Why Is the Huang He River Called "China's Sorrow"?

By Staff WriterLast Updated Apr 1, 2020 11:37:34 PM ET
Keren Su/China Span/Getty Images

The nickname "China's Sorrow" memorializes the millions that have been killed during the Huang He River's many diversions and floods. Most notably, in June 1938, the Nationalist Chinese Army used the river to block the Japanese army, killing an estimated 800,000 Chinese citizens and very few Japanese soldiers. The tactic had a historical precedent — an army destroyed the levees in 1129 and 1642 AD to flood enemies.

The Huang He River's distinctive yellow color is provided by its enormous sediment load, which causes the river's bottom to rise every year. Although the government attempts to control its course through the use of levees, the structures have to be raised every year to keep pace with the sediment fill until the river eventually runs above land. In June 1938, the Huang He River is thought to have flowed into one of the smaller and quieter rivers, flooding past the riverbanks and killing thousands in its path. At the time, the at-risk population was around 15 million people. After the flooding subsided, the rest of the deaths were attributed to waterborne diseases.

Currently, the population density near the Huang He River is even greater than it was in 1938. However, thanks to a more efficient infrastructure and engineers' increased understanding of the river dynamics, a similar tragedy is unlikely to occur.