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Suspended sediment dynamics during the period 1964–1985 are examined along the mainstem of Changjiang (Yangtze River). The period represents a basin condition prior to major changes in land management policy and dam building on the river's mainstem. The downstream sediment dynamics reflect basin geology and topography and channel morphology. Sediment exchange within the mainstem was calculated by the development of reach sediment balances that reveal complex temporal and spatial patterns. There is relatively little sediment exchange in the upper, bedrock-controlled reaches, with systematic increases in the downstream alluvial reaches. Degrading, transfer, and aggrading reaches were identified. Relations between input and output in all reaches were significant but no relation was found between sediment exchange and input/output. Comparison between ‘short-term’ (22 years) and ‘long-term’ (52 years) records demonstrates the importance of the record length in studying the suspended sediment dynamics in a large fluvial system. The longer record yielded better correlation and different trends than the shorter record. Sediment transfer (output/input ratio) changes downstream: the dominance of the upstream contributing area in sustaining the appearance of net degradation through most of the river system highlights the importance of reach length on characterisation of suspended sediment dynamics in large fluvial systems. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.