A Poetic Photo Essay On The Death Of China’s Yellow River

Chengdu photographer Zhang Kechun captures both the beauty and the devastation of China’s second longest river.

The Yellow River in China has the dubious distinction of being called both “the cradle of Chinese civilization” and “China’s Sorrow.” Its basin was the birthplace of northern Chinese society and the most prosperous land in early Chinese history. But frequently, floods ravage the region (violent floods in 1931 alone killed an estimated 1 million to 2 million people). Today, the Yellow River is the source of a new sorrow: environmental degradation. China is draining the river at a furious clip to feed its army of farms, factories, and cities. The little water that remains is often toxic.


Chengdu artist Zhang Kechun captures these paradoxes neatly in a set of haunting photographs snapped from the banks of the Yellow River. Inspired by the book Rivers of the North by Zhang Chengzhi, he decided to walk along the water, his large-format camera in hand, to “praise its original noble color, its legendary past and present, and its inexhaustibility of drifting from place to place.” What he found instead was deeply unsettling. “The river which once was full of legends had gone and disappeared,” he says.

His photographs summon that aching sense of squandered beauty. Unlovely factories and high-rises and half-completed bridges rise over the river’s barren golden shores, suggesting a battle between man and nature, with nature on the losing side. But it’s not quite that simple. Low horizon lines give a good chunk of the compositional real estate to the sky, which is covered, in nearly every instance, in a mysterious gray haze. Whatever the substance of the haze–mist? smog?–it injects each photograph with an occult quality that ventures unmistakably into the realm of foreboding. Suddenly, the river isn’t a hapless victim anymore, but a sorceress, who, emboldened by her own magic, could rise up at any moment and sweep everything away.

[Images courtesy of Zhang Kechun]

About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D.