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Published November 1, 2019

Rivers are an essential source of life; they fertilise the land around them, bring fresh water for us to drink and fish for us to catch and eat. Without them, we would not be here.

But the power of a river should never be underestimated, because as well as life, they can also bring death.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Yangtze is the third longest river in the world, behind only the Nile and the Amazon. It’s the longest in Asia, and the longest in the world to be entirely contained within one country – China. It’s modern Chinese name, Chang Jiang, literally means “the Long River”; from the Tibetan plateau, it flows 6,300 km – 3,900 miles- from west to east, ending at the East China Sea. 

The second longest river in China is the Yellow River, Huang He; estimated to run 5,464 km (3,395 miles) and, like the Yangtze, flowing from west to east.

About midway between the two, the Huai river runs a similar course, about 1,110 km (690 miles), currently meeting the Yangtze at Jiangdu.

All of these rivers have been subject to frequent flooding; the Yellow River has been called “China’s Great Sorrow” because of them. 

And, in 1931, they all flooded at the same time.

From 1928 to 1930, there had been a drought in China; this was followed by a particularly cold and harsh winter. Snow and ice built up in the mountainous regions where the rivers originate and, when spring arrived, naturally melted. The meltwater raised the level of the rivers. This happened practically every year, and those living along the rivers were accustomed to it, but this year it coincided with particularly heavy spring rain.

Come summer, China was hit by a powerful monsoon, which followed so closely upon the spring rain that it might as well have been one constant deluge. The Yangtze basin would usually expect to be hit by two cyclonic storms in a year, but in July 1931 there were seven; the equivalent of eighteen months’ rain fell in that one month alone.

With that much additional water flowing through the rivers, flooding is not surprising. However, the meteorological causes of the flood are only one part of the story.

Source: Unsplash

The second part is based on how people interact with the rivers. After all, people are only affected by floods when the waters encroach on “their” land and “their” homes.

In this case, there was a fair amount of hubris involved in calling the land “theirs”. Much of it had originally been wetlands and marshes which, over the centuries, had been turned into paddy fields, villages and even cities. Forests had been felled, and the rivers tamed by an intricate system of dykes, allowing farmers to benefit from the way the floods fertilised the land, whilst – to an extent – preventing them from encroaching into the areas where they weren’t wanted.

The problem with engineering the landscape in this way is that it needs constant maintenance, which was not always carried out.

Building dykes around a river forces it to maintain the same route, where naturally it would shift and drift, as they do in untouched lands. The silt they carry down from their higher reaches is gradually deposited along lower stretches – and this raises the level of the river bed, and in turn the high water level. The quickest and easiest way to combat this is to raise the level of the dykes accordingly – but when this is done over and over again, the river bed moves higher year after year, until it’s not just the high water level that lies above the roofs of people’s houses, but the river bed itself. At that point, any breach in a dyke can be calamitous.

This was the situation in many places affected by the 1931 floods. According to Chris Courtney in “The Nature of Disaster in China”, the Great Jingjiang Dyke failed in early summer, for the first time in sixty years; the water that flowed through its breaches went on to compromise 90 per cent of the dykes on the Jianghan Plain.

“Still the rain did not stop. It continued throughout the summer, culminating in another series of storms in the early autumn. High winds swept across the inundated landscape, whipping floodwater into a series of devastating waves. Water began to recede only in the midautumn, yet even then large tracts of land remained inundated, as the polders that had been built to keep water out now turned into reservoirs.

This flood would not have occurred were it not for nature. Yet the rain that fell drained through a landscape that had been modified by thousands of years of human action. It flowed over denuded slopes and reclaimed wetlands into channelised rivers. Its force was amplified by the constructed landscape that people had built to keep themselves dry. Having domesticated the natural resistance out of plants and animals, and placed them in areas vulnerable to inundation, farmers had created a subsistence system that relied on predictable meteorology, all the while living under unpredictable skies.”

The result was a flood that affected 25 million people, living in an area of about 70,000 square miles. Forty percent of people in affected regions were forced to migrate for the winter, and a crop worth $900 million lost. To put that in perspective, that would be worth more than $14 billion in today’s money.

The Flood Relief Commission reported that 140,000 people were drowned, and “a number which cannot be accurately ascertained, but which must be very large” killed through other means directly connected to the floods – mainly starvation and disease.

Modern estimates place the total death toll as high as two, three, or even four million.

The famous American aviator Charles Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, were at the time conducting a survey flight on the great circle route from New York to Tokyo; this brought them to China during the floods, and they were keen to help. Their plane, the Sirius, had a longer range than any other available, and they used it to survey and assess the damage.

