, Volume 41, Issue 7, pp 682–698 | Cite as

Socio-economic Impacts on Flooding: A 4000-Year History of the Yellow River, China

  • Yunzhen Chen
  • James P. M. Syvitski
  • Shu Gao
  • Irina Overeem
  • Albert J. Kettner
Review Paper


We analyze 4000-year flood history of the lower Yellow River and the history of agricultural development in the middle river by investigating historical writings and quantitative time series data of environmental changes in the river basin. Flood dynamics are characterized by positive feedback loops, critical thresholds of natural processes, and abrupt transitions caused by socio-economic factors. Technological and organizational innovations were dominant driving forces of the flood history. The popularization of iron plows and embankment of the lower river in the 4th century bc initiated a positive feedback loop on levee breaches. The strength of the feedback loop was enhanced by farming of coarse-sediment producing areas, steep hillslope cultivation, and a new river management paradigm, and finally pushed the flood frequency to its climax in the seventeenth century. The co-evolution of river dynamics and Chinese society is remarkable, especially farming and soil erosion in the middle river, and central authority and river management in the lower river.


Co-evolution Flood history Human activities Positive feedback loop Yellow River 


  1. An, C.-B., L. Tang, L. Barton, and F.-H. Chen. 2005. Climate change and cultural response around 4000 cal yr B.P. in the western part of Chinese Loess Plateau. Quaternary Research 63: 347–352.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bryant, M., P. Falk, and C. Paola. 1995. Experimental study of avulsion frequency and rate of deposition. Geology 23: 365–368.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Chi, C.-T. 1936. Key economic areas in Chinese history as revealed in the development of public works for water control. London: Paragon Book Reprint Corp.Google Scholar
  4. Dodgen, R.A. 2001. Controlling the dragon: Confucian engineers and the Yellow River in late imperial China. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.Google Scholar
  5. Elvin, M. 1973. The pattern of the Chinese past. Stanford: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Elvin, M. 2004. The retreat of the elephants: An environmental history of China. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  7. Fang, J.-Q., and G. Liu. 1992. Relationship between climatic change and the nomadic southward migrations in eastern Asia during historical times. Climatic Change 22: 151–168.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Fang, J.-q., and Z. Xie. 1994. Deforestation in preindustrial China: The Loess Plateau region as an example. Chemosphere 29: 983–999.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Ge, J., S. Cao, G. Dong, S. Wu, and Y. Hou. 2002. The population history of China, vol. 1–6. Shanghai: Fudan University Press (in Chinese).Google Scholar
  10. Ge, Q., J. Zheng, X. Fang, Z. Man, X. Zhang, P. Zhang, and W.-C. Wang. 2003. Winter half-year temperature reconstruction for the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River and Yangtze River, China, during the past 2000 years. The Holocene 13: 933–940.Google Scholar
  11. Han, M. 2005. Formation of the interlocking belt of agriculture and husbandry and climatic change in ancient North China. Archaeology 10: 57–68 (in Chinese, English summary).Google Scholar
  12. Hassan, M.A., M. Church, J. Xu, and Y. Yan. 2008. Spatial and temporal variation of sediment yield in the landscape: Example of Huanghe (Yellow River). Geophysical Research Letters 35. doi: 10.1029/2008GL033428.
  13. Ho, P.-t. 1969. The loess and the origin of Chinese agriculture. The American Historical Review 75: 1–36.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Huang, R. 1996. China: A macro history. Armonk: M. E. Sharpe.Google Scholar
  15. Jerolmack, D.J., and C. Paola. 2007. Complexity in a cellular model of river avulsion. Geomorphology 91: 259–270.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Lawler, A. 2010. Uncovering a rural Chinese Pompeii. Science 328: 566–567.Google Scholar
  17. Lowdermilk, W.C., and T.I. Li. 1930. Forestry in denuded China. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 152: 127–141.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Ning, K., X. Jiang, and H. Sun. 1999. Economic history of China, vol. 1–2. Beijing: China Economic Publishing House (in Chinese).Google Scholar
  19. Perkins, D.H., and Y.-C. Wang. 1969. Agricultural development in China 1368–1968. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.Google Scholar
  20. Qiu, G. 2004. An investigation into piled-up cities under the Kaifeng City. China’s Cultural Relics 26: 70–77 (in Chinese).Google Scholar
  21. Rapp, G., and Z. Jing. 2011. Human–environment interactions in the development of early Chinese civilization. In Human interactions with the geosphere: The geoarchaeological perspective, ed. L. Wilson, 208. London: Geological Society.Google Scholar
  22. Redman, C.L., C.L. Crumley, F.A. Hassan, F. Hole, J. Morais, F. Riedel, V.L. Scarborough, J.A. Tainer, et al. 2007. Group report: Millennial perspectives on the dynamic interaction of climate, people, and resources. In Sustainability or collapse: An integrated history and future of people on earth, ed. R. Costanza, L. Graumlich, and W. Steffen, 495. Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  23. Ren, M.-e., and X. Zhu. 1994. Anthropogenic influences on changes in the sediment load of the Yellow River, China, during the Holocene. The Holocene 4: 314–320.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Shapiro, J. 2001. Mao’s war against nature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Shen, Y., S. Zhao, and D. Zheng. 1935. The chronicle of the Yellow River. Nanjing: Military Committee and Resources Committee of the Republic, China (in Chinese).Google Scholar
