No. 159.
Mr. Denby to Mr. Bayard .

No. 337.]

Sir: The control of the Yellow River presents the most difficult problem that Chinese engineering skill has ever encountered. For thousands of years this river has annually broken its banks and destroyed the immense works which the Government, with great persistence, labor, and expense, has built to restrain it.

This, the second of the great streams of China, rises in the plain of Odontala, northwest of China, a distance of 1,290 miles from the sea. Its numerous windings, however, make its total length at least twice this distance. The basin drained is estimated at 475,000 square miles in area. The difference in its depth in summer and winter renders it useless for navigation. The silt carried by the rapid current blocks up the mouth and renders the channel uncertain and unstable. The mouth is gradually filled with silt, and the water is thereby backed up until it overflows its banks and finds a new route to the sea. This peculiarity has been the cause of overflows and of changes of course. The last, change, which occurred about thirty years ago, was from the course through Kiangsu to the present one in Shantung. Shantung and Kiangsu are the two provinces which suffer by the overflows.

The first record of engineering attempt to check the Yellow River’s overflows dates back to the reign of Yao, B.C. 2293. From that time to this large sums of money have been annually expended in repairing old embankments and in building new ones; nevertheless, the river still remains the “sorrow of China.”

Very recently the subject has been taken up by the Imperial Government with renewed determination. A late decree orders Chang Yao, governor of Shantung, to take steps “to permanently control the Yellow s River.” The plan of building dikes having been tried for centuries and failed, this official memorialized the Throne, proposing a new line of action. His idea is to divert “a certain portion of the waters of the Yellow River into the former course to the south.”

The Empress, on the.31st December last, with reference to this memorial, ordered the grand council and the board of revenue and works to report on the advisability of this plan. The Gazette of January 12 last contains a memorial from the governor-general at Nanking, the director-general of grain transport, and the governor of Kiangsu, submitting their views “on the subject of diverting 30 per cent, of the volume of the Yellow River into its old bed, as proposed by Chang Yao, governor of Shantung, and Yu Po Chuan, one of the superintendents of the Peking granaries.”

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They conclude, and the director-general of the Yellow River supports them, that the project can not be carried out. Their reasons, summarily, are as follows:

  • First. The old bed has been abandoned more than thirty years. It is over 300 miles in length, is full of inequalities, and, further is inhabited and under cultivation. Moreover, in many places all traces of the river bed have disappeared.
  • Second. The old embankments, which “are 1,606,000 feet in length on the southern side and 1,442,000 feet on the northern bank,” have, through lapse of time, fallen into disrepair.
  • Third. Should the change be effected, when the flood is high “the waters of the Yellow River will pour into the Grand Canal and ruin it.”

In the same issue of the Gazette, Chang Yao combats at length the above objections. With regard to the people who have settled in this old river-bed, and whose eviction would be necessary, he says they number but 1,230 families, while in Shantung (his own province) “160,000 families are flooded out year after year, and, at the present moment, there are over 30,000 homes under water.”

With regard to the condition of the embankments, Chang Yao replies that the old embankments in Kiangsu are larger and better than the present ones in Shantung. As to the danger to the canal, he says that the amount of water to be admitted into the new channel can be regulated by sluices. He further points out that, “judging from the manner in which the Yellow River is silting up in Shantung, it is bound either to find a way for itself through Chihli or to force itself into its old bed of its own accord, with disastrous effects in both cases, the measure of which it is impossible to dilate upon.”

However natural it may be for Chang Yao to try to transfer his troublesome charge from his own province to Kiangsu, the expedient could effect no permanent solution of the difficulty. The only resort is to foreign engineers and engineering methods.

The Chinese Government seems to prefer to expend large sums annually in tentative methods of temporary relief than by one gross expenditure to make a radical and permanent improvement.

In this connection, I have the honor to request that, should the Department have any works or pamphlets on the means used by the Government of the United States to control the Mississippi River, copies should be forwarded to this legation. I would take great pleasure in presenting them to the Tsung-li yamên. This would be regarded as an act of courtesy by the Government, and might be of some substantial use.

I have, etc.,

Charles Denby.