Yangtze River: Facts, History & Location

Instructor: Danielle Reid

Danielle has taught middle school science and has a doctorate degree in Environmental Health

In this lesson you will learn some interesting facts about the Yangtze River, a beautiful waterway in China. Discover the importance of this river in Chinese history, and then take a short quiz at the end of this lesson to test what you have learned.

History of the Yangtze River

Can you guess when the earliest sign of human activity at the Yangtze River was? Estimates point to roughly two million years ago. Given that humans occupied this area such a long time ago, the Yangtze River holds a long, rich history seeded in Chinese culture.

The name Yangtze is derived from the fiefdom called Yang. Its early history dates back to the period of 770 - 476 BC, when many tribes settled along the river. The Chu tribe settled at the lower reaches of the river, while the Ba and Shu tribes inhabited the middle reaches of the Yangtze. At the delta area of the Yangtze lived the Wu and Yue tribes. As with any tribe, the need to protect and defend a location was important. It was difficult to cross the river, which worked to the advantage of tribes as they protected their borders from intruders. The beauty of Yangtze River history is that it provides great insight into the cultural origins of China. From political beliefs to social customs and rituals, all are shaped by the Yangtze's history.

Yangtze River: Overview

Roughly 3,900 miles long, the Yangtze is the longest river in China and the third longest river in the world. The beginning portion of the river originates from the Plateau of Tibet, while the river's mouth empties into the East China Sea. The Yangtze (shown in the aerial view below) cuts through several mountainous areas. Given its length, it may be of no surprise that the Yangtze River runs through ten provinces and a number of cities.

Aerial View of a Portion of the Yangtze River

Given its vast size, the river is a very important water source for China. Thus, the Yangtze is not only historically and culturally important, but economically important as well. China depends on this river as its principle waterway for shipping. Similarly, the smaller rivers connecting to the Yangtze, called tributaries, are important to the economy as well. A tributary is a stream or river that flows into a larger stream or river.

Traveling through China, from east to west, one finds a multitude of cultures and customs rooted along the river. Depending on location, this rich cultural heritage varies. As mentioned earlier, there are three different reaches or stages of the river: upper, middle, and lower. The map shown below highlights where the Yangtze river flows and the location of each reach.

Map of Yangtze River and the Three Reaches

The upper reach flows across the Plateau of Tibet. In this region the summers are hot and the winters are cold. Here, the cultures of the Tibetans and the Naxi people of Yunnan Province thrive. These individuals live in remote mountainous areas alongside the Yangtze. The Bashu culture also thrives in the upper reach.

Mountainous Area in One Gorge of the Yangtze River

If you are anywhere between the cities of Yibin or Yichang, this 600 mile stretch of the river is known as the middle reach. Here the climate is somewhat similar to the upper reach, with hot summers but mild winters. The famous Three Gorges are located here. These gorges are characterized by rocks made out of limestone and steep slopes. At the middle reach you may encounter the culture of the Jingchu. As you continue traveling down the river you will enter the lower part of the Yangtze basin. This area, which is called the lower reach, contains the plains of eastern China. The climate here is very different from the other reaches. It has more distinct seasons characterized by warm springs, sizzling summers, mild autumns, and cool winters. At this reach you may spot individuals belonging to the Wuyue culture.

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