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Yangtze River (Chang Jiang) Facts and History

Updated on April 10, 2015
Paula Atwell profile image

Paula Atwell is a freelance writer with WriterAccess, webmaster, member of Pinterest Party on FB and the owner of Lake Erie Artist Gallery.

Boat in the Grayness of the Foggy Yangtze River


How Long is the Yangtze River?

A goddess and her 11 sisters, 12 fairy spirits, overlook the waters of the Yangtze River, it is said. There's a story behind this, of course, involving heavens and gods, goddesses and humans, and love for a river and the people who dwell by its shores. There may be no way to prove it, but its possible that if the Yangtze River waters are tame, it's Yao Ji and her 11 fairy spirit sisters on Goddess Peak you should be thanking.

As the longest river in China, and one of the most important, it's no wonder that the Yangtze piles legend on top of fact, on top of imagination. It all gels together to make the Yangtze River--facts, history and legend--one of the more interesting rivers in the world.

The River at the Center of the World: A Journey Up the Yangtze, and Back in Chinese Time
The River at the Center of the World: A Journey Up the Yangtze, and Back in Chinese Time
Traveling the Yangtze River is like going back in history and Simon Winchester takes us there as he travels the river in the heartland of China. An exciting, informative account of a mysterious and intriguing culture.

Yangtze River History

For thousands of years, the Yangtze River has been integral to China's water transportation system. It carried goods and people, helped cultures establish themselves, created wealth and brought unimaginable devastation. Like many bodies of water, the Yangtze river took almost as much as it gave. It was during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE) , however, that the Yangtze cemented its place as a major player in China's economy. With the river acting as a sort of super highway, the transport of goods, people, livestock and equipment took on a new ease.

Around the mid-1800s, the British merchant and steam ships went to war for access to the river which had been denied them. This conflict became known as the First Opium War, which the Chinese eventually lost. In 1843 the Chinese Qing authorities and the British signed the Treaty of Nanjing, ending the conflict. One of the stipulations of the treaty was that China would cede Hong Kong to the British--an agreement that, with a few revisions, only recently ended.

The Yangtze River is also known as the Yangtzi, Yangtsi, and Chang Jiang--all meaning some variation of "Long River."

View of the Yangtze River (Chang Jiang)
View of the Yangtze River (Chang Jiang) | Source

Where is the Yangtze River?

The Yangtze River runs through the middle of China, or The People's Republic of China, in effective dividing the country, north from south, a fact utilized at various times in China's political history. Because the river acted as a natural divider, considering the difficulty of crossing the river in some areas, warring parties, or potential allies sometimes used its waters as a boundary. The Yangtze begins its journey in the glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau, and winds its way through thousands of miles before moving through Shanghai and into the East China Sea. In between the river touches, and even creates, many of China's most important and fascinating land, water and cultural treasures.

The Yellow River is a sister river to the Yangtze, and stands only behind it in its importance to China historically and present day.

Yangtze River Delta

The Yangtze River Delta, or the Golden Triangle Region, which lies south of the Yangtze. This area began a rich agricultural and trade region; now, it may be one of the most populated river side urban centers in the world. In 2010, the Yangtze River Delta region was reportedly home to 105 million, and up, people.

Shanghai, a city made famous in film and song, and infamous by use of its name for a rather specific way of gaining a ship's crew, is at the heart of the delta region. It's location, diversity and proximity to the end of the Yangtze River has kept Shanghai in a position of economic importance for many decades. The building of dams on the Yangtze River have both boom implications for the delta region, and possible warnings of changing times ahead.

Yangze River shipyard on river bank
Yangze River shipyard on river bank | Source
River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.)
River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.)
The first foreigners in 50 years to step foot in Fuling, a town along the Yangtze River, Peter Hessler and Adam Meier talk about the culture and life of the people that live along the river.

