Yangtze River

Yangtze River (Chang, Changjiang)

The Yangtze River, also known as the Chang, is the longest river in China and the third-longest in the world, after the NILE RIVER and the AMAZON RIVER. It extends for 3,900 miles, originating in the snows of the Kunlun mountain range at the eastern end of the Tibetan Plateau, and flows through central China into the East China Sea, a small arm of the Pacific Ocean. The Yangtze and its tributaries have a drainage area of some 650,000 square miles, taking the bulk of its waters from a number of tributaries: the Han, Yalong, Jialing, Min, and Tuo He, on the north and the Wu, on the south. As it discharges about 770,000 cubic feet of water into the sea, the Yangtze deposits 6 billion cubic feet of sediment annually, creating fertile soil, ideal for the growing of rice.

From its delta, the Yangtze rises gradually by only about 130 feet in its first 1,000 miles, making an excellent channel for ship traffic, except for the steep Yangtze gorges the river passes through at a distance of about 200 miles. Farther upriver, navigation becomes difficult due to shifting sandbars and becomes unnavigable at Pingshan at a height of about 1,000 feet above sea level. The river quickly rises in Upper Tibet to an altitude of 16,000 feet. While the river is commonly called the Yangtze, the name applies in China only to its last 300 to 400 miles of its extent, Changjiang (long river) being its official name. Local names apply to other parts of the river, such as Jinsha (golden sand) in its upper reaches.

The Yangtze has served as the principal route of communication and trade in China, from ancient times until the present. The first European on record to have seen the river is MARCO POLO, a Venetian merchant who traveled through China for almost 20 years in the 13th century. In his account, he recorded his impressions of the vast magnitude of ships on the Yangtze, saying that in one place they dwarfed all the traffic on every European waterway, put together. The first systematic exploration of the river from the West took place in the middle of the 19th century. The French, who had begun to colonize Indochina, sent expeditions to explore the Mekong River, which runs parallel to the Yangtze, though farther south and separated by a high ridge. Frenchman MARIE-JOSEPHFRANÇOIS GARNIER accompanied an expedition, which followed the Mekong River before heading northward into China. When ERNEST-MARC-LOUIS DE GONZAGUE DOUDART DE LAGRÉE, the leader of the expedition, died, Garnier took control and under his command the expedition followed the upper Yangtze to the port city of Shanghai. Once China was opened to Western travel, the port of Shanghai became an important entry point. Christian missionaries, such as Englishwoman ANNIE ROYLE TAYLOR, who, in 1892, attempted to enter LHASA, the Forbidden City of Tibet, traveled from there, as did other Westerners hoping to penetrate the interior of China. Another Frenchman, CHARLES BONIN, spent seven years exploring China at the end of the 19th century and made the first scientific survey of the river, charting its course. At the turn of the 20th century, the Yangtze and its tributaries carried nearly half of China’s maritime commerce.

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