The River That Birthed an Empire: How the Han River Shaped Ancient and Modern China
Editor’s note: “Every time a Beijing resident turns on the tap, 70% of the water that flows through comes from the Han River,” writes investigative journalist and writer Yuan Ling. As the source of the central route of China’s South-to-North Water Diversion project, the Han River, a tributary of the Yangtze River, helps meet the needs of more than 60 million people in northern China.
Besides its significance as a water resource, the Han River also gave its name to the imperial Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD), and subsequently the Han people and the Han language. While the Yangtze River and the Yellow River are widely regarded as the cradle of Chinese civilization, the Han River plays a foundational role in Chinese history despite its relative obscurity.
For decades, Yuan, one of China’s most prominent non-fiction writers and a native of the Han River basin, has traveled along the river and recorded its history and people. In his new book, “The Life and History of the Han River,” he documents the economic and environmental life of the river as well as the sailors, migrants, and fishermen in the area. In the excerpt below, Yuan unpacks the mysteries surrounding the Han River’s history and its unique advantage that made it the crucial water source for China’s capital.
In the drought-stricken summer of 2014, I followed the Han River north from Wuhan all the way to its source in Ningqiang County, on the outskirts of Hanzhong City in the northwestern Shaanxi province.
Having grown up in the Han River basin, this journey was a childhood dream as well as a way for me to pay tribute to my roots. But compared with the imposing landscapes I’d envisaged, the mountain ditch that lay before me was somewhat underwhelming. Next to this feeble stream, the most conspicuous sight was an ancient osmanthus tree whose luxuriant canopy sprawled in all directions. According to local folklore, the tree was personally planted by the legendary King Yu the Great during the Xia dynasty (2070–1600 BC), around the time that he was said to have devised a system of irrigation channels to control flood waters.
Further upstream, the river passes under a viaduct of the Beijing-Kunming high-speed rail corridor and, as the terrain becomes steeper, its flow is reduced to little more than a trickle. Close to the peak of the mountain, the river originates in a cave hidden in a dense forest. The cave’s floor is covered in mossy stalagmites resembling bulls’ horns — hence its name “Stone Bull Cave.” Spring water drips from the roof of the cave, pooling in a smooth stone pit formed on the “bull’s head” by thousands of years of erosion. It’s just deep enough that you can cup your hands together and fill them to the brim.
I was doubtful that these water drops were truly the source of such a mighty river until I spotted the words “Source of the Ancient Han River” written in red paint on a stone wall.
I filled my hands with water and was about to take a drink but felt that it was somehow disrespectful. Never before had I felt that my hands were this dirty — as if, no matter how many times I washed them, they’d never be clean enough. I dropped them to my sides and lifted my head to catch the water directly in my mouth. But just next to this pristine spring were the scorched remains of firecrackers lit by religious devotees, and, even worse, snack wrappers and empty water bottles left behind by tourists.
The words on the wall reflect a debate in recent years regarding the Han River’s origins, sparked by the river’s rising importance following the construction of a massive hydro-engineering project aimed at diverting water from the south of China to the parched capital city of Beijing. Since this project was completed in 2014, more than 60 million people in northern China have drunk water which originated from this gentle stream, bringing its significance in the history of Chinese civilization to prominence once again.
Though in ancient times it was also known as the Mian River, its modern name arises from the “Book of Documents” (551–479 BC) and the “Classic of Poetry” (11th to seventh centuries BC). When Liu Bang rose to power in Hanzhong and overthrew the Qin dynasty in the third century BC, he united the Chinese empire and founded the Han Dynasty. As this was the first time that China’s different peoples had truly been united, “Han” became the term for China’s dominant ethnicity, spawning terms such as hanzu (Han ethnicity), hanzi (Chinese characters), and hanfu (traditional Han clothing).
But the Han River’s role as the origin of these references is rarely acknowledged. In accounts of Chinese history, it’s attributed a status far inferior to that of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, which are commonly referred to as the cradle of Chinese civilization. Even the Han River’s true source has long been shrouded in mystery.
In 2010, in an attempt to solve this mystery, historical geographer Zhou Hongwei published an essay that connected a record of a major earthquake in Wudu Prefecture (in today’s northwestern Gansu province) in 186 BC that changed the source of the Han River. Zhou believes that a landslide provoked by this earthquake severed the river in Ningqiang County, forming a low watershed. On the western side of the watershed, the stream was diverted southward to join the Jialing River, thus greatly reducing the Han River’s total length.
The essay deduces that, while the city of Hanzhong is located along what are today the Han River’s upper reaches, it would have originally been closer to the middle reaches — hence the city’s name which literally means “Middle of the Han.”
Thus, in addition to paying homage to the region where he rose to prominence, another potential reason why Liu Bang decided upon “Han” as the name for his dynasty is that, at the time, the Han River might have traversed most of the territories under the central government’s direct control and would therefore have been more important in national affairs than the Yangtze River.
For this reason, the people of ancient China would refer to the Yellow and Han Rivers collectively. For example, they used the word hehan, made up of the characters “river” (Yellow River) and “Han,” to refer to the Milky Way.
