The Chang jiang or Yangtze River is without any contests the river that has the most important place in Chinese history, culture and economy. The Yangtze has been recognized as one of the areas where the Chinese civilization first developed and where the first cultivations of rice were made. Used as an inland water transportation system for two thousand years, this backbone of China did not suffer that much the development of the national railway network in the 20th century for it is a natural and convenient resource linking China’s western and eastern parts. Still an important mean of transportation, the Yangtze transports millions of goods and people every year, a pivotal resource for China’s economy and development. The unsuspected natural resources of the Yangtze are intricately mixing with the rich history and culture that developed around its banks since the first appearances of humanity and Chinese earliest dynasties.
Early ages of human activity
This is a fact universally acknowledge that human activities and the world’s most important civilizations developed on the banks of life-sustaining bodies of water (lakes, rivers). In the 1970s, some archeological researches along Asia’s longest river have asserted traces of some human activity in the Three Gorges (Yangtze River Middle reaches). Tracing back to some 2 million years ago, the traces are the one of the earliest Homo erectus found in China: the “Wushan Man” discovered in Wushan County (today Chongqing City). These proofs of human evolution are also one of the Chinese population’s earliest development, initiating therefore the debate over their origin in one of the most fertile river valleys in the world.
Constituting the real cradle of Ancient Chinese Civilization, this is as far as the China Bronze Age (3000-700 BC) that the Yangtze saw the development of one of the world’s earliest civilization. Considered today as the real mother river of China (the Yellow River likewise), the Chang jiang has been used as a water, irrigation, sanitation, transportation, industry, boundary-marking and war inland water system since the earliest development of China’s human activity.
Where China’s Dynasties followed one another
The Yangtze River is one of the oldest places of China where ancient tribes and kingdoms developed. The Shang Dynasty (1600 BC–1046 BC), second earliest dynasty of China is to this point registered as the first dynasty that had sprawled along the banks of the river. Historical relics found on the river’s different reaches could testify for example the presence of some tribes along the river during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC). The middle reaches of the river (Sichuan Province, Chongqing Municipality, and western Hubei Province) were where the Ba and Shu tribes lived. The lower reaches (Hubei, Hunan, Jiangxi, and southern Anhui Provinces) where Chu people had settled. Finally the Yangtze River Delta area (now known as the Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Shanghai) was where the Wu and Yue tribes developed their settlement.
Already considered as an important natural resource at that period of time, the Yangtze saw already the construction of some irrigation systems during the Warring States Period (475 BCE- 221 BCE): the Dujiangyan irrigation system located in northwest Chengdu city (Sichuan) is to this point the oldest and still alive construction built on the Yangtze, ranked to UNESCO today.
Already known as a cradle of China’s history, the Yangtze River started to become more and more important to China's economy during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) when the construction of other irrigation systems were planned for developing the areas bordering the river. Still seen as a natural bordering line between northern and western China, the Yangtze was indeed regarded as a difficult river to cross for its strong current and deep topography as well as a place making the natural political bordering line between kingdoms. Place of many fierce battles, the Yangtze River borders were where the famous Battle of Red Cliffs (208 AD) took place, a battle that has been adapted for cinema (“Red Cliff”).
River dividing China horizontally, one of its famous bordering city: Nanjing had been for several times the capital city of China’s mightiest dynasties such as the Kingdom of Wu (吳) during the Three Kingdoms period (220-280 AD), the Eastern Jin Dynasty (304-439), Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589) and the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms periods (907–960). The Southern and Northern Dynasties’ period, considered as an age of civil war and political chaos, was the one when large-scale migration of Han people to southern Yangtze River lands was first recorded. The Chang jiang was since that time the place where flourished arts and culture as well as where huge advancement in technology were made. Indeed, as far as the Song Dynasty (960–1279), the area along the Chang jiang had become among the wealthiest and most developed of the country, especially in the lower reaches area (originally called the “Yangtze river” part). Area praised by the 13th century Song Dynasty official poet Wen Tianxian, the “Yangzi Jiang” (Yangtze River) poem was the piece of work at the origin of some western missionaries and traders confusion about the “real” name of the whole river, that they mistakenly took for “Yangtze”.
Considered as a mother-land of China as well as one of the most fertile lands in the whole country, the Yangtze River area is since the early Qing dynasty (1644-1911), the place that is providing one-third to one-half of the country’s revenue (industry, agriculture…).
Modern times’ development and foreign occupancy in the Yangtze
Part important of it’s modern history, the Yangtze River started to be a major trade and commercial waterway with foreign countries. This was in 1835 that the first American merchant steamer vessel called “Jardine” entered in China’s inland waters for it carried mails and passengers between Lintin Island (Canton Bay), Macao and Whampoa (old name for the Huangpu District in Guangzhou). With the start of the Opium War and the signature of the Treaty of Nanjing (1842), the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) ruling at that time was forced to open five ports, cede Hong Kong to the British Crown and face other unfair treatments. British vessels took Guangzhou (Canton) and sailed up the Yangtze for taking the tax barges that had been installed by the Imperial court in Beijing. The 1850-1864 Taiping Rebellion was another shot for China, as Europeans and westerners started to put more and more steamers in the Chinese mighty river.
During the following years, some US side wheelers (usually armed) started to “reinforce their position in the Oriental seas” and the Yangtze, by charting the river and developing trade along its banks to and from Yichang, the head of navigation for river steamers. French cruisers started to sail to the lower reaches of the Yangtze after the 1880s Sino-French Wars. Almost all European powers (British, US, French, Austro-Hungarian, Portuguese, Italian, Russian and German) and Japanese navy ships were allowed to float into China's internal waters. Occasional voyages up from Shanghai to the Yangtze started to develop (USS Palos) but anti-foreign riots started to develop in 1891 (and 1910 in Changsha) to force the boats to sail back to Hankou (modern Wuhan city) and the East China Sea.
Trying to rebuild its devastated fleet after the series of wars that happened in the Yangtze River area since the middle of the 19th century, China had to face another ravage coming from Japan (1895), and its interior Revolution (1911). By the beginning of the 20th century, though developing really fast, Chinese ship companies still positioned second after the developed European and American one that were doing business in China’s own interior waters.
Strategically located on the banks of the Yangtze, the city of Nanjing had been since ancient times the choice for establishing the capital of many dynasties and governments. The Republic of China (ROC) (1912-1949) had established its capital in that city, that in turns became capital of China in 1911-1912, 1927-1937, and 1945-1949.
The diving of the USS Panay and HMS Bee in the river during the Japanese Nanking Massacre in 1937 was one of the most important historical event happening on the river. This was only at the post-war period and the Japanese takeover that Europeans were forced to leave the Yangtze River definitely.
Beginnings of cruises along the longest river of China
Coastal and river services in China started only to operate in 1881 through the most important navigation company of that time: the Indo-China Steam Navigation Company, a public company under the management of Jardine's (American merchant steamer vessel) and one of the largest trading companies in the Far East at that time. Pushing more and more inland up the Yangtze River, the company started to design fleets meeting the needs of river traders. The upper reaches of the river were only reached in 1898 for their hard topography and deep gorges reputed as the most dangerous in the world. Despite all these little attempts, this was really in 1900 that the “modern era” of Yangtze River travels started. The British Paddle-Steamer S.S. Pioneer was the first vessel which managed to do the first upstream journey from Chongqing in the early 1910s.
But as important economically speaking as it can be, the Yangtze stays a strong and important natural river that has also caused many catastrophic floods. The most disastrous one ever registered being in 1931, that caused more than 145,000 victims.
Seized by Japanese troops in 1941 during the Sino-Japanese War, the Chinese Navigation Company did not finally resume on its own until 1946.
Yangtze River tours today
Due to the river’s dangerous rocks, reaches and gorges, leisure travels along the river did not develop that easily at the beginning for boats often had to be rowed through the most dangerous parts and stop their adventure for passengers’ security. The upstream traffics almost ceased between June to September because of the strong winds and wildly fluctuating water levels.
Major construction that put the Yangtze River at an even more higher status, were the constructions in 1988 and 2006 of the Gezhou Dam and the Three Gorges Dam (respectively). Helping to control the annual flooding of the river valleys and generating electricity, the two constructions have calmed the waters of the Three Gorges and the lower reaches of the Yangtze, some large-scale human realizations counter-acting the laws of nature and making the fame of the Yangtze River and its tourism today. A third dam located in the upper reaches of the Yangtze (between Sichuan and Yunnan): the Xiluodu Dam started construction in 2005.
Professional tourist cruises along the river started to develop in the 1990s as ship cruising companies created. Going whether upstream or downstream, the cruises are today a pleasant journey for travelers having the chance to opt for such an original visit along the most famous river of China. Equipped with modern navigation system and high international security standards, cruising ships are safe and comfortable.