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The Major River Systems In China

Updated on November 6, 2013
The Three Gorges section of the Yangtse River
The Three Gorges section of the Yangtse River


Major River Systems

This hub looks at the major river systems in China as a way of introducing a range of topics. These may then become the subject of other later hubs. Links will be added as appropriate.

In determining which systems qualify as 'major' I have taken the most significant half dozen or so for any of my classifications - where that many exist. This may be arbitrary but this is not a scholarly work.

A note on names: since we are considering river systems in China I have generally included the Chinese name for any given river. However, many rivers, especially the major and therefore longer ones, may have several names even within the one country as well as others after crossing a land border. I have not attempted to list all given names but only to supply sufficient names so that the general reader is able to identify each river as it is mentioned.

China's Terrain

Rivers That Flow Into The Pacific

Yangtse (Chang Jiang)

This, the longest river in China (and third longest in the world), has its source high up on the Tibetan Plateau in what is now Qinghai Province. With its mouth just north of Shanghai, that is over 6000 kilometres (nearly 4000 miles).

The importance of the Yangtse River to China throughout the ages is hard to appreciate. It has served as a barrier between states as well as a transport route through some of the most difficult terrain in the historical heartland. Even now, Chinese tend to think themselves as northerners or southerners based on which side of the Yangtse that they live.

Yellow River

The second longest river in China is the sixth longest in the world. This river perhaps played a larger role in the early history of China than its larger cousin with many believing that the Wei Valley, south of the Ordos (see below), is the 'cradle of Chinese civilization'.

The river is prone to seasonal flooods. Some of these rate amongst the worst natural disasters ever recorded. The 1931 flood is said to have killed between 1 and 4 millon people.

Heilongjiang (Amur)

The 'Back Dragon River' lends its name to China's most northerly and most easterly province. It forms the border with Russia for much of its length. Its mouth lies in the Strait of Tartary.


All of the rivers around Beijing flow out to the Bo Hai, a gulf off the Yellow Sea. Five of the largest meet near the city of Tianjin which has therefore become important as the capital's port. The flow here was altered significantly during the construction of the Grand Canal (see below).

Zhu Jiang (Pearl River)

This river system covers much of Guangxi and Guangdong. Its mouth near Hong Kong is actually a complex delta but traditionally the flows are all considered one and the same.

The area around the lower reaches of the Pearl River is heavily industrialised and that section is now considered one of the most polluted in the world.

Three Parallel Rivers

Three mighty rivers enter Yunnan Province from the highlands of the Tibetan Plateau in valleys separated only by folds at this eastern end of the Himalaya chain. Recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, this area is rich in scenic value and in wildlife. The Mekong has been dealt with above. The other two flow south then west.

Lancang (Mekong)

The most easterly of the three is most well-known as the Mekong. En-route it passes Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia before becoming a large delta in Vietnam.

The Mekong has huge seasonal variations in flow.Seen as an important resource, the six countries along its length now manage this by participating in the Mekong River Commission.

It has one of the richest bio-diversities in the world and is noted for its huge fish species. These indicate a rich source of available food, leading to one of the most productive freshwater fisheries anywhere.

Rivers That Flow Into The Indian Ocean

Two of the Three Parallel Rivers flow south then west into the Andaman Sea.

A fourth river originates along the northern edge of the Himalaya and takes its first opportunity to turn south. On the Indian subcontinent this is then best known as the Brahmaputra though technically, as this joins the Ganges before reaching the sea, we should count this as belonging to that river system.

Nujiang (Salween)

This river is named after the Nu people that live in the middle reaches. It drains parts of China, Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand, with its mouth at the Andaman Sea.

Dulong Jiang (Irriwaddy)

This, Myanmar's most important river, flows almost due south and exits into the Andaman Sea near the capital Yangon (Rangoon). Only the headwaters sit in Chinese territory.

Yarlung Zangbo (Brahmaputra)

The course of this river confused geographers for many years. It was only proven to be connected to the Brahmaputra in 1913. Attempts in the 19th Century failed because the pundit sent to Tibet suffered such trials that when, 4 years later, he managed to release specially marked logs, those looking for them had moved on.

We now know that this river drains a large area of southern Tibet, flowing mostly eastwards. Near Namcha Barwa it turns south and passes through a canyon that is claimed to be the deepest in the world.

