Mar. 23, 2023

Yellow River Decade (6) 800 Li Qinchuan

Reported by: Wang Lina, Wang Yongchen

At 7:30 am on August 16th, more than 30 specialists, journalists and volunteers went to the mouth of the Wei River in Tong Guan prefecture in Shaanxi province.

Our bus could not make the journey along the river bank, so we got out and walked, breathing in the dusty air our feet kicked up from the road.



Standing at the confluence of the Wei River and the Yellow River

 Whether it’s the first time you see the Wei River, or you’ve been there a thousand times, the power of the union between the Wei and Yellow rivers is mesmerizing. The Wei River is the largest tributary of the Yellow River, and it passes through a place called “800 Li Qinchuan”. What is “800 Li Qinchuan” and what is its relationship with the Wei River?


The Wei River Basin

 The 818 kilometer long Wei River has an area of 134,300 square kilometers, it has many tributaries, and it picks up a significant amount of sediment on its way through the Loess Plateau.

Throughout its history, the Wei River has been used for transportation. From the Han to Tang dynasty, the middle and downstream sections were all used to transport goods.

The Wei River has been extensively written about in Chinese literature. The poem Classic of Regions Within the Seas: East from the 3rd Century BC says of the area, “The Wei River flows through the bird mouse hill and flows on to the river to the east, and then it goes north to Huayin.” Then during the Northern Wei Dynasty, the scholar Li Daoyuan wrote in Shui Jing Zhu – Wei Shui, “the water in the Wei River flowed from the Shouyang Mountain in Shouyang prefecture and Weishou in Nangu Mountain, where they met at the bird mouse hill and there was a mountain named Gaochen, and the Weiyuan town was located here, here the Wei river flowed.” Aside from these poetic descriptions the Tang dynasty poet Zhang Ji said in his work Climb the North Temple House in Xianyang, “The Wei River comes from the west and the Qin Mountain heads south.”



 The Source of the Wei River Dries Up

The Wei River valley was the birthplace of the Chinese ancestral empires Xuan-Yuan and Shen Nong. Historians have said that these two empires originated from two tribal leaders from the same family who were from the Wei River area in Shaanxi province. The two tribes were not peaceful and are known for the battle of Banquan, which the Xuan-Yuan won. Afterwards, the two tribes merged to form the Huaxia. After the Han dynasty the Huaxia became known as the Hans. These two empires were the forefathers of Chinese culture and technology, and are said to have given rise to all of China’s most important people.

The Wei River flows through a complex landscape. It goes past the north slope of the Shaanxi-Gansu mountain range, and the Liu-Pan and Long mountains. It dips into a basin with the Guanzhong alluvial plain and the Loess Plateau. The Loess Plateau itself has the “gully and hill district” in Long Dong, Ningnan and Shaanbei. For 430 of its 818 kilometers it stretches across He Yuan and Baoji where the river plunges through gorges forming white water rapids.

Before the Sanmenxia Reservoir was built, silt and sand flowed freely through the Wei River. After the reservoir was constructed, the silt deposits caused the river to rise setting off floods along the river. In response, embankments and levees were built to stop the flooding. Eventually the flooding was controlled.



 800 Li Qinchuan

 “800 Li Qinchuan” refers to the Wei River alluvial plain north of Qinling, it is also known as the Guanzhong Basin. The average altitude of the river at this point is 500 meters. Inside the basin, there is the Loess Plateau to the north, and the Shannan Mountains in the south. Beyond the immediate area are Xi’an, Xianyang, Baoji and Tongling. Since ancient times the basin has been a prosperous agricultural area. It is said that because of the land’s fertility the people of Qin were able to gain strength as a civilization, thus giving the area its name “800 Li Qinchuan”. 800 li refers to the size of the area. 1 “li” is the equivalent of 500 meters. This is the birthplace of the modern Chinese people.

“The mutton soaks” is a local saying for “the water is rising”. In ancient Xi’an, the area boasted “eight rivers surrounding the city”. Today the eight rivers surrounding Xi’an are nothing but a legend. This is a legend that is ever more poignant since 2006. In June 2006 disaster struck the area. Rising temperatures and prolonged drought dried up the rivers. The Baoji Gorge Irrigation District recorded its worst drought in history. Baoji was responsible for irrigating all 170 million mu of summer maize.

 The Wei River is Drought Stricken Today, but was Flooded Yesterday

On August 24th, 2003 the Wei River unexpectedly flooded. The flood lasted until October. The local leadership of the Environmental Protection Agency of Shaanxi Hua Prefecture said that, “The Wei River riverbed had become higher than the surrounding land, so we now live in puddles!”


 Sound recording

The confluence of the Wei River and the Yellow River we see today has close ties to Xiaolangdi and the Sanmenxia Reservoir. The torrential rains that cause heavy flooding keep the river flowing; without the rain, the river would dry up. In 2006 I went to visit the source of the Wei River where I found an old man who was in charge of protecting the mouth of the sprint. He said to me, “No trees, no water.” But the local government officials blame the water troubles on global warming.

