Where Is China and What Does It Look Like?

To understand a country we need to know a little of its geography. China is not unlike the United States in size and even in shape. They lie at about the same distance between the north pole and the equator, and they have many similarities in climate and vegetation.

Siberia stretches to the north of China much as Canada lies to the north of the United States, and on the south and southwest of China, French Indo-China and Burma correspond roughly to Mexico. Peiping stands almost exactly on latitude 40 while New York is just a little above 40. From Peiping to China’s westernmost frontiers is about as far as from New York to Oregon. Just as New England reaches up to the east and north of New York, Manchuria extends to the northeast of Peiping.

North and South

Map of the United States Superimposed on the Map of China in Corresponding Latitudes. Reprinted from Owen and Eleanor Lattimore, Making of Modern China. Courtesy of W. W. Norton & Company.China’s climate, like ours, is cold in the north, hot in the south, and temperate in between, with much the same seasonal changes. In Manchuria there are forests like those in our Northwest and vast wheat fields like those of the Dakotas. In Mongolia and the northwest provinces there are deserts that look much like ours in Arizona and New Mexico. Rising abruptly from the flat plain of Peiping, the bare yellow hills and little groves of trees look much like a landscape in northern California. The Yangtze Valley is green and fertile like the Carolinas. Farther south, China is as semitropical as Florida, while Yunnan has the flowers and fruits and sun. shine of southern California.

Our greatest waterway, the Mississippi, runs from north to south, while the Yangtze runs from west to east. The Yangtze is in some ways even more important than the Mississippi. Ocean-going steamers can navigate it for six hundred miles to the great inland port of Hankow.

South China has more rain than our south and the country is therefore greener, with rice as the principal crop. Regular rainfall explains the rich growth of trees in the south, where much of the country in ancient times was covered with forest. Now most of the forests have been cut off and the hillsides terraced to grow rice.

North China is a good deal drier than our north, and the landscape is more brown and yellow. Wheat, millet, and corn grow in the north, together with all the fruits and vegetables that we know in New England. In most of North China there probably never was heavy forest.. even in ancient times, partly because of scant rainfall and partly because of the nature of the soil. In Manchuria, however, particularly near the Siberian border, there are remnants of great and noble ancient forests.

China’s Provinces

The provinces of China correspond to the American states. There are twenty-eight provinces, not counting Outer Mongolia and Tibet. These two, though technically a part of China, have certain claims to self-government.

The expression “China Proper,” which is quite often heard, applies to the eighteen provinces that lie south of the Great Wall. In these provinces the overwhelming majority of the people are Chinese and have been Chinese for many centuries.

The other ten provinces stretch in a wide band between the Great Wall and the Siberian frontier. They reach from the Pacific in the east to the huge mountain ranges which in the west divide China from India, and include the three provinces of Manchuria, the four of Inner Mongolia, two carved from the eastern side of Tibet, and Sinkiang or Chinese Turkestan. Except for Manchuria these provinces are peopled largely by non-Chinese races. All of them taken together cover an area about as large as the eighteen provinces of China Proper, but their population amounts to only about 10 per cent of China’s total population. The opening of modern communication by road, rail, and air, and the development of mines and other sources of industrial raw materials will soon add tremendously to the importance of the marginal provinces of China and the great outer territories of Tibet and Outer Mongolia.

Thirty Centuries of Isolation

The Provinces of China. Courtesy of Institute of Pacific Relations and John Day.There is one important geographical difference between the United States and China. Instead of living between two vast oceans like the Americans, the Chinese have on their west a deep barrier of desert and mountain ranges. During all but the last two of China’s thirty centuries, however, the ocean frontier has been a more complete barrier to foreign intercourse than the land frontier.

The art of sailing was never highly developed by the Chinese and, although their medieval navigators made a few voyages as far as Arabia and Africa, they kept close to land and depended on the regularity of the monsoon winds, blowing for six months from southwest to northeast and six months from northeast to southwest. After Magellan’s voyage around the world in the 1520’s, European navigators and Americans later on began to reach China by sea, but until comparatively recent times China’s chief intercourse with the rest of the world was by land across the western borders.

The land approaches to the Near and Middle East have been in use from the most ancient times. About two thousand years ago, when the Roman Empire reached the height of its development, the civilization of China was quite as mature and elaborate as that of Rome and, while these two empires were separated from each other by vast mountain ranges and waterless deserts, there was some exchange both of things and of ideas. The silks, furs, rhubarb, and cinnamon of China reached markets in India, Arabia, and the Roman Empire, and to China in return came ivory, tortoise shell, precious stones, horses of fine Central Asian breeds, and asbestos. Chinese caravans did not travel all the way to Rome, but made shorter journeys to oases in the Central Asian desert where they exchanged their wares with traders who had bought cargoes from other caravans coming from the west.

Ideas also traveled. Foreign influences in Chinese art can be traced from the ages of stone and bronze. Buddhism was introduced from India in the first century A.D. and Mohammedanism found its way to China from Arabia by way of Central Asia. Yet all this time probably no lady of ancient Rome who wore fine silk from China ever saw a Chinese and very few Chinese Buddhists ever saw a native of India. China was not entirely cut off from the rest of the world, but it was remote and detached.

In the nineteenth century, when steam succeeded sail, the nations who were masters of the seas broke down that isolation. Today, in the stress of war, the sea approaches to China have been again cut off, but at the same time new approaches have been opened by land and air, from Central Asia and from the far southwest. In the next chapter of history China will be open all around, from the land as well as from the sea. The times in which we are now living no longer allow China or any other country to be isolated.