The subsequent decline of the Han River’s status would therefore be at least partially due to the changing of its course and the resulting shrinking of its river basin.
Although this is just one theory, it nonetheless provides us with a plausible story regarding the river’s original source.
In other words, the Han River we see today may merely be a severed, shriveled offshoot. Located along the boundary of northern and southern China, the river’s basin hasn’t received much rainfall in recent years. Although it is the largest tributary of the Yangtze River, its water volume is significantly lower than that of many other “Level One” tributaries. The total average runoff throughout its entire basin is 57.7 billion cubic meters, almost 30% less than the Xiang River and 15% less than the Jialing and Gan Rivers.
And yet, this already parched river has now been saddled with the monumental task of keeping northern China hydrated. Its waters have diminished to the point that, when CCTV documentary filmmaker Xia Jun saw it for the first time the day before the diversion project commenced operation in 2014, his impression was not one of majesty or beauty. Rather, he exclaimed: “It’s so small!” Compared with the torrential current he’d anticipated, this bubbling brook in the mountains seemed almost pathetic.
Xia’s journey coincided with the Han River’s driest year. According to researchers from Wuhan University and the Yangtze Hydropower Committee, the volume of the Han River basin has drastically decreased since 1991, influenced by meteorological phenomena such as El Niño. Whereas the river’s water levels were consistently high in the 1980s, the region entered a prolonged drought in the 1990s, and by 2005, its runoff had shrunk by close to 30%.
Right up until water began being stored for the diversion project, the Han River’s levels had been consistently low. In 2014, the river even dropped to record-low levels. There were concerns that the Han River wouldn’t have any water left for diversion.
Since 2014, the river’s levels have continued to remain low, only rising in its upper reaches within the last two years. However, excessively concentrated flood seasons have led to the region suffering both flooding and droughts.
Xia’s surprise back in 2014 is in line with the experiences of communities living along the riverbank. Many older residents who grew up next to the Han River told me that the river from their childhood was far more impressive to behold than it is now.
Today, although the valley upstream isn’t all that wide, the river in that area is so narrow that it no longer covers its bed. On both sides of the trickling stream are now two great expanses of bare earth. Channels along which boats once used to travel have now become completely unnavigable. Meanwhile, as the lower reaches dry up, people have begun to plant vegetables on the newly exposed areas of the riverbank.
Perhaps inspired by his initial impression of the Han River, when delving into the river’s cultural significance, Xia’s documentary “Han River” placed emphasis instead on its tranquility. This quality represents the Taoist notions of rou (gentleness), shun (continuation), and ruo (weakness), and contrasts with the forcefulness of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers.
This echoes my own impressions upon seeing the river for the first time at the age of 17. In my childhood years spent deep in the mountains on the southern bank of the Han River, I noticed that all the creeks and streams in my village flowed north toward this legendary river. With every torrential downpour, the runoff would be effortlessly absorbed into its current, prompting me to imagine a gargantuan waterway as deep as it was wide. But in the autumn of 1987, when I stood on a bridge that spanned the river and looked down into its waters for the first time, what I saw could not have been more at odds with my expectations.
I scanned the earth for many moments before the virtually transparent stream revealed itself to me. Under the sunlight, the topography of the riverbed was plain to see. In the shallows, it was pale, almost off-white; while in the depths, it was somewhat translucent gray. But these faint colors would be swept away the moment a gentle breeze came and created ripples on the surface; and when the breeze calmed down, they’d return. The river looked so feeble that it was startling to see boats pass through.
While the basin of the Yellow River has nurtured Confucian culture, the shores of the Han River have created the world of Taoism. My childhood was defined by Taoist legends such as Celestial Master Zhang Daoling, the powerful deity Xuanwu, the serpent deity Nüwa restoring the sky, and the Eight Immortals crossing the sea. Surrounding my hometown were Taoist sites and ruins, such as the Temple of the Founding Ancestors, Pure Yang Cave, and Eight Immortals Road. The city of Hanzhong saw the rise of the Way of the Five Pecks of Rice, an early Taoist movement founded by Zhang Daoling and carried on by his grandson Zhang Lu, at the end of the Han dynasty. The movement lives on in the form of folk worship of Celestial Master Zhang and other Taoist masters.
After crossing the border of Shaanxi province into Hubei province, the Han River flows past the famous Wudang Mountain. It is home to a Taoist temple complex honoring Xuanwu, known as the Truly Valiant Great Emperor. When I was in elementary school, my father traveled up the mountain to seek the blessing of this Taoist deity. He later returned after I was accepted into university to express his gratitude.
The middle reaches of the Han River cut through the city of Xiangyang in Hubei province, where one of the most important poets of the Tang dynasty, Meng Haoran, was born. Meng quit his career in the civil service to study the Taoist teachings of Laozi and Zhuangzi as a recluse on Lumen Mountain. His life trajectory as well as his written works and the sentiments they evoked were intrinsically linked to the Han River. In particular, his unaffected, understated style reflects the river’s nature.
