GAO Boyang and Unryu SUGANUMA

Traversing the Taklamakan Desert in Gansu Province. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

As one of the world’s longest and oldest civilizations—and the world’s most populous nation, for now—China contributed to the developing study of geography as early as the fifth century BCE. With varied terrains and climates, mighty rivers, rich natural resources, and diverse ethnic and religious groups, China continues to be a land worthy of geographical scrutiny.

China, one of the oldest continuous civilizations on Earth, consists of states and cultures dating back more than six millennia. The term China, which can be translated literally into English as “Middle Kingdom,” referred in ancient times to the Huang (Yellow) River valley. Ancient China introduced the world to a written language system that is still in use and as well to the “Four Great Inventions”: paper, printing, gunpowder, and the compass. As early as the fifth century BCE, the classic Yugong, Tribute of Yu, subdivided Chinese territory into regions, with a summary of mountains, rivers, lakes, swamps, and soils as well as major agricultural products and economic features for each region, and thus geography became one of the oldest traditional studies in China. Gradually the name China evolved to encompass the lands under the direct imperial rule of its dynasties.

As the result of the last Chinese Civil War (1945–1949), two political states now use the name China: the People’s Republic of China (PRC), commonly known as “mainland China” (the focus of this study), and the Republic of China (ROC), which comprises the island of Taiwan and its surrounding islands.

Physical Geography

China (PRC) is the world’s most populous country with more than 1.33 billion people—20.8 percent of the Earth’s population. Occupying most of East Asia, it is the world’s fourth-largest country (after Russia, Canada, and the United States) with an area of about 9,600,000 square kilometers (or 3,705,405 square miles). According to official data posted on the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, the Chinese territory measures some 5,500 kilometers from north to south, stretching from the center of the Heilongjiang River north of the town of Mohe (latitude 53°30? N) to the Zengmu Reef at the southernmost tip of the Nansha Islands (latitude 4° N). From west to east, the nation extends about 5,200 km from the Pamirs (longitude 73°40? E) to the confluence of Heilongjiang and Wusuli rivers (longitude 135°05? E), with a time difference of over four hours. However, China has only one official time zone—Beijing time.

China’s land boundaries total 22,143 kilometers divided as such among the following countries: Afghanistan, 76; Bhutan, 470; Myanmar (Burma), 2,185; India, 3,380; Kazakhstan, 1,533; North Korea, 1,416; Kyrgyzstan, 858; Laos, 423; Mongolia, 4,673; Nepal, 1,236; Pakistan, 523; Russia (northeast). 3,605; Russia (northwest), 40; Tajikistan, 414; Vietnam, 1,281—and its two Special Regional Administrations (SARS) Hong Kong, 30; and Macao, 0.34.

Cultivation and Mineral Resources

Even though China is one of the largest lands in the world, it has only about 94.97 million ha of cultivated land, mainly in the Northeast Plain, the North China Plain, the Middle-Lower Yangzi Plain, the Pearl River Delta Plain, and the Sichuan Basin. Because China has a large population, the area of cultivated land per capita is small, less than 0.08 ha per capita, or only one third of the world’s average.

But mineral resources abound in China; the nation ranks third in the world in total reserves. As of 2000, about 153 different minerals had been confirmed in the Chinese reserves, including energy sources of coal, petroleum, natural gas, and oil shale. China’s coal reserves total 1,007.1 billion tons, mainly distributed in north China, Shanxi, and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

