Global Impact of the Rise of China: History of the Land and People

By Nadav Morag, Ph.D.

In this new blog series, Dr. Morag will discuss the geopolitical implications of the rise of China. Today, he begins with an explanation of the country’s history and people.

Chinese FlagGeography and Terrain
Even as the fourth largest country by surface area after Russia, Canada and the United States, China remains the world’s most populous country with over 1.3 billion inhabitants.  Given that the country is only slightly smaller than the U.S., China is extremely diverse from a geographic point of view and includes rainforests, temperate plains, sandy deserts, steppe, massive rivers and majestic mountains. In fact, Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak, is on the border between China and Nepal.  The size of the country and its tremendous geographic diversity has made the challenge of holding the country together one of the major themes of Chinese history. 

While there are exceptions due to interceding mountain ranges and plateaus, generally the farther west one travels in China, the higher the altitude will be.  Western China, which comprises about two-thirds of the country, is generally high and dry and consists of dry plateaus (as in Tibet), large sandy deserts, high mountains, and is generally sparsely populated. The eastern third of China contains the overwhelming majority of its population and includes fertile river valleys and plains, mountains, and rainforests. Generally-speaking, north of the country along the borders with Mongolia and Russia is primarily grassland and steppe and the far southeast is mainly tropical or sub-tropical.  China also has many major rivers, including two huge river systems: the Huang He (Yellow) and Chang Jiang (Yangtze) with a length of 5,464 km and over 6,300 thousand km respectively. The world’s largest dam, the Three Gorges Dam, spans the Yangtze River in Hubei province.

China’s territory is divided into 23 provinces, five autonomous regions, four large municipalities, and the Special Administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau; former British and Portuguese colonies respectively.  China really has 22 provinces but considers Taiwan to be its 23rd province. Next week, we will explore how Taiwan came to have a different government than China’s.

People and Language
With the exception of Japan, China is more ethnically-homogeneous than virtually any large country in terms of the population. Nearly 92% of the population belongs to the Han Chinese ethnic group with the remaining 8% made up of ethnic minorities including: Mongols, Manchu, Tibetans, Koreans, Uighurs and other groups.  Linguistically, however, China’s population is much more divided and speaks 292 languages belonging to eight different linguistic families.  The primary language of the educational system, government, and media is Mandarin, and this is the language spoken by the vast majority of the population either as a mother tongue or a second language.  Most Chinese dialects are mutually unintelligible1,  with wide variety of other Chinese languages, such as Wu, Cantonese, Hakka, and others spoken only in particular regions. Additionally, non-Han Chinese populations have their own respective mother tongues such as: Mongolian, Korean, Uighur, Tibetan, Manchu, and more.

For decades, the Han Chinese have been settling in minority areas such as Tibet, Xinjang, Manchuria, Inner Mongolia and others. This movement has taken place with government support, as successive Chinese governments exhibited mistrust of ethnic minorities and sought to ensure all areas of the country were settled by Han Chinese.  As a result, the ethnic Chinese form the majority of the population in most of the regions once dominated by ethnic minorities.  Not surprisingly, there are occasional flare-ups of sectarian conflict and actions by Tibetans or Uighurs against the government. These are put down harshly by the government and have not presented any real threat to the unity of China or the dominance of the Han Chinese.  The degree of ethnic pride and unity is high among the Han Chinese, who are acutely aware that they possess one of the oldest civilizations in the world stretching back five thousand years. To most Chinese, the idea that their country should take its place alongside the United States as a superpower is probably an obvious one.  In many ways, China is still a developing country and most of its population still lives as peasants in villages; but that is rapidly changing.  China has certainly come a long way from the poverty-stricken, weak, and divided country that it was for much of the 20th Century.  Next week, we will take a look at China’s history during that turbulent century, with subsequent posts examining governmental structure, economy, the rise of China as a geopolitical power, and the challenges this rise poses for neighboring countries and the United States.

1“Spoken Chinese,” Omniglot: The Online Encyclopedia of Writing Systems and Languages (1998-2012, Simon Ager), available at: (accessed July 27, 2012).

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