In her book, “North to the Orient”, Anne recalled:

“At first we noticed only the obviously flooded fields along the banks of the river, the green of late crops showing through the water. Then gradually we became aware of a number of “lakes” which constantly increased until finally they gave the impression of one big lake, enormous, stretching as far as we could see. I realised with a shock that this was not “lake”; it was all flood. Yet it did not have the look of fields covered with water. Deep and wide, horribly still and permanent, it looked as though it had always been there and would always stay. (There was in fact no hope of its going down before spring, and this was early fall.)

Flying lower we could see suggestions of what the land was like under the flood: fields under water; hundreds of small villages standing in water, many of them up to their roofs; towns whose dykes and walls had given way, whose streets were canals; in some places, nothing but the tops of a few trees, with here and there a smear of brown on the surface, where a dyke or a road or a mud village had once been. In this last territory one dared not think how many lives had been lost. There was no trace left. In less badly flooded country the people had built up temporary mud dykes around their villages and pulled inside their first crop. But it was a hopeless fight. For these hastily slapped-up walls, guarding a group of huts and a rescued grain stack, were rapidly crumbling before the constant lapping of little waves, whipped up by the wind.

There was no dry land for miles around. Most of the people who were near enough to the border to escape had crowded into the outlying cities. Thousands of refugees had put up temporary grass shelters along the dykes lining the Grand Canal and on an uncompleted road just south of the flooded area. But there were thousands more who would never get out, who, their homes completely destroyed, were living in flat-bottomed sampans, with a grass roof rigged up in one end for shelter. Moored in the old streets or floating about the flooded fields, these refugees were apparently living only on the few straws of grain they had saved and what fish they might catch.

The small sampan driven by oar or pole seemed to be the only possible means of transportation in this vast area. Looking down on them, myriads of gnats on the surface of the water, we began to realise the hopelessness of the situation. How could relief ever reach these people? The water was not deep enough for large boats. There were no roads and probably never had been. There were almost no large centres from which food could be distributed, just thousands of small isolated villages – or what remained of them – stretched out over an area larger than Massachusetts.”

The affected area was, in fact, the size of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut combined, or the entirety of England plus half of Scotland, according to the Report of the National Flood Relief Commission.

Despite very limited space in their plane, Lindbergh did make an attempt to deliver aid directly, taking two doctors and some medical supplies to the city of Hinghwa (modern day Putian). However, when they landed the seaplane they were quickly surrounded by desperate people in sampans. They wanted food, not medical supplies, and crowded in so close that Lindbergh and one of the doctors were forced to pull out their guns to keep people back. 

As they attempted to leave, they confronted an elderly couple in a sampan in front of them.

“The American doctor jumped out on the wing and shouted, “Get out of the way! We’ll kill you!”

They made no move. The old woman looked up sullenly. “What does it matter?” she said slowly. “We have nothing.””

Pearl Sydenstricker Buck, missionary and author, was another Westerner who was in China at the time of the floods. She wrote several short stories about the disaster, which were used to raise awareness of the Chinese people’s plight in America, and to raise funds to assist them. Although fictionalised, they provide a more personal insight into the lives of those affected than Lindbergh’s largely aerial account.

In “The Good River”, she describes a family’s relationship with the river; at first, a good one, because the river provided for them, giving them fresh water and fish to supplement their farm produce.

“Yet there came a spring when the river changed. Who could have foreseen that the river would change? Year after year it had been the same until this year. Lan Ying, sitting beside the fish-net, saw it change. It is true that every year it swelled with spring flood as it did now. The water ran high against the clay banks, but so it ever did in the spring. The yellow water curled in great wheels and tore at the banks, so that often a great clod would shudder and tear itself away from the land and sink, and the river licked it up triumphantly…

The time came for the river to go down, but it did not subside. Surely by now those upper snows were melted, for it was summer and the winds were hot, and the river ought to lie quiet and smooth beneath the bright skies. But it did not lie quiet. No, it tore on as though fed by some secret and inexhaustible ocean. Boatmen who came down from the upper gorges, their craft buffeted by high rapids, told of torrents of rain, days and weeks of rain when the times for rain were past. The mountain streams and the lesser rivers thus fed all poured into the great river and kept it high and furious…

…it was a cruel river. All during the hot summer months it rose, each day a foot, two feet. It crept over the rice-fields where the half-grown grain stood; it covered the grain and took away the hope of harvest. It swelled into the canals and streams and flooded their banks. Stories came everywhere of dikes falling, of great walls of water rushing over deep, rich valleys, of men and women and children engulfed and swept away.”

Perhaps the most heart-breaking story is “Fathers and Mothers”. Buck writes of one refugee family struggling to survive on what little land is left, describing how the mother barely sleeps, as she wakes frequently to check on their five children. The reason for this is soon made clear – as the mother sleeps, the father leads two of their children away, and returns alone.

