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Insights & Inspirations | The Yellow River as a Culture Region and Cultural Route: Identity and Differentiation


Wu Bihu
Professor of Peking University, Fellow of International Tourism Studies Association (ITSA)

Distinguished Secretary-General Liu Shijun, distinguished Director Wang Aiqin, and distinguished ambassadors and friends,

Good afternoon!

It’s a great pleasure for me to participate in the activities organized by the World Tourism Alliance (WTA) again. The activities are more exciting this time, because they involve the Yellow River of China. All the grand rivers on earth, including the Yellow River and Yangtze River in China, as well as the Nile River in Egypt, the Ganges River in India, the Mississippi River in America, and the Amazon River in Brazil, have nurtured the most splendid human culture. Therefore, as I talk about the Yellow River today, what I truly wish to express is that all grand rivers in the world share the same characteristics or similar developments.

The first two speakers, one is a poet and the other is Mr. Liang Xiaosheng, a respected writer, whose Zhiqing or educated youth literature deeply touched me. I’m not an educated youth, as I come from rural China. So I will explain the definition of grand rivers and their civilizations, as well as the coherence and difference of grand river civilizations from the perspective of a geographer.

The Yellow River National Culture Park is a program developed by the central government of China. The Yellow River, from where it originates to all the provinces along it such as Qinghai, Gansu, Ningxia, Inner Mongolia, Shanxi, Shaanxi, Henan and Shandong, falls into an entire concept, so when it comes to the Yellow River as a cultural area, it equals to the concept that the Yangtze River is a large cultural area, as the Yangtze River finds its origin from the Source of Three Rivers to Yunnan, Sichuan, Chongqing, and Wuhan, so it is both a cultural area and a cultural route. When we talk about the Yellow River as a cultural area, we would mention its integrity and consistency, but when we talk about it as a cultural route, we divide it into sections based on different historical geography and humanistic conditions, so that could be a grand topic.

In recent years, especially since the General Office of the CPC Central Committee and the General Office of the State Council proposed the plan in 2017, several top-level ideas of China’s national culture parks, including the Great Wall, the Grand Canal, the Long March and the Yellow River, have been successively announced. We can find that all the four culture parks, including the recently launched Yangtze River, are basically linear, along the watershed, or along the artificially developed canal, including the Long March, which is a route that has been walked through, so it’s also a linear route.

In particular, the Yellow River and the Yangtze River both feature strong integrity and cultural consistency, but today I will talk about their difference. As a geographer, we need to explain the laws with some data rather than being too poetic, because only after we command the laws can be develop a deeper understanding of culture or civilization. From the perspective of tourism, each province and region along the Yellow River have its own characteristics in the development of tourism products, the way of experience, and the experience it brings to local residents and visitors from outside, including foreigners and those from other provinces and cities. Therefore, we should not only emphasize integrity and understand consistency, but also pay attention to its difference, which is caused by a variety of reasons.

With regard to the Yellow River National Culture Park, WTA chose the Yellow River, especially Linfen as the meeting topic in the Yellow River Dialogue this time. I believe that as the epidemic prevention policy renews, the people, mayors and state leaders from the world’s grand river basins will have more opportunities to communicate and exchange their views.

Several other categories of national culture parks currently launched in China also cover a linear and long route. In terms of the Yellow River National Culture Park as a whole, many experts, including ecological experts, environmental protection experts, and water conservancy experts, have analyzed this picture. We can find that the area marked in red represents the place where the Yellow River Basin passes, and that in other colors represents the place where no water flows into. For example, a yellow-colored place in the Hetao region is a desert, where no water flows into the Yellow River. In Shandong region, the place where the Yellow River enters the sea shows a line, and there is no water flowing to the Yellow River in the surrounding region. Because it is relatively high and is an above-ground river. So, from the perspective of such a large region, should the entire Yellow River National Culture Park cover these red places only? I’m a bit selfish as my hometown is Jiangsu, where the Yellow River just flows through the region from Xuzhou to Huaian and then Yancheng from China’s Southern Song Dynasty to the end of Qing Dynasty. Culture is a past process rather than what we see now. As to the Yellow River National Culture Park, including the place marked in red, I think the leaders or experts of the relevant ministries and commissions who made this plan may not know much about historical geography. Actually, our Yellow River culture is far wider than the regions marked in red, and contains a very rich connotation.

