The Loess Plateau (simplified Chinese: 黄土高原; traditional Chinese: 黃土高原; pinyin: Huángtǔ Gāoyuán), also known as the Huangtu Plateau, is a plateau that covers an area of some 640,000 km² in the upper and middle reaches of China's Yellow River. Loess is the name for the silty sediment that has been deposited by wind storms on the plateau over the ages. Loess is a highly erosion-prone soil that is susceptible to the forces of wind and water; in fact, the soil of this region has been called the "most highly erodible soil on earth".1 The Loess Plateau and its dusty soil cover almost all of Shanxi and Shaanxi provinces, as well as parts of Gansu province, the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.
In ancient times, some of the earliest recorded mention of this area is from travel along the Northern Silk Road.2 In the last part of the first millennium BC, after the explorer Zhang Qian's return to China, the Han Dynasty pushed the Xiongnu back and trade and cultural exchange flourished along the Northern Silk Road through the southern Loess Plateau. Goods moving by caravan to the west included gold, rubies, jade, textiles, coral, ivory and art works. In the opposite direction moved bronze weapons, furs, ceramics and cinnamon bark.3
Historically the Loess Plateau has provided simple yet insulated shelter from the cold winter and hot summer in the region, as homes called yaodong (窰洞) were often carved into the loess soil; in medieval times of China people stayed here to grow rice; some families still live in this kind of shelter in modern times. During the Shaanxi Earthquake, nearly a million people were killed as a result of collapsing loess caves. The yaodongs that are best known to the world are perhaps those in Yan'an where the Communist Party led by Mao Zedong headquartered in 1930s. When Edgar Snow, the author of Red Star Over China, visited Mao and his party, he lived in a yaodong.
The plateau generally has a semi-arid climate (Köppen), with extensive monsoonal influence. Winters are cold and dry, while summers are very warm and in many places hot. Rainfall tends to be heavily concentrated in summer, and the area receives extensive amounts of sunshine.
The Loess Plateau was highly fertile and easy to farm in ancient times, which contributed to the development of early Chinese civilization around the Loess Plateau.
In 1994 an effort known as the Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabilitation Project was launched to mitigate desertification; limited success has resulted for a portion of the Loess Plateau, where now trees and grass have turned green. A major focus of the Project was to try to guide the people living in the Plateau to use more sustainable ways of living such as keeping goats in pens not being allowed to roam free and erode the soft silty soil found in the plateau. Many trees were planted and nature is now reclaiming a portion of the Loess Plateau. Results have reduced the massive silt loads to the Yellow River by about one percent.4
- John M. Laflen, Soil Erosion and Dryland Farming, 2000, CRC Press, 736 pages ISBN 0-8493-2349-5
- Susan Whitfield, Life Along the Silk Road, 2001, University of California Press, 253 pages ISBN 0-520-23214-3
- C.Michael Hogan,Silk Road, North China, The Megalithic Portal, ed. A. Burnham
- World Bank, Reengaging in Agricultural Water Management: Challenges and Options, 2006, 218 pages ISBN 0-8213-6498-7
- People's Daily Online: Loess Plateau Rehabilitation Project
- Soils and Sustainability: Tales from the Loess Plateau
- WorldBank: Restoring China's Loess Plateau
- Hope in a Changing Climate - Documentary featuring the restoration of the Loess Plateau