Basic Geography of China

ethnic china

Basic Geography of China

The People’s Republic of China, with an area of more than 9,600,000 km2 is the third largest country on our planet, after Russia and Canada. The name China derives from the name given to it by its neighbors, because the Chinese call their own country Zhongguo, which means the «Country of the Center», since they considered their own country the center of the world. For the Europeans it was for many centuries Cathay. A legendary kingdom of which, as now, the most fascinating wonders were told.

China is the largest country in East Asia, bordered to the south by Vietnam, Laos, Burma, India, Nepal and Pakistan; to the west by Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan; to the north by Russia and Mongolia; and to the east by North Korea and the Pacific Ocean. To get an idea of its dimensions, suffice it to say that from its eastern end, in the province of Heilongjiang to the west, in Xinjiang, there are 5,200 km. And from the north, also in Heilongjiang to the south, in the Nansha Islands, 5,500 km.

The surface of China is formed by a series of descending levels from the West, where the Qinghai-Tibet plateau is located, with an average height of 4,000 m above sea level, passing through the plateaus of Inner Mongolia, the Loess and those of Yunnan and Guizhou, between 1,000 and 2,000 m, to end up in the plains of the Northeast and the Middle and Lower reaches of the Yangtze River, with an elevation of between 500 and 1,000 m above sea level.

All types of environments can be found in China, as befits a country that is almost a continent. In general, the west is dry, with abundant deserts, and between them, not very fertile lands. The East, plains and gentle hills, the deltas of its great rivers, are rich lands that sustain most of the country. To the north, plains, cereal crops or livestock, very cold. And to the south, evergreen forests.


The main Chinese mountain ranges are in an east-west direction, with practically no mountain systems in a north-south direction. They thus divide the country into very distinct regions. To the north are mainly the Tianshan and Yinshan mountain ranges. In the center, the Kunlun and Qinling mountain ranges. To the south are the Himalayas and the Nanling Mountains.

Given the descending position of the Chinese plains, the west is very mountainous, and the east is flatter. To realize the magnitude of the mountains in western China it will be enough to have the luck of a clear day on a domestic flight. From the window, the mountains follow one after the other in uninterrupted succession.

In fact, there are nine peaks in China that exceed 8,000 meters in height. More than a hundred exceed 7,000 meters, and there are nearly a thousand peaks above 6,000 meters. A paradise for climbing enthusiasts. In fact, both the highest peak on earth, Everest or Qomolongma, at 8,848 meters, and the second highest, Qogir, at 8,611 meters in the Karakorum range, are in China.

Since ancient times, the Chinese, like many other peoples, have looked to the mountains (shan in their language) for their magical, religious and aesthetic meaning. Because of their effective protection against goblins and spirits, it is not uncommon to find a mountain located north of a city, tomb or palace.

Moreover, according to their mythology, the sky was supported by Five Mountains: Hengshan in Shanxi, Taishan in Shandong, Hengshan in Hunan (different from Shanxi), Huashan in Shaanxi and Songshan in Henan. On the slopes of these, the Taoists have left a number of temples.

Buddhists have not lagged behind in their veneration for the mountains. In some of them the temples are so numerous that they are considered Buddhist mountains. Such as: Wutaishan in Shanxi, Jiuhuashan in Anhui, Emeishan in Sichuan and Putoushan in Zhejiang.

Their aesthetic importance has not been minor. Not in vain landscape in Chinese is said shanshui (mountain-water), and the original shapes of the peaks of Guilin and Huangshan have attracted artists and poets since ancient times.

Rivers and Lakes

China is an abundant but unevenly irrigated country. Officially it is said that 50,000 rivers irrigate its lands, with an electrical potential, given the differences in altitude between the different plains of China, of some 680 million kw. But in reality the north is dry, rainfall is scarce, the rivers, which carry a large amount of sediment, have been used to the maximum, and have hardly any water. In fact, the Yellow River, the cradle of Chinese civilization, reaches its mouth without water half the days of the year. In the south, on the other hand, the rains are abundant and the rivers are plentiful, with abundant vegetation all around.

Rivers have been used in China for transportation since time immemorial. Since the mountain ranges run from west to east, the rivers follow the same direction. To solve the problem of transportation between the north and south of the country, the emperors of the Sui dynasty built the Grand Canal, which linked Hangzhou with Louyang first, and then Beijing, taking advantage of the tributaries. At 1675 km long, it is the largest canal in the world.

China’s two largest rivers, the Yangtze, which at 6,300 km long is the third longest river in the world, and the Yellow or Huanghe River, at 5,464 km, have been the cradle of Chinese civilization.

Also important, from north to south, are the Heilongjiang, which forms the border with Russia, the Haihe, which flows into the industrial city of Tianjin, the Huaihe, the Qiangtang with its famous spring tides near Hangzhou, and the Zhujiang, which flows into Canton. Three other rivers of great importance for South Asia are born in China: the Brahmaputra, called in China Yarlung Zangbo, in which the largest canyon in the world has recently been discovered; the Mekong, called Lancang, and the Salween, called Nujiang.

China also has numerous lakes. The largest is the Poyang Lake, with an area of 5,050 km2, followed by a saltwater lake, the Qinghai. But the most famous are undoubtedly Taihu Lake, near Suzhou, and the small West Lake in Hangzhou.

To cite this post: Ceinos-Arcones, Pedro, "Basic Geography of China," in Ethnic China, 2 junio 2021,

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