Recently we wrote an article about the connotation deconstruction and reconstruction of the Yellow River cultural regions. From the ecological elements of water, beach, material and sand to the engineering elements of gate, canal, worker, and embankment, and to the connotative elements of history, folklore, craftsmanship and story, we can understand the Yellow River culture from the art, craftsmanship, technique, stories and power of the Yellow River in a very detailed manner. It should be said that the integrity of the Yellow River was formed since the Dayu period.

Last year, I worked with CCTV to produce a program called Geography of China in Linxia Prefecture, Gansu Province, a very interesting place. It is the junction of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and the Loess Plateau. After the Source of Three Rivers descends from Qinghai and enters the Loess Plateau, the riverway widens, making Linxia Prefecture a very important place. Dayu’s flood control was to dredge the Yellow River from Jishi Mountain. The riverway became wider at the place where the two provinces meet after descending from the plateau area. We can see Qinghai from here. Dayu walked such a long way to Shaoxing, Zhejiang, the hometown of Deputy Secretary General Wang Kunxin, so you can imagine how hard Dayu worked to control floods. It’s a state behavior, a concept that we understand in Chinese history and culture – it’s grand river governance that makes people in this basin become integral. This is particularly important, and we will tell more stories like this later.

The governance of the Yellow River began in the Dayu period. The rivers and ditches involved in flood control were cross-regional. From thousands of years ago to today, the Yellow River must have been unified. Regardless of the time for water drainage and sand flushing, as well as nationality and cultural region, the unified governance of the Yellow River formed the integrity of our Chinese culture. The Yellow River Cultural Area plays a crucial role in Chinese culture. In this picture, the Loess Plateau cultural sub-region and Huang-Huai-Hai cultural sub-region formed Qinlong, Sanjin, Zhongzhou, Qilu, and Yanzhao cultural regions, which are the key cultural regions in China. It shows that the Yellow River plays an important role in driving the formation of China’s overall civilization.

In this process, we found the linearity of cultural parks, especially those like the Yellow River National Culture Park. That is, they passed along the river basins through a line, while the unified governance of countries in these basins promoted the unity of China. This is why we say China has been a complete country since Qin and Han dynasties. Although there were short-term divisions or temporary separation of its frontier regions, China was unified on the whole, which was inseparable from the decision-making or driving of the unified governance of grand rivers. Therefore, we would say that the Grand Canal, the Yellow River, and the Yangtze River are all cross-basin grand rivers. Then what about the Great Wall? The Great Wall is located at the 400mm equivalent precipitation line, which is the intersection of agriculture and animal husbandry areas, with powerful cultural effect. Quanzhou, Zhangzhou, Xiamen and Chaozhou-Shantou region in Guangdong province are the regions where Minnan people live, who represent China’s marine culture. The Maritime Silk Road, as a place for foreign trade, whether legal or illegal, formed the marine culture at the end of Qing Dynasty from Song Dynasty. The three major civilizations formed the overall driving force of China.

Then, the integrity was formed under such driving force. My first point of view is that the grand rivers can promote the formation of a united country and civilization. In this regard, I believe that the construction of the Yellow River National Culture Park will definitely help the Chinese people, other regions and foreign people understand that China is unified and why Taiwan is an inalienable part of China, because it’s a whole, which has a kind of coherence and cultural dependence. This shows the influence of geographical environment on human culture.

Another point I’d like to talk about is that in the forming process of a linear cultural heritage, it is not only integral, but also has its independence and regional differences. Therefore, the core of Chinese culture is “harmony in diversity”, corresponding to the subject of our forum: “River · Harmony · Cooperation”. But I think the “Cooperation” also represents “Integration”, which is particularly important for national stability, and culture creation and inheritance.

The second is about the formation of linear cultural heritage with a relative difference, which is determined by long-term history and diversified natural and geographical conditions rather than one person. We can analyze via some data. First, the regional differences of cultural parks are the cultural divisions formed by a long-term natural geographical background and long-term regional cultural levels. Let’s first look at the differences of the Yellow River National Culture Park. Of course, the Yellow River Basin is only a part of our Chinese culture. Some other large river basins, like the Liaohe River just mentioned, and other regional rivers, including the Pearl River, the three parallel rivers flowing to Southeast Asia, are easy in internal integration but difficult in cross-basin integration. During this process, it’s rather a long historical process to form a natural geographical, humanistic and political unity, and then to form a harmonious and different cultural area.

The unification of China cannot be achieved in one or two minutes, or in one or two centuries. It will take many centuries and is a long-term process, which cannot be changed by any political force or ideology. We call it “Civilization”, which has deeper and more philosophical significance than “Culture”. From this point of view, we can find that the formation of a cultural area has a strong natural and geographical background. We can see from this picture that China’s current territory is influenced by many natural and geographical factors. For example, the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is located on the first step, with an altitude of more than 3,000 meters, forming the Tubo-Qinghai-Tibet Plateau Cultural Area. The Yellow River Basin involves the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. As the source of the Three Rivers originates from the plateau, while the Yellow River and the Yangtze River come from the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, it is impossible for the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau to be separated from this basin. It functions as a basin and is a historical drive, and it’s very convenient to go up and down the river. Second, the Yellow River slowly enters the Mongolian Plateau. Why is Ordos in the south of the Hetao? Naturally, because it’s a nomadic culture, and, affected by the rainfall below 400 mm, it can only grow grass and feed cattle and sheep. However, the Yellow River has closely integrated nomadic culture and farming culture with its historical role, which is how some cities in the desert are governed. Therefore, the Yellow River connects the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, the Qilian Mountains, the Mongolian Plateau, and the Loess Plateau, forming the impact plain of the Huainan and Huaibei, Jianghuai Plain and Hebei. That’s what we mean by physical geography that makes these areas inseparable and different.

From the historical perspective, each region in China has its own history. However, since Yu, Xia, Shang, Zhou, Eastern Zhou, and Western Zhou era, many wars broke out along the Yellow River Basin. Later, Qin unified the six states and formed the area marked in darker color on the map. Extending wider, we will find that the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River, the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River and the lower reaches of the Pearl River are integral, with it as the center, and are basically on the same line of agricultural civilization. It, together with the north and northwest areas, has formed a collision and fusion of animal husbandry culture. This marks a change in tourism from the point of origin. We can also find the position of the Yellow River culture, as the place marked in the darkest color basically represents the north of the Yangtze River, and then both sides of the Yellow River. That’s why the Yellow River is called the mother river of China.

Whether the Yellow River National Culture Park or other grand river civilizations, we will find that we are faced with the need for linear and regional unity from government to academic research, tourism product development, and tourism enterprise mining. That is to say, the integrity and difference must be understood at the philosophical level, but differences must be allowed to form a historical category.

So, what we need to do in this process is to understand such a historical process, the geographical and historical reasons why it forms the integrity of the cultural region, and we need to identify the regional differences on such a basis, and develop different tourism programs. Currently, though it’s a linear cultural heritage, it has the most powerful internal cohesion, that is, the Yellow River culture itself.

Today we meet in an ancient village in Linfen, which is very agrestic, but we are talking about a global topic, because any global topic is supported by specific small villages. This is the mystery and greatness of great civilization. As a geographer, I need to consider the regionality, integrity and difference of civilizations, and then understand the development of tourism products and tourism experience on that basis. I believe that the Yellow River civilization not only represents an important part of the human civilization system, but also provides a good communication platform and a practical experience opportunity for the inheritance of human civilization and the experience of tourism. Thank you.