The Yellow River or the Huag He is the second most longest river in China after the Yangtze River and is the sixth longest river system in the world at the estimated length of 5,464 km. The river originates in the Bayan Har Mountains in Qinghai province of Western China. It then flows through nine different provinces and empties into the Bohai Sea near the city of Dongying in Shandong province. The Yellow River basin has an east west extent of about 1,900 kilometers (1,180 mi) and a north–south extent of about 1,100 km (680 mi). Its total drainage area is about 752,546 square kilometers (290,560 sq mi). The Yellow River has its basin at the birthplace of ancient Chinese civilization, and it 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. For that reason, it has been given such names as “China’s Sorrow” and “The Ungovernable.” The Mandarin Chinese word huang (“yellow”) is a reference to the fine loose sediments that the river carries to the sea. The Yellow River basin has an enormous population—exceeded by only a small number of countries—and the river and its tributaries flow past some of China’s oldest cities, including Lanzhou, Baotou, Xi’an(Sian), Taiyuan, Luoyang, Zhengzhou, Kaifeng, and Jinan.
The Yellow River is divided into three distinct parts: the mountainous upper course, the middle course across a plateau, and the lower course across a low plain. The Yellow River originates at an elevation above 15,000 feet (4,600 metres) in the Bayan Har Mountains, in the eastern Plateau of Tibet. In its upper reaches the river crosses two large bodies of water, Lakes Ngoring and Gyaring. Those shallow lakes, each covering an area of about 400 square miles (1,000 square km), are rich in fish and freeze over in winter. The Yellow River in that region flows generally from west to east. The broad highlands of the upper course rise 1,000 to 1,700 feet (300 to 500 metres) above the river and its tributaries. The highlands consist of crystalline rocks that are sometimes visible as eroded outcroppings on the surface. The river enters a region of deep gorges, winding its way first southeast, then northwest around the A’nyêmaqên (Amne Machin) Mountains, where its fall exceeds 10 feet per mile (2 metres per km), and then east again between the Xiqing and Laji mountains. Past the gorges, near the city of Lanzhou in southeastern Gansu province, it leaves the Plateau of Tibet. That transition marks the end of the upper Yellow River, which is some 725 miles (1,165 km) from its source. The upper course drains a basin covering about 48,000 square miles (124,000 square km), consisting chiefly of inaccessible, highly mountainous, sparsely populated terrain with a cold climate. The middle course of the Yellow River, extending more than 1,800 miles (2,900 km), consists of a great loop and drains an area of about 23,000 square miles (60,000 square km). The river at first flows northeast for about 550 miles (880 km) through the sandy soils of the northern Hui Autonomous Region of Ningxia and of the western Ordos Plateau. It has many rapids there, and in a number of places it narrows. The river then turns eastward and flows for another 500 miles (800 km) through alluvial plains in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, in places branching into numerous distributary channels. In that stretch its fall is less than half a foot per mile (9 cm per km), and many of the channels have been developed over the millennia for irrigated agriculture.
The Yellow River is also known as the "cradle of Chinese civilization" or the "Mother River." It is usually a source of rich fertile soil and irrigation water, the Yellow River has transformed itself more than 1,500 times in recorded history into a raging torrent that has swept away entire villages. As a result, the river has several less-positive nicknames as well, such as "China's Sorrow" and the "Scourge of the Han People." Over the centuries, the Chinese people have used it not only for agriculture but also as a transportation route and even as a weapon. The recorded history of Chinese civilization begins on the banks of the Yellow River with the Xia Dynasty, which lasted from 2100 to 1600 BCE. According to Sima Qian's "Records of the Grand Historian" and the "Classic of Rites," a number of different tribes originally united into the Xia Kingdom in order to combat devastating floods on the river. When a series of breakwaters failed to stop the flooding, the Xia instead dug a series of canals to channel excess water out into the countryside and then down to the sea. Unified behind strong leaders and able to produce bountiful harvests since Yellow River floods no longer destroyed their crops so often, the Xia Kingdom ruled central China for several centuries. The Shang Dynasty succeeded the Xia around 1600 BCE and also centered itself on the Yellow River valley. Fed by the riches of the fertile river-bottom land, the Shang developed an elaborate culture featuring powerful emperors, divination using oracle bones, and artwork including beautiful jade carvings. During China's Spring and Autumn Period (771 to 478 BCE), the great philosopher Confucius was born in the village of Tsou on the Yellow River in Shandong. He was almost as powerful an influence on Chinese culture as the river itself. Over the following centuries, the Yellow River silted up and changed its course several times, breaking its banks and drowning surrounding farms and villages. Major re-routings took place in 1034 when the river split into three parts. The river jumped south again in 1344 during the waning days of the Yuan Dynasty. The Yellow River is the surging heart of Chinese civilization. Its waters and the rich soil it carries bring the agricultural abundance needed to support China's enormous population.
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