We review published stratigraphic, archaeological and pedosedimentary evidence in order to reconstruct the history of soil erosion in China. Documentary evidence of climatic and flood events of the Yellow River and modern hydrological and meteorological data are synthesised to analyse the history of past human activity and its effects on soil erosion intensity during four nested periods of time during the Quaternary. The most intensive period of erosion during the Quaternary was in the Holocene. During the Holocene, intervals of intensive soil erosion occurred at 7500–7000 BP, 200 BCE–0 CE, 1000–1600 CE (Christian era) and during the 1930s, 1950s and the later part of the 1960s of the last century. Large-scale human activity including warfare during early Chinese history, population migration, the inner wars in 1930s, the Cultural Revolution and the recent national campaign to aid soil and water conservation are all closely related to the rate of soil erosion on the Loess Plateau and to sediment loads in the Yellow River. Overall, soil erosion during the transition from dry-cool to wet-warm climates was more intense than during wet-warm and cool-dry climatic episodes, but serious accelerated soil erosion has occurred during the last 2,500 years because of man-induced devastation of vegetation and other anthropogenic disturbance of the environment. Modern rates of soil erosion on the Loess Plateau are a combination of both intensive natural and human-induced erosions and are some four times greater than occurred in the geological past. The recent implementation of soil and water conservation measures has decreased sediment load in the Yellow River by 25%.
Keywords: Erosion history - Geo-ecological environment - Human activity - Chinese Loess Plateau