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Yangtze River
China is the third largest country in the world, after Russia and Canada. Slightly larger than the United States including Alaska, it covers nearly 9,596,960 square kilometers (3,690,100 square miles). Included in this total are 9,326,410 square kilometers of land and 270,550 square kilometers of inland lakes and rivers. From east to west, the distance is about 5,000 kilometers from the Heilong Jiang (Amur River) to the Pamir Mountains in Central Asia; from north to south, the distance is approximately 4,050 kilometers from Heilongjiang Province to Hainan Province in the south and another 1,450 kilometers farther south to Zengmu Shoal, a territorial claim off the north coast of Malaysia. China's climate ranges from subarctic to tropical. Its topography includes the world's highest peaks, tortuous but picturesque river valleys, and vast plains subject to life- threatening but soil-enriching flooding. These characteristics have dictated where the Chinese people live and how they make their livelihood. Usually described as part of East Asia, China is south of Mongolia and the Siberian land mass, west of the Korean Peninsula and insular Japan, north of Southeast Asia, and east of Central and South Asia. [Source: Library of Congress]

Most of China's population lives in the relatively flat and fertile southeastern third of the country, the traditional China Proper. Most are peasants living, as did their forebears, in the low-lying hills and central plains that stretch from the highlands eastward and southward to the sea. Agriculture predominates in this vast area, generally favored by a temperate or subtropical climate. The meticulously tilled fields are evidence in part of the government's continuing concern over farm output and the food supply. [Ibid]

Only 15 percent of the country is good for agriculture (compared to 21 percent in the U.S.) and most of this land is on the central eastern coast and along around the Yangtze and Yellow river valleys. About 34 percent of China is covered by pastures, and 14 percent by forests. Mountains cover 58 percent of China. Deserts cover 28 percent. Plains and basins cover around 35 percent. Based on 2005 estimates, 14.86 percent (about 1.4 million square kilometers) of China’s land is arable. About 1.3 percent (some 116,580 square kilometers) is planted to permanent crops. With comparatively little land planted to permanent crops, intensive agricultural techniques are used to reap harvests that are sufficient to feed the world’s largest population and still have surplus for export. An estimated 544,784 square kilometers of land were irrigated in 2004.

China is made up of 21 provinces (such as Sichuan, Hunan and Guangdong) and five autonomous regions (Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Xinjiang, Guangxi and Tibet) populated by large numbers of ethnic minorities. China's three largest cities---Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin---and Chongqing are governed directly by the Chinese government as municipalities.

Even though China is the world's most populous country, much of its land is uninhabitable or near uninhabitable. The western half of the country is mostly desert. The central and southern portions of the country is covered with rugged mountains and the northeast is heavily forested and bitterly cold in the winter. China also embraces rain forests, fog-shrouded coasts, evergreen forests, misty green mountains, vulnerable flood plains and vast steppes. Time Zone: Although China crosses all or part of five international time zones, it operates on a single uniform time, China Standard Time (CST; Greenwich Mean Time plus eight hours), using Beijing as the base. China does not employ a daylight savings time system.

Good Websites and Sources: Wikipedia article on Geography of China Wikipedia ; University of Washington Site Geography Section ; Wikipedia article on Shaanxi Loess Plateau Wikipedia ; Rivers and Lakes in China ; Mineral Resources in China ; China Mineral Production ; China Natural Resources Inc ; New Mineral Sources ; Maps: Maps of China Maps of China ; Library of Congress Map Collection (do a Search for China ) ; Historical Maps from Berkeley ; China Page China Page ;"> University of Texas ; National Geographic Map Machine:"> National Geographic ; ; Google Maps Google Maps ; Links in this Website: AGRICULTURE IN CHINA ; AGRICULTURE IN CHINA UNDER MAO AND DENG XIAOPING ; LAND SEIZURES AND FARMERS IN CHINA ; NATURAL RESOURCES IN CHINA

Satellite image of China

Borders and Boundary Disputes

China has a total of 22,117 kilometers (14,900 miles) of land boundaries with 14 other nations--- more countries than any other country. These borders include: Afghanistan (76 kilometers), Bhutan (470 kilometers), Burma (2,185 kilometers), India (3,380 kilometers), Kazakhstan (1,533 kilometers), North Korea (1,416 kilometers), Kyrgyzstan (858 kilometers), Laos (423 kilometers), Mongolia (4,677 kilometers), Nepal (1,236 kilometers), Pakistan (523 kilometers), Russia (4,300 kilometers), Tajikistan (414 kilometers), and Vietnam (1,281 kilometers).

