Ancient China mystery solved: Yellow River clue exposes truth behind disaster

Scientists, led by Michael Storozum of Fudan University in China, investigated the deadly disaster, unearthing historical documents to reexamine events in the ex-imperial city back in A.D 1642. The research, published in February, revealed that the flood was so disastrous due the Kaifeng’s walls collapsing during a siege, leaving only a few thousand people in the city alive. The decision by the city’s governor to open the floodgates to stop the rebel attacks was, the scientists said, the reason hundreds of thousands of lives were lost.

The Yellow River is China’s second longest river, after the Yangtze River, and stretches around 5,464km.

It is renowned for its tendency to cause devastating floods, which is why it lends itself to the nickname ‘China’s sorrow’.

According to Newsweek, old documents expose how the river has flooded more than 1,000 in just 2,000 years.

The documents predict that this has killed millions of people throughout the ages.

But researchers were keen to understand more about its horrors of millennia ago. 

The key behind the A.D 1642 episode was unlike any other, however, as it was human intervention that helped the flood truly erupt, as opposed to nature itself.

Kaifeng was renowned for experiencing severe flood problems from the Yellow River, with the city being engulfed in water around 40 times in the past 3,000 years.

In A.D 1642, Kaifeng was in the midst of an internal battle that saw rebel sieges attack the city for around six months.

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At the time, the scientists say, the governor of Kaifeng took matters into his own hands in a bid to halt the worrying sieges from continuing. However, his choice would end up killing 300,000 innocent people.

In ‘The Jews of Kaifeng, China: History, Culture and Religion’, authors Xin Xu and Rivka Gonen said: “The governor of Kaifeng ordered the waters of the Yellow River unleashed in hopes of destroying the rebel army.

“The dikes were broken, but instead of hurting the rebels, the raging waters swept over the low-lying city, drowning a citizenry that was totally unprepared. 

“From a population of 378,000, only a few score thousand survived.”

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The book, originally published in 2003, helped scientists begin research into one of the ancient world’s biggest disasters. 

The researchers were looking back through the world’s biggest disasters in a bid to find clues as to how best to halt these events happening again, with a particular eye on the expected increase in devastating weather due to climate change.

Mr Storozum, and his colleagues, wrote in their report: “As a result, the constant influx of floodwater into the city created a deadly mix of mud and urban debris that significantly amplified the destructive power of the Yellow River.

“Our investigations at Kaifeng suggest that urban resilience is not static but instead varies depending on the magnitude and type of natural hazard, the built landscape, as well as the city’s social institutions.

“As global temperatures continue to rise and increase the frequency of extreme events, the combined archaeological and paleoenvironmental record of exceptional floods, like the A.D. 1642 Yellow River flood, can provide an important reminder that unexpected events have happened in the past and will likely happen again. 

“In extreme cases, these events can cause infrastructure built to prevent disasters to catastrophically fail, causing significantly more devastation than under normal circumstances.”

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