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1938 Yellow River flood

1938 Yellow River flood

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The 1938 Yellow River
Yellow River
The Yellow River or Huang He, formerly known as the Hwang Ho, is the second-longest river in China and the sixth-longest in the world at the estimated length of . Originating in the Bayan Har Mountains in Qinghai Province in western China, it flows through nine provinces of China and empties into...

was a flood created by the Nationalist Government in central China
Chinese civilization may refer to:* China for more general discussion of the country.* Chinese culture* Greater China, the transnational community of ethnic Chinese.* History of China* Sinosphere, the area historically affected by Chinese culture...

 during the early stage of the Second Sino-Japanese War
Second Sino-Japanese War
The Second Sino-Japanese War was a military conflict fought primarily between the Republic of China and the Empire of Japan. From 1937 to 1941, China fought Japan with some economic help from Germany , the Soviet Union and the United States...

 in an attempt to halt the rapid advance of the Japanese forces. It has been called the "largest act of environmental warfare in history."

The strategic decision and the flood

Following the onset of the Second Chinese-Japanese War in 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army
Imperial Japanese Army
-Foundation:During the Meiji Restoration, the military forces loyal to the Emperor were samurai drawn primarily from the loyalist feudal domains of Satsuma and Chōshū...

 marched rapidly into the heart of Chinese territory. By June 1938, the Japanese had control of all of North China
North China
thumb|250px|Northern [[People's Republic of China]] region.Northern China or North China is a geographical region of China. The heartland of North China is the North China Plain....

. On June 6, they captured Kaifeng
Kaifeng , known previously by several names , is a prefecture-level city in east-central Henan province, Central China. Nearly 5 million people live in the metropolitan area...

, the capital of Henan
Henan , is a province of the People's Republic of China, located in the central part of the country. Its one-character abbreviation is "豫" , named after Yuzhou , a Han Dynasty state that included parts of Henan...

, and threatened to take over Zhengzhou
Zhengzhou , is the capital and largest city of Henan province in north-central China. A prefecture-level city, it also serves as the political, economic, technological, and educational centre of the province, as well as a major transportation hub for Central China...

. Zhengzhou was the junction of the arterial Pinghan and Longhai Railways, and Japanese success would have directly endangered the major cities of Wuhan
Wuhan is the capital of Hubei province, People's Republic of China, and is the most populous city in Central China. It lies at the east of the Jianghan Plain, and the intersection of the middle reaches of the Yangtze and Han rivers...

 and Xi'an
Xi'an is the capital of the Shaanxi province, and a sub-provincial city in the People's Republic of China. One of the oldest cities in China, with more than 3,100 years of history, the city was known as Chang'an before the Ming Dynasty...


To stop further Japanese advances into the western and southern part China, Chiang Kai-shek
Chiang Kai-shek
Chiang Kai-shek was a political and military leader of 20th century China. He is known as Jiǎng Jièshí or Jiǎng Zhōngzhèng in Mandarin....

, at the suggestion of Chen Guofu
Chen Guofu
Chen Guofu, or Chen Kuo-fu , was a Chinese politician in the Republic of China. He was born in Wuxing, Zhejiang, China . Chen Guofu joined the Tongmenghui in 1911. He participated in both the revolution against the Qing dynasty and the "second revolution" against Yuan Shikai...

, determined to open up the dikes on the Yellow River
Yellow River
The Yellow River or Huang He, formerly known as the Hwang Ho, is the second-longest river in China and the sixth-longest in the world at the estimated length of . Originating in the Bayan Har Mountains in Qinghai Province in western China, it flows through nine provinces of China and empties into...

 near Zhengzhou. The original plan was to destroy the dike at Zhaokou, but due to difficulties at that location the dike was destroyed on June 5 and June 7 at Huayuankou
Huayuankou is a town in Huiji District, used to be a ferry of the Yellow River in Zhengzhou, Henan, China.It has an area of 39 square kilometers and a population of 15,000....

, on the south bank. Waters flooded into Henan, Anhui
Anhui is a province in the People's Republic of China. Located in eastern China across the basins of the Yangtze River and the Huai River, it borders Jiangsu to the east, Zhejiang to the southeast, Jiangxi to the south, Hubei to the southwest, Henan to the northwest, and Shandong for a tiny...

, and Jiangsu
' is a province of the People's Republic of China, located along the east coast of the country. The name comes from jiang, short for the city of Jiangning , and su, for the city of Suzhou. The abbreviation for this province is "苏" , the second character of its name...

. The floods covered and destroyed thousands of square kilometers of farmland and shifted the mouth of the Yellow River hundreds of miles to the south. Thousands of villages were inundated or destroyed and several million villagers driven from their homes and made refugees. An official Nationalist post-war commission estimated that 800,000 were drowned, which may be a low figure.


The strategic value of the flood has been questioned. Japanese troops were out of its range, either to the north and east or to the south. Their advance on Zhengzhou was halted, but they took Wuhan in October by attacking from a different direction. The Japanese did not occupy much of Henan until late in the war and their hold on Anhui and Jiangsu remained tenuous. Most of the towns and transport lines in the areas which were flooded had already been captured by the Japanese; after the flood they could not consolidate their control over the area, and large parts of it became guerrilla areas. The number of casualties in the flood remains disputed and estimates have been revised by the Chinese government and other researchers in the decades after the event.


The dikes were rebuilt in 1946 and 1947 and Yellow River returned to its pre-1938 course.

See also

  • 1938 Changsha Fire
    1938 Changsha Fire
    The Changsha Fire of 1938 , also known as Wenxi Fire , was the greatest human-caused city-wide fire that ever besieged China. It happened in 1938 during the Second Sino-Japanese War...

  • National Revolutionary Army
    National Revolutionary Army
    The National Revolutionary Army , pre-1928 sometimes shortened to 革命軍 or Revolutionary Army and between 1928-1947 as 國軍 or National Army was the Military Arm of the Kuomintang from 1925 until 1947, as well as the national army of the Republic of China during the KMT's period of party rule...

  • Military of the Republic of China
    Military of the Republic of China
    The Republic of China Armed Forces encompass the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Military Police Force of the Republic of China . It is a military establishment, which accounted for 16.8% of the central budget in the fiscal year of 2003...

  • Military history of China
    Military history of China
    Ever since Chinese civilization was founded, organized military forces have existed throughout China. The recorded military history of China extends from about 2200 BCE to the present day. Although traditional Chinese Confucian philosophy favoured peaceful political solutions and showed contempt...

  • Military history of Japan
    Military history of Japan
    The military history of Japan is characterised by a long period of feudal wars, followed by domestic stability, and then rampant imperialism. It culminates with Japan's defeat by the Allies in World War II...

Sources and further reading

  • Diana Lary, "Drowned Earth: The Strategic Breaching of the Yellow River Dyke, 1938," War In History 2001 Apr 1;8(2): 191-207. In: Academic Research Library [database on the Internet] [cited 2010 Sep 21]. Available from: http://www.proquest.com/; Document ID: 1082337951.
  • Steven I. Dutch, "The Largest Act of Environmental Warfare in History," Environmental & Engineering Geoscience 15.4(November 2009): 287-297.