Flooded rice-paddy terraces are carved out of the hills and mountains all over southern China. The water prevents weeds and keeps the plants healthy and crop bountiful. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
China’s expansive and diverse geography has played a key role in shaping the agricultural practices and diets of the Chinese people. The study of agricultural geography (agro-geography) can reveal how various regional cuisines have emerged. As China’s physical and human environment alike undergo dramatic changes, the food and agriculture of Chinese people is likely to change as well.
Within the vast territory China encompasses, agricultural production takes many forms and is an integral industry. Whether it consists of large-scale, state-run soybean farms in the northeast, individual household plots of terraced rice paddies in the mountainous southwest, or vast expanses of grassland in the north and northwest, China’s agro-geography is certainly diverse.
The traditional, most simplistic characterization of China’s agro-geography is found within the ambiguous rice–wheat line that separates the dry northern areas of China from the southern wet regions where rice thrives. In the dry, cold north, sorghum and millet grow alongside soybeans and corn. The climate of areas along the Huang (Yellow) River is suitable for winter wheat. Traditional cuisines and food types have been constructed around these available grain products. For example, dumplings, noodles, and steamed buns made out of wheat flour form the basis of “northern” food, while the combination of dishes of meat or vegetables served with bowls of rice is considered “southern” cuisine. In the south, rice can be double-cropped in a single season due to abundant water and large tracts of cleared paddy land.
Over the past few decades, increased transportation, regional specialization, and agricultural technology have led to the blurring of this rice–wheat line. While rice remains the dominant staple crop in most southern areas, wheat and wheat products are widely available. At the same time, the northeast region of China has dramatically increased its production of short grain japonica rice. This short grain rice can sustain a shorter growing season and higher altitude than indica varieties grown in the south.
Today in China, regions highlight their own agricultural and food specialties as a way to define and distinguish themselves from other areas. For example, Beijing peaches, Shaanxi apples, and Xinjiang grapes are all commodities with regional identities. In addition to commodity fruits, specialty cuisines also claim an identity associated with a region. Although the food types and cuisines available in specific regions continues to diversify with modern transportation and the introduction of large supermarkets, regions—whether they are towns, cities, or provinces—highlight and advertise their specialties.
In his classic work, The Food of China, E. N. Anderson breaks traditional cuisines into the following four loosely-defined categories: the east, the west (or southwest), the far south (Guangzhou—or Canton, as Anderson wrote in 1988), and the north. East China, as defined by Anderson, consists of the lower Yangzi (Chang) Valley and the coasts north and south of it. Eastern cuisine—influenced by the abundance of fish and seafood in the area’s fresh and salt waters, as well as by the renowned vinegar produced in the region—gets its distinctive flavor from combinations of vinegar, oil, sugar, sweet bean paste, and rice ale. Soups and fish sauces are also important components in the cooking of this region (mainly Fujian).
Western China, commonly thought of as southwestern China at the other end of the Yangzi (Chang) River, is known for its spicy (Szechwan) food. Chile pepper, garlic, brown and black pepper, star anise, and five spice are found regularly in dishes in this region. Rich mountain forests in western Sichuan provide bamboo shoots and a variety of mushroom and fungi, which are often cooked with pork, tofu, and a variety of vegetables, usually accompanied by rice. While Chongqing municipality is known for its famous spicy fire pot (hot pot), minority regions in Sichuan, Yunnan, and Guizhou also have abundant local specialties.
The home of southern cooking in China—still popularly called Cantonese by those outside the country—is Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong Province and a major city in mainland China with close ties to Hong Kong. Cantonese cuisine is known to be some of the best in China. Everyday dishes consist of simple boiled shrimp, steamed fish, stir-fried vegetables, clear soup, fried oysters, and boiled chicken. Luxury and gourmet offerings in Guangzhou feature meats uncommonly consumed in the rest of the world: shark fin, dog, cat, snake, turtle, and frog legs. Eating dim sum is a common form of snacking in south China. With its southern, semitropical location, southern China has famous fresh fruits.
The north of China is characterized by its taste for wheat products combined with mutton and other meats. Dumplings (jiaozi) and meat-filled stuffed steamed buns (baozi) are staples of this region. Muslim food from the northwest has made its way to northern China with its kabobs of spicy meat, as well as wheat breads and noodles.
With the introduction of the household responsibility system and a market-based economy, agricultural production has become much more diversified in recent years. At the same time, agro-diversity has reached new regions, and agricultural production has become regionalized and specialized. The recent work of Gregory Veeck et al. (2007) divides China’s agro-diversity into nine distinct terrestrial agricultural regions and provides the most recent data from the nine regions. Veeck breaks down Chinese agriculture into nine regions: the Northeast, Inner Mongolia, East China Plain, the Loess Plateau, the Middle and Lower Reaches of the Yangzi River, the Southwest region, the South China region, the Gansu-Xinjiang region, and the Qinghai-Tibet region.
