The name Yangtze River, as well as various similar names such as Yangtse River, Yangzi River, Yangtze Kiang etc., is derived from Yangzi Jiang , which, beginning in the Sui Dynasty, was the Chinese name for the river in its lower reaches, specifically, the stretch between Yangzhou (扬州) and Zhenjiang (镇江). The name derives from the ancient ferry crossing Yangzi Jin (扬子津, meaning "Yangzi Crossing"). From the Ming dynasty, the name was sometimes written 洋子 (yángzĭ). Because it was the name first heard by missionaries and traders, this name was applied in English to the entire river. In Chinese, Yangzi Jiang is considered a historical or poetic name for the river. The modern Chinese name, Chang Jiang (长江/長江 Cháng Jiāng), literally means "long river" and may sometimes also be used in English.
Like many rivers, the river is known by different names over its course. At its source it is called in Chinese the Dangqu (当曲, from the Tibetan for "marsh river"). Downstream it is called the Tuotuo River (沱沱河) and then the Tongtian River (通天河, literally "pass to heaven river"). Where it runs through deep gorges parallel to the Mekong and the Salween before emerging onto the plains of Sichuan, it is known as the Jinsha River (金沙江 Jīnshā Jiāng, literally "golden sands river").
The Yangtze was earlier known to the Chinese as simply Jiang (江 Jiāng), which has become a generic name meaning "river," or the Da Jiang (大江 Dà Jiāng, literally "great river"). The Tibetan name for the river is Drichu (lit. "river of the female yak"). The Yangtze is sometimes referred to as the Golden Waterway.
The river originates in a glacier lying on the west of Geladandong mountain in the Dangla Mountain Range on the eastern part of the Tibetan plateau. It runs through the eastern part of Qinghai, turning southward down a deep valley at the border of Sichuan and Tibet to reach Yunnan. In the course of this valley, the river's elevation drops from above 5000 m to less than 1000 m.The headwaters of the Yangtze are situated at an elevation of about 4900 m (about 16,000 ft). In its descent to sea level, the river falls to an altitude of 305 m (1000 ft) at Yibin, Sichuan Province, the head of navigation for riverboats, and to 192 m (630 ft) at Chongqing. Between Chongqing and Yichang (I-ch'ang), at an altitude of 40 m (130 ft) and a distance of about 320 km (about 200 mi), it passes through the spectacular Yangtze Gorges, which are noted for their natural beauty but are dangerous to shipping.
It enters the basin of Sichuan at Yibin. While in the Sichuan basin it receives several mighty tributaries, increasing its water volume significantly. It then cuts through Mount Wushan bordering Chongqing and Hubei to create the famous Three Gorges. Eastward of the Three Gorges, Yichang is the first city on the Yangtze Plain.
After entering Hubei, the Yangtze receives more water from thousands of lakes. The largest of these lakes is Dongting Lake, which is located on the border of Hunan and Hubei provinces, and is the outlet for most of the rivers in Hunan. At Wuhan it receives its biggest tributary, the Han River, bringing water from its northern basin as far as Shaanxi.
At the northern tip of Jiangxi, Lake Poyang, the biggest freshwater lake in China, merges into the river. The river then runs through Anhui and Jiangsu provinces, receiving more water from innumerable smaller lakes and rivers, and finally reaches the East China Sea at Shanghai.
Four of China's five main freshwater lakes contribute their waters to the Yangtze River. Traditionally, the upstream part of the Yangtze River refers to the section from Yibin to Yichang; the middle part refers to the section from Yichang to Hukou, where Lake Poyang meets the river; the downstream part is from Hukou to Shanghai.
In 2007 fears were expressed that China's Finless Porpoise, known locally as the jiangzhu or "river pig", might follow the baiji, the Yangtze river dolphin, into extinction. The baiji was declared functionally extinct in 2006. Calls have been made for action to be taken to save the porpoise, of which there are about 1400 left living, with between 700 and 900 in the Yangtze, with about another 500 in Poyang and Dongting Lakes.
