National Geographic : 1948 Mar
Along the Yangtze, Main Street of China By W. ROBERT NIOORE With Illustrations from Photographs by the Author WERE the Chinese to label their high roads of traffic, they might well stud the banks of the Yangtze River with signs reading "China National Route No. 1." On the map face of China the river stands out like a bold blue artery. Fly over the land, and its wide-sweeping flood unfolds below like an endless khaki-yellow ribbon, a band that ties valley towns together or lies tangled among mountain ridges (map, pages 344-5). Great River, Long River, and River of Golden Sands the Chinese variously call their watery Main Street. To millions of its people it is The River. The name Yangtze, by which it is known to Westerners, is applied locally only to its lower course. Rising in the lands north of Tibet, it hurtles down from lofty uplands and surges through awesome canyons of its own carving. In the lonely fastness of inner Asia the river seeks close companionship with two other gorge hewing torrents, the Mekong and Salween.* Then, as if emboldened by its early moun tain triumphs, it twists, brawls through rocky trenches, loops back upon itself, and turns eastward. After wriggling and hammering its way through more mountains and valleys, it etches a serpentine path across the flat plains of central China. 3,400 Crooked Miles Some 3,400 crooked miles it flows, gathering up tributary waters and ponderous burdens of silt, and pours a staining flood into the East China Sea. The storied Nile which fostered the ancient civilization of Egypt is longer. So, too, are the Amazon and our own Mississippi-Missouri system. But none of these streams, nor any other river, touches so many lives as does the Yangtze. Two hundred million people, roughly a tenth of the human race, live within its basin. Here have grown some of the country's largest cities, and here are concentrated many of its inten sively cultivated farms. Farms? "Gardens" is a better term, for many districts have an agricultural population of more than 2,500 persons to a square mile! Throughout the Yangtze plain the popula tion averages 900 persons per square mile, three-fourths of them farmers. Far back in the interior, 1,500 river miles from the sea, and with the Yangtze as almost its sole means of access, lies the rich Szechwan basin (Plate IV).f Here the land is only a little less crowded, for 43 million persons are packed into a 75,000-square-mile humid "greenhouse" of farms. Even the mountains through which the river has hewn its way are not without people. Precipitous lands have been terraced with in finite patience and reveal an amazing jigsaw pattern of curves, angles, and odd-shaped garden patches. For five of the eight bitter war years that China fought against Japanese invasion more than 1,000 miles of the Yangtze were held by the enemy. Swiftly, Japanese forces had seized Shang hai, Soochow (Wuhsien), and the capital, Nanking, and then swept on to Hankow and beyond to gain control over the lower and middle sections of the river. Only at the gate way of the famous mountain gorges, near Ichang, was their upriver march stopped. A Parade of Chinese Life Again there is traffic along this vital arterial waterway. From planes, on river boats bat tling muddy torrents through spectacular gorges and coursing flat farm lands, and in cities from Shanghai to distant Chungking, I watched a parade of teeming Chinese life. Clumsy junks, patched-sail sampans, fish ing craft, rafts, and such river steamers as the Chinese still possess were plowing new furrows up and down the yellow silt-laden waters. People and supplies were on the move. On this trip to China I came by air. Roar ing over the lush Yangtze Delta with its myriad tiny farms, we saw Shanghai's temples of trade rush up out of what only a moment before had been a blob on the landscape. Beneath us slipped factories, skyscrapers, Chinese pagodas, wide boulevards, and a maze of rooftops. Ships of all kinds filled the Hwang Pu River for miles. From the air or from the ground Shanghai is a spectacular, contrasting city. Neither * See "Through the Great River Trenches of Asia (Yangtze, Mekong, and Salween)," by Joseph F. Rock, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, August, 1926. t See "China Fights Erosion with U. S. Aid," by Walter C. Lowdermilk, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGA ZINE, June, 1945. t See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, "Cosmopolitan Shanghai, Key Seaport of China," by W. Robert Moore, September, 1932; "Changing Shanghai," by Amanda Boyden, October, 1937; and "Today on the China Coast," by John B. Powell, February, 1945.