China is either the 3rd or 4th largest country in the world. The United States claims to be the 3rd largest and says that China is the 4th largest; the Chinese government, on the other hand, claims that China is slightly larger than the U.S. No one, however, disputes that China, with a current population of 1.3 billion, has the world's largest population, although India, with over one billion people, is running a close second. While China is approximately the size of the U.S., its climate, and terrain are much more extreme. China houses some of the world's highest mountains in the Himalayas, Tien Shan, Kunlun and Pamir ranges and the world's lowest place (the Taklamakan Desert). It has a sub-topical South, with monsoon climate, and a dry and arid North that is hot in the summer and freezing in the winter. China's lifeblood is her rivers, which flow downwards from the mountains in the West to the ocean in the East, bringing water and silt to the entire width of China Proper (China Proper refers to the Chinese heartland, minus Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Manchuria, which are the more peripheral areas) The rivers, which are essential for irrigation and agriculture, as well as navigation, are also sources of potential problems as they periodically flood huge areas of land, causing immense hardship and destruction. Consequently, the Chinese have been concerned with river control, flood management and irrigation for at least 3000 years and have built some of the world's oldest and longest lasting canals and irrigation works.
The Chinese state began in the Northern part of the country, around the great Yellow River system (called the Huang He in Chinese) and for several thousand years, until the 13th century, the capital was always near this River. Then, in the Southern Song dynasty, the capital moved south of the other great river system, the Yangtze (called the Chang Jiang or Long River, in Chinese). With the Mongol conquest in the 14th century the capital moved north of the Yellow River to its current location, Beijing. From its origin in the Yellow River basin, the Chinese people and culture slowly moved East and South, pushing the peoples who inhabited these areas ever further south; some of these groups were absorbed into the advancing Chinese state, others left and inhabited parts of Vietnam, Laos, Burma, and Thailand. Today, many of these ethnic groups exist in pockets in South China as well as in the neighboring countries. The Chinese state also moved North and West, although these conquests were slower and more uncertain: China's control of these lands beyond the Great Wall (which, when it was first built in the 3rd Century B.C., was intended to mark China's northern boundary) has been an "on again off again" proposition over the centuries. China's current boundaries reflects the height of Empire achieved under its final dynasty, the Qing, which was itself a conquest dynasty in which the Manchus conquered and ruled China for over 250 years.
Along with being an expansionistic state, China was a state always concerned with population. The intense deforestation of the North, the mountain terracing of the South and East, the overused and worn-out soil through the country, reflect the population which always seemed to outstrip the resources. Thus, China was a country plagued by periodic famines which served to reduce the population. As early as the 5th Century B.C. a Chinese official complained that "Every man has 5 sons, and every son has five sons, and soon there is no land to go around." Wars, both between parts of China and with outside forces, floods and famines served as some check on this booming population. However, a number of factors combined in more recent times to create unchecked population growth. Some of these factors included stable governments and centuries of relative peace, plus the import of new foodstuffs from the "New World" beginning in the 16th century. Four of these native American plants became essential parts of the Chinese diet and enabled population growth as these crops could be grown in marginal soils unsuited for rice growing. These are: white potatoes, sweet potatoes, peanuts, and corn. The sweet potato especially grows in soils in which nothing else would grow and even today is associated with poverty in China: no educated or newly prosperous person will eat a sweet potato. The population of China today is over 1.3 billion and this is more than double its population in 1949. Without measures to restrict this population increase, China would be in a more desperate plight than she is now, when pollution and overcrowding have a great impact on the quality of life. Since 1979, China has practiced a national birth control policy, of "one child per family" (with some exceptions) which has been successful in slowing the population increase.
China is a nation in which travel and transport of goods along the rivers which flow from West to East has always been easier than travel from North to South. In spite of this, China began to diversify its economy early on and different areas began to specialize in different kinds of products: one area would produce tea, another silk, another rice, another fruits, salt or coal. This specialization of products meant a great movement of goods and the development of highly complex marketing systems; it is not surprising then, with centuries of history of trading goods over long distances, that China in the 10th century, invented the world's first paper money. This complex specialization and trading system was also a factor in holding China together or bringing her back together after she had been split up with the fall of one or another dynasty. Another result of this specialization of goods, was the construction of canals for their transport. By the 6th and 7th century, China had constructed the world's longest canal, the Grand Canal which ran from South of the Yangtze river to the Capital on the Yellow River and North to the area around Beijing, a distance of over 1200 miles. This canal remained China's main North-South artery until the coming of the railroad in the late 19th early 20th centuries.
Today China has a booming economy with one of the highest GNP's in the world. This rapid industrialization and modernization comes with a price, especially an environmental price. China is the world's largest user of coal with its resulting pollution, is rapidly increasing its fleet of automobiles with horrendous traffic jams in all the major cities, and is building the world's largest dam on the Yangtze river which will flood huge stretches of the river, displacing millions of people and burying countless historic artifacts. The dam is expected to help meet China's growing energy needs and is still a hotly debated question among environmentalists, historians, and policy makers.
The following website, from Washington University, has a wonderful section on the Geography of China, including excellent maps and a teacher's guide. Please visit A Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization . This will bring you to a webpage for a course in Chinese Civilizations; for Geography, please click on Contents, and then Geography. The rest of the site is linked to the Chinese Culture section of this website.