Introduction to China - Geographical Regions of China
China's total area covers nearly 10 million square kilometers. Two-thirds of the country is high plateaus and mountains with populations living at altitudes from 1,000 to 4,000 meters above sea level and high mountain areas reaching 7,000 to 8,000 meters. Climate varies from subarctic to subtropical. The Han majority is densely settled in the eastern half of the country—also called "inner China"—along the coastal areas, on the great plains, in the river valleys, and in the foothills. Most Han live in temperate zones, at elevations well below 1,000 meters. The minorities are more sparsely distributed over the remaining 55 percent of the country lying to the north, southwest, and west of the main areas of Han settlement. In the mountainous provinces of Yunnan and Guizhou, where Han and other ethnic groups have coexisted for several centuries, they are separated by elevation, with the minorities living at higher altitudes.
Inner China is suited to intensive, settled agriculture with an emphasis on grain crops supplemented by vegetables and fruits. Irrigation systems have long been used to lessen the dependence on rainfall and the damage from floods and drought. These problems have been further reduced in recent decades. Since 1949, the government has completed numerous hydraulic projects along the lower Huang He (Yellow River) and the Huai and Hai rivers. Major projects are planned for the Yangzi (Chang Jiang) in coming decades. Additionally, introduction of chemical fertilizers and insecticides has increased productivity even as drainage projects and hillside terracing have opened up additional land. Conversely, some agricultural land has been lost because of salinization and erosion.
There are eight major geographical regions, which overlap somewhat with cultural or subcultural (regional culture) areas.
- The Northeast. This area, formerly called Manchuria and now known as Dongbei, is composed of the three provinces of Jilin, Liaoning, and Heilongjiang, as well as eastern Inner Mongolia. In the north, there are vast areas of coniferous forest or mixed coniferous/broad-leaved forest, a rich source of timber. To the south there is large-scale mechanized farming on the plains and on reclaimed lands. Most of China's state farms are located here. Dongbei has long, cold winters and heavy rainfall during the short, hot summers. Ample supply of water supports summer crops of wheat, maize, potatoes, sugar beets, soybeans, and gaoliang (sorghum). Some areas are warm enough to raise rice and cotton. Dongbei's major source of wealth is industrial. Since 1949, Dongbei has rapidly developed as a key industrial area, providing oil and petrochemical products, coal, iron and steel, motor vehicles, and a variety of consumer products. Rapid population growth is mainly the result of heavy Han immigration from north China, beginning in the nineteenth century and accelerating after 1949. Indigenous national minorities include Manchu, Koreans, Ewenki, Oroqen, Mongols, and Hui. They now constitute less than 8 percent of the population.
- North China Plain. This region of inner China includes the provinces of Henan, Hebei, Shandong, and the northern parts of Jiangsu and Anhui. Moving north to south, the area has from 190 to 250 frost-free days, light snowfall, and hot (30° C), rainy summers. Rich deposits from the Huang He and its tributaries have enriched and built up the soils in many areas. Flooding and drought continue to be problems because of erratic rainfall. Agriculture is intensive: forests and grasslands have long since given way to the plow and some 40 percent of the total area is under cultivation. About 30 percent of the Chinese population live here, most engaged in agriculture. Average population density is 400 persons per square kilometer, mainly concentrated in nucleated villages of fifty to several hundred households, surrounded by the fields. The main staple crops are spring wheat, corn, millet, and sweet potatoes harvested in the late summer and autumn. Tobacco and cotton are important cash crops. Some of the surplus rural labor has been absorbed into the industrial and commercial growth of major cities—such as Beijing, Jinan, Loyang, Shijiazhuang, and Tianjin—or industrial centers such as Shandong's Shengli oil fields and the coastal development zones.
- Loess Plateau. Northwest of the plain is loess land and the steppe region, covering the provinces of Shanxi, Shaanxi, and heavily industrialized eastern Gansu. One of the important centers of Chinese civilization in the past, the Loess Plateau remains overwhelmingly Han in ethnic composition. The heavy deposits of windblown loess soils are fertile but fragile, prone to erosion, gullying, and landslides. Much of the land is not arable. Rainfall is unpredictable. Winter temperatures fall below freezing and the summers are hot. Agriculture is most successful along the Huang He and the Wei and Fen rivers. Wheat, millet, and maize are the main crops and some double cropping is possible. The rural areas support a lighter population density than the North China Plain, and the general standard of living is markedly lower except in the southeast sector. In the northwest and beyond the Great Wall, the desert begins. This region was formerly a part of the Silk Road leading to Central Asia. Since 1949 mining and industry have become of key importance.
