The consultant for this unit was Professor Ronald G. Knapp, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at SUNY New Paltz ...see more.


These maps are discussed in the sections below. Note that some of the outline maps included below are designed to be used as transparencies that can be overlaid on an overhead projector to demonstrate the diversity of China"s physical and cultural geography.

Overlays for Classroom Use







Geographic Distribution of China"s National Minorities

1. Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture 2. Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture 3. Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture 4. Haibei Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture 5. Huangna Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture 6. Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture 7. Guoluo Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture 8. Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture 9. Haixi Mongolian, Tibetan, Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture 10. Bayingolin Mongolian Autonomous Prefecture 11. Kizilsu Khalkhas Autonomous Prefecture 12. Changji Hui Autonomous Prefecture 13. Bortala Mongolian Autonomous Prefecture 14. Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture 15. Xiangxi Tujia, Miao Autonomous Prefecture 16. Haina Li, Miao Autonomous Prefecture 17. Aba (Ngawa) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture 18. Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture 19. Liangsha Yi Autonomous Prefecture 20. Qiandongnan Miao, Dong Autonomous Prefecture 21. Qiannan Bouyei, Miao Autonomous Prefecture 22. Wenshan Zhuang, Miao Autonomous Prefecture 23. Honghe Hani, Yi Autonomous Prefecture 24. Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture 25. Chuxiong Yi Autonomous Prefecture 26. Chuxiong Yi Autonomous Prefecture 27. Dehong Dai, Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture 28. Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture 29. Degen Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture


It is a well known fact that China is the most populous nation in the world (although India may soon surpass China in total population). China"s total population in 2020 was 1.4 billion people (1,400,000,000). This exceeds the combined populations of Europe, South America, the United States, and Japan! Certain Chinese provinces are more populous than European countries. By comparison, the population of the United States in 2020 is 331,000,000 (or 331 million). China"s population is roughly equivalent to 4x that of the United States.

Population and Land Area

Such a huge population imposes substantial stress on the country"s natural resources, including especially arable land. Although China ranks fourth in the world in terms of total arable land, the pressure of population on this precious available agricultural land is acute and makes China"s struggle to increase its agricultural output to feed its population all the more difficult. Looking at the map of China"s agricultural regions and crops, you will see that China"s arable land is primarily in the eastern region, the same area where a majority of China"s vast population is concentrated. In addition to extensive areas of western China which are relatively uninhabited, substantial portions of southern China are unfavorable for agriculture because of mountainous topography. There are significant variations from province-to-province in terms of cultivated land, multiple-cropping, and overall production of various crops.

China feeds somewhat less than one-fifth (20%) of the world"s population on approximately 9% of the world"s arable land.

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U.S. China Comparison

Land Area

Viewing the map showing the U.S. and China superimposed, it can be seen that China has only a slightly larger land area, 3.69 million square miles compared to the 3.68 million square miles of the United States. However, while approximately 40% of the U.S. land can be cultivated, only 10% of China"s land is arable. Much of the arable land in the United States, of course, is actually not used for farming but instead is used for pasture or has been developed for other uses.

Population Density

Like China, the U.S. has a densely populated east coast. Unlike the U.S., however, China"s farmland is not concentrated in a relatively underpopulated central section of the country. The following map compares the densities of population in the United States and China:

United States and China: Comparative Population Density

Ethnic Composition of China"s Population

China population is composed of over 50 ethnic minorities. The vast majority of the population belong to the Han ethnic group, residing in the eastern region of China. A map showing the geographical distribution of various national minorities in China is here. Population statistics on the official ethnic groups and other materials are here.


Early Civilizations

Looking at the map of historical borders and the map showing the major rivers highlights the important fact that the earliest hearths of Chinese civilization developed along its river valleys. One of the cradles of Chinese civilization, the Neolithic site called Banpo, was located along a tributary of the Huang He not too far from the present-day city of Xi"an in Shaanxi province. Hemudu, on the southern shores of Hangzhou Bay that lies to the south of the Yangzi River delta, is another of China"s important Neolithic sites. The Shang dynasty (c. 1600-1027 BC) was also situated around the Huang He (Yellow River), and eventually spread southward to the Chang Jiang (Yangzi River) and Xi Jiang.