“Her screaming wakes everyone in that wretched encampment. But there is no sound of a voice. Everyone knows what the quarrel is. There has been this quarrel everywhere.”

Buck does not explicitly say what the father in the story did to his children – he only says, “They are finished their starving.” However, there are stories of people growing so desperate in these times that they would sell or kill their children to survive, or even turn to cannibalism.

Some historians doubt these stories, arguing that they may be more figurative illustrations than raw fact. However, there are multiple reports from apparently reputable sources. Courtney cites a missionary named Reverend Bostock who claimed to have witnessed desperate people consuming human flesh, and government reports found by historian Ouyang Tieguang;

“with one elderly woman in Hubei killing and consuming her own son. When her crime was discovered, the legs were all that remained. Elsewhere a farmer killed his youngest son for food, and admitted that he was later planning to consume his eldest.” 

In the remaining two stories, “The Barren Spring” and “The Refugees”, Buck made the point that it was not simply a matter of waiting for the water levels to fall. Those who had survived the floods had eaten what crops they could save; they had eaten the seed that should have been planted for the next harvest. They had burned their ploughs for fuel, and killed and eaten the water-buffalo that should have pulled them. 

“He muttered to himself: “I have no seed to plant in the land. There the land lies! I could go and claw it up with my hands if I had the seed and the land would bear. I know my good land. But I have no seed and the land is empty. Yes, even though spring comes, we must still starve!”

And he looked, hopeless, into the barren spring.”

Other accounts come from missionary societies such as the Columban Fathers, who gave relief as best they could. Bishop Galvin was the main coordinator of their relief efforts around Hanyang. In a letter dated August 31st, he wrote that there were already 300,000 to 500,000 refugees in Wuhan, and that soldiers had been posted along the banks of the Han River to prevent any more from entering. Most of the refugees were located on hills in the Wuhan area; on the Black Hill in Hanyang there were 60,000. In another letter, dated November 1st, he described the conditions in those hilltop camps.

“I simply cannot describe to you the scenes of unspeakable squalor, sickness, and desolation, that everywhere met our eyes as, day by day, we walked through those different camps. On all sides heartbroken people were quietly dying of starvation; all were undernourished and dying from exposure and in a short time malaria, dysentery, typhoid, cholera and smallpox spread like a prairie fire from camp to camp and took their terrible toll. The infants in arms and the children under four years of age were, of course, the first to succumb.”

The work of local groups like the missionaries, benevolent societies and guilds, and even local elite citizens was vital in helping people who had been affected by the floods. Although people in low-lying areas had to move in June, and reports of the flooding had already reached newspapers in Britain by the 4th of July, it wasn’t until the 14th of August that the National Flood Relief Commission was actually established. While the commission obviously couldn’t do anything to stop the flooding once it had already begun, the earlier establishment of official relief programs would no doubt have saved at least some lives.

In the foreword of their report, the relief commission seem keen to establish the amount of work they had done.

“A few figures selected at random will serve to illustrate the vast scale of the Commission’s operations. Relief work extended to to 269 hsiens. Free relief was granted to just under 5,000,000 persons, and 1,000,000 were relieved in camps. In addition, the Commission distributed more than 500,000 suits of winter clothing and more than 2,500,000 of the needy and sick refugees received medical attention. Advances for farm rehabilitation were granted to 360,000 farmers. Some 2,800,000 were employed on labour projects. Thus, including the families of these labourers, a total of 10,000,000 relieved by the commission is certainly a conservative figure. The amount of earthwork done by this army of labourers would have built a dyke, two metres high and two metres thick, long enough to encircle the earth at the equator.”

However, comparisons with figures quoted elsewhere in the report show that even these figures were inadequate.

“At the request of the Chairman of the Commission, the Department of Economics of the College of Agriculture and Forestry in the University of Nanking carried out an economic survey of the effect of the 1931 flood. As a result of this enquiry it was estimated that the total farm population affected by the flood was, as stated above, over twenty-five million, a number approximately equal to the entire agricultural population of the United States.”

The million people “relieved in camps” were often not any better off than they would have been squatting on whatever dry land they could find. More people died in camps than did in rural communities – possibly because the number of people corralled into those camps meant they were more susceptible to the spread of diseases, from dysentery, cholera and typhoid to measles and smallpox. 

The scale of the tragedy meant that providing relief would require a huge economic effort; this was aided by the massive charitable response both within China and from overseas. Somewhat surprisingly, even Japan was reported to have contributed; Reuter reported on August the 21st that;

“The Emperor has donated a hundred thousand yen, approximately ten thousand sterling for the relief of Chinese sufferers from the Yangtse floods… In view of the growing signs of friction between the Chinese and Japanese, including the anti-Japanese boycott in China, the Emperor’s generous gift is of special interest.”

