East Asia is surrounded by a series of mountain ranges in the west, Mongolia and Russia in the north, and Southeast Asia to the south. The Himalayas border Tibet and Nepal; the Karakoram Ranges, Pamirs, and the Tian Shan Mountains shadow Central Asia; and the Altay Mountains are next to Russia. The Himalayan Mountains are among the highest mountain ranges in the world, and Mt. Everest is the planet’s tallest peak.
These high ranges create a rain shadow effect, generating the dry arid conditions that dominate western China. The desert conditions of western China give rise to a large uninhabitable region in its center. Notice the large pink area on the climate map below. That climate is arid desert.
Melting snow from the high elevations feeds many of the streams that transition into the major rivers that flow toward the east.
Created by tectonic plate action, the many mountain ranges are also home to earthquakes and tremors that are devastating to human livelihood. The Indian tectonic plate is still pushing northward into the Eurasian plate, forcing the Himalayan ranges upward. With an average elevation of fifteen thousand feet, the Tibetan Plateau is the largest plateau region of the world. It has high elevations and is sparsely populated and the only places with human habitation are the river valleys.
Lhasa is the largest city of the sparsely populated region. Sometimes called “the Roof of the World,” the Tibetan Plateau is a land of superlatives.
Here are some examples of superlatives: the tallest, the biggest, the most interesting, the most dangerous, etc.
The small amount of precipitation that occurs often comes in the form of hailstorms mixed with wind. Its landscape is generally rocky and barren.
The vast arid regions of western China extend into the Gobi Desert between Mongolia and China.
Most of China’s population lives in its eastern region, called China Proper, with fresh water, and good soils in fertile agricultural lands that provide an abundance of food for the enormous Chinese population.
To the south, the temperatures are warmer, with hot and humid summers and dry, warm winters. The North China Plain at the mouth of the Yellow River (Huang He River) has rich farmland and is the most densely populated region in China.
Northwest of Beijing is Inner Mongolia and the Gobi Desert, a desert that extends into the independent country of Mongolia. Northeast China features China’s great forests and excellent agricultural land. Many of China’s abundant natural mineral resources are found in this area. Balancing mineral extraction with the preservation of agricultural land and timber resources is an issue for the area.
Lying north of the Great Wall and encompassing the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia is the vast Mongolian steppe, which includes broad flat grasslands that extend north into the highlands.
North China includes the Yellow River basin as well as the municipalities of Beijing and Tianjin.
Areas around parts of the Yellow River are superb agricultural lands, including vast areas of loess that have been terraced for cultivation. Loess is an extremely fine silt or windblown soil that is yellow in color in this region.
Deciduous forests continue to exist in this region, despite aggressive clearcutting for agricultural purposes. The Great Wall of China rests atop hills in this region.
Most of western China is arid and has large regions like the Takla Makan Desert that are uninhabited and inhospitable because of hot summers and long cold winters exacerbated by the cold winds sweeping down from the north. In a local Uyghur language, the name Takla Makan means “You will go in but you will not go out.”
To the far west are the high mountains bordering Central Asia that restrict travel and trade with the rest of the continent. Northwestern China is a mountainous region featuring glaciers, deserts, and basins.
The central portion of China Proper is subtropical. This large region includes the southern portion of the Yangtze River (Chang Jiang River) and the cities of Shanghai and Chongqing.
Alluvial processes (sediment from the river) give this area excellent agricultural land. Its climate is warm and humid in the summers with mild winters; monsoons create well-defined summer rainy seasons.
The Three Gorges Dam of the Yangtze River is the world’s largest dam. It produces a large percentage of the electricity for central China. Oceangoing ships can travel up the Yangtze to Wuhan and, utilizing locks in the Three Gorges Dam, these cargo vessels can travel all the way upriver to Chongqing. The dams hydroelectric production system is the largest on Earth. The river system is the world’s third longest, after the Nile and the Amazon.
The dam is 7,661 feet long and 610 feet tall. The base width is 377 feet.
Before the construction of the dam, flooding along the Yangtze cost thousands of lives and billions of dollars in damage. In 1954, the river flooded, causing the deaths of more than thirty-three thousand people and displacing an additional eighteen million people. The giant city of Wuhan was flooded for three months. In 1998, a similar flood caused billions of dollars in damage, flooded thousands of acres of farmland, resulted in more than 1,526 deaths, and displaced more than 2.3 million people. The dam was rigorously tested in 2009 when a massive flood worked its way through the waterway. The dam was able to withstand the pressure by containing the excess water and controlling the flow downstream. The dam saved many lives and prevented billions of dollars in potential damage. The savings in human lives and in preventing economic damage are projected to outweigh the cost of the dam in only a few decades.