The northeast of China, generally referred to as Manchuria, includes the three provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning. The land is located primarily on the Songliao Plain and rimmed by mountains to the north, west, and east. As recently as the 1950s, this region was sparsely populated and heavily forested. Today, large portions of wetland and forest have been converted to agricultural land, and the northeast is one of China’s final agricultural frontiers. The region is rapidly gaining the reputation as a major grain producer in China, as most of the farms here are large-scale, state-run, mechanized, and grain-producing. Corn and soybeans have been the main crops grown here, but China’s recent entry into the WTO (World Trade Organization) has forced China to import these products. As a result, and with new technologies developed in China, the northeast has increased its rice production of short grain japonica rice dramatically over the past two decades.
Inner Mongolia is the dry and windswept area to the northwest of Beijing. Its land consists primarily of grasslands used for herding. During the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, officials in this region made efforts to turn grasslands and pasturelands to field crop cultivation. Under Mao Zedong’s “Take Grain as the Key Link” campaign to increase grain production, grassland was converted to grai
n production. The results of this quick and poorly-planned initiative were disastrous, with 391,000 hectares of good pasture turned into desert. Today, more reasonable strategies are being applied to prevent massive environmental degradation, and recent years have brought an increase in the careful implementation of field crop cultivation. Wool and husbandry also act as major industries in this region, and are expected to continue to expand in the future.
The East China Plain includes the drainage basins of the Huang and Hai Rivers and their deltas. At the center of Chinese civilization in the heart of one of China’s most densely populated and productive agricultural regions, the East China Plain is currently facing a severe water shortage problem that is having a negative effect on grain production. Traditionally, land was double-cropped with the production of winter wheat, barley, and rapeseed, with summer crops of peanuts, corn, soybeans, and cotton. More recently, commercial and specialty fruits and vegetables that offer higher prices to farmers have been growing in popularity, as has cotton production.
The Loess Plateau, named for its thick deposits of silt, covers approximately 300,000 square kilometers of land in Gansu, Shanxi, and Shaanxi provinces. Although the loess is highly fertile, deforestation, drought, and sloping land have led to significant erosion in the region. Recent urban and industrial development has accelerated the pace of this erosion. Local governments have invested significant time and money in efforts to stabilize agricultural production of this region. The most recent endeavor has been the promotion of fruit with the growth of apple orchards.
The middle and lower reaches of the Yangzi River are at the agricultural core of China. The mild climate and high rainfall throughout this region allow for double cropping of winter wheat and barley, rapeseed, and rice. In terms of grain production, the region boasts the highest annual mean yields throughout the country. However, industrialization and the pressures of development have forced many rural areas of agricultural production to be converted to industrialization. In recent years, vegetable, flower, and fruit production has increased dramatically, with ample opportunity for processing and exporting.
Southwest China includes two major geographical features: the highly fertile cropland of the Sichuan Basin and the high, rocky, sloped mountain terrain of the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau. The Sichuan Basin produces much of China’s grain, including rice and corn, with high swine production rates as well. Its inland location allows this basin to avoid price influences from imported grain. In contrast, the rugged karst topography of the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau has a poorly developed agricultural sector. The region lacks sufficient roads to transport agricultural products. Even with high production of citrus and other fruits, transportation is a problem and the industry is facing competition from southern China and Southeast Asia. Yunnan Province is China’s major source of tobacco.
The South China Region consists primarily of low mountains and hills. It encompasses the major (fertile) alluvial plains from the Pearl River Delta and the West River. Its southern, moist location allows for double cropping of rice and, on occasion, a season of winter wheat. Mulberry production for silkworms and tea remain important non-grain crops. Sugarcane aqua-cultural products, tropical fruits, and spices are also major products of the region. The Pearl River Delta was, for centuries, one of China’s most important and productive agricultural regions. Today, however, due to its close proximity to Hong Kong, the region’s agricultural land is threatened by encroaching industrial and urban development.
The Gansu-Xinjiang region makes up one of the largest, driest, and least-populated areas of China. On average, it receives less than 200 millimeters of rainfall per year. Irrigation systems are fed through snowmelt of the surrounding mountain chains. In recent years, grapes, melons, dates, and other specialty crops have gained popularity throughout China. More recently, the introduction of irrigated cotton and sugar beets has presented competition with these products. Traditional practices of herding sheep, goats, camels, and horses continue in remote and nonirrigated areas. New drought-resistant grain crops have been introduced.
The Qinghai-Tibet region is on the high Tibetan Plateau (over 4,500 meters in height). The region is cold and dry. Much of the food purchased here has been brought from other areas of China. Sheep, yak, and horse herding remain an integral part of the economy. In valleys, wheat and barley are grown, as are potatoes and other vegetables. Greenhouses have been built in efforts to improve local food supplies, but in general, this region lacks fresh fruit and vegetables.