The Yellow Sea lies between the east coast of China and the Korean peninsula. Further south is the East China Sea. Off the southern coast of China is the South China Sea. There is about 4,300 miles of coastline. China’s coastline extends 14,500 kilometers from the border with North Korea in the north to Vietnam in the south. China’s coasts are on the East China Sea, Korea Bay, Yellow Sea, and South China Sea. China claims a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea, a 24-nautical-mile contiguous zone, a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, and a 200-nautical-mile continental shelf or the distance to the edge of the continental shelf.

China is involved in a complex dispute with Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, and possibly Brunei over the Spratly (Nansha) Islands in the South China Sea. The 2002 “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea” eased tensions but fell short of a legally binding code of conduct desired by several of the disputants. China also occupies the Paracel (Xisha) Islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan, and asserts a claim to the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu Tai) in the Pacific Ocean. Most of the mountainous and militarized boundary with India is in dispute, but Beijing and New Delhi have committed to begin resolution with discussions on the least disputed middle sector. China’s de facto administration of the Aksai Chin section of Kashmir (which is disputed by India and Pakistan) is the subject of a dispute between China and India. India does not recognize Pakistan’s ceding lands to China in a 1964 boundary agreement. In October 2004, China signed an agreement with Russia on the delimitation of their entire 4,300-kilometer-long border, which had long been in dispute. See Japan and the South China Sea Under International

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Satellite image of the crop plain of northeast China

Northern China

The northern part of China proper is relatively flat and embraces the the Hwang Ho basin, the Qinling range, the Shanxi loess region, North Central Plain, Mongolian plateau, eastern highlands and central plain of Manchuria.

Much of China's northern border is shared with Russia. There were border skirmishes here in the 1960s and 1970s that lead to several hundred deaths. The tensions subsided after the break-up of the Soviet Union and the signing of a border agreement in 1997. Between Russia and China is Mongolia, a former puppet state of the Soviet Union that acted like a buffer between the two rival Communist nations. Mongolia is now free of Russian domination. China and Mongolia are both home to millions of ethnic Mongolians and they share the Gobi desert, a vast area of windy, grassy plains.

Western China

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Sand dunes in Xinjiang
The western part of China is the home of the Tarim Basin and Taklimakan Desert, two of the driest and most desolate regions in the world, and the Tian Shan mountains. The Muslim ethnic groups that live here are similar to those found in the former Soviet Republics of Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikstan. Many of the ethnic groups in western China are not particularly fond of the Beijing government or Han Chinese.

Mountainous southwest China borders the two rivalling countries of Pakistan and India. China has traditionally been more friendly with Pakistan (the two nations built the incredible Karakoram Highway together) than India. In the 1960s, China and India fought a war over a inhospitable part of the Himalayas and the border in the area is still disputed. It is not possible to enter China from India.

The spine of the Himalayas, including Mount Everest runs along the border between Tibet (part of China) and Nepal. Most of Tibet is occupied by the Tibetan Plateau, a dry, desolate region, punctuated by mountains and isolated lakes. The average elevation in Tibet is 14,000 feet; roads routinely pass over 16,000- to 17,000-foot passes; and there are 40 peaks over 22,000 feet high. Very few people live in Tibet. The Tibetan plateau embraces the Himalayas, Kunlun Mountains and the Tahseh Shan.

Southern and Central China

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Guilin area of southern China
The central part of China proper embraces the Yangtze Basin, Sichuan Basin and the Yangtze plains and delta. Between Tibet and the plains of eastern China are rugged, difficult-to- traverse ridges of mountains, many of them in western Sichuan and Yunnan. Getting across these mountains can take weeks. East of these mountain is the Yangtze River valley and the plains of northern and eastern China. This area is the heavily- populated home of the Han Chinese. It is also largely agricultural and has four seasons.

Southeast China is a green, semitropical region inhabited by large numbers of ethnic minorities similar to the hill tribes found in neighboring Burma, Laos and Vietnam. There are numerous mountains and mountain ranges of various sizes. Large tracts of forest have been cleared here and deforestation-induced erosion is very noticeable. The southern part of China proper embraces the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau, the Tung, Pi and Si river valleys, the Southeast coastal uplands and Gungdong-Guangxi Hills.

