The Great Floods of 1931 at Gaoyou

By Steve Harnsberger

This page last updated 09/25/07

August 26, 1931 - The Floods Come

1931 Floods Slideshow

Lingbergh Photo of a flooded Gaoyou Gaoyou Grand Canal Flood of 1931 – Gaoyou Lake and the “Dang Jun Lou Break” Charles Lindbergh Photo taken 9-21-31. Click for larger picture.

Forgotten China Flood of 1931 – The Most Devastating Flood of the 20th century,

To this day, the China flood of 1931 is regarded as the most devastating water-related disaster anywhere in the 20th century, perhaps ever. During the flood, over 140,000 Chinese drowned, 3.7 million were killed in the 9 months that followed and not less than 70,000 square miles flooded, often over 10-15 feet deep for periods of 3 -6 months. The flood had begun with record summer rainstorms all across China. By August, all hell broke loose as China’s 3 primary rivers, the Yangtze, the Hwang and the Hwai, each massively overflowed their banks, surpassing all previous flood levels. The Yangtze alone would flood to record levels for over a month and a half, starting from Chongqing Aug. 6th, to Hankou Aug. 19th, down to Nanjing on Sept. 16th, covering over 900 miles long averaging 40 miles wide.

Dike Break at Gaoyou

High Velocity Flow, Lake Waters Rip through the Gaoyou Dike Big Break at Dang Jun Lou (Photo Nanjing Archives).

The Huai river flood to the north was equal or greater in magnitude. One one thinks of a conventional flood, it comes and it goes. Not so this flood, it came and receded very slowly waters languished on the land for 3-6 months. The floods impact grew month by month as winter approached and there was little food or shelter. In total, it affected over 50,000,000 people leaving a year long trail of death, starvation and disease. The 1931 flood killed 15 times the number of people lost in the Indonesian tsunamis of December 2004, and yet scarcely a word has been written of it. History focused instead on other disasters that year. China’s attention was on a civil war between the Communists and Nationalists; the Japanese were invading in the North, while the world was deep into the Great Depression.

The Grand Canal Levee Breaks of 1931 at Gaoyou

Gaoyou Flood Map Jiangsu Flood Map – Gaoyou Lake is at the center - # 14 flood district. Green area to the East is the 10,000 sq. mi. flood area, photographed by Lindbergh

The city of Gaoyou, in Northern Jiangsu Province, was one of the epicenters of the tragedy. It lies about 125 miles northwest of Shanghai and the Yangtze, in the lower Hwai river valley. On August 26, 1931, a severe typhoon blew in upon Gaoyou Lake which was already swollen to record levels. The winds stirred up ocean-like waves that pounded the earthen Grand Canal levees. Lake Gaoyou is the 6th largest in China, and it sits downstream of Hongtze Lake, which is even larger. Gaoyou Lake surged precariously above the neighboring cities, situated below grade and to the East. In the early morning hours, this above-grade, “suspended lake” gouged six enormous holes in the levees; the largest break, called Dang Jun Lou, and was 550 meters wide (see Lindbergh photos).

The backed up pressure of 2 of the largest Lakes in China was unleashed and poured down its fury upon the city, the Province and its people.

It is estimated that in Gaoyou, 10,000 people died that morning, but no one would really ever know. Dead bodies were everywhere, the papers said like floating fish passing in the river.  A total of 77,000 would die in the ensuing months from disease and starvation in the Gaoyou area alone.

Houseboat picture Harnsberger Houseboat Photo of the 10,000 sq. mile endless sea upon the fertile Jiangsu plains
Gaoyou Flood Gaoyou Flood. August 26, 1931 Nanjing Archives Photo "Dead bodies were floating like fish passing in the river”

There were over 20 additional levee breaks on the Grand Canal levees that August, and across China, nearly 1000 levees broke; resulting in 5000 miles of levees in need of repair. The huge holes in the Gaoyou dikes were carved nearly 20 feet below the Lake and Grand Canal level. In Gaoyou, it was a single break that brought on unprecedented destruction to an entire province, a flooded territory so broad that Anne Lindbergh later described it as if Lake Michigan had been dropped on the entire state of New York.

The late September aerial survey photos taken by Charles Lindbergh showed Gaoyou Lake completely flooding through the dike breaks a full month later. It would take the missionary Harnsberger, engineer Wang Shuxiang and 20,000 workers nearly nine months to seal the major break at Dang Jun Lou. Over 8,000 square miles in North Jiangsu remained inundated in flood water as late as December, 1931, over 3 months later.

Five million farmers were forced from the land, and the current season’s rice and the next winter’s wheat crop were a complete loss, resulting in massive starvation. But Gaoyou would also become the site of a remarkable reconstruction project instigated by three men who inspired the entire province of Jiangsu.

Next: The Reconstruction >