As China dives deeper into the twenty-first century, its agricultural production relies upon a variety of social and environmental issues. The opportunities and challenges of these issues can be understood primarily through the following four categories: water and other resource issues, industrial and urban development, farming as a livelihood, and the impact of international trade.
Water issues are a large problem in China. Climatic conditions in China vary from dry deserts in the north, to mountains in the west, to wet paddy fields in the south. Access to water has been a key factor in the growth of agricultural systems. For thousands of years Chinese leaders have manipulated water through complex irrigation systems to ensure agricultural growth. With the Three Gorges Dam and proposed South–North Water Transfer Project, the state continues to control the flow of water. As parts of north China face droughts, soil erosion, and desertification, southern China faces devastating floods. The technological solutions have ecological and social implications that many believe the government has not effectively considered before starting the projects. As the government relies on regions of China for food production, access to water is a challenge that must be addressed.
A continuous theme that has come up in the discussion of regional variations in agriculture is the impending industrial development in certain regions of China. For example, the southeast of China boasts optimal land, soil, and climate for multiple grain crops within a single season. But this region is also China’s most rapidly growing industrial region. Hectares of agricultural land are converted to industry and suburban residential development. As a result, local governments in regions not known for optimum growing conditions are advocating the development of crop production. Having learned from mistakes of pushing the land to produce too much under Mao, these programs rely on scientific advice and technology.
Farming as a livelihood has always been of particular concern to the Chinese government. Recently, as economic reforms have favored urban residents, farmers have begun to show their distrust of and uncertainty about the government through protests and other forms of discontent. As a result, the government has instituted a series of plans meant to bring peace to the Chinese countryside through constructing a “harmonious society.” This policy, associated with the Hu Jintao leadership, acknowledges the new problems that have emerged with China’s economic growth. Tensions are rising due to increased inequality, environmental damage, health problems, and attempts to break the social pension plan known as the “iron rice bowl” that began in the Mao era. The new policy seeks to address these issues in the rural countryside.
Increased international trade resulting from China’s entry into the WTO is expected to have long
-term effects. After a long struggle with the United States, China finally joined the WTO in 2001. The immediate effects of the union can be seen in the price decreases of domestic soybeans and corn. At the same time, prices of California produce such as garlic and fruit have declined as a result of the growth of Chinese exports. It is expected that similar economic issues will arise in the future as the path China takes in agricultural trade becomes more paved. Different regions in China may have to take advantage of new demands, resulting in changing social and ecological conditions.
Over the past century, changes in food production and consumption in China have affected regional specialized cuisines. However, as a result of the introduction of new agricultural products, regions are recognizing the threat of losing traditional cuisines and are marketing and promoting the agricultural and culinary specialties of their area through local restaurants or tourism industries. As regions promote certain foods and products, agricultural production has become regionalized and specialized in recent years. While grain production continues to be encouraged by the state, it is no longer the case that all farmers must produce grain. A variety of social and ecological conditions both inhibits and encourages the development of new crop specializations. It appears as though government officials and researchers are much more careful about how to implement these programs. With the growth of supermarkets, increased transportation, and interaction with the global economy, food and agriculture in China will continue to shift spatial locations.
Anderson, E. N. (1988). The food of China. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Bray, F. (1986). The rice economies: Technology and development in Asian societies. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Chang, K. C. (Ed.). (1977). Food in Chinese culture: Anthropological and historical perspectives. New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press.
Leppman, E. (2005). Changing Iron Rice Bowl: Economic development and diet in China. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.
Smil, V. (2004). China’s past, China’s future: Energy, food, environment. New York: Routledge Curzon.
Veeck, G., Pannell, C. W., Smith, C. J., & Huang, Youqin. (2007). China’s geography: Globalization and the dynamics of political, economic and social change. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Wu, David, & Tan, Chee-beng. (Eds.). (2001). Changing Chinese foodways in Asia. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press.
Source: Zader, Amy. (2009). Agro-geography. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 40–45. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
In the Yarlung Valley, Tibetan farmers throw barley grain into the air to separate it from the chaff. The brief growing season and meager precipitation limit potential crop choice. Barley is most congenial to these extreme conditions, and therefore is the most widely used grain in Tibet. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
Beijing supermarkets, like those in all modern cities, carry year-round a fine selection of fruit and vegetables from all over the world. This store, the Carrefour in Beijing, is one of a French supermarket chain that has become widely known in China. PHOTO BY TOM CHRISTENSEN
Juicy pomegranates for sale at a market, split open to reveal their ruby seeds. Pomegranates have historically been a popular fruit in China. PHOTO BY WANG YING.
Agro-geography (Nóngyè dìl? ????)|Nóngyè dìl? ???? (Agro-geography)