Varied Terrain

The territory of the PRC contains a large variety of landscapes. In the east, along the shores of the Yellow Sea and the East China Sea, lie extensive and densely populated alluvial plains, while grasslands occupy the edges of the Inner Mongolian plateau in the north. To the west, major mountain ranges (the Himalayas), and high plateaus stand out from the more arid landscapes of the Taklamakan and the Gobi Desert. In the South, the land is dominated by hill country and low mountain ranges. The Chinese coastline is about 14,500 kilometers along the East China Sea, Korea Bay, Yellow Sea, and South China Sea. China has more than 1,500 rivers, each draining 1,000 square kilometers or larger areas. More than 2,700 billion cubic meters of water flow along these rivers, 5.8 percent of the world’s total. Principle rivers from west to east include the Yangzi (Chang, central), the Huang (Yellow) River, north-central), the Amur River (northeast), and Pearl River, Mekong River, and Brahmaputra River (south), with most Chinese rivers emptying into the Pacific Ocean. The largest Chinese river, the 6,300-kilometer Yangzi, is the third-longest river in the world, next only to the Nile in northeast Africa and the Amazon in South America, and has a catchment area of 1.809 million square kilometers. The Huang River is 5,464 kilometers with a catchment area of 752,000 square kilometers. But due to economic development for three decades, the Huang no longer flows to the ocean.

China’s geography is highly diverse, with hills, plains, and river deltas in the east, and deserts, high plateaus, and mountains in the west. With a broad area, China’s topography is very complex. Mountains and hilly land take up 65 percent of the total area. There are four main mountain ranges (Himalaya mountain range, Kunlun mountain range, Tanggula mountain range, and Qinling mountain range) that are more than 2,000 meters, and eight mountain peaks (Chomolungma, Godwin Austen, Lhotse, Makalu, Cho Oyu, Gasherbrum, Broad Peak, and Shishapangma) are higher than 8,000 meters above sea level.

China’s terrain descends in four steps from west to east: (1) The top of the four-step “staircase,” often called the “roof of the world,” is the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, with a height averaging more than 4,000 meters above sea level. (2) The second step, with an average elevation of between 1,000 and 2,000 meters, includes the Inner Mongolia, Loess, and Yunnan-Guizhou plateaus, and the Tarim, Junggar, and Sichuan basins. (3) The third step begins at the perimeters of the Greater Hinggan, Taihang, Wushan, and Xuefen mountain ranges and extends eastward to the coast, with an elevation of about 500 to 1,000 meters. (4) The fourth step of the staircase comprises the lands extending to the east and out into the ocean, in a continental shelf. The water here is less than 200 meters deep. The Bohai Sea, East China Sea, Yellow Sea, and South China Sea embrace the east and southeast coast.


China’s climate is equally varied, ranging from tropical in the south (Hainan) to subarctic in the northeast (Manchuria). China lies mainly in the northern temperate zone under the influence of monsoons from September and October to March and April. The monsoons blow from Siberia and the Mongolia Plateau into China and decrease in force as they move southward, causing dry and cold winters in parts of the country and a temperature difference of 40° C between the north and south. In the winter, the temperature in China is 5 to 18° C lower than that in other countries on the same latitude. In
summer, monsoon winds blow into China from the ocean, bringing with them warm and wet currents and rains.

Great differences in climate are found from region to region owing to China’s extensive territory and complex topography. While the northern part of Heilongjiang Province in northeast China has no summer, Hainan Island has a long summer but not winter. The Huaihe River valley features four distinct seasons, and Yuan-Guizhou Plateau is spring-like all the year. Annual precipitation also varies greatly from region to region; it is as high as 1,500 millimeters along the southeastern coast and as low as 50 millimeters along the northwest, particularly the Tarim basin.

Human Geography

Archaeological evidence suggests that the earliest humans in China date to about 2.24 million to 25,000 years ago. In Yunnan Province, “Yuanmou,” lived in Yuanmou, Yunnan approximately 1.7 million years ago. “Peking Man,” who lived in Zhoukoudian to the southwest of modern Beijing, has fossils dating from 300,000 to 550,000 years ago. Peking Man walked upright, made and used simple tools, and knew how to make fire. Humans in China passed from primitive society to slave society in the twentieth century BCE, with the founding of China’s first dynasty. The Xia Dynasty (2100–1766 BCE) and subsequent dynasties, the Shang (1766–1045 BCE) and Western Zhou (1045–771 BCE), saw further development of slave society. This age was followed by the Spring and Autumn (770–446 BCE) and Warring States (475–221 BCE) periods, marking the transition from the slave society to feudal society. China was one of the first countries to develop economic activity. As early as 5,000 to 6,000 years ago, people in the Huang River valley had already started farming and raising livestock. During the Shang dynasty, people learned how to smelt bronze and use iron tools. White pottery and glazed pottery were produced. Silk production was well developed, and the world’s first figured inlaid silk-weaving technique was being used.

