For generations, the Yangtze River’s ebb and flow has sustained Chinese civilization, supplying water to crops and giving life to villages. This is one photographer’s journey along China’s longest river.
The Yangtze River in China is Asia’s longest river and one of two main waterways that have sustained Chinese civilization for thousands of years.
Aptly known in Chinese simply as “the long river,” the Yangtze traverses the expanse of China, flowing from the glacial waters of the western Tibetan Plateau before emptying out at the port of Shanghai into the East China Sea.
For generations, the Yangtze River has been a political, economic, and cultural mainspring. Leaders have tried to tame it and its unpredictable floods. Artists draw inspiration from it. Countless paintings, poems, and maxims have been made about it.
To follow the Yangtze is to experience the full diversity of China’s people, landscapes, and climates. In summer 2019, I traveled along the Yangtze—from its source in Qinghai to its mouth in Shanghai—and documented life along the river.
The vast province of Qinghai in northwestern China is rich with natural beauty, much of it still untouched by development.
Mostly located on the Tibetan Plateau, Qinghai and its glacial meltwaters are the source for both of China’s main rivers, the Yangtze and Yellow River.
The mountainous landscape is dotted with yaks and Tibetan prayer flags. Glowing fields of golden canola flowers bloom along the clear waters of the province’s namesake Qinghai Lake.
Thirty-seven of China’s ethnic minority groups live here. Their religious traditions can be seen in the Buddhist temples, mosques, and Taoist shrines that populate communities here.
With its mild climate and high humidity, the southwestern province of Yunnan has a reputation for being a place where almost anything and everything can grow.
Here, the soil is enriched by the waters of Yangtze River. Along its banks are small towns such as Lijiang, established nearly a thousand years ago as a center for the silk trade.
Further down the river is the province’s capital, Kunming, sometimes called the City of Perpetual Spring. It’s an apt nickname. The distinctly sweet fragrance of fresh rice and warm, rose-filled pastries fills the air on every block.
In southern Yunnan, you’ll find dramatic rice terraces fed by water irrigated from the Yangtze River. These terraces are the work of the Hani people, one of the 25 ethnic minority groups in Yunnan.
Chongqing is a sprawling metropolis of over 30 million people. With a prime location on the Yangtze River, it’s an economic powerhouse driven by manufacturing and trading.
Here, the hilly landscape makes for dramatic skylines, with tall buildings densely packed onto the banks of the Yangtze.
Many travelers to Hubei Province arrive along the Yangtze River through the Three Gorges.
In the city of Yichang, you’ll find the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric dam. The energy harnessed by the dam provides 10% of China’s energy needs and reaches nine provinces and two cities, according to official statistics.
The dam is also meant to tame the river’s unpredictable flow and prevent flooding in towns and cities downstream, though in recent years, it has occasionally overflowed.
The abundance of freshwater in Jiangxi Province, home to China’s largest freshwater lake, has made it a prominent agricultural center. Rice, sugar, and timber production are the major industries.
The clay deposits in the Yangtze valley are also the source material for Jiangxi’s most famous export: porcelain.
The Yangtze River continues from Jiangxi to Anhui Province, known for its well-preserved Qing Dynasty-era villages.
Anhui is also an ideal place to explore life in modern-day rural China. Farmstays known as nongjiale 农家乐 offer urban dwellers a taste of village life.
(Read more: Picking tea in the wild in Anhui)
No province in China is more associated with art, beauty, and the refined classical ideal than Zhejiang.
Archeological relics discovered near the Yangtze River reveal signs of civilization that date back more than 50,000 years, leading some to call it the “birthplace of ancient Chinese civilization.”
Throughout this history, the economy of Zhejiang has been closely tied with the river. Prominent industries include hydraulic engineering, salt production, and porcelain.
The capital city of Hangzhou centers around the astoundingly beautiful West Lake. Its quaint pavilions and tranquil tea fields have inspired countless pieces of classical Chinese art.
Willow-lined canals traverse watertowns across Zhejiang, giving the province its reputation for calm, poetic energy.
The province of Jiangsu is famous for its elaborate network of canals and picturesque bridges.
The most famous of them are in Suzhou, where its carefully manicured gardens are a physical manifestation of the Chinese values of balance and harmony.
In Shanghai, we arrive at the mouth of the Yangtze River. The booming metropolis is split into east and west by the river. It’s the last stop for the Yangtze before it flows out into the East China Sea.
The towering buildings of Shanghai’s Pudong and Puxi district are monuments to the city’s status as an international financial and trade center.
Home to the world’s largest port, Shanghai bustles with the activity of ships coming in and out of China. The city teems with life, as the old mixes with the new.