Major Rivers in China

China has 50,000 rivers totaling some 420,000 kilometers in length and each having a catchment area of more than 100 square kilometers. Some 1,500 of these rivers each have catchment areas exceeding 1,000 square kilometers. Most rivers flow from west to east and empty into the Pacific Ocean. The Yangzi (Changjiang or Yangzte River), which rises in Tibet, flows through Central China, and, having traveled 6,300 kilometers, enters the Yellow Sea near Shanghai. The Yangzi has a catchment area of 1.8 million square kilometers and is the third longest river in the world after the Amazon and the Nile. The second longest river in China is the Huanghe (Yellow River), which also rises in Tibet and travels circuitously for 5,464 kilometers through North China before reaching the Bo Hai Gulf on the north coast of Shangdong Province. It has a catchment area of 752,000 square kilometers. The Heilongjiang (Heilong or Black Dragon River) flows for 3,101 kilometers in Northeast China and an additional 1,249 in Russia, where it is known as the Amur. The longest river in South China is the Zhujiang (Pearl River), which is 2,214 kilometers long. Along with its three tributaries, the Xi, Dong, and Bei’West, East, and North rivers, it forms the rich Zhujiang Delta near Guangzhou, Zhuhai, Macau, and Hong Kong. Other major rivers are the Liaohe in the northeast, Haihe in the north, Qiantang in the east, and Lancang in the southwest.

Rivers have traditionally been important transportation routes in Chinese. The Yangtze River (the third longest river in the world after the Nile and the Amazon), the Yellow River (the second largest river in China) and the Mekong River all begin in eastern Tibet and twist and turn through rugged mountains before reaching elevations low enough for of them to become navigable.

The Yangtze empties into the East China Sea near Shanghai and has traditionally divided China into north and south. The Yellow river takes a more northern route and empties into the Yellow Sea southeast of Beijing. Other important Chinese rivers include the Pearl River (near Hong Kong), Heilong River, Haiho River, Huaiho River and Yalu Tsango River.

See Places

Shaanxi Loess Region

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The Shaanxi Loess Region is a 150,000-square-mile region in Gansu, Shanxi, Henan and Shaanxi provinces where everything is gritty yellow: the mountains, the cliffs and the houses where many people live. Even the air is yellow. It gets its color from the yellow dust that gets kicked up by the strong winds that blow through from time to time. The dust in turn comes from a fine loosely packed soil called loess, which is found in other parts of the world but not in the concentrations that are found here.

Loess soil is very fertile. The Loess Plateau produces a lot of crops and would be one of the breadbaskets of China of it weren’t for the fact that the region is so dry. It only receives 10 inches of rain a year. Many crops are coaxed from terraces or raised with irrigation water from the Yellow River and its tributaries. It is the last major area of arable land as one heads north.

Compacted loess can be easily carved, and many farmers in Loess Plateau live in caves carved out of the loess cliff sides. Some farmers even dig down in their fields and make their homes underground. It is not usual in some places to see fields with smoking chimneys rising out of them from houses set in the middle of them.

The Loess Plateau is one of least inviting landscapes in China. It was once covered by forest but is now largely bare except in areas of agriculture. On some barren slopes, without a tree or bush in sight, are the slogans “Make the Green Mountain Even Greener” written in large characters. Occasionally there are serious problems In May 2005, a huge sink hole swallowed 11 houses in Jixian County in Shanxi Province. Sixteen people escaped the 80-meter-wide, 1250-meter-long hole created in loess soil.

Loess is hard when dry but dissolves when wet. Rains wash away huge amounts of soil and leave behind gullies that can become canyons and may travel across the region difficult. Loess is also light and blows away very easily. In the spring, when the winds are strongest, yellow dust from the Loess Plateau is carried westward into Korea and Japan, where it forms a pollen-like film. Some even makes it way to North America. The soils that blew away in dust bowl region of Oklahoma were primarily loess.