2007 population levels are less than half the 1997 levels, and the population is dropping at a rate of 7.3 percent per year!
Heavy river traffic on the Yangtze has driven the porpoise into the lakes. On Poyang Lake, the largest freshwater lake in China, sand dredging has become a mainstay of local economical development in the last few years, and is an important source of revenue in the region that border it. But at the same time, high-density dredging projects have been the principal cause of the death of the local wildlife population.
Dredging makes the waters of the lake muddier, and the porpoises cannot see as far as they once could, and have to rely on their highly-developed sonar systems to avoid obstacles and look for food. Large ships enter and leave the lake at the rate of two a minute and such a high density of shipping means the porpoises have difficulty hearing their food, and also cannot swim freely from one bank to the other. About 30 % of river's major tributaries like Minjiang, Tuojiang, Xiangjiang and Huangpu are heavily polluted by massive quantities of ammonia, nitrogen, phosphorus and other pollutants which are causing significantly smaller fish catch.
The Yangtze flows into the East China Sea and was navigable by ocean-going vessels up to a thousand miles from its mouth even before the Three Gorges Dam was built. As of June 2003, this dam spans the river, flooding Fengjie, the first of a number of towns affected by the massive flood control and power generation project. This is the largest comprehensive irrigation project in the world, and has a significant impact on the China's agriculture. Its proponents argue that it will free people living along the river from floods that have repeatedly threatened them in the past, and will offer them electricity and water transport -- though at the expense of permanently flooding many existing towns (including numerous ancient cultural relics) and causing large-scale changes in the local ecology.
Opponents of the dam point out that there are three different kinds of floods on the Yangtze River: floods which originate in the upper reaches, floods which originate in the lower reaches, and floods along the entire length of the river. They argue that the Three Gorges dam will actually make flooding in the upper reaches worse and have little or no impact on floods which originate in the lower reaches. Twelve hundred years of low water marks on the river were recorded in the inscriptions and the carvings of carp at Baiheliang, now submerged.
The Yangtze is flanked with metallurgical, power, chemical, auto, building materials and machinery industrial belts, and high-tech development zones. It is playing an increasingly crucial role in the river valley's economic growth and has become a vital link for international shipping to the inland provinces. The river is a major transportation artery for China, connecting the interior with the coast. The river used as a waterway for commerce offer now the possibility to cruise at leisure. Since 2004 a European luxury cruising company has brought very high standard and with the help of Swiss hotelier Nicolas C. Solari developed and opened three beautiful vessels now cruising the mighty river. The river is one of the world's busiest waterways. Traffic includes commercial traffic transporting bulk goods such as coal as well as manufactured goods and passengers. Cargo transportation reached 795 million tons in 2005. River cruises several days long especially through the beautiful and scenic Three Gorges area are becoming popular as the tourism industry grows in China.
Flooding along the river has been a major problem. The rainy season in China is May and June in areas south of Yangtze River, and July and August in areas north of it. The huge river system receives water both from southern and northern flanks, which causes its flood season to extend from May to August. Meanwhile, the relatively dense population and rich cities along the river make the floods more deadly and costly. The most recent major floods were the 1998 Yangtze River Floods, but more disastrous were the 1954 Yangtze river floods, killing around 30,000 people. Other severe floods included those of 1911 which killed around 100,000, 1931 (145,000 dead), and 1935 (142,000 dead).
The Yangtze Harbor is important to the cultural origins of southern China. Human activity was found in the Three Gorges area as far back as 27 thousand years ago, initiating debate over the origin of the Chinese people. In the Spring and Autumn Period, Ba and Shu were located in the western part of the river, covering modern Sichuan, Chongqing, and western Hubei; Chu was located in the central part of river, corresponding to Hubei, Hunan, Jiangxi, and southern Anhui. Wu and Yue were located in the eastern part of the river, now Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Shanghai. Although the Yellow River region was richer and more developed at that time, the milder climate and more peaceful environment made the Yangtze river area more suitable for agriculture.
