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According to the dictionary, 江 and 河 both mean "river", but they seem to be used differently.

Am I right in assuming that 长河是中国最长的江 is wrong (even if we assume that there is a river called 长河)? Is there a semantic difference?

  • 2
    In Northern China, rivers are usually called 河 while in Southern China 江, owing to etymological reason. Besides, in northern China, 江 usually refers to wider rivers while 河 narrower rivers.
    – user58955
    Commented Sep 13, 2014 at 23:19

5 Answers 5

  1. 江 is mostly used in the South; 河 is mostly used in the North. There are exceptions, such as 黑龙江, 浏阳河.

  2. Scale. 江 is exclusively for mighty rivers; 河 can be used for both large and small rivers.

  3. All foreign rivers are named with 河.

  4. There is no fundamental differences between 河 and 江.

  5. 江 is used for rivers whose banks are steep cliffs; 河 is used for rivers with beaches.

  6. In some classic text, 江 refers to Yangtze river; 河 refers to Yellow River; the other rivers are named with 水, e.g. 渭水

Source: http://baike.baidu.com/subview/20655/8126542.htm#2

  • 1
    I only wish I was good enough to read that source properly... :) Commented Sep 14, 2014 at 15:42
  • You can ignore the source. I cited the source to borrow some authority, 'cause I ain't nobody. :) Commented Sep 14, 2014 at 16:04
  • I know, I was just thinking out loud how nice it would be if I could do that... so jealous :) Commented Sep 15, 2014 at 11:12

Yes, they both mean river. But only refers to extremely large rivers while can be any kind.

There are more than 2000 main rivers in China, only a handful of them are called with .

For example, 长江, 黑龙江.

黄河 is the second longest river in China, followed by 长江. Note the here is referring to an extremely large river.

You can also use in sentence like


There's a small river outside my house.


Basically they can use as a unit of scale. From biggest to smallest 洋>海>江>河>湖>湾>溪

江(Jiang) basically bigger river):大河的通称

@George Chen's answer is roughly correct, but not completely accurate.

To fully answer this question, it would be interesting to know the etymology of the word '江'(jiāng in Standard Mandarin) and the word '河' (hé in Standard Mandarin) respectively.

In Old Chinese, the character 河 is pronounced as 'gaal', while the word '江' is pronounced as 'kroong'. It is speculated that 'gaal' is a Sino-Tibetan word, while 'kroong' is a loan word from Mon-Khmer languages. In ancient times, southern China was inhabited by Mon-Khmer speaking peoples, while northern China was inhabited mostly by Sinitic language speakers.

So, mostly rivers in the South are called '江', while rivers in the north are called '河'. However, it should be noted that rivers in North East China are mostly called '江'. This is due to the influence of Korean languages.

Most foreign rivers are called 河, with a significant exception: rivers in the Korean Peninsula are called 江:大同江、汉江, etc, as rivers in the North East.


In ancient China, “河” only means the Yellow River(黄河) while “江” only means the Yangtze River(长江), and the other rivers in our modern meanings are called Water (水).

But as time goes, we are used to call any rivers "河" except the rivers which has been named "江" in history, such as"长江"、"黑龙江"、"澜沧江".

Almost all the river in other countries are called “河” just because Chinese didn't know their existence in the past, such as Amazon River("亚马孙河")、Mississippi River("密西西比河").

Simply, you can just understand it in the following way: 1. "河" is now a standard expression usage for the river. 2. "江" is just used for some rivers because of the historical reason.

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