Official name : People's Republic of China

Area: 9,596,960 square kilometers (3,705,407 square miles)

Highest point on mainland: Mount Everest (8,850 meters/29,035 feet)

Lowest point on land: Turpan Pendi (154 meters/505 feet below sea level)

Hemispheres: Northern and Eastern

Time zone: 8 P.M. = noon GMT in East; 5 p.m. = noon GMT in West.

Longest distances: 845 kilometers (525 miles) from east-southeast to west-southwest; 3,350 kilometers (2,082 miles) from south-southeast to north-northwest

Land boundaries: 22,147 kilometers (13,762 miles) total boundary length; Afghanistan, 76 kilometers (47 miles); Bhutan, 470 kilometers (292 miles); Myanmar, 2,185 kilometers (1,358 miles); Hong Kong, 30 kilometers (19 miles); India, 3,380 kilometers (2,100 miles); Kazakhstan, 1,533 kilometers (953 miles); Kyrgyzstan, 858 kilometers (533 miles); Laos, 423 kilometers (263 miles); Mongolia, 4,677 kilometers (2,906 miles); Nepal, 1,236 kilometers (768 miles); North Korea, 1,416 kilometers (880 miles); Pakistan, 523 kilometers (325 miles); Russia, 3,645 kilometers (2,265 miles); Tajikistan, 414 kilometers (257 miles); Vietnam, 1,281 kilometers (796 miles)

Coastline: 14,500 kilometers (9,010 miles)

Territorial sea limits: 22 kilometers (12 nautical miles)


China is located in eastern Asia, west of the East China Sea, Korea Bay, Yellow Sea, and South China Sea. The country is bordered by fourteen other nations. With a total area of about 9,596,960 square kilometers (3,705,407 square miles), the country is slightly smaller than the United States. China is administratively divided into twenty-three provinces, five autonomous (self-governing) regions, and four municipalities.


Most international governments recognize Taiwan as an independent country; China, however, strongly disagrees with the rest of the world. It claims Taiwan as one of its provinces. The Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau, located near the southeast edge of China, both maintain largely independent political and economic government structures; they are governed by China, however, in matters of foreign affairs and defense.


Most of the country enjoys a temperate climate, but since the country is so large with such variations in altitude, many extremes in climate do exist. At the highest elevations in southwestern China, there are only fifty frost-free days per year. The hottest spot in China is in northwestern China in the Turpan Pendi, where summer highs can reach 47°C (116°F). Winter temperatures in northern China often drop to as low as -27°C (-17°F), and even in summer, they reach just 12°C (54°F). In the Yangtze River valley, the mean temperature in summer is 29°C (85°F).

Most of the country's rainfall occurs during the summer months. Rainfall is heaviest in the southeast, averaging 200 centimeters (80 inches) per year. In the northeastern region near Beijing, annual rainfall averages about 60 centimeters (25 inches). In the far northwest, the annual rainfall averages 10 centimeters (4 inches), although some desert regions may go a year or longer with no precipitation. Along the southern coast, severe storms are common, with destructive typhoons occasionally occurring.


The vast territory of China exhibits great variation in terrain and vegetation. The highest elevations are found in the far southwest in the Plateau of Tibet (Xizang Gaoyuan) and the Himalayas. The high elevations of the western portion of the country, which cover more than half of the overall territory, have cold temperatures and generally arid conditions that prevent the development of agriculture. As a result, the western region is more isolated and much more sparsely populated than the eastern areas.

The eastern quarter of the country is mostly lowlands and may be divided into northern China and the slightly larger southern China, separated from each other by the Yellow River and the Qinling Shandi (Ch'in Ling Shan) mountain range. In the northeastern region is the large Manchurian Plain. The Gobi Desert is separated from the Manchurian Plain by the Great Khingan Mountains, which occupy a northeastern region of China straddling the China-Mongolia border. To the southeast, the heavily populated Loess Plateau stretches from Beijing to Nanjing across the valley of the Yellow River.