The Three Gorges Dam

This Yangtze river dam was in the planning for over 100 years, in one way or another. Many businesses and politicians had been anxious to harness the power of the river for use in a hydroelectric dam, though planning on how best to do so was hit and miss. There were multiple goals for the dam, which was finally completed in 2008:

  • produce electricity
  • open up flood storage space, thus reducing down-river floods
  • increase the river's traffic and shipping capacity

According to some, these goals and more were achieved. The Three Gorges Yangtze River dam, at this time the most immense hydro-power station in the world, is to be considered an engineering and economic success.

The wider opinion has been more mixed, however; thousands of years old cultural and archaeological sites were flooded to create the dam, to the horror of many historians archaeologists and interested people. Millions of people were also displaced in the creation of the dam, though many were relocated.

The environmental impact of the building of this Yangtze river dam is still being studied. Some fear that the construction has created an opening for landslides in areas along the river, and other environmental impacts on the water itself. The construction of the dam means that less silt flows down the river, instead mostly staying closer in toward the dam. This could have long-term implications for Shanghai and other areas that have, over the course of centuries, become dependent on the richly flowing silt.

Up the Yangtze
Up the Yangtze
Produced by a Chinese-Canadian filmmaker in 2002, this movie shows the lives of two teenagers and how the river affects their lives.

The Yangtze River

It would and, in fact, does take volumes to even begin to cover the rich and complex history of China, the Yangtze River, and even the modern-day river happenings. It's nothing new for the Yangtze River to be at the center of a controversy, the divider in a war, the source of life and hope, or horror and despair. People have made their fortunes on the river, and met their death's as well. China's wars have been fought over it, and others have sought control over the region through this same swelling rush of water.

The river endures and people continue to think of ways of how to make use of this beautiful, wild water and its surroundings. The legends, stories and histories associated with the river all attest to its vibrance, but also to the capriciousness of both the river and the people who depend on it, in one way or another. A familiar story around the world.

Rediscovering The Yangtze River

Traveling to the Yangtze

If you travel to visit the Yangtze, don't leave your preparations until the last minute. You will need a passport, possibly a Visa, and may need some vaccinations depending on what part of the river you will be visiting.

© 2014 Paula Atwell


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    • Wednesday-Elf profile image


      5 years ago from Savannah, Georgia

      The description of the Yangtze River dividing China and running the length of the country with the rich delta being an important region reminds me of the Mississippi River here in the U.S. There are similarities, although we don't have the beautiful mountains on either side of the river as seen in some pictures of the Yangtze. :) Very interesting article.

    • Paula Atwell profile imageAUTHOR

      Paula Atwell 

      5 years ago from Cleveland, OH

      @ Alicia Thanks for visiting. :)

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is an informative hub. Thank you for the education!

    • Paula Atwell profile imageAUTHOR

      Paula Atwell 

      5 years ago from Cleveland, OH

      @camblins Thanks for visiting. It is fascinating to learn about different cultures.

    • camblins profile image

      Marsha Camblin 

      5 years ago from Denver, Colorado USA

      Great article! The Yangzi is fascinating and life giving! I'm interested in Tibetan history.

    • Paula Atwell profile imageAUTHOR

      Paula Atwell 

      5 years ago from Cleveland, OH

      @Audrey Thanks for stopping by.

      @Elyn That is awesome. What do you think I left out? Anything to add?

    • Elyn MacInnis profile image

      Elyn MacInnis 

      5 years ago from Shanghai, China

      I have lived by the Yangzi River for almost 17 years... and it is amazing. Thank you for your great page - it made me happy!

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 

      5 years ago from California

      Nice looking hub!

    • Paula Atwell profile imageAUTHOR

      Paula Atwell 

      5 years ago from Cleveland, OH

      Sounds fascinating doesn't it Anne?

    • annieangel1 profile image


      5 years ago from Yorkshire, England

      I've never been there but would love to go.

    • Paula Atwell profile imageAUTHOR

      Paula Atwell 

      5 years ago from Cleveland, OH

      @billybuc Thanks. :) Writing about rivers just gives me more reasons to add to my travel bucket list.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I was a history teacher so I know a bit about this important river. Nice summary here...well done.


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