No. 156.
Mr. Denby to Mr. Bayard.

No. 514.]

Sir: I have the honor to forward to you herein for your information some particulars concerning the terrible inundation caused by the rupture of the levees along the Yellow River in the last week of September of this year. Although the calamity was known of at Peking nearly [Page 233] two months ago, the reports of the provincial authorities to the Emperor concerning the event have only very recently been given to the public.

The Yellow River, not very far to the west of Kai-feug-fu, the capital of Don an Province, enters an alluvial plain, which undoubtedly owes its origin to the river’s deposits, and which spreads to the north and south of the mountainous Shantung Peninsula as far as the sea-coast without an elevation on its surface, save here and there in a sand hillock.

From the prefecture of Honan-fu the Yellow River’s deposit commences to be so abundant that the whole bed of the river has been silted up until it is elevated above the surrounding country. For example, at Lung Men Kou, the diverging point of the old and new courses of the Yellow River, Ney Elias states in his “Report on the course of the Yellow River” (1869) that he found the bed of the river with an average elevation above the general level of the neighboring country of about 15 feet.

The immense banks off the mouths of the Yellow River are yet another proof of the tremendous rapidity with which the siltage takes place. The Chinese Times, of October 29, 1887, mentions in this connection that 30 or 40 miles distant from the shore, in the deep indentation of the coast between Che-foo and Taku, soundings that fifty years ago gave 40 feet now show but 18.

This siltage has a most disastrous effect on the arable soil on which it may be deposited, rendering cultivation impossible; consequently wherever the river has passed agriculture is practically ended, and a thinly scattered population is all that is left in once prosperous and densely inhabited districts.

Since time immemorial the Chinese have endeavored to check this river and to keep it in its bed by erecting a continuous line of embankments along its course from the point where the siltage commences down to its mouth. But, notwithstanding the enormous works which have been erected year after year and century after century, the most fearful overflows continually occur, several of them so great that they have changed the course of the river. In the earliest times of Chinese history the Yellow River emptied into the Gulf of Pei-chih-li, near Tientsin, and it followed this course down to the thirteenth century of our era. At that time it changed its course and, taking an easterly direction, south of the Shantung peninsula, it emptied into the Yellow Sea. The river continued to follow this course until 1851, when it again burst its embankments on the north side at Lung Men Kou, and by 1853 it was once more flowing into the Gulf of Pei-chih-li, its general direction nearly parallel to that which it held in olden times.

In the summer of the present year the Tain, an important left-bank affluent of the Yellow River, which empties into it about 60 miles west of Kai-feng-fu, as also the main stream itself, became greatly swollen by incessant rains, and on the 24th of September the dikes broke in the district of Cheng Chou—a little to the west of Kai feng-fu. During the succeeding days the breach rapidly increased, notwithstanding every effort on the part of the troops, until it was over 3,000 feet wide, through which the whole river dashed, leaving its former bed dry.

The water flowed in a southeasterly direction through the prefectural districts of Kai-feng and Chen Chou; the Kulu River, down to where it empties into the Sha-ho, being apparently the western limit of the inundation. About 50 miles south of the mouth of the Kulu River the flood seems to have taken an easterly course through the provinces of Anhui and Kiangsu, sweeping down the course of the Huai River, through [Page 234] the Hungtse Lake, and into the sea by its old mouth east of Tsing Kiang-pu.

The main body of the water followed the course of the Kulu River, and in this section of country the inundation attained a depth of from 10 to 20 feet. In other districts to the east the water was only from 3 to 4 feet.

Reports concerning the damages done by the flood outside of the province of Honan have not so far been published, but in that province alone we learn that about 2,000 towns and villages—which must have a population of at least 2,500,000—have suffered from the flood.

The loss of life appears to have been fearful. The governor of Honan, in a memorial to the Emperor, published in the Peking Gazette of October 28, says:

Nearly all the people have been drowned in the districts reached by the waters, the survivors being those who escaped to high ground or took refuge in trees, where they remained until rescue came.

In a later memorial the same officer reports that—

Fortunately the flow of the waters has not been rapid, as the country is quite level. There are, moreover, many sand hillocks, which have afforded a place of refuge and a means of escape to many.

As soon as the accident occurred the provincial authorities took measures to relieve the sufferers, and besides sending boats and rafts in all directions, bearing food and clothing, opened relief establishments, in many of which there are as many as 20,000 refugees.

