As a first step toward understanding China, one can hardly do better than to spend some time with a good atlas. It is vital that we begin by understanding China’s diversity, and a key element in that diversity is its geography.
Superimposing an outline of the United States on an outline of China shows us two important geographical similarities between the two countries. China, covering some 3.7 million square miles, is nearly identical in size to the United States, which covers just over3.6 million square miles. The two countries are located at more or less the same latitude; New York and Beijing are at roughly the same latitude, as are New Orleans and Shanghai.
A topographical map, on the other hand, shows us important geographical differences between China and the United States. Only about a third of the United States is taken up with mountains and desert, and the remainder is reasonably flat and easily habitable; but in China, these proportions are reversed. The difference in the amount of land available for cultivation in the two countries is even more striking: 40 percent in the United States versus only 10 percent in China.
In any country, rivers serve as arteries for transportation and as sources of both irrigation and energy. Silting improves the fertility of river basin fields, but flooding destroys crops and houses and often claims lives. The major river systems on the North American continent run from north to south, while China’s three major river systems flow from west to east. The northernmost is the Huang He (Yellow River), which runs for more than three thousand miles from the western territory of Tibet to its mouth in Shandong Province. The river takes its name from the color of the extraordinary amount of silt it carries, deposits of which continuously raise its level; it now flows well above the level of the North China plain and is contained between high dikes.
The second major river system, the Yangzi or Changjiang (Long River), also originates in Tibet. It is somewhat longer than the Yellow and has ten times the discharge. It is navigable by oceangoing ships from its mouth near Shanghai as far upstream as the city of Wuhan. About three hundred miles upstream from Wuhan lies the very large and controversial Three Gorges Dam. When fully operational in 2011, the dam will extend the navigability of the river to the city of Chongqing, produce some 100 terawatt hours of hydro-electric power, and regulate the flow of the river to control downstream flooding.
The Xi Jiang (West River) in Guangdong Province, the third of China’s major river systems, is the shortest of the three, flowing 1,650 miles before merging with the Zhu Jiang (Pearl River) in the delta, at the mouth of which are located Guangzhou (once more familiarly known to Westerners as Canton), Hong Kong, and Macao.
China’s most fertile agricultural regions are in the deltas of the Yellow, Yangzi, and West rivers. A fourth area of high fertility is along the upper reaches of the Yangzi River in the Sichuan basin, just south of the center of the Chinese landmass.
A striking difference between the North American and the Chinese landmasses is found in the nature of their western borders. In the United States, of course, it is an ocean coast, while in China it is marked with mountains, plateaus, and deserts. This difference accounts for major dissimilarities in the prevailing climates of the two landmasses. America’s weather is governed by the movement of the jet stream, carrying moisture-laden Pacific storms across the continent. China’s weather is determined by monsoon winds that between December and March blow northwest to southeast; coming from the Siberian landmass, the air crossing the northwestern provinces is very dry and provides little rainfall. Then, during the summer months from April to November, the monsoon winds reverse themselves, and now moving across the South China Sea, they are heavily laden with moisture, which descends as rainfall on China’s southeastern coast; the winds are relatively dry by the time they reach the northwestern provinces. Annual rainfall on the southern coast exceeds seventy-five inches, but along the Mongolian border, it is no more than five inches.
Temperatures along the southeastern coast of China are moderate enough even in the winter that there is a year-round growing season, and as many as three crops of rice can be harvested. North of the Great Wall, by contrast, the growing season is only 140 days, and farmers consider themselves fortunate to harvest a single crop of spring wheat.
Energy resources and raw materials are somewhat more equally distributed across China than is its scant supply of agricultural land, for coal is found in substantial quantities across the eastern half of the country as well as in Xinjiang, while principal onshore oil fields are located in Gansu, Xinjiang, Shanxi, Sichuan, and Heilongjiang.
The distribution of China’s population accords closely with the location of fertile soil and adequate growing seasons. Approximately 75 percent of the population lives on 15 percent of the landmass, being most heavily concentrated in the fertile river basins, where densities in excess of two thousand people per square mile are not uncommon. (This compares with a population density of fewer than four hundred people per square mile in the northeastern United States, the most highly populated area.) Compared with the river basins, western China is sparsely populated, but even these wideopen open spaces have a fair number of people. The autonomous region of Xinjiang, China’s largest province, is also the country’s least densely populated, with some twenty-six people per square mile. (By comparison, Wyoming and Alaska have five and one per square mile, respectively.)
Nearly six hundred million people—45 percent of the Chinese population—reside in China’s 570 cities, and the density of the network of these cities generally conforms to the pattern of population density shown in the map. This is a more even distribution than is the case with many other countries at a comparable level of economic development, and for three distinct reasons.
As the territory over which China’s sovereignty extended began to expand as early as the third century b.c.e., the central government established administrative seats from which its officials exerted control over the populace. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, a network of some two thousand cities and towns covered all of what we now think of as Chinese territory, with, at the center of each, a walled compound housing the local representative of imperial authority. Each administrative seat was part of a hierarchy organized according to the respective ranks and positions of the imperial officials. Beijing, the imperial capital, stood at the apex of this hierarchy, provincial capitals formed its mid-levels, and county seats formed its base.