China lies entirely on the Eurasian Tec-tonic Plate. The Tibetan region in the southwest, however, straddles the boundary of the Indian and Eurasian Tectonic Plates. Seismic fault lines also run north to south through the eastern region of China and the Manchurian Plain. Consequently, both the northeast and southwest regions are centers of seismic activity and experience periodic earthquakes, some of which have been devastating.

China's varied terrain supports diverse populations of plants, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals. China's more than one hundred unique wildlife species include the giant panda, the golden-haired monkey, the South China tiger, the Chinese alligator, the freshwater white-flag dolphin, and the red-crowned crane. The metasequoia, found only in China, is believed to be one of the oldest tree species in the world.


Seacoast and Undersea Features

The waters surrounding China are principally seas of the Pacific Ocean. From north to south along the western coast, they include the Yellow Sea (Huang Hai), East China Sea (Dong Hai), and the South China Sea (Nan Hai). The South China Sea features a deep ocean floor. Elsewhere, the continental shelf supports coastal fish farms and also contains substantial oil deposits.

Sea Inlets and Straits

Korea Bay and the Gulf of Chihli (Bo Hai), both inlets of the Yellow Sea, have substantial amounts of sea ice. Korea Bay separates the Liaodong Peninsula from North Korea. The turbulent waters of the Gulf of Chihli are relatively shallow, at 20 meters (70 feet). Also, the coastal area of the Gulf of Chihli has extensive wetlands, including riverine wetland, marshes, and salt marshes. The Taiwan Strait lies between the mainland and the island of Taiwan. The Gulf of Tonkin lies off the coast of Guangxi, the extreme southeastern province of China, located between Hainan Island and Vietnam.

Islands and Archipelagos

There are more than five thousand islands lying off the eastern coast of China. Taiwan (with an area of 36,000 square kilometers/ 22,500 square miles) is the largest. Hainan Island (about 34,000 square kilometers /21,250 square miles) is the second-largest island, but it is the largest which is fully under the jurisdiction of China. Other neighboring islands include the Spratly Islands, the Diaoyutai Islands, the Paracel Islands, and the Pescadores. The ownership of all of these islands groups is under dispute.

Coastal Features

China's coastline extends more than 14,500 kilometers (9,010 miles). More than half the coastline (predominantly in the south) is rocky, while most of the remainder is sandy. The Hangzhou Bay (Hangzhou Wan), just south of Shanghai, roughly divides the two types of shoreline.

The Shandong Peninsula juts out at the northernmost reach of the Yellow Sea. It features the dramatic and sacred peak, Tai Shan (1,530 meters/5,069 feet). North of the Shandong Peninsula, the coastline curves around another land mass: the Liaodong Peninsula. This peninsula separates Korea Bay from the Gulf of Chihli. In the south, separating the Gulf of Tonkin from the South China Sea, the narrow Qiongzhou Peninsula extends out from the mainland at China's southernmost point and almost touches Hainan Island.


The Silk Road is an ancient, seven-thousand-mile-long trading route that extended from east-central China through the present day countries of India, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. It essentially connected the region of the Yellow River Valley to the Mediterranean Sea. From there, costly Chinese silk could be transported throughout the Roman Empire. The Silk Road served not only as a transportation route for trade but also as a route of cultural exchange; travelers and traders from different regions shared their religious, political, and social beliefs and customs with one another.

The coastal areas of China are the most densely populated regions, containing more than 400 people per square kilometer (1,036 people per square mile). Bustling port cities lie along the coast, from Shanghai near the Yangtze Delta to Guangzhou (Canton), where the West River and Bei River join to become the Pearl River.


Qinghai Lake is currently China's largest lake and the third-largest salt lake in the world, with an area of 4,209 square kilometers (1,625 square miles). The lake is slowly drying up, however, shrinking a little bit each year. It is located in the Qaidam Basin, a sandy and swampy basin that contains many other salt lakes, including Lakes Ngoring and Gyaring.

Poyang Hu is the largest freshwater lake in China with a surface area of 2,779 square kilometers (1,073 square miles). It is found on the south Yangtze River in southeast China.

Dongting Hu is a large, shallow lake also south of the Yangