The Yellow River, regarded as the cradle of Chinese civilization, winds its way more than 5,000 kilometers from the Tibetan Plateau to its mouth in the Bohai Sea. SPIEGEL travelled the course of the river and discovered how quickly the country is pushing forward with its rise to superpower status -- and how ruthlessly.
Qinghai is the end of the world. The remote province between the Tibetan Plateau and the deserts in the north was long considered China's Siberia, where the rulers in Beijing sent their prisoners, both criminal and political.
The region is so remote that many labor camps have since been dismantled and moved to more accessible regions. In China's special form of socialism, even prison camps are expected to make a profit -- a tall order in forbidding Qinghai Province.
Qinghai, meaning "green sea," is named after the large salt lake in the eastern part of the province. But the term could also be used to describe the endless grasslands on which Tibetan nomads graze their herds of yak and sheep. Nowadays, most of the shepherds have traded in their saddles for moped seats.
From the provincial capital Xining, the road climbs steeply up to the roof of the world. Tibetan prayer flags flutter in the wind along the mountain passes, some more than 5,000 meters (16,400 feet) high. The Huang He, or Yellow River, China's "Mother River," has its source in this landscape of myths and mythical creatures, not far from the border with the Tibet Autonomous Region. The river is seen as a symbol of the entire nation, with its inwardly directed culture and a history stretching back thousands of years. "Whoever controls the Yellow River controls China" is a timeless maxim attributed to Yu the Great, the first emperor of the Xia Dynasty. He is believed to have lived around 2,200 B.C. -- if he existed at all.
The Yellow River is to the Chinese what the Nile is to Egyptians, the Mississippi to Americans and the Rhine to Germans. Deeply symbolic monuments, statues of mothers holding babies in their arms, stand along its banks. The ancestors of the present-day Chinese are said to have carved the first characters into turtle shells near its muddy shore. The legendary Yellow Emperor lived near the Huang He, which was viewed with such reverence that a beautiful girl was sacrificed to the river once a year.
The river winds 5,464 kilometers (3,394 miles) through the vast country. The philosopher Confucius, whose concept of an all-encompassing "harmony" has since been turned into a state policy by Beijing's communists, was born near its banks. In 1935, during their war with the then-ruling Kuomintang government, Mao Zedong and his comrades retreated to the river, in the pale-yellow loess landscape of northern China. The liberation of Mao's forces, which had been surrounded by Chinese Nationalist soldiers, has assumed its place in the central heroic mythology of the Communist Party as the "Long March."
China's generals have sometimes even used the river as a weapon. In 1938, General Chiang Kai-shek blew up the dams near the city of Zhengzhou to stop the advance of Japanese troops, causing the deaths by drowning of hundreds of thousands -- friend and foe alike.
A Land of Reinvention
Today, the Yellow River is the most important source of water for 140 million people and thousands of factories. Along its course are vast deposits of mineral resources -- coal, oil, natural gas and rare earths -- which are becoming increasingly important for China's economic boom.