Historical Borders

Like many other countries, the historical borders of china have varied over time. Under the Han dynasty (202 BC-202 AD), China"s great historical empire, these early boundaries were significantly expanded, as the map of the historical borders of China shows. The extent of China"s territory was greatest under the last dynasty, called the Qing (Ch"ing) or Manchu dynasty between 1644-1912. China"s territory was more extensive under the Qing empire than it is today.

Bordering Nations

Looking at the map of bordering nations, it is possible to identify China"s neighbors China is at the core of a cultural sphere or region known as East Asia. China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam historically form the East Asian or Sinitic (Chinese) cultural sphere. The large number of countries with which China shares borders makes Chinese foreign policy with its bordering nations more complex than countries such as the U.S., for example which shares borders only with two countries, Canada and Mexico).


The cross-hatching nature of China"s five mountain ranges, the step-like staircase decrease in elevation from the lofty Tibetan plateau towards the sea, and the location of rivers make for a number of distinct geographical regions that fall into a checkerboard composition of basins, plateaus, and plains. Note the problems these pose for political and economic unity on the overlays of mountains and deserts and rivers.

Western and Eastern Regions

For the sake of elementary convenience, the landmass of China can be divided into two basic components:

A vast Western region occupying nearly 2/3 of the country that is generally too high, too cold, and/or too dry to support a dense agricultural population. Much of this higher western area occupies the two upper steps of the topographic staircase: Qinghai-Tibetan plateau, sometimes known as the "roof of the world" with average elevations above 4000 meters and a broad arc-like step running northeast/southwest from the grasslands of the Inner Mongolian steppes through the deserts and basins of Xinjiang to the Yunnan-Guizhou plateaus of southwestern China. An Eastern region occupying 1/3 of the country — that portion of China east of the Tibetan Plateau and generally south of the Great Wall — forming the core of “China Proper.” It is framed on the west by mountain ranges about 1000 meters in elevation — Greater Khingan, Taihang, Wushan, and Xuefeng — and includes the densely settled North China Plain along the lower course of the Huang He and numerous plains in the middle and lower reaches of the Chang Jiang It is customary to include Northeast China, often still referred to as Manchuria, in this Eastern region. Northern and Southern China. This diverse region includes the eighteen traditional provinces of imperial China, and can be divided into Northern China and Southern China with the Qinling Range and Huai River forming the natural zone of demarcation between them.

Interregional Trade

A benefit of China"s varied geography is that a shortage of resources in one part of China can be overcome by trade with another part.

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In this way China historically has been able to develop internally by promoting interregional trade, as opposed to going outside the country as many smaller European countries had to do. Instead of industrializing to overcome shortages, China traded within its own borders, thus promoting commercial development.

A shortage in labor in one area could similarly be filled by migration within the country or by shifting manufacturing to another area.

Geographic factors that facilitated this internal trade were the Chang Jiang (Yangzi River), the complex network of rivers in the south, and China"s long coastline. China thus did not feel great pressure to develop labor-saving technologies or to engage in extensive expansionist or colonizing activities beyond its borders, in contrast to the West and Japan. (This contrasts markedly with the political and economic history of Europe, where the existence of many small countries led to trade barriers and local shortages, prompting individual countries to make technological advances and wage costly wars that contributed to the rise of large financial empires and engage in expansionist imperialism.)

Disparity among Regions

A recurrent problem, however, is that some regions in China have developed more quickly than others because of their location. For example, the coastline of China with its ports and fertile soil has developed more rapidly than western China with its deserts and mountains. Western China is more isolated and thus lags behind the coastal regions, a condition that can be seen clearly in this view of the Earth at night where only lights and fires are visible.