Yellow River Flood

Apart from epidemics and famines, the Yellow River flood was the deadliest natural disaster of the twentieth century. Between three and four million perished, and tens of millions were displaced. International relief efforts prevented even greater losses.

Summary of Event

The Yellow River flood occurred when the waters of several rivers commingled across the low-lying plains that stretch from Tianjin, on the North China Plain near the Yellow River, to Nanjing (China’s capital in 1931), which sits on the floodplain of the Yangtze River. These two rivers were the main sources of the flood, so some historical sources refer to the deluge as the Yellow River flood; others call it the Yangtze River flood. [kw]Yellow River Flood (July, 1931)
[kw]River Flood, Yellow (July, 1931)
[kw]Flood, Yellow River (July, 1931)
Yellow River;flood
Huang He flood
Yangtze River;flood
North China flood
[g]China;July, 1931: Yellow River Flood[07870]
[g]East Asia;July, 1931: Yellow River Flood[07870]
[c]Agriculture;July, 1931: Yellow River Flood[07870]
[c]Geography;July, 1931: Yellow River Flood[07870]
[c]Disasters;July, 1931: Yellow River Flood[07870]
[c]Environmental issues;July, 1931: Yellow River Flood[07870]
Chiang Kai-shek
Bernard, Harry Virden
Lindbergh, Charles A.

The North China Plain is a low-lying platform of sediment built relatively recently (at least in geological terms) by four east-flowing rivers—the Yellow (Huang), Hai, Huai, and Yonglin—that come from the western uplands and fill the western rim of the pouch-shaped Bohai Sea. The Yellow River is the largest stream: It carries about 1.6 billion tons of silt annually, and its floodwaters created a gigantic delta that spans about 96,525 square miles. The river is notorious for flooding its lower reaches: Huge amounts of silt clog the stream’s channel and raise the elevation of the river’s streambed, and this causes the river to flow over its banks and onto the floodplain. The extraordinary height of the streambed above the adjoining floodplain raises the risk of rapid, deep, and widespread flooding in the densely populated delta.

The drainage area of the Yangtze River is more than two and one-half times the size of the Yellow River, and its average discharge is more than seven times greater. The Yangtze formed a large delta during the Pleistocene ice age, but it changed course about four thousand years ago, and this delta is now the Jiangsu Plain, which lies north of the city of Shanghai. In 1931, Shanghai was China’s largest city, and that year’s flood covered parts of the Yangtze’s delta, its broad inland floodplains, and the Jiangsu Plain.

July is the peak month for precipitation in northern China, and the rain that occurs from early or mid-June to early or mid-July is called “plum rain” by local people in the Yangtze and Huai valleys because it arrives when the flowers of plum and other deciduous fruit trees in these valleys are in bloom. Plum rain occurs because a polar front, the transitional boundary between polar and tropical air masses, hovers over these two valleys. Typically, moisture-laden southeastern monsoon winds push against newly arrived northwestern cold air, and the colder air wedges under the approaching monsoon air, lifting the monsoon air upward in a violent corkscrew spiral that spawns frontal cyclonic storms. The weather is continuously rainy and provides good conditions for rice paddies. On average, two slow-moving cyclonic storms pass over the region in July, but July of 1931 saw a series of seven storms in rapid succession.

On July 28, dikes on the north side of the Yangtze River broke, sending waters rushing north onto the Jiangsu Plain and south into the delta and the city of Shanghai. At about the same time, the Yellow River tore at its confining banks and sent some of its flow gushing south into the channel it had abandoned nearly eighty years earlier. Effectively, the two rivers’ floodwaters converged. The most serious flooding took place in the convergence zone, which was supposed to be drained by the Huai River, a tributary of the Yellow River.

The floodwaters of the three rivers blended and covered low-lying areas in the provinces of Henan, Hubei, Anhui, and Jiangsu. Additionally, the Grand Canal, which runs south to north across the eastern boundary of the usually gentle divide between the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, ruptured and flooded the provinces. Floodwaters in this zone and in floodplains bordering the middle course of the Yangtze covered a total of 47,000 square miles (an area the size of New York State). Widespread flooding also took place over the North China Plain. The flooding continued unabated until mid-August, and in many areas the floodwaters did not recede for six months, making farming impossible. In the colder northern areas around Tianjin, vast lakes of frozen floodwaters did not thaw and drain completely until early April, 1932, nine months after the flood.

