1938 Yellow River Flood

1938 Yellow River Flood


F. Cabezas

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Yellow River at calm (from awesomeinventions.com)


The 1938 Yellow River Breach was a disastrous decision with disastrous results. The historical context of the 1938 Yellow River Flood involves the Japanese invasion of China in 1937. The Japanese swiftly made a string of conquests across northeastern China, capturing Kaifeng and Nanjing, China’s capital. When the Japanese threatened Wuhan, the temporary new capital that the government had fled to after the fall of Nanjing, the Chinese realized the desperation of their situation.

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Invading Japanese Soldiers wade through river-waters (from disasterhistory.org).

The Nationalist Decision

As a result, by the order of Nationalist leader Chiang-Kai-Shek, the Chinese Nationalists decided to create an opening in the Yellow River dam by Zhengzhou. The breach came at an important juncture of the river with the Japanese only about 25 miles away. The Nationalists purposely didn’t inform the populace of this plan, as they did not want to arouse Japanese suspicion. During the summer, the Yellow River was at its highest making it an ideal time to breach it. The goal of the Chinese was to slow down the Japanese advance in time for their troops to escape from Zhengzhou and Wuhan into southwestern China. The effects of the breach were disastrous. While the breaching of the Yellow River dike did temporarily slow down the Japanese and their war machine, it ultimately was at most an inconvenience to them.  As a whole, the Nationalist plan did work, as the goal had been to allow the Nationalists to escape.

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Dark blue displays the normal flow of the Yellow River while dark yellow represents the course after the flood. (From chinawaterrisk.org)

Environmental Consequences

The environmental effects of the breaching of the dike were catastrophic. The Yellow River temporarily separated into a great number of different channels as seen above. These channels connected with other rivers such as the Ci and Sha. These rivers as well as others could not accommodate all of the water from the Yellow River and as a result, overflowed. The river would not return to its normal course for years. A very rainy summer through June and July aggravated this situation. In the parts of eastern Henan affected by the flood, a full 32 percent of the cultivated farmland was underwater. Also, the flood deposited a shocking 100 tons of silt on farmland, rendering the land unusable for cultivation.

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Chinese refugees after Yellow River Flood (from factsanddetails.com)

Impact on Chinese Population

In addition, the flood killed an estimated 800,000 people in the counties of Henan, Anhui and Jiangsu. It destroyed an estimated 91 percent of the villages in Fugou county. The flood also created a refugee crisis as it left 4 million people homeless. The communities that these refugees lived in descended into chaos and became ridden with looting as well as diseases such as scabies, malaria, dysentery, typhoid and smallpox.

Reaction of the Nationalists

The initial reaction from the Nationalists to the flood was one of denial. The Nationalists denied that the flood had been their doing, instead blaming it on Japanese bombings. The Chinese media and newspaper supported them in this lie.

Nationalist soldier manages civilians who are constructing a dike (from cambridge.org).

A long term reaction of the Nationalists was their adoption of hydraulic warfare after the 1938 flood. Chiang Kai-Shek formed a Yellow River Conservancy Commission for the purpose of controlling the river to provide for the defense of China. Under the commission, the Nationalists created dikes in order to maintain the new barrier of water that the flood had created between them and the Japanese. In addition, the Nationalists constructed an addition 21 mile long dike to direct sediment into the Long-Hai railway which hampered Japanese invasion from the east. The Nationalist dikes were successful in redirecting the river-flow to stop Japanese advances into Nationalist territory.

Japanese occupation of China
Victorious Japanese soldiers encounter Chinese peasants (from histclo.com).

Reaction of the Japanese

The Japanese reaction to the flood was one of denial. The Japanese denied that they had caused the disaster. However, having observed the flood and reasonably suspecting who had really perpetrated it, the Japanese set out to adopt the same style of hydraulic warfare as the Nationalists. The Japanese forcibly pressed into labor a great many Chinese peasants in order to construct dikes. With these laborers, the Japanese and their puppet government in eastern China undertook a project to build a dike that would stretch through three counties. The Japanese also expanded the initial breach made by the Nationalists in an attempt to flood Nationalist bases in Jingshui. This particular effort by the Japanese against the Nationalists failed.

Environmental Consequences of Hydraulic Warfare

Unfortunately, hydraulic warfare by the Nationalists and the Japanese created an environmental crisis as the various dikes and artificial structures created by both sides caused waterways to flow erratically through China. These waterways also carried silt which laid waste to land, rendering it unusable. Sediment from the Yellow River also built up and caused blockage in waterways as well, including in the Jialu, Sha and Ying rivers. This blocking led to more floods.

Refugee Experience

In addition, the flood created a refugee crisis as stated earlier. Many displaced peoples fled to the nearby Shaanxi province away from flooded Henan.

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A map of the location of Henan relative to Shaanxi (from chinafolio.com)

A popular method of relief for these migrants was a system of land reclamation. If these refugees from Henan could use and cultivate the land, they could lay claim to it. The Nationalists believed that this would bolster the war effort against the Japanese. Unfortunately, the impact that these refugees had on their environment was unforeseen. As the Chinese cleared land away to be used for cultivation, they removed trees and forests, causing erosion of the soil. In addition, refugees sometimes came under attack by local wildlife such as leopards and wild boar. These wildlife also trampled and ruined crops. Bandits who lived in mountains nearby would also demand rent payments from refugees due to the vague property rights laws in the area. As the water remained in its new course for several years as a result of the flood, these refugees realized that returning would not be an option and that they would likely stay in Shaanxi. The flow of refugees from Henan had also left Henan with minimal cultivation and a collapsed infrastructure. By the early 1940s, a great extent of the forests and trees of Shaanxi were gone to make room for farmland which led to soil erosion issues due to the removal of vegetation. Even at the end of the war in 1945, 1.7 million refugees still resided in Shaanxi.

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Silt-filled Yellow River (from Pinterest.com)


Overall, the Japanese and Nationalist reaction to the 1938 flood was an immediate adoption of hydraulic warfare by both sides. As a result, the environment descended into further chaos from dikes and artificial structures being built all over the region.  The immediate flood itself had a terrible aftermath as well, killing close to 1 million people. The conclusion that we can draw from this episode in history is the danger of attempting to manipulate a powerful force of nature and the consequences of the Chinese government placing the needs of the country over the needs of the citizens.


Micah Muscolino. The Ecology of War in China. Cambridge University Press, 2014. https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/ecology-of-war-in-china/militarized-river-the-1938-yellow-river-flood-and-its-aftermath/6E29477E1A2D04EC8D68D34A85A7FC50/core-reader

Micah Muscolino. “The Yellow River flood” 1938-47. Accessed March 9 2019. http://www.disasterhistory.org/yellow-river-flood-1938-47

Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley. From “Nourish the People to “Sacrifice for the Nation”: Changing Responses to Disaster in Late Imperial and Modern China. Agrarian Studies, Colloquium, Yale University, 2012. https://agrarianstudies.macmillan.yale.edu/sites/default/files/files/colloqpapers/18edgerton.pdf

Micah Muscolino. Refugees, Land Reclamation and Militarized Landscapes in Wartime China: Huanglongshan, Shaanxi, 1937–45. Cambridge University Press, 2010. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-asian-studies/article/refugees-land-reclamation-and-militarized-landscapes-in-wartime-china-huanglongshan-shaanxi-193745/6C5D72B1CBC0494884063F4C4A20C850