See Weather, Dust Storms

Mountains and Glaciers

Mountains cover 33 percent of China’s landmass, plateaus 26 percent, basins 19 percent, plains 12 percent, and hills 10 percent. Thus, 69 percent of China’s land is mountains, hills, and highlands. China has five main mountain ranges, and seven of its mountain peaks are higher than 8,000 meters above sea level. The main topographic features include the Qingzang (Qinghai-Tibet) Plateau at 4,000 meters above sea level and the Kunlun, Qin Ling, and Greater Hinggan ranges. In the Himalaya Mountains, the world’s highest, are Mount Everest (known in China as Qomolangma) at 8,844.4 meters (based on new official measurements) and K2 at 8,611 meters, shared with Nepal and Pakistan, respectively. The lowest inland point in China---the second lowest place in the world after the Dead Sea---is at Turpan Pendi, 140 kilometers southeast of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, at 154 meters below 8 sea level. With temperatures that have reached 49.6 C, it also ranks as one the hottest places in China.

See Land, Nature Tibet

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Land reclaimed from the sea

Macau and Hong Kong

China has two special administrative regions, Hong Kong (Xianggang in Putonghua) and Macau (Aomen in Putonghua). As a result of the First Anglo-Chinese War (1842), China ceded Hong Kong Island to the United Kingdom under the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842. In 1860 the British acquired in perpetuity the Kowloon (Jiulong) Peninsula under the Convention of Beijing. The remaining area, the New Territories, was leased for 99 years in 1898. The Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong was signed between the Chinese and British Governments in 1984. The entire colony was returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 as the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR). Although originally the 1,092-square-kilometer area was part of Guangdong Province, the Hong Kong SAR reports directly to the State Council in Beijing. The head of state of Hong Kong is the president of China, Hu Jintao. The head of government is a Beijing appointee, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa. Hong Kong, with an estimated 6,940,432 people (as of July 2006), has a partly popularly elected legislature and operates under the Basic Law, which embodies the principle of “one country, two systems” and states that the socialist system and policies shall not be practiced in Hong Kong; Hong Kong’s previous capitalist system and lifestyle are to remain unchanged until 2047. The Basic Law of the Hong Kong SAR was adopted on April 4, 1990, by the National People’s Congress (NPC) and came into effect on July 1, 1997. Chinese and English are the official languages of Hong Kong. 30

The area that has come to be called Macau had been a maritime way station between China and India and regions farther west since the early sixteenth century. Portugal first obtained a leasehold on the area from the Qing court in 1557, although China retained sovereignty. In 1844, without Beijing’s concurrence, Lisbon made Macau an overseas province of Portugal. Although China recognized Macau as a Portuguese colony in an 1862 treaty signed with Portugal, the treaty was never ratified by China, and Macau was never officially ceded to Portugal. A protocol dealing with relations between China and Portugal was signed in Lisbon in 1887 confirming the “perpetual occupation and government” of Macau by Portugal (with Portugal’s promise “never to alienate Macau and dependencies without agreement with China”). The islands of Taipa and Coloane also were ceded to Portugal, but the border of the Macau Peninsula with the mainland was not delimited. The Treaty of Commerce and Friendship (1888) recognized Portuguese sovereignty over Macau but again was never actually ratified by China. In 1974 the new Portuguese government granted independence to all overseas colonies and recognized Macau as part of China's territory. In 1979 China and Portugal exchanged diplomatic recognition, and Beijing acknowledged Macau as “Chinese territory under Portuguese administration.” A joint communiqué signed in 1986 called for negotiations on the Macau question, and four rounds of talks followed between June 30, 1986, and March 26, 1987. The Joint Declaration on the Question of Macau was signed in Beijing on April 13, 1987, setting the stage for the return of Macau to full Chinese sovereignty as a special administrative region on December 20, 1999.

Although originally the now 28.2-square-kilometer area was part of Guangdong Province, the Macau SAR reports directly to the State Council in Beijing. Macau’s head of state is the president of China. The head of government is a Beijing appointee, Chief Executive Edmund H.W. Ho. Macau, numbering an estimated 453,125 people (in July 2006), also has a partly popularly elected legislature and operates under the Basic Law of the Macau SAR, adopted by the NPC in 1993 and taking effect on December 20, 1999. Like the Basic Law of the Hong Kong SAR, Macau’s basic law covers the relationship between the central government and Macau; the fundamental rights and duties of the residents; the political structure; the economy and cultural and social affairs; external affairs; and the amendment process. Chinese and Portuguese are the official languages of Macau.

Image Sources: 1, 2) NASA; 3, 5, 6) CNTO; 4) Nolls China website ; 7) Bucklin archives

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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