A second reason for the rise of urban aggregations in China was commercial. The exchange of agricultural goods and handicraft products and, subsequently, the exchange of both of these for manufactured items led to the rise of itinerant merchants, moving periodically from village to village, and then to a whole stratum of society devoted entirely to commerce. While some villages were centers of commercial activity only occasionally, others, by virtue of their locations, proved more durably convenient for marketing purposes. Market days in these villages became more frequent; eventually the markets became permanent. Thus was created a hierarchy of commercial centers that was integrated with, but at the same time distinguishable from, the hierarchy of administrative centers.
Whereas the administrative centers were laid out from the top down in a reasonably orderly fashion so as to exert imperial control as uniformly as possible over China’s hinterlands, the network of market towns grew naturally from the bottom up. The former were called cheng, a word that also means “wall” and that conjures up an image of a formally laid-out and enclosed urban space; market towns were called zhen, which connotes an outpost or a garrison without a formal layout or walls. Administrative centers were large—the smallest had a population of between three and ten thousand—while the market towns were much smaller, the lowest ranking among them being mere hamlets of as few as five hundred people, half or more of whom were full-time farmers.
The third force that gave rise to urban agglomeration in China came much later in the country’s history and resulted from the government’s unsuccessful effort to prevent or at least to limit foreigners’ commercial and cultural contact with China. One result of the series of defeats that the Chinese endured in the modern period at the hands of Westerners superior in modern armaments and the tactics to employ them was that for the first time in its history China was forced open to the influence and influx of non-Chinese. Because Western nations were themselves in rivalry with one another for slices of what came to be called the Chinese melon, the Chinese used this rivalry to their advantage in order to restrict the points of Sino-Western contact to a few locations called treaty ports. Unlike administrative and market towns, treaty ports were part of neither a hierarchy nor an effective network. To the extent that the Chinese government was able to control their designation, they were situated where contact between Chinese people and nefarious foreigners would be minimal and easily controlled. To the extent that Western powers succeeded in imposing their preferences, the treaty ports sprang up where Western entrepreneurs found maximal ease of access to what they sought in China: cheap labor, cheap raw materials, cheap maritime transport, and abundant consumers.
Today even the smallest of China’s 570 cities seem very large to Americans; at the other end of the scale, 170 cities in China have more than one million people. There are only nine cities with more than a million people in the United States.
China is by modern standards inadequately interconnected, with less than 1.6 million miles of highways and roads, about 85 percent of which are paved—roughly half the highway network in the United States. Moreover, the roads are unequally distributed: dense in China’s eastern provinces and sparse in the west. About three-quarters of the country’s freight traffic and more than 90 percent of its passenger traffic are carried on these roads and highways, and highway construction is a high priority in the country’s economic development program. Close to a hundred thousand miles of new highway, much of it at the expense of China’s limited supply of arable land, are being added annually.
The rail network covers about forty-eight thousand miles, 40 percent of which is double tracked. (The United States currently has a rail network three times that size.) This rail system carries about 35 percent of the country’s freight and passenger traffic (coal accounting for nearly half the freight). As China’s economy expands, its railways are operating at or close to capacity and are meeting less than 60 percent of the demand for rail transport. Major construction is under way to add six thousand miles of track to the system. The largest of these projects, a second north-south rail corridor connecting Beijing and Guangzhou and paralleling the existing line to the east, was opened to traffic in 1996. Building high-speed rail lines connecting China’s major cities is a current priority. Nonetheless, projections suggest that the railroad system’s share of passenger and freight traffic will decline to about 30 percent each over the next fifteen years, with highways and airlines attracting away passengers and trucking absorbing the difference in freight traffic.
China’s system of navigable inland waterways, both rivers and canals, is nearly twice as long as its rail network. About 12 percent of freight traffic and 1 percent of passenger traffic move on inland waterways.
The twelve hundred domestic commercial air routes in China (a number that shows an increase by a factor of six in the thirty years since the economic reforms began) now cover about a third of the distance covered by highways, though the volume of air transport remains small. Until the mid-1980s, air transport was handled by a single state-owned corporation, the Civil Air Administration of China (CAAC). Between 1985 and 1995, CAAC was broken up into more than a dozen local companies, which have taken over domestic and some international routes; CAAC, operating under the name Air China, is now an exclusively international airline. A shortage of equipment and trained personnel has hampered the expansion of air transportation, which in any case has a dauntingly bad safety record. Currently, less than 1 percent of China’s passenger travel and a tiny fraction of its freight movement are completed by air. As with the network of roads and highways, so with waterways, railways, and air routes: eastern China is well linked; western China is much less accessible.
Excerpted from Understanding China by John Bryan Starr.
Copyright © 1997 by John Bryan Starr.
Published in 1997 by Hill And Wang A Division Of Farrar, Straus And Giroux New York.
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