  26. Shi, N. 2001. The studies of historical geography of the Loess Plateau. Zhengzhou: Yellow River Water Conservancy Publishing House (in Chinese).Google Scholar
  27. Shi, N., E. Cao, and S. Zhu. 1985. The vicissitude of forest and grassland in the Loess Plateau. Xi’an: Shaanxi People’s Press (in Chinese).Google Scholar
  28. Shi, Y., Z. Kong, S. Wang, L. Tang, F. Wang, T. Yao, X. Zhao, P. Zhang, et al. 1993. Mid-Holocene climates and environments in China. Global and Planetary Change 7: 219–233.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Tan, Q. 1962. Why the Yellow River was at a long peace after the Eastern Han Dynasty: An argument in historical perspective that rational land use in the middle Yellow River be a decisive factor for the sake of avoiding flood hazards in the lower river. Academic Monthly 2: 23–35 (in Chinese).Google Scholar
  30. Tan, Q. 1982. The historical atlas of China, vol. 1–8. Beijing: China Cartographic Publishing House (in Chinese).Google Scholar
  31. Tang, K., G. Xiong, J. Liang, K. Jing, S. Zhang, Y. Chen, and S. Li. 1993. Soil erosion and runoff sediment changes in the Yellow River basin (1988–-1992. Beijing: China Science and Technology Press (in Chinese).Google Scholar
  32. van Maren, D.S., J.C. Winterwerp, Z.Y. Wang, and Q. Pu. 2009. Suspended sediment dynamics and morphodynamics in the Yellow River, China. Sedimentology 56: 785–806.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Vermeer, E.B. 1998. Population and ecology along the frontier in Qing China. In Sediments of time: Environment and society in Chinese history, ed. M. Elvin, 820. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  34. Walling, D.E. 1999. Linking land use, erosion and sediment yields in river basins. Hydrobiologia 410: 223–240.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Will, P.-E. 1998. Clear waters versus muddy waters: The Zheng-Bai irrigation system of Shanxi province in the late-imperial period. In Sediments of time: Environment and society in Chinese history, ed. M. Elvin, 820. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  36. Wittfogel, K.A. 1957. Oriental despotism: A comparative study of total power. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  37. Wu, X., Z. Niu, and S. Wang. 1994. Changes of environment, water and sediment of the Yellow River basin in historical times. Beijing: China Meteorological Press (in Chinese).Google Scholar
  38. Wu, B., G. Wang, and J. Xia. 2008. Response of bankfull discharge and sediment load in the lower Yellow River. Geomorphology 100: 366–376.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Xu, J. 1998. Naturally and anthropogenically accelerated sedimentation in the lower Yellow River, China, over the past 13,000 years. Geografiska Annaler Series A 80: 67–78.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Xu, J. 2001. Historical bank-breachings of the lower Yellow River as influenced by drainage basin factors. Catena 45: 1–17.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Xu, J. 2003. Sedimentation rates in the lower Yellow River over the past 2300 years as influenced by human activities and climate change. Hydrological Processes 17: 3359–3371.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Xu, J., and D. Cheng. 2002. Relation between the erosion and sedimentation zones in the Yellow River, China. Geomorphology 48: 365–382.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Xu, J., G. Lv, S. Zhang, and Z. Gan. 2000. The coarse-sediment producing area with high specific sediment yields in the middle Yellow River basin: Its boundaries and sediment yield and transport laws. Zhengzhou: Yellow River Water Conservancy Publishing House (in Chinese).Google Scholar
  44. Xu, J., C. Hu, and J. Chen. 2009. Effect of suspended sediment grain size on channel sedimentation in the lower Yellow River and some implications. Science in China Series E 52: 2330–2339.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Yang, P. 1993. Population geography of the middle Yellow River basin in historical times. In Collection of researches on environmental changes of the Yellow River basin and laws of water and sediment transportation, vol. 5: Historical changes in vegetation and human factors in the Loess Plateau, ed. S. Wang, 198. Beijing: China Ocean Press (in Chinese).Google Scholar
  46. Ye, D., J. Yang, and Y. Gao. 1956. Precipitation in the Yellow River basin. Beijing: Science Press (in Chinese).Google Scholar
  47. Yellow River Conservancy Commission. 1998. A summary of the Yellow River basin. Zhengzhou: Henan People’s Press (in Chinese).Google Scholar
  48. Yellow River Conservancy Commission. 2001. The chronicle of events of the Yellow River. Zhengzhou: Yellow River Water Conservancy Publishing House (in Chinese).Google Scholar
  49. Zhang, P. 1996. Climate changes in china during historical times. Jinan: Science and Technology Press (in Chinese).Google Scholar
  50. Zhang, L. 2009. Changing with the Yellow River: An environmental history of Hebei, 1048–1128. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 69: 1–36.Google Scholar
  51. Zhang, P., Z. Wang, X. Liu, and S. Zhang. 1994. The stages of climate change in recent 2000 years. Science in China (Series B) 24: 998–1008.Google Scholar
  52. Zou, Y. 1990. Yellow River in thousands years. Chung Hwa Book Co: Hongkong (in Chinese).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Yunzhen Chen
    • 1
  • James P. M. Syvitski
    • 2
  • Shu Gao
    • 1
  • Irina Overeem
    • 2
  • Albert J. Kettner
    • 2
  1. 1.School of Geographic and Oceanographic Science, The MOE Key Laboratory of Coast and Island DevelopmentNanjing UniversityNanjingChina
  2. 2.Community Surface Dynamics Modeling System, INSTAARUniversity of ColoradoBoulderUSA

Personalised recommendations