However, whatever sympathy the Emperor might have had for the Chinese people, it was apparently outweighed by his army’s desire to expand the Empire – on September the 18th, the invasion of Manchuria began. This impacted the flood relief commission’s attempts to raise funds through bonds, as the invasion caused the bond market to collapse.

And distributing the relief proved difficult, just as Anne Morrow Lindbergh had predicted. The flood had destroyed most of the infrastructure of the affected regions, so transport and communications were difficult to start with. The Japanese invasion made it difficult to import wheat and flour loaned by the US into Shanghai; the ongoing Chinese Civil War meant that relief often had to be transported into areas rife with bandits and Communists, who would often commandeer relief supplies and even kidnap relief workers. 

With limited resources, the Relief Commission had to admit that their scope had to be limited. When the Chairman announced their policy, he said:

“There are suggestions of dredging the Yangtze River, there are suggestions for improving the Hwai River, but to handle these two problems or to handle either separately would call for the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars, which the Commission does not have… What then is our objective?… In the first place, let us do our best to give immediate relief to the victims of the floods by giving them food, shelter and health protection. In the second place, as soon as the water recedes sufficiently, let us try to repair the dykes to the status quo ante, that is to say, to take care of the normal drainage of the Yangtze River.”

The decision to simply repair the dykes to the way they were before the floods meant that people were still vulnerable. This was proven just four years later, when the Yangtze again broke its banks and killed another 145,000 people. In 1954, the Yangtze flooded again; this time with an estimated death toll of 33,000.

Following the 1954 floods, Chairman Mao Zedong – whose Communist party had taken over China in 1949 – wrote a poem called “Swimming” which conveyed his vision of a great dam on the Yangtze river:

“Great plans are afoot:
A bridge will fly to span the north and south,
Turning a deep chasm into a thoroughfare;
Walls of stone will stand upstream to the west
To hold back Wushan's clouds and rain
Till a smooth lake rises in the narrow gorges.”

Such a dam had initially been proposed in 1919; in the wake of the 1931 floods, the Nationalist government under Chiang Kai-shek had begun preliminary work in the Three Gorges area, and when Japanese forces occupied the area in 1939, they surveyed the area and drew up their own plans. In 1944, an American civil engineer surveyed the area and drew up a new plan; a number of Chinese engineers went to the US for training, and some initial work was done – but it was halted due to the resumption of hostilities in the Chinese Civil War.

Although Mao Zedong supported the idea of the Three Gorges Dam, other projects were started first, and then the disastrous Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution made it economically impossible.

The project was resurrected in the 1980s, and approved in 1992; it was completed in 2012, and became the world’s largest power station in terms of installed capacity. 

An estimated 1.4 million people were displaced by the reservoir of the dam, as the land they lived upon disappeared beneath deep water. Controversially, several important archaeological sites were also lost beneath the new lake. 

One of the reasons for building the dam was to control flooding on the lower reaches of the Yangtze; the idea being that flood waters could be contained in the reservoir and released at a rate which could be managed by the dyke systems. The dam itself was completed in time to be tested by the 2010 floods; it was reported to have successfully reduced the discharge and limited damage in lower areas.

However, it may not be so simple. The dam has been highly controversial, with some hydrologists saying that it would reduce the water quality of the Yangtze, cause erosion and landslides along its banks and those of its tributaries and potentially actually make flooding worse. It has changed animal and fish habitats along huge stretches of the river, contributing to the demise of the baiji, or Chinese river, dolphin.

It has also been cited as the cause of at least 3,000 earthquakes – it crosses two fault areas, and the vast scale of the reservoir increases and decreases pressure on the earth as it is filled and drained, in a phenomenon known as reservoir-induced seismicity.

Although the full impact of the Three Gorges Dam may not be known for many years, it is essentially just an extension of what mankind has been trying to do to the Yangtze River for centuries- to tame and restrain it. And in the end, taming such a dragon may not be possible.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

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Sources, References and Further Reading

The Nature of Disaster in China – Chris Courtney

Report of the National Flood Relief Commission

The First Wife and Other Stories – Pearl Sydenstricker Buck

The Chinese Flood of 1931 – Columban Fathers

Central China Flood, 1931 – DisasterHistory.org (Chris Courtney)

North to the Orient – Anne Morrow Lindbergh

China’s Three Gorges Dam Under Fire – Time

China’s Three Gorges Dam Disaster – Scientific American

Chinese study reveals Three Gorges Dam triggered 3,000 earthquakes, numerous landslides

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