- Northwest. Geographically and culturally part of Central Asia, this region includes western Gansu, Xinjiang, Ningxia, and part of Inner Mongolia. The topography is highly varied and includes large stretches of arid desert and wasteland, fertile oases, grassy plateaus, and high mountain ranges. The Altai range rises to more than 4,000 meters above sea level and the Tianshan to 7,435. The climate is generally dry, averaging only 10 centimeters of rain yearly in some areas. Population is sparse in the grassland and in mountain pastureland; in many places it is less than one person per square kilometer. The region is China's main source of sheep, cattle, horses, and camels. Some areas are suited to grain and cotton production. There are relatively few cities: the largest are Urumqi, and Kashgar, which were stages on the old Silk Road. A large percentage of the population belong to minority nationalities: Uigurs, Hui, Kazak, Kirgiz, Mongols, Tajiks, and others. In Xinjiang, over half the population belongs to Turkic-speaking minority groups, and almost one-third of Ningxia's population are Hui. Because of heavy Han immigration, Mongols are now no more than 15 percent of the population of the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region.
- Lower Yangzi/South Central China. Dominated today by Wuhan and Shanghai, major industrial and commercial cities, this area had important urban centers as well as an affluent and productive agricultural sector even before the nineteenth-century rise of the treaty ports. It includes suburban Shanghai Municipality, the provinces of Jiangsu, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangxi, and parts of Anhui and Zhejiang provinces. With its lakes and numerous navigable waterways, it is one of the richest and most densely populated areas of inner China. The climate is mild, with 240 frost-free days, and rainfall is ample. Double cropping is common, with alternation of winter wheat and summer rice. Cotton, silk, pigs and poultry, vegetable farming, ocean and freshwater fisheries, and rural industries have for generations supplemented peasant income. In recent years the expansion of towns and cities, exploitation of rich natural resources, and a thriving free-market system have made this the leading area in industrial and agricultural output.
- Maritime South. This large region includes southern Zhejiang, Fujian, Guangdong, Hainan, and Guangxi provinces, and it probably should be extended to cover Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan. It is linguistically very diverse, and in some sections there are large minority populations—particularly in Guangxi, where minority peoples account for almost 40 percent of the total. Some scholars would divide the region into a northern tea-and-rice area and a southern double-cropping rice area. However, cropping, population density, urbanization, and communications depend on altitude: much of the region is mountainous, and temperatures and soil quality vary. Around the Pearl River Delta, near Guangzhou, which enjoys one of the highest living standards in China, population density reaches 2,000 persons per square kilometer, whereas in the uplands it is closer to 200 persons per square kilometer. Yao, She, Li, and Zhuang generally live in uplands areas unsuitable for Han methods of farming. It is regarded as one of China's richest regions today: along the coast Special Economic Zones and overseas investments have revitalized the modern sector of the economy and led to dramatic changes in living standards and life-styles.
- Southwest. The provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, and Guizhou together with western Hunan are ethnically diverse, although Han Chinese are clearly in the majority. In Yunnan and Guizhou the minority populations are 32 percent and 26 percent, respectively, though they are under 4 percent in Sichuan. At least twenty-six different minority groups can be found in Yunnan. Among the largest are the Miao, Yi, Dong, Tujia, Hani, Dai, Tibetans, and Lisu. Much of the area was formerly part of the Nanzhao Kingdom. Until recent times, several important urban centers were predominantly populated by non-Han peoples—for example, Dali and Lijiang in Yunnan. The climate generally ranges from cool temperate to tropical, depending on elevation and latitude. Much of the area is rugged mountains and plateaus, which rise westward toward Tibet. It is mainly minority groups who inhabit the mountains and high plateaus above 1,200 meters. Han populations are concentrated on the plains and at lower altitudes near sources of water for irrigation. However, irrigation farming and wet-rice agriculture are also found among some of the minorities, particularly the Dai, Bai, and Naxi. In recent years, cash crops have been encouraged by the state, particularly tobacco, rubber, sugar, tea, coffee, and tropical fruits in the most southern areas. Until the 1950s, slash-and-burn agriculture was practiced in the uplands, where the population depended on oats, buckwheat, potatoes, maize, and other "rough" grains supplemented by hunting and forest gathering. Northern Yunnan has become a major forestry area. Diminishing tracts of mountain pasture in northern Yunnan and eastern Sichuan are still utilized by Yi and Miao pastoralists. Despite the existence of rich natural resources, road and rail transportation and telecommunications remain underdeveloped over most of this region. Only the Sichuan Basin, highly industrialized, rich in energy sources and mineral resources, and linked by rail and river to the Yangzi, matches inner China's productivity and wealth. There is a wide gap in living standards between Sichuan and the rest of the region and between the Han and the other nationalities within the region.
- Tibetan Plateaus. Tibet, Qinghai, and western Sichuan lie mostly above 3,000 meters. Barley, buckwheat, and some wheat are grown in the southeastern valleys, while pastoralism (raising yaks, sheep, goats, and horses) is widespread in Qinghai and western Tibet. Traditional trade routes from Tibet to Nepal and India, closed in 1949, have only recently been reopened. Rich mineral deposits are only beginning to be discovered and exploited. Poor communication routes to inner China have helped to make this the poorest region in the country. Population density is low, there are few urban centers, and most of the population is non-Han. Besides the large Tibetan population, the minorities include Hui, Lhoba, Moinba, Qiang, Sala (Salar), and Tu.