Chinese Forces Break Yellow River Levees

In an attempt to halt the Japanese invasion, Chinese forces breached levees along the Huang River (also known as the Yellow River). The resulting flood did not significantly aid the Chinese military, and although casualties from the flooding itself were not large, disease and famine afterward caused an estimated 890,000 deaths.

Summary of Event

After oil pipelines were opened into the Persian Gulf and oil wells set on fire during the Persian Gulf War of 1991, many commentators asserted that a new kind of warfare had emerged: environmental warfare. On the contrary, however, environmental warfare is very ancient: Armies have modified the environment to achieve their own objectives or hinder the enemy for centuries. In the summer of 1938, the Chinese army committed perhaps the largest act of environmental warfare in history by breaching the levees of the Huang River (long known in the West as the Yellow River) to hinder the advancing Japanese army. The resulting floods slowed the Japanese and drowned some of their troops, but at the cost of hundreds of thousands of Chinese lives. [kw]Chinese Forces Break Yellow River Levees (June 7, 1938)
[kw]Yellow River Levees, Chinese Forces Break (June 7, 1938)
[kw]River Levees, Chinese Forces Break Yellow (June 7, 1938)
[kw]Levees, Chinese Forces Break Yellow River (June 7, 1938)
Yellow River;destruction of levees
Huang River, destruction of levees
Environmental warfare
[g]China;June 7, 1938: Chinese Forces Break Yellow River Levees[09770]
[g]East Asia;June 7, 1938: Chinese Forces Break Yellow River Levees[09770]
[c]Disasters;June 7, 1938: Chinese Forces Break Yellow River Levees[09770]
[c]Military history;June 7, 1938: Chinese Forces Break Yellow River Levees[09770]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;June 7, 1938: Chinese Forces Break Yellow River Levees[09770]
Chiang Kai-shek
Shang Chen
Terauchi, Hisaichi

The Huang originates in west-central China. After it exits the highlands about 400 kilometers from the coast, it flows across a gently sloping, coastal plain to the sea. The Huang is the most sediment-laden large river in the world, and the north China coastal plain is essentially like a vast alluvial fan; the Huang periodically jumps to a new path when its current channel becomes filled with silt. In the last twenty-five hundred years, historical records show dozens of diversions. In recent millennia, the river has followed two main courses. One, the present course, runs northeast and empties north of the Shandong Peninsula; the other empties south of the peninsula. Because the floodplain has a very gentle slope and is densely populated, floods throughout history have caused staggering loss of life. Many deaths were due to disease and starvation rather than drowning.

The war that caused the 1938 disaster was the result of a long-running campaign by Japan to expand its power at China’s expense. Japan had occupied Korea, and following a short war (the First Sino-Japanese War, 1894-1895), China was forced to cede Taiwan to Japan in 1895. In 1931, following a bombing that many historians suspect was staged as a pretext for invasion, Japan invaded Manchuria and in 1932 set up the puppet state of Manchukuo. Manchukuo, creation Over the next few years, the Japanese nibbled away at the frontiers of China, and by 1937, the limits of Japanese occupation hemmed in Beijing on the west, north, and east. In July, 1937, clashes at the only remaining bridge linking Beijing to the rest of China escalated into outright invasion, and the Second Sino-Japanese War Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945)[Second Sinojapanese War] began. Beijing was occupied on August 18. By the end of 1937, Japanese forces had occupied the coastal plain north of the Huang. In addition, Japan attacked Shanghai in mid-August, although it took until November to conquer the city. In December, Japanese forces moved inland and captured Nanjing as well.

In the spring of 1938, Japanese forces invaded the coastal plain south of the Huang and attacked the city of Xuzhou. Although at one point Chinese forces won their first major victory and forced a large Japanese force to retreat, the overall campaign was a victory for Japan, and Chinese forces retreated to the west. By June, Japanese forces commanded by Hisaichi Terauchi threatened to capture Zhengzhou, a strategic rail junction. His Chinese opponent Shang Chen was one of the ablest Chinese commanders, but he was unable to halt the Japanese advance. On June 8, press reports announced that Chiang Kai-shek had ordered the breaching of the levees along the Huang to impede the Japanese advance. The objectives of the diversion were to halt or at least slow the Japanese onslaught, cause casualties and damage to military equipment, and give the Chinese army time to withdraw and establish defenses.