All the positive attributes of the Three Gorges Dam have contributed to the economic development of China. It produces most of the electricity for the lower Yangtze Basin, including Shanghai, the largest city in China. This is a testimony to the engineering and technological capacity of the nation. However, this project has also created its own problems and negative impacts on culture and the environment. By 2008, the number of people forced to relocate from the flooding of the reservoir had reached 1.24 million. Historic villages and hundreds of archaeological sites were flooded. Thousands of farmers had to be relocated to places with less productive soils. Compensation to the farmers for relocation was forfeited because of corruption and fraud. Sadly, much of the scenic beauty of the river basin is now under water.
Animal species like the critically endangered Siberian Cranes, who had wintered in the former wetlands of the river, had to find habitat elsewhere. The endangered Yangtze River Dolphin has been doomed to extinction because of the dam and the amplified river activity. The dam restricts the flushing of water pollution and creates a massive potential for landslides along its banks, exacerbating the potential for the silting in of the reservoir and the clogging of the dam’s turbines. The dam also sits on a fault zone and there is concern that the massive weight of the water in the reservoir could trigger earthquakes that may destroy the dam, with catastrophic consequences.
The Yangtze River is a valuable and vital transportation corridor for the transport of goods. Sichuan is among the top five provinces in China in terms of population and is dependent on the Yangtze River system to provide for its needs and connect it with the rest of China.
Tropical China lies in the extreme south and includes Hainan Island and the small islands that neighbor it.
Annual temperatures are higher here than in the subtropical region and rainfall amounts brought by the summer monsoons are at times very substantial. This area is characterized by low mountains and hills.
Chinese Dynasties and Colonialism
The earliest Chinese dynasty dates to around 2200 BCE. It was located in the rich North China Plain. Organized as a political system, Chinese dynasties created the Chinese state, which provided for a continuous transfer of power, ideas, and culture from one generation to another. From 206 to 220 CE, the Han Dynasty established the Chinese identity; Chinese people became known as People of Han or Han Chinese. The last dynasty, the Qing (Manchu) Dynasty, which ruled between 1644 and 1911, claimed control of a region including all of China, Mongolia, Southeast Asia, and Korea. Dynastic rule ended in China in 1911.
Europeans colonized the Americas, Africa, and South Asia, and it was only a matter of time before technology, larger ships, and the European invasion reached East Asia. European colonialism arrived in China during the Qing Dynasty. China had been an industrialized state for centuries; long before the empires of Rome and Greece were at their peak, China’s industrial cities flourished with the concepts of clean drinking water, transportation, and technology. Paper, gunpowder, and printing were used in China centuries before they arrived in Europe. The Silk Road, which crossed the often dangerous elevations of the high mountain passes, was the main link between China and Europe.
European colonial powers met tough resistance in China. They were kept at bay for years. Meanwhile, the Industrial Revolution in Europe, which cranked out mass-produced products at a cheap price, provided an advantage over Chinese production. British colonizers also exported opium, an addictive narcotic, from their colonies in South Asia to China to help break down Chinese culture. By importing tons of opium into China, the British were able to instigate social problems. The first Opium Wars of 1839–1842 ended with Britain gaining an upper hand and laying claim to most of central China.
Other European powers also sought to gain a foothold in China. Portugal gained the port of Macau. Germany took control of the coastal region of the rich North China Plain. France carved off part of southern China and Southeast Asia. Russia came from the north to lay claim to the northern sections of China. Japan, which was just across the waterfront from China, took control of Korea and the island of Formosa (now called Taiwan). Claims on China increased as colonialism moved in to take control of the Chinese mainland.
Though European powers laid claim to parts of China, they often fought among themselves. China did not produce heavy military weapons as early as the Europeans did and therefore could not fend them off upon their invasion. Chinese culture, which had flourished for four thousand years, quickly eroded through outside intrusion. It was not until about 1900, when a rebellion against foreigners (known as the Boxer Rebellion) was organized by the Chinese people, that the conflict reached recognizable dimensions.
The Qing Dynasty dissolved in 1911, which also signified an end to the advancements of European colonialism, even though European colonies remained in China.