The Emperor has given orders that about $3,000,000, besides all the grain tribute due in 1888 from Kiang-pei and Kiang-su, as well as its cost of conveyance to the capital be devoted to the relief purposes. These sums, however large, will be far from sufficient to meet the requirements, and the board of revenue has been authorized by the Emperor to forward a constant and unfailing supply of funds to the high authorities of the inundated provinces, so that the work of repairing the breach and providing for the destitute population may be constantly looked after.

It may not seem inappropriate to add here a few details concerning the manner in which the Government provides for maintaining the extensive works along the Yellow River, and what appropriations are made to meet the expenses incurred thereby.

The general management of the works along the Yellow River, within the province of Honan, is intrusted to the director-general of the Yellow River, who has also the superintendence of the grain transport route. East of Honan the river works are under the care of the governor-general of Chihli and the governor of Shantung, through which provinces the river flows. Prior to the change of course of the river in 1852, there were two directors-general, one for the southern division of the river and one for the eastern, who took complete charge of all the works, but since the river has taken its northern course to the sea, the office of southern director-general has been abolished and the eastern one alone retained.

The director-general has under his orders about 2,000 men, belonging to the “Army of the Green Standard,” who, besides having to guard the embankments and keep them in repair over a distance of about 160 miles, have certain duties to perform in connection with forwarding grain junks on the Grand Canal, and are also supposed to do garrison work, escort prisoners, etc. Two Taotais are under the direct orders of the director-general, dividing between them the section of river under [Page 235] his jurisdiction, along the banks of which are seven stations in which are kept detachments of troops to watch the action of the river on the works.

The Yellow River works comprise two categories: First, embankments constructed by the people and at their expense; second, Government works, comprising embankments, supplementary embankments constructed to withstand inundations which have broken through the “people’s embankments.” side dikes, etc, all of which works, together with their dimensions and the materials to be used in constructing them, are minutely detailed in the Dynastic Institutes.

By a regulation of 1662, which is still in vigor, all the works are under the guaranty of the officer who has built them for a period of one year, removal from office being the penalty visited on him should any of them be destroyed within that limit.

The funds for the works under the orders of the director-general, the pay of his troops, etc., are provided for by fixed appropriations, which, so far as I can learn, have varied but very little during the last hundred and fifty years. Thus in 1730,670,536 taels (say $704,600) are, according to the Dynastic Institutes, allotted to the river works. In 1876 this allowance, according to the regulations of the board of revenue, is fixed at 757,401 taels (say $908,880).

These fixed appropriations can not, however, be considered as giving the amount annually expended by Government on the Yellow River, for not a year passes that additional sums are not appropriated by special decree for extraordinary works. One million and a half dollars might represent the annual expenditure on account of the Yellow River within that section under the orders of the director-general.

I have no exact means of ascertaining the amounts expended annually by the high provincial authorities of Chihli and Shantung for similar purposes, but from certain figures found in memorials to the Emperor by these officers I think that the expenditures may average about $300,000 a year. This would give us an average annual expenditure on works along the lower course of the Yellow River of about 12,000,000.

It would be tedious to enter into any discussion of the various plans which have at different times been submitted to the Imperial Government for controlling the Yellow River. Suffice it to say that none of those which have been tried have decreased the violence or frequency of the Hoods. In connection with the present breach it has been decided by the Government that it must be closed and the river turned back to its habitual course.

I have, etc.,

Charles Denby.
[Inclosure in No. 514.]

the yellow river.

A memorial of the hoard of revenue appeared in this morning’s Shunipao, proposing six ways and means of raising funds for repairing the recent breach in the Yellow River, in Honan province.

The dismissal of petty officers from the provincial garrisons, as they are not necessary in time of peace, and it will be a saving of nearly 2,000,000 taels to the Government.
The purchase of munitions of war, gun-boats, and machinery from abroad shall be stopped for the present.
The rice allowance of princes, dukes, aud all officials in Peking shall be stopped for one year, commencing on the first moon of the fourteenth year of Kwang Hsü. [Page 236] The soldiers in Peking are to receive their rice allowance, but not the equivalent in money as heretofore.
The soldiers stationed near Honan province shall be ordered to assist in repairing the breach of the river.
The salt merchants of all the provinces shall be called upon to make contributions and get promotion in official rank in return.
The pawn-shops which should pay a yearly tax of 5 taels to the Government should be ordered to pay 100 taels in advance, and then be exempted for twenty years. All the revenue-remitting banks throughout the provinces shall be ordered to pay a tax of 600 taels each.

The first, fifth, and sixth proposals have been already sanctioned by imperial decree.