I am not a student of the Chinese language
(at the moment). However, this little fact, which I learned in a geography
class long ago, occasionally keeps me awake at night.
Chinese indeed has three different words for "river". These are:
You will also see some rivers in Fukien
Province (and on Taiwan
) labeled as Qi
(Ch'i) but this is definitely a linguistic difference.
There does not appear to be a rule for assigning one label to a particular
river. There are large, medium and small "Jiang"'s, "He"'s, and "Shui"'s
all over China. Now it appears that "He" is concentrated in Northern
China, "Jiang" in Southern China, and "Shui" in Central China, but there are
notable exceptions. For instance:
I have an atlas
but cannot find any resources that explain why there
are three different words. I can only speculate that they are the
remnants of some long-forgotten cultural intermingling.
A final puzzlement: I wonder which of the three words has been
assigned to individual rivers outside China. It would be really interesting
to know whether the Mississippi River is a "He", a "Jiang" or a "Shui".