From the Han Dynasty, the region of the Yangtze river became more and more important in China's economy. The establishment of irrigation systems (the most famous one is Dujiangyan, northwest of Chengdu, built during the Warring States period) made agriculture very stable and productive. Early in the Qing dynasty, the region called "Jiangnan" (that includes the southern part of Jiangsu, the northern part of Zhejiang, and the southeastern part of Anhui) provided 1/3-1/2 of the nation's revenues.
Historically, the Yangtze became the political boundary between north China and south China several times (see History of China) because of the difficulty of crossing the river. Many battles took place along the river, the most famous being the Battle of Red Cliffs in 208 AD during the Three Kingdoms period.
Politically, Nanjing was the capital of China several times, although most of the time its territory only covered the southeastern part of China, such as the Wu kingdom in the Three Kingdoms period, the Eastern Jin Dynasty, and smaller countries in the Northern and Southern Dynasties and Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms periods. Only the Ming occupied most parts of China from their capital at Nanjing, though it later moved capital to Beijing. The ROC capital was located in Nanjing in the periods 1911-1912, 1927-1937, 1945-1949.
The US, at the same time, wanted to protect its interests and expand trade, ventured the USS Wachusett (1861) six-hundred miles up the river to Hankow about 1860. While the USS Ashuelot (1865) a sidewheeler made her way up the river to Ichang in 1874. The first USS Monocacy a sidewheel gunboat began charting the Yangtze River in 1871. The first USS Palos an armed tug was on Asiatic Station into 1891, cruising the Chinese and Japanese coasts, visiting the open treaty ports and making occasional voyages up the Yangtze River. From June to September 1891, anti-foreign riots up the Yangtze forced the warship to make an extended voyage as far as Hankow, 600 miles upriver. Stopping at each open treaty port, the gunboat cooperated with naval vessels of other nations and repairing damage. She then operated along the north and central China coast and on the lower Yangtze until June 1892. The cessation of bloodshed with the Taiping Rebellion, Europeans put more steamers on the river. The French, not to sit idle and get rice crumbs, engaged the Chinese in war over the rule of Vietnam. The Sino-French Wars of the 1880s emerged with the Battle of Shipu having French cruisers in the lower Yangtze.
China Navigation Company was an early shipping company founded in 1876 in London, initially to trade up the Yangtze River from their Shanghai base with passengers and cargo. Chinese coastal trade started shortly after and in 1883 a regular service to Australia was initiated. Most of the company's ships were seized by Japan in 1941 and services did not resume until 1946. Robert Dollar was a later shipping magnate, who became enormously influencial moving Californian and Canadian lumber to the Chinese and Japanese market.
Yichang or Ichang, 1600 km (1000 mi) from the sea, is the head of navigation for river steamers; oceangoing vessels may navigate the river to Hankow, a distance of almost 1000 km (almost 600 mi) from the sea. For about 320 km (about 200 mi) inland from its mouth, the river is virtually at sea level.
The Chinese Government, too, had steamers. It had its own naval fleet, the Nanyang Fleet, which fell prey to the French fleet. The chinese would rebuild its fleet, only to be ravaged by another war with Japan (1895) , Revolution (1911) and ongoing inefficiency and corruption. Chinese companies ran their own steamers, but were second tier to European operations at the time.
Steamers came late to the upper river. The three gorges and the strong current hindered plans. Achibald Little attempted a voyage with the Lee-Chuan, and the Kuling, delays and weak engines meant that he only succeeded in the first vessel in 1898. Little soon built the first truly successful boat, the Pioneer, about 1899--she plied the river for two more decades and was even the flagship for the Royal Navy on the China Station. There were a few commercial steamers on the upper river by the turn of the century and the Boxer Rebellion. The Commercial firms of Jardine Matheson, Butterfield and Swire, and Standard Oil had their own steamers on the river. Until 1881, the India and China coastal and river services were operated by several companies. In that year, however, these were merged into the Indo-China Steam Navigation Company, Ltd., a public company under the management of Jardines. The Jardine company pushed inland up the Yangtsze River on which a specially designed fleet was built to meet all requirements of the river trade. For many years, this fleet gave unequalled service. Jardines established an enviable reputation for the efficient handling of shipping. As a result, the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company invited the firm to attend to the Agency of their Shire Line which operated in the Far East. Standard Oil ran the tankers Mei Ping, Mei An, and Mei Hsia.
