contributing to China?s long standing heritage.
While China has good natural boundaries preventing their people from outside invasion and influence, many social\economic groups have pushed their way into China, to try to spread their culture. The Buddhists from India successfully pushed their way in to China, and Buddhism is an accepted religion, along with the celebration of the Holy Days and Buddha?s birthday. Economically, trade has very much influenced the way of the people, especially the Silk Road. The Silk Road spans seven thousand miles from where ancient Rome was to China. This is route where Marco Polo supposedly discovered China, and has been used for trade ever since. China has also tried to influence other society?s thinking with their beliefs in suffering, rebirth, enlightenment, discipline, high moral conduct, meditation, and Shianistic beliefs. Schools of thought such as Daoism and Confucianism were (and still are today) preached. Confucianism believes in order for society, and for elders to be respected. Daoism believes in a balance with nature and forces such as Yin and Yang. Daoism also preaches the importance of respecting the unseen spirits of the (Yellow) river, and by using the river for trade, and conquering land, the river spirits might be disgraced. The desire to create harmony with foreign surroundings, and also internally with nature causes great dependence on the river, and thereby producing a common bond for Chinese cultures throughout the ages.
If you ask the majority of people living in China, they will not tell you that they are from China; rather the “Land Under Heaven”. In fact, they will call themselves the Huang He people after the river they used to survive. The river which has held traditional China together for centuries, through good times and bad. The Huang He has seen such occasions as weddings, in which contracts are made for social advancement rather than love. The bride and groom are usually around eighteen years of age, and while the woman is forced to fake displeasure, many times she truly is unhappy. Her soon to be mother in law brings her a gift and feeds her drops of milk and wine, until the bride becomes excited about her upcoming wedding. After the religious ceremony, a great feast is held, and there is dancing, liveliness, and the (yellow) river God is praised. The Huang He also brings traditionalism to many other areas of society such as philosophy and religion. Confucianism, the belief in order for society was sprouted when Confucius discovered how much more “peaceful” the river was when society was in order with a system of respect. Daoism is the belief in a need for balance with nature, an obvious attempt at taming the Huang He. Daoism is a the belief in respecting the unseen spirits of the river, and this is shown by the sacrifice of young girls to the river. In addition, every year in the spring, the Chinese celebrate their new year, with a special dance of the dragon which is supposed to ward off the evil spirits of the river. For as long as the Chinese people have existed, they have been extremely ethnocentric, an attribute to which they can thank their world famous (yellow) river, which by keeping tradition alive has played an integral role in China?s long standing history.
While not all effects have been positive, the majority of the Huang He?s effects on China in the areas of democratization, industrialization, geography, imperialism, and traditionalism has gone to a positive area; keeping China?s heritage alive for centuries. Whether it be the river?s vast size, or perhaps just it?s long history of flooding because of the river gods being disgraced, many religious and political figures have fought for control of the empire for centuries, leading Hu the great to say; “Whoever controls the river, controls China”.