Initially, the disaster did not receive much attention around the world, partly because the flood itself caused a massive breakdown in communications. News reporters underestimated the scale of the deluge, and torrents isolated Nanjing and Shanghai, where foreign journalists got most of their news about China. The flood also paralyzed the country’s two main seaports, Shanghai and Tianjin. In addition, a bloody civil war between General Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist army and Mao Zedong’s Communist forces preoccupied the nation. (At the time of the flood, Chiang was suffering heavy casualties in his fight against Communists in Shanxi Province.) Japan’s September invasion of the Chinese territory of Manchuria only added to China’s concerns.

The Chinese Nationalist government hastily organized the National Relief Commission in an attempt to care for the refugees and to repair 7,000 miles of dikes. Over the next two years, the United States lent China $59 million to buy wheat and cotton (two major crops destroyed by the flood), to rebuild roads, and to pay wages for flood refugees rebuilding the dikes. Chiang appointed Harry Virden Bernard, an American businessman, as head of the Shanghai district of the National Flood Relief Commission, and Bernard held this position until 1934. In 1938, the International Red Cross chose him to head its program to aid Chinese refugees from the 1937-1945 Sino-Japanese War. Refugees;Chinese

Charles A. Lindbergh and his wife provided a valuable record of how widespread the devastation was in the Yangtze and Huai River basins. They were in Shanghai in late September, while the floodwaters were still extensive, and they flew over the area and took aerial photographs of the devastation. The photographs later appeared in a government report on the flood.


The Yellow River flood occurred in the heartland and granary of Chiang’s struggling Republic of China. The flood destroyed rice and wheat crops and spawned severe food shortages in one of the world’s most populous regions. Some 200 million people lived in the middle and lower sections of the Yangtze Valley, and 80 million people lived in the North China Plain, which meant that the flood affected 14 percent of the world’s total 1931 population of 2 billion.

Initial reports of the deluge and its aftermath were as murky as the lingering, silt-laden waters. Estimates of drowning deaths published in foreign newspapers varied between 40,000 and 150,000, and the estimates of people rendered homeless ranged from 10 million to 50 million. According to the modern-day death estimate, 3.7 million people perished, although this larger figure includes deaths that accrued over the next two or three years from diseases (mainly cholera) and starvation. This estimate makes the 1931 flood in China the deadliest natural disaster on record.

Efforts to curb the threat of floods that were undertaken immediately following the Yellow River disaster included the building of large flood-retention reservoirs and improvements on existing dikes. After China’s communist government came to power in 1949, emphasis was placed on building dams in higher sections of the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers in order to control their flow. Yellow River;flood
Huang He flood
Yangtze River;flood
North China flood

Further Reading

  • Buck, J. Lossing. The 1931 Flood in China: An Economic Survey by the Department of Agricultural Economics, College of Agriculture and Forestry, the University of Nanking, in Cooperation with the National Flood Relief Commission. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1932. This survey attempted to pinpoint the population affected by the 1931 flood.
  • Buck, Pearl S. The Good Earth. New York: John Day, 1931. Fictional work describes a peasant family’s trials with flood, drought, and famine in the Huai River area.
  • Chetham, Deirde. Before the Deluge: The Vanishing World of the Yangtze’s Three Gorges. Brookline, Mass.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. Provides a balanced perspective on the pros and cons of the world’s most controversial dam-building project.
  • National Flood Relief Commission. Report of the National Flood Relief Commission, 1931-1932. Shanghai, China: Comacrib Press, 1933. Provides a summary of relief efforts in the immediate aftermath of the flood.
  • Silver, Sylvia Cochrane. “Memories of North China Flood.” Asia Survey (May, 1933): 309-313, 317. Recounts the author’s personal experiences of the flood.
  • Sinclair, Kevin. The Yellow River: A Five Thousand-Year Journey Through China. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1987. Well-written description of the evolving relationship between the people and the land along the Yellow River.
  • Winchester, Simon. The River at the Centre of the World. London: Picador, 2004. Includes historical information about the river’s floods and how they have affected people’s lives.
  • Woodhead, H. G. W., ed. The China Year Book, 1932. Shanghai, China: North China Daily News Herald, 1932. Among the data are a chapter on climate of China and a special chapter on the flood.
  • Zhao Songqiao. Geography of China: Environment, Resources, Population and Development. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1994. Excellent source of information about the climate, weather patterns, soil, and agriculture of the area affected by the flood.

Chinese Civil War

Chinese Forces Break Yellow River Levees