But beyond its association with Taoism, the river has another important quality: clarity. On the bank of the Han River and in front of the Shuixi Gate in the urban center of Ankang, a city in Shaanxi province, stands a modern stele bearing the inscription zhong ling shui (“cool middle waters”). This is a citation from “Tea Manual,” a book on tea written by Ming dynasty prince Zhu Quan in the 15th century. Zhu ranked 20 springs whose water was, in his opinion, best suited to brewing tea, and the water in this area came in 13th place. The fact that Zhu deemed the water from the Han River suitable for brewing luxurious tea goes to show just how clear the river was in ancient times.
The Han River basin sits between China’s northern and southern populations. Most of the regions it traverses are in the neighboring provinces of Hebei, Shaanxi, and Henan. Its lower reaches are known as the Jianghan Plains, which are mainly farmlands with very little modern industry. During the Third Front Movement in the 1960s and 1970s, the central government planned the development of heavy industry in southern Shaanxi and northern Hubei. Two notable projects from this initiative include the Munitions Factory in Hanzhong and the Second Automobile Works in Shiyan. Industry in this area declined, however, during the economic reform period, with automobile manufacturing gradually relocating to Wuhan.
In the 1990s, Lu Xiqi, a researcher from Wuhan University, studied the Third Front factories in Hanzhong. At the time, there were only five such factories left in the city, representing industries such as aeronautical and mechanical manufacturing. However, they were all on the brink of bankruptcy and relocation.
At one factory that Lu visited, which had relocated to Hanzhong from the lower Yangtze River Valley during the Third Front Movement, the housing for employees and facilities were dilapidated. Senior employees still preserved the style and manners of the eastern region, while their children wore more outlandish clothing reminiscent of the apathetic youth subculture known as shamate that would emerge a few years later.
The lack of resources at local schools in Hanzhong had failed to inspire these young people and taken away their chance to attend university like their well-educated parents. Afraid that their lack of education would relegate them to the lower rungs of society, all they hoped for was to return to the big, prosperous cities their parents came from. Such examples show that the demographic conditions of this region are clearly not ideal for developing heavy industry.
Before the diversion project was put in place, the cities along the middle and upper reaches of the Han River all had sluggish economies. In 2008, Hanzhong’s GDP stood at 36.6 billion yuan ($5 billion) and Ankang’s at only 24.1 billion yuan, compared to 56.1 billion yuan in Shaoyang, another inland city in Hunan province. In 2020, the GDP in Shaoyang further grew to 225 billion yuan, while in Hanzhong and Ankang the figures still lagged behind at 159 billion yuan and 100 billion yuan, respectively. The southern Shaanxi province where the Han River is located plays an increasingly marginal role in the province’s overall economy. Not only is southern Shaanxi not on par with central Shaanxi, but even the most isolated city in the north of the province, Yulin, has a GDP several times higher than that of Ankang and Hanzhong.
Because of the underdevelopment and marginalization in southern Shaanxi, as someone from this area I’ve long been unsure of how to introduce myself to other people. It’s hard to convey to them that, in terms of its latitude, climate, and cultural customs, southern Shaanxi is actually part of southern China, and is completely different from central and northern Shaanxi. My hometown was surrounded by lush mountains and water, nothing like the arid, dusty slopes up north. Some people learned of Hanzhong in their history classes, but have never associated it with the Han River, nor are they aware that it flows into the Yangtze River and is its largest tributary.
“The lack of development has become an advantage,” explains Li Jiping, Director of the Department of Water Conservation at Ankang Municipal Bureau of Environmental Protection. Surveys from recent years show that, of all the major rivers in China’s vast network of waterways, the Han River’s water is the cleanest. The upper and middle reaches have, for a long time, consistently remained in the top two categories of cleanliness, meaning that their water only needs a little treatment before it can be safely consumed.
By comparison, water quality in most parts of the Yangtze River is inferior, with the Xiang River and the Great Eastern Canal having even lower water quality. This made the Han River an ideal source for the diversion project.
Historian Luo Xin was born in the upper reaches of the Tangbai River in the Han River basin. At the end of the 1970s, he would sometimes follow the Han River upstream to go swimming in the Danjiangkou Reservoir. “The first time I saw the river, I felt it was the only truly clean river in the entire world. It was deep blue, like spring water,” Luo recalls.
Only from Xiangyang did the water begin to take on a slightly green hue, though even then, it still looked the way people would normally picture a pristine river. At the Han River’s confluence with the Yangtze River, the former is blue-green, while the latter is muddy and opaque. Luo says that the stark contrast between the two waterways fills him with pride.
For millennia, the Han River’s unimposing appearance has allowed it to maintain its pristine waters. Following decades of wanton industrial expansion elsewhere, as clean water becomes the rarest of resources, the Han River’s unique value is once again being rediscovered. Seemingly overnight, traits that were once thought of as banalities or shortcomings have come to be seen as strengths.
“Nobody could have seen this coming,” Li says.
This article is an excerpt from the book “The Life and History of the Han River” by Yuan Ling, published by CITIC · Sight in October 2022. It has been translated and edited for length and clarity, and is republished here with permission.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Xue Yongle and Elise Mak.
(Header image: A woman washes clothes at the Danjiangkou Reservoir. Coutesy of Yuan Ling)