European colonialism in China slowed after 1911, and World War I severely weakened European powers. The Japanese colonizers, on the other hand, continued to make advancements. Japan did not have far to travel to resupply troops and support its military. In China, a doctor by the name of Dr. Sun Yat-sen promoted an independent Chinese Republic, free from dynastic rule, Japan, or European colonial influence. Political parties of Nationalists and Communists also worked to establish the republic. Dr. Sun Yat-sen died in 1925. The Nationalists, under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek, defeated the Communists and established a national government. Foreigners were evicted. The Communists were driven out of politics.
Nationalists, Communists, and Japan conducted a three-way war over the control of China. Japan’s military took control of parts of Northeast China, known as Manchuria, and were making advancements on the eastern coast. Nationalists defeated the Communists for power and were pushing them into the mountains. The Chinese people were in support of the two parties working together to defeat the Japanese. The Long March of 1934 was a six-thousand-mile retreat by the Communists through rural China, pursued by Nationalist forces. The people of the countryside gave aid to the efforts of the Communists. The Chinese were primarily interested in the defeat of Japan, a country that was brutally killing massive numbers of China’s people in their aggressive war.
In 1945, the defeat of Japan in World War II by the United States changed many things. Japan’s admission of defeat prompted the end of Japanese control of territory in China, Taiwan, Korea, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific. By 1948, the Communists, who were becoming well organized, were defeating the Nationalists. Chiang Kai-shek gathered his people and what Chinese treasures he could and fled by boat to the island of Formosa (Taiwan), which in 1945 had just been freed from Japan. Taiwan was declared the official Republic of China (ROC). The Communists took over the mainland government. In 1949, Communist leader Mao Zedong declared the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) with its capital in Peking (Beijing).
Don’t miss the terrific book Red Scarf Girl, which is set during Communist China when Mao Ze-Dong launches the Cultural Revolution. It’s a true story in the tradition of The Diary of Anne Frank and I Am Malala.
Japan was devastated by US bombing and defeated in World War II; its infrastructure destroyed and its colonies lost, Japan had to begin the long process of rebuilding its country. Korea was finally liberated from the Chinese dynasties and Japanese colonialism but began to experience an internal political division. Political structures in the second half of the twentieth century in East Asia were vastly different from the political structures that had been in place when the century began.
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Additional information and image credits:
China climate map
https://open.lib.umn.edu/worldgeography/chapter/10-1-introducing-the-realm/, Updated from map courtesy of University of Texas Libraries.
Population density of China map
Pearl River estuary
Wikimedia Commons – CC BY 2.0.
By Cacahuate – Own work based on the blank world map, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22746291
China relief map
By Uwe Dedering – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9638893
By Beck, H.E., Zimmermann, N. E., McVicar, T. R., Vergopolan, N., Berg, A., & Wood, E. F. – “Present and future Köppen-Geiger climate classification maps at 1-km resolution”. Nature Scientific Data. DOI:10.1038/sdata.2018.214., CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74673125
By StateStreet – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29263459
By TheDrive – This file was derived from: Gobi desert en.jpg, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51713598
Geo of China
By en:User:Alanmak Alan Mak – based on Image:WorldMap-B non-Frame.png, a world map in Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=304465
By Tengis Bilegsaikhan from Milan, Italy – Naadam, CC BY 2.0,
Yellow River basin
By Shannon1 – Created using Natural Earth and NASA SRTM data, both public domain., CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9617583
Great Wall of China
By Severin.stalder, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39661035
By Kmusser – Own work using Digital Chart of the World and GTOPO data, labels based on GEOnet., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5508152
Yangtze River map
By The original uploader was Papayoung at English Wikipedia. – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Common Good using CommonsHelper., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6726076
Yangtze River basin
By Keenan Pepper – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66050281
By Pedro Szekely from Los Angeles, USA – Yangtze River China, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=80153582
By TUBS – Own workThis W3C-unspecified vector image was created with Adobe Illustrator.This file was uploaded with Commonist.This vector image includes elements that have been taken or adapted from this file: China edcp location map.svg (by Uwe Dedering)., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16493626
By 江上清风1961, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59716967
By Netopyr-e – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11808251
Three Gorgest Dam image
Three Gorges Dam
By Source file: Le Grand PortageDerivative work: Rehman – File:Three_Gorges_Dam,_Yangtze_River,_China.jpg, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11425004