Rivers That Flow Into The Arctic Ocean

Only one Chinese River exits to the north and reaches the Arctic.

Ertix (Irtysh)

This river system leaves the far north-west of the country and heads into neighbouring Kazakhstan before heading across Siberian Russia to join the Ob River system which flows into the Arctic Ocean.

The section in China has some spectacular rock formations known as Yadan. Wind erosion is the major factor in their shaping, and this area, known as the Dzungarian Gap, has plenty of strong winds. The term 'Hyperborean' is thought by some to refer to this part of Asia.

Interior Rivers

We generally think of rivers as flowing down from high ground to the sea. Given the size of China there are a considerable number of rivers that simple do not reach that far. Their waters flow down but then disappear into desert or marshlands.


The Yellow River makes a large loop to the north after Lanzhou, returning near Xi'an. Most rivers within this loop feed into the Yellow River but there is an depression in the middle where any water that falls is retained. This is the Ordos - a land of particular importance to the Mongols.

Hexi Corridor

There is a narrow strip of land between mountain ranges that permits travel from the Chinese heartland to the lands further west. This strip was essential to the route we now know as the Silk Roads. The rivers here are sufficient to allow a small population but their course then takes them into the desert where they peter out.


This is another basin with no exit for rivers. Much of the water falling here ends up in Qinghai Lake in the far east of the basin. This was previously known by the more attractive moniker, Koko Nor (Teal/Blue Lake).

Junggar (Dzungar)

This area is another depression and what little water falls in the hills flows down to be lost in the desert.

Ili River

This river flows down the western slopes of the Tian Shan (Heavenly Mountains) into neighbouring Kazakhstan where it ends in Lake Balkhash.

Tarim River

The Tarim Basin is by far the largest in China. Most of the rivers here are formed from snow melt from the mountains on its southern and western edges. The Tarim River is the largest of these though it too fails well before the sea, ending in the sands of Lop Nur.

It is believed that the glaciers feeding these rivers are shrinking and that flows are less than in ancient times. Certainly, the area did seem to be more fertile when it first came to the attention of the Chinese dynasties some 2000 years ago. Ancient 'cities' have been discovered with evidence of abundant wood where now no trees are to be seen at all.

Qiangtang Plateau

This corner of Chinese territory is a plateau far inland and its few rivers have only short courses ending in lakes and marshland. Precipitation is insufficient to create any larger waterway, one that might carve its way beyond.

Artificial Rivers

Public works in China have often been on a grand scale. Three water projects are sufficiently large as to qualify here as significant in terms of the natural river systems around them.

Grand Canal

This man-made waterway connects the ancient capital of Hangzhou with Beijing, 'crossing' both the Yangtse and Yellow Rivers as it does so.

The canal was used mostly for the transportation of goods from the productive south to the demanding court in the north. It was also sometimes used by Emperors wishing to travel in more comfort than the land route permitted.

Many of the towns and cities along the canal route are still famous for particular handicrafts.

Ling Canal

This lesser-known waterway is important in historical terms in that it connected the Yangtse and Pearl River systems. This allowed the movement of sufficient supplies to allow the Qin Dynasty to invade and annex the southern state of Nanyue (modern day Guangdong, Guangxi and parts of northern Vietnam) thereby expanding Chinese territory considerably.


This irrigation project was also commissioned in the time of the Qin Dynasty. It diverts water from the Minshang River in Sichuan and takes them to previously dry lands to produce one of the most productive farm areas in China. The system is so cleverly designed that it all but eliminated devastating floods downstream.


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    • fordie profile image

      fordie 5 years ago from China

      The Three Gorges Dam was fully opened in 2008 but the first stage was completed much earlier (2003, I think). After that, more height was added and more features added.

      There is a lot of concern over the impact of that dam and therefore little discussion about plans for new dams over here. The Mekong and Nu flow through other countries and so the impact of dams on those rivers is an international issue.

      You might find more at:

    • profile image

      Derdriu 5 years ago

      Fordie, A Reuters article of April 23, 2012 indicates that additional dams may be built on the Upper Yangtze, the upper Mekong and the Nu. Do you know how long it will take to build them since Reuters says that the Three Gorges dam construction ran from 1996 to 2008?

      In the United States, it's my impression that there has been something of an anti-damming trend because of landslides from banks made unstable by the weight of reservoir water.

      Respectfully, and with many thanks and all the votes, Derdriu