Sometimes called the “River of Sorrow,” the Yellow River is one of the world’s most dangerous and destructive rivers. Since historians began keeping records in 602 B.C., the river has changed course 26 times and produced 1,500 floods that have killed millions of people. The root of these disasters is the large amount of silt generated by soil erosion.
From time to time the Yellow River overflows its banks and fills huge plains with large amounts of water. Floods sometimes occur when blocks of ice block the Yellow River. About once a century these floods reach catastrophic levels.
When the levees of the Yellow River break, which happens with some regularity, the countryside is devastated. When the river’s dikes were breached in 132 B.C., floods occurred in 16 districts and a new channel was opened in the middle of the plain. Ten of millions of peasants were affected. The break remained for 23 years until Emperor Wu-ti visited the scene and supervised its repair.
In A.D. 11, the Yellow River breached its dikes near the same place, and the river changed course and forged an new path to sea, a hundred miles away from its former mouth. Repair work took several decades.
In a tactic intended to halt the southward movement of Japanese soldiers from Manchuria before World War II, Chiang Kai-shek ordered his soldiers to breach the levees of the Yellow River and purposely divert its flow. At least 200,000, maybe millions, died, millions more were made homeless and the Japanese advanced anyway.