With the Treaty Ports, the European powers and Japan were allowed to float navy ships into China's internal waters. The British, US and French did this. A full international fleet featured on Chinese waters: Austro-Hungarians, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, and German navy ships came to Shanghaii and the treaty ports. The Japanese engaged in open war with the Chinese twice, and Russians twice, over conquest of the Chinese Qing empire-- in the First and Second Sino-Japanese War 1895, and 1905;and the Russo-Japanese war of 1904. Incidently, both the French and Japanese navies were heavily involved in running opium and narcotics to Shanghai, where it was refined into morphine. It was then transhipped by liner back to Marseille and France (ie. French Connection) for processing in Germany and eventual sale in the US or Europe.
In 1909 the gunboat USS Samar changed station to Shanghai, where she regularly patrolled the lower Yangtze River up to Nanking and Wuhu. Following an anti-foreign riots in Changsha in April 1910, which destroyed a number of missions and merchant warehouses, Samar sailed up the Yangtze River to Hankow and then Changsa to show the flag and help restore order. The gunboat was also administratively assigned to the Asiatic Fleet that year, which had been reestablished by the Navy to better protect, in the words of the Bureau of Navigation, "American interests in the Orient." After returning to Shanghai in August, she sailed up river again the following summer, passing Wuhu in June but then running aground off Kichau on 1 July 1911. After staying stuck in the mud for two weeks, Samar broke free and sailed back down river to coal ship. Returning upriver, the gunboat reached Hankow in August and Ichang in September where she wintered over owing to both the dry season and the outbreak of rebellion at Wuchang in October 1911. Tensions eased and the gunboat turned downriver in July 1912, arriving at Shanghai in October. Samar patrolled the lower Yangtze after fighting broke out in the summer 1913, a precursor to a decade of conflict between provincial warlords in China. In 1919, she was placed on the disposal list at Shanghai following a collision with a Yangtze river steamer that damaged her bow. The spanish boats were replaced in the twenties by the Luzon and Mindanao were the largest, Oahu and Panay next in size, and Guam and Tutuila the smallest. China in the first fifty years of the twentieth century, was in low-grade chaos. Warlords, revolutions, natural disasters, civil war and invasions contributed. Yangtze boats were involved in the Nanjing Incident in 1927 when the Communists and Nationalists broke into open war. The Chiang's massacre of the Communists in Shanghai in 1927 furthered the unrest, US Marines with tanks were landed. River steamers were popular targets for both Nationalists and Communists, and peasants who would take periodic pot-shots at vessels. During the course of service the second USS Palos protected American interests in China down the entire length of the Yangtze, at times convoying U.S. and foreign vessels on the river, evacuating American citizens during periods of disturbance and in general giving credible presence to U.S. consulates and residences in various Chinese cities. In the period of great unrest in central China in the 1920s, Palos was especially busy patrolling the upper Yangtze against bands of warlord soldiers and outlaws. The warship engaged in continuous patrol operations between Ichang and Chungking throughout 1923, supplying armed guards to merchant ships, and protecting Americans at Chungking while that city was under siege by a warlord army
The British had a series of Insect class gunboat which patrolled between Chungking and Shanghai. Cruisers and destroyers and Fly class vessels also patrolled. The most infamous incident was when USS Panay and HMS Bee in 1937,were dive bombed by Japanese airplanes during the Rape of Nanking. The Europeans were forced to leave the Yangtse River with the Japanese takeover in 1941. The former steamers were either sabotaged or pressed into Japanese or Chinese service.
The Yangtze River has over 700 tributaries but the principal tributaries are the following: