China abounds in rivers. More than 1,500 rivers each drain 1,000 square kilometers or larger areas. More than 2,700 billion cubic meters of water flow along these rivers, 5.8 percent of the world’s total. Most of the large rivers find their source in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, and as a result China is rich in water power resources, leading the world in hydropower potential, with reserves of 680 million kilowatts.
China’s rivers can be categorized as exterior and interior systems. The drainage area for the exterior rivers that empty into the oceans accounts for 64 percent of the country’s total land area. The Yangtze, Yellow, Heilongjiang, Pearl, Liaohe, Haihe, Huaihe and Lancang rivers flow east, and empty into the Pacific Ocean. The Yarlung Zangbo River in Tibet, which flows first east and then south into the Indian Ocean, boasts the Yarlung Zangbo Grand Canyon, the largest canyon in the world, 504.6 km long and 6,009 meters deep. The Irtysh River flows from the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region to the Arctic Ocean. The drainage area for the interior rivers that flow into inland lakes or disappear into deserts or salt marshes makes up 36 percent of China’s total land area. The Tarim River, 2,137 km long, in southern Xinjiang, is China’s longest interior river.
The Yangtze River is the largest river in China, and the third longest in the world, next only to the Nile in northeast Africa and the Amazon in South America. It is 6,300 kilometers long, and has a drainage area of 1.807 million square kilometers. The middle and lower Yangtze River’s warm and humid climate, plentiful rainfall and fertile soil make the area an important agricultural region. Known as the “golden waterway”, the Yangtze River is a transportation artery linking west and east.
The Yellow River is the second largest river in China, 5,464 km in length, with a drainage area of 752,443 sq km. The Yellow River valley was one of the birthplaces of ancient Chinese civilization. It has lush pastureland and abundant mineral deposits.
The Heilongjiang River is north China’s largest. It has a total length of 4,350 km, of which 3,101 km are within China. The Pearl River is the largest river in south China, with a total length of 2,210 km.
In addition to those endowed by nature, China has a famous man-made river — the grand Canal, running from Beijing in the north to Hangzhou in the south. Construction work of the Grand Canal first began as early as in the fifth century BC. The Canal flows past Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Shandong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang and links five major rivers — the Haihe River, Yellow River, Huaihe River, Yangtze River and Qiantangjiang River. With a total length of 1,797 kilometers and a drainage area of 4,583 square meters, the Grand Canal is the longest as well as the oldest man-made waterway in the world topography.
Alongside of abundant rivers, China also has lots of lakes. There are more than 2,800 natural lakes, each having a surface area of over one square kilometers, and over 130 lakes, each covering more than 100 square kilometers. There are also a large number of artificial lakes (reservoirs). With different salt content, the lakes are classified as saltwater and freshwater lakes. Large lakes are mainly distributed in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River and on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. The Poyang Lake in the south of the Yangtze River is the largest freshwater lake in China while the Qinghai Lake on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is the largest saltwater lake.
*Statistics and images updated in March, 2019