Geography Develops as a Study

During the Spring and Autumn and Warring States times, philosophy and other branches of scholarship were thriving, with the representatives of various schools vying with each other in writing books to discuss politics and analyze society. Famous philosophers in this era included Laozi, Confucius, Mencius, and Sun Zi.

In the sixth century BCE the prominent Chinese philosopher Laozi (580–500 BCE) addressed the relationship between humans and nature, asserting that nature is non-human and therefore lacks a sense of will and can be treated objectively. He advised that man’s duty is merely to recognize and utilize nature with his famous saying, “use nature well and no contest.” This idea also represented the thinking of other ancient scholars, such as Mencius.

Most Chinese dynasties were based in the historical heartlands of China, known as China proper; the developing study of geography largely depended on their interest in preserving imperial history. Many dynasties also expanded into peripheral territories like Inner Mongolia, Manchuria, Xinjiang, and Tibet. (China was united by the Qin Dynasty in 221 BCE, possibly accounting for the root of the word China.)

In traditional China, Confucian scholars developed a systematically arranged geographical order that bolstered the imperial ideology—the concept of geography in Chinese history, or Yudi-zhixue, and chronological geography, or Yange Dili—which reached its zenith during the Qing dynasty. Yange Dili, reconstructed historical treatises sponsored by past dynasties, paying special attention to chronological descriptions of changing administrative systems, road networks, and water systems, and to the verification of the locations of key historical events and settlements. Because Yange Dili is based on the history of each Chinese dynasty, some scholars call Yange Dili the last stage of traditional Chinese historical geography.

Modern or scientific geography was not introduced in China from the West until the first two decades of the twentieth century, and it boomed in the 1930s. Scientific geography gave explanations of geographical phenomena rather than bare and tedious descriptions of facts. Among the chief founders of modern geography in China were Chang Xiang-wen (1869–1933), Zhu Kezhen (1890–1974), Ding Wenjiang (1887–1936), Weng Wenhao (1889–1971), Chang G-yun (1901–1985), and Hu Huanyong (1901–1998).


Hundreds of ethnic groups have existed in China throughout its history. The largest ethnic group in China by far is the Han. The Han people make up 91.02 percent of the total population, leaving 8.98 percent for the other ethnicities. Over the last three millennia, many previously distinct ethnic groups in China were assimilated into a Han identity, which over time dramatically expanded the size of the Han population. However, these assimilations were usually incomplete and vestiges of indigenous language and culture often are still retained in different regions of China. According to anofficial report listed on Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the PRC website, fifty-five minority ethnic groups still exist in China. They are (from large to small in terms of population): Zhuang, Manchu, Hui, Miao, Uygur, Yi, Tujia, Mongol, Tibetan, Bouyei, Dong, Yao, Korean, Bai, Hani, Li, Kazak, Dai, She, Lisu, Gelo, Lahu, Dongxiang, Va, Shui, Naxi, Qiang, Tu, Xibe, Mulam, Kirgiz, Daur, Jingpo, Salar, Blang, Maonan, Tajik, Pumi, Achang, Nu, Ewenki, Jing, Deang, Ozbek, Russian, Yugur, Bonan, Moinba, Oroqen, Drung, Tatar, Hezhen, Lhoba, Jino, and Gaoshan.