Destruction of levees was not new in Chinese military history, and the upper part of the floodplain is especially vulnerable. The dikes were breached in 1128 and 1642 in nearly the same places as the 1938 breach. In 1937, the Chinese army had breached levees along the Grand Canal, which joins the Huang and Yangtze Rivers, to obstruct the Japanese, and Western journalists believed that the breaching of the levees in 1938 had been the subject of a great deal of planning.

Initial reports exaggerated the flooding. A week after the flooding, a Japanese report claimed 150,000 people had drowned, while a Chinese report claimed that 6,000 Japanese troops had also drowned. Some newspaper stories described a “wall of water,” but later reports were more restrained. They stated that early estimates of death tolls were not credible, that most people were able to escape the flood, and that the floodwaters spread slowly and were generally shallow. There was widespread agreement that the flood had diverted almost the entire flow of the Huang and that the former course of the river below the breach had been reduced to a small stream. Most later reports stressed that the greatest danger to human life was from destruction of crops and famine, which was exacerbated by the war.

The floodwaters advanced southeast along tributaries to the Huai River and eventually entered the Yangtze. Reporters taken on an aerial survey of the flood area by the Japanese in early July reported that flooding had receded in many areas and was then concentrated on channels leading southeast. The summer of 1938 was described as both sweltering and unusually rainy, and natural flooding compounded the human disaster. Later that summer the Chinese also breached dikes along the Yangtze River, and natural flooding along the Yangtze caused additional damage and loss of life.


Because Japan was at war only with China at the time of the flood, American and European journalists had access to both Chinese and Japanese sources. Japanese sources reported that Japanese troops had been warned about the levees being mined but had been unable to locate the charges. They also claimed that Chinese troops fired on Japanese troops and local work parties who were attempting to repair the breaks. On June 16, a New York Times article reported that Chinese interviewed in Shanghai(then occupied by the Japanese) overwhelmingly favored breaching the dikes if it could halt the Japanese. A number of Western analysts also approved of the tactic. They noted that the flood created a huge humanitarian problem but that the war was a more serious cause for concern.

Although the flood delayed the Japanese and bought time for Chinese withdrawal, the Japanese eventually captured all the objectives they were striving for at the time of the flood. Most histories treat the flood as a minor episode in a much larger conflict, and very little detailed information is available in English. The most devastating loss of life occurred as a result of famine: Huge amounts of crops were destroyed, and the war prevented sufficient transportation of relief supplies. It is extremely hard to separate the effects of the flood from overall civilian loss of life in the war, but most published estimates claim half a million to one million lives lost. Official Chinese figures put the death toll at about 890,000. Bitterness over the flood may have been significant in causing many victims to reject the Nationalist cause in favor of the Communists. The Huang was diverted back to its present course in 1947. Disasters;floods
Yellow River;destruction of levees
Huang River, destruction of levees
Environmental warfare

Further Reading

  • Dorn, Frank. The Sino-Japanese War, 1937-1941: From Marco Polo Bridge to Pearl Harbor. New York: Macmillan, 1974. Detailed account by a U.S. embassy officer stationed in China. Makes use of Japanese and Chinese sources. A brief account of the dike breaching can be found on pages 177-178. Map showing the new route of the river is on page 171.
  • Durdin, F. Tillman. “Chinese Attacking Japanese in Flood.” The New York Times, June 13, 1938, p. 1. First major press account of the flood. Other significant New York Times accounts were published on June 8, 11, 15, 16, 17, 19, 26, and 28, and on July 4.
  • Elvin, Mark, and Liu Ts’ui-jung, eds. Sediments of Time: Environment and Society in Chinese History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Case studies of historical human environmental effects in China. One chapter deals with a military diversion in 1128 that was nearly identical to the 1938 event.
  • Lary, Diana. “Drowned Earth: The Strategic Breaching of the Yellow River Dyke, 1938.” War in History 8, no. 2 (April 1, 2001): 191-207. Deals more with the political setting and repercussions of the levee breach than the actual flood, but valuable because it contains the most detailed references to original Chinese sources.
  • Wilson, Dick. When Tigers Fight: Story of the Sino-Japanese War, 1937-1945. New York: Viking, 1982. The account of the flood is on pages 119-122 and includes a map. The account of the aftermath of the flood appears to be based on Dorn’s account.
  • Zhao, Songqiao. Geography of China: Environment, Resources, Population, and Development. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1994. Includes general discussions of Huang floods but is especially noteworthy for a detailed map (on page 114) of changes in the river’s course since 600 b.c.e.

Chinese Civil War

Yellow River Flood

Japan Withdraws from the League of Nations

Mao’s Long March

Rape of Nanjing