Many of the Wei River tributaries originate in the Loess Plateau; as they join the Wei River they carry large amounts of sediment with them, so that as the channels of the Wei River narrow, the riverbed builds up. During periods of flooding the surge of water is enough to move the silt. Qi Pu, a specialist in charge of controlling the Yellow River believes that the key to controlling the Yellow River lies in controlling the Wei River. He says that after the construction of the Xiaolangdi Reservoir the riverbeds in Henan and Shandong were lower than before.

Qi Pu thinks that the downstream problems of the Yellow River are related to the problems in the Wei River upstream. He wants a macro perspective of the situation to be used to solve the problem. The main problem is the continual build up of silt along the riverbed, which causes the riverbed to increase in height, decreasing the flow of the river, and therefore causes flooding.



 Beiluo River

 In early 2010, the Beijing Municipal Planning Institute developed a comprehensive management plan for the Lower Yellow River floodplain. They proposed programs for widening the river, turning the sand into a beach, or even resettling those living along the banks of the river. Qi Pu thought this plan was unreasonable and lacked a scientific justification, and furthermore, didn’t take into account the situation after the construction of the Xiaolangdi Reservoir. He also felt that resettling 380,000 residents was unnecessary.  So Qi Pu created a more reasonable proposal.

Qi Pu proposed that they should release water from the reservoir to de-silt the river. This artificial flood would assist in forming a stable, narrow, deep channel that would increase the capacity of the river and disperse the silt. He felt that if this was done it would solve the problem.

When investigating major rivers, the advice of experts is essential, because they help people who love rivers to be more effective in their efforts to protect the rivers. Equally important are the voices of the people living next to the rivers as they are the ones most affected. You Lianyuan, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Geographical Union, said that, the Sanmenxia Dam was built in the 1960s, but because of design flaws it was only operational for one year before silt had built up to unmanageable levels. At that time the water in the reservoir rose to dangerous levels. As a result, Tongguan County flooded and residents were relocated to a new Tongguan County.


A Family Near the River

There is a bungalow near the Wei River. An old woman named Liu Jinhui who grew up in the original Tongguan County lives there. Liu Jinhui has lived along the Yangtze River for 58 years, and witnessed the Tongguan County Reservoir Resettlement and all of the changes since reform and opening-up. Due to these experiences, she was chosen as one of the people spoken to by participants of the Yellow River Decade Project in 2010.

The House of Liu Jinhui

The Kitchen

Telling Stories on the Riverbank

We follow Liu Jinhui to her house. She keeps saying the environment here used to be very good, but since the road was built last year, it has become extremely dirty. The water tank and the pots in the house are full of dust and the dust covers the crops in the fields.

Liu Jinhui lives next to the Wei River. It is her only option. She is concerned that the embankment along the river will not hold. She pointed out the old city walls near the river saying that these walls could protect the embankment, but no one cares. She fervently hopes that the government can keep an eye on the embankment.

We asked her about the situation of migrants over the years. She said that in the 60’s, after the completion of the Sanmenxia dam, the old Tongguan County flooded. Folks in the old Tongguan County had to move to the new Tongguan County or to Ningxia. The 60’s are known in China as the “period of natural disasters”, during which many people starved to death. Her husband’s father was one of those people. Liu Jinhui feels that if the people hadn’t moved away they still would have had their land to work, and their friends and family to rely on, then they would have survived. Much later, those who did survive returned and moved into houses near hers. Liu never left, she just moved to the neighboring hills. Once her husband retired from working in the shipyards they moved again, back to the banks of the Yellow River.

Now Liu Jinhui lives here alone. Her three daughters and one son are grown and married, and only visit her during the holidays. When we spoke with her, her granddaughter was visiting for the summer.

Liu works as a cleaner and a vegetable seller. As a cleaner she earns 400 to 500 RMB a month. She is paid once every three months. The EPA who pays her regularly deducts one month’s wages from her pay.

We asked her why they deducted the money and if she complained. Liu said that she can’t complain because people would think badly of her if she did, and she might lose her job. In addition to her pay, Liu is given an annual compensation of 600 RMB that is paid to everyone who was resettled. Originally, her family had five mu of land, but then the government requisitioned her land for tourism development and gave her 50,000RMB as a one-time compensation. Developers were supposed to also provide her with monthly living expenses, but the money has never materialized. We asked about her views on Sanmenxia Reservoir. She said she could not control anything, but now the environment was too bad. She said even so, the air and water are still good, so she doesn’t want to leave. What she does want are the levees and embankments to be repaired.

Before we left, we asked if we could see any pictures she had. A volunteer carefully took a picture from the wall showing Liu singing. She told us, “I can sing.” So she took us to the bank of the Wei River and sang Shaanxi opera for us.

Simplicity, honesty, diligence, and patience, are the traits of the Chinese people.

On one side is the river flowing quietly, and on the other is the Shaanxi Opera sung by a working woman. This moment will stay in the minds of the journalists who witnessed it forever.

Starting at the confluence of the Wei River and the Yellow River, we moved to the Yellow River's Hukou Waterfall. Our team drove through the mountains, where we caught occasional glimpses of the Yellow River on the Loess Plateau. We saw caves in the mountains, and ecologically sensitive areas. We saw all of this, but the town is encroaching.

Tomorrow we will reach Wubao. What will the Yellow River look like there?


Translator: Liang Tingting

Proofreader: Kirsten Allen, Angela

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