In traditional China, classical Chinese was the written standard used for thousands of years before the twentieth century and allowed for written communication between speakers of various languages and dialects in China. Vernacular Chinese, or baihua, is the written standard based on the Mandarin dialect first popularized in Ming Dynasty novels and was adopted with significant modifications during the Republic era of the twentieth century as the national vernacular. Today, most languages in China belong to the Sino-Tibetan language family, spoken by twenty-nine ethnicities. The most spoken dialects are Mandarin by over 70 percent of the population. The other major dialects are Wu (Shanghainese), Yue (Cantonese), Min, Xiang, Gan, and Hakka. Non-Sinitic languages spoken widely by ethnic minorities include Zhuang (Thai), Mongolian, Tibetan, Urghur (Turkic), Hmong, and Korean.


China is a multireligious country, its people practicing Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism. Various religions exert different influences on different ethnic groups. For instance, Islam is followed by the Hui, Uygur, Kazak, Kirgiz, Tatar, Dongxiang, Salar, and Bonan nationalities, and Buddhism and Lamaism are followed by the Tibetan, Mongolian, Dai, and Yugur nationalities. Christianity is followed by the Miao, Yao, and Yi nationalities.

Modern Administrative Geography

Top-level political divisions of China have altered as administrations changed, beginning with the founding of Republican China in 1911 and throughout the People’s Republic of China (1949–present). In 2008, PRC administrative geography embraces twenty-three provinces (note: the PRC considers Taiwan the twenty-third province), five autonomous regions, four municipalities, and two special administrative regions, Hong Kong and Macao. Below these top levels are prefectures, subprefectures, departments, commanderies, districts, and counties. Recent divisions also include prefecture-level cities, county-level cities, towns, and townships.

In 2008, China’s extensive national land and maritime boundaries are the source of international disputes with their neighbors. Land boundaries include those with India, Tajikistan, North Korea, and Russia (a section). Maritime boundaries are more complex, including Spratly (Nansha) Islands with Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Brunei; Paracel (Xisha) Islands with Vietnam and Taiwan; and Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands in the East China Sea with Japan and Taiwan. However, the Chinese government claims a total of 5,400 islands dotting China’s vast territorial waters. According to the official website, the largest of these is Taiwan (area 36,000 square kilometers), followed by Hainan (area of 34,000 square kilometer). Diaoyu and Chiwei islands, located to the northeast of Taiwan Island, are China’s easternmost islands. The many islands, islets, reefs, and shoals on the South China Sea, known collectively as the South China Sea Islands, are subdivided into the Dongsha, Xisha, Zhongsha, and Nansha island groups.

The Chinese geography is unique—as the vast land with relatively little cultivated land to its feed 1.33 billion people, and as a rich culture with peoples of diverse ethnic backgrounds and religious.

Further Reading

Black, J. (1997). Maps and History: Constructing Images of the Past. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Elman, B. A. (1983). Geographical research in the Ming-Ch’ing period. Monmenta Serica [Journal of Oriental Studies], 35, 1–18.

Gaubatz, P. R. (1996). Beyond the Great Wall: Urban form and transformation on the Chinese frontiers. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Herman, T. (1959). Group values toward the national space: The case of China. The Geographical Review, 49(2), 164–82.

Hsieh, Chiao-Min. (1959). The status of geography in Communist China. The Geographical Review, 49(4), 535–51.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China. Physical geography. Retrieved August 13, 2008, from

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China. Regional autonomy for minority peoples. Retrieved August 13, 2008, from

Sun Jingzhi. (Ed.) (1988). Economic geography of China. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press.

Waldron, A. (1990). The Great Wall of China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wu Chuanjun. Nailiang, W., Chao, L., Songqiao, Z. (Eds.), (1984). The geography in China. Beijing: Science Press.

Source: Gao, Boyang, & Suganuma, Unryu. (2009). Geography. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 893–898. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Longqingxia Gorge, near Beijing. PHOTO BY TOM CHRISTENSEN.

Cultivated fields in a valley in China. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Geography (Dì l? ??)|Dì l? ?? (Geography)

Download the PDF of this article