The Physical Geography of China

China has a diverse landscape

Map of China

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Sitting on the Pacific Rim at 35 degrees North and 105 degrees East is the People’s Republic of China.

Along with Japan and Korea, China is often considered part of Northeast Asia as it borders North Korea and shares a maritime border with Japan. But the country also shares land borders with 13 other nations in Central, South and Southeast Asia – including Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burma, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Vietnam.

With 3.7 million square miles (9.6 square km) of terrain, China’s landscape is diverse and expansive. Hainan Province, China’s southernmost region is in the tropics, while Heilongjiang Province which borders Russia, can dip to below freezing.

There are also the western desert and plateau regions of Xinjiang and Tibet, and to the north lies the vast grasslands of Inner Mongolia. Just about every physical landscape can be found in China.

Mountains and Rivers

Major mountain ranges in China include the Himalayas along the India and Nepal border, the Kunlun Mountains in the center-west region, the Tianshan Mountains in the northwest Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, the Qinling Mountains that separates north and south China, the Greater Hinggan Mountains in the northeast, the Tiahang Mountains in north-central China, and the Hengduan Mountains in the southeast where Tibet, Sichuan and Yunnan meet.

The rivers in China include the 4,000-mile (6,300 km) Yangzi River, also known as the Changjiang or the Yangtze, that begins in Tibet and cuts through the middle of the country, before emptying into the East China Sea near Shanghai. It is the third-longest river in the world after the Amazon and the Nile.

The 1,200-mile (1900 km) Huanghe or Yellow River begins in the western Qinghai Province and travels a meandering route through North China to the Bohai Sea in Shangdong Province.

The Heilongjiang or Black Dragon River runs along the Northeast marking China’s border with Russia. Southern China has the Zhujiang or Pearl River whose tributaries make a delta emptying into the South China Sea near Hong Kong.

A Difficult Land

While China is the fourth largest country in the world, behind Russia, Canada, and the United States in terms of landmass, only about 15 percent of it is arable, as most of the country is made of mountains, hills, and highlands.

Throughout history, this has proven a challenge to grow enough food to feed China's large population. Farmers have practiced intensive agriculture methods, some of which have led to a great erosion of its mountains.

For centuries China has also struggled with earthquakes, droughts, floods, typhoons, tsunamis, and sandstorms. It is no surprise then that much of Chinese development has been shaped by the land.

Because so much of western China is not as fertile as other regions, most of the population lives in the eastern third of the country. This has resulted in uneven development where eastern cities are heavily populated and more industrial and commercial while the western regions are less populated and have little industry.

Located on the Pacific Rim, China's earthquakes have been severe. The 1976 Tangshan earthquake in northeast China is said to have killed more than 200,000 people. In May 2008, an earthquake in southwestern Sichuan province killed nearly 87,000 people and left millions homeless.

While the nation is just a bit smaller than the United States, China uses only one time zone, China Standard Time, which is eight hours ahead of GMT.

A Poem About China's Land: 'At Heron Lodge'

For centuries the diverse landscape of China has inspired artists and poets. Tang Dynasty poet Wang Zhihuan’s (688-742) poem “At Heron Lodge” romanticizes the land, and also shows an appreciation of perspective:

Mountains cover the white sun
And oceans drain the yellow river
But you can widen your view three hundred miles
By ascending a single flight of stairs
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Chiu, Lisa. "The Physical Geography of China." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Chiu, Lisa. (2020, August 28). The Physical Geography of China. Retrieved from Chiu, Lisa. "The Physical Geography of China." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 1, 2023).