Cultural World. China’s cultural world can be divided into three parts: China Proper, its border regions, and various remote areas. China Proper during the imperial era(617-1644) constituted only one-third of the total area of the Chinese world, but it embraced 95 percent of the population. In spite of the fact that China Proper possesses a variety of topographical features and a continental climate
of extremes, the Chinese people succeeded in forming a unified empire thanks to a common written language and political philosophy. Naturally, regionalism exists in such a large country, but obstacles were never so great that they partitioned the Chinese culture to the same extent as the Europeans were divided.
Internal Boundaries. Physical features such as mountain ranges and large rivers help to define internal boundaries of China Proper, which is divided into three parts: North, Central, and South. North China is watered by the Huang or Yellow River, which travels approximately 2,903 miles from Tibet across the North China Plain to the Yellow Sea. (This river and the plain represent the source of liveli-hood for one-fourth of China’s people today.) The imperial capitals were usually located in the region, and North China became an important political center of the medieval period. Central China has the Chang (Yangzi or Yangtze)River, which starts in the mountains of Tibet and descends into the vast central plain. It is an estimated 3,434 miles long. The region is a transitional zone in terms of geography, culture, and crops. The growing season is longer than in the North, and important crops are wheat, rice, and tea. The mountains contain some mineral deposits. South China, with its many mountain ranges, has many small valleys and short rivers, of which the most important is the Xi(West) River. Approximately 1,200 miles in length, it pours into the South China Sea close to Guangzhou. There are other rivers in the region that flow into the West River or directly into the ocean. The climate is wet, and typhoons hit with terrible force in the summer. Rice and tea are the chief crops of South China, and because the growing season is from six to twelve months, up to three rice crops a year are possible. There are some mineral deposits in this area, such as bauxite, antimony, mercury, and tungsten. South China was never important as a political center during the period from 617 to 1644 because it was far from the imperial capitals. Thereafter it became a base of peasant rebellions.
Eurasian Continent. The Chinese world maintained relations with peoples whose modes of life and culture were different from its own. The Chinese world was in contact with the western and southern parts of the Eurasian continent during the Middle Ages (814-1350). There were four kinds of contacts: military campaigns, official diplomacy, commercial trade, and religious pilgrimages. The oasis routes played a significant role in establishing relations between China and other civilizations by the ninth century. The steppe routes, further to the north, linked Mongolia and North China closely to Europe and the countries of the Middle East from the thirteenth to fourteenth centuries. Maritime traffic along the coast also played an important role.
Interactions. The commercial centers situated at the ends of the main routes across the Eurasian continent and on the borders of the Chinese world were visited by traders, embassies, and missionaries from Central Asia, India, and the Middle East. In the same way the harbors on the Chinese coast were the meeting sites of Korean, Japanese, Indian, Persian, Arab, and later, European sailors and merchants. The big Chinese cities, especially the capitals, had been cosmopolitan centers since the Tang dynasty(618-907), and in turn Chinese soldiers, ambassadors, pilgrims, merchants, and craftsmen went to almost every area of Asia.
George B. Cressey, Asia’s Lands and People: A Geography of One-third of the Earth and Two-thirds of Its People (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963).
John K. Fairbank, Chinese Thought and Institutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957).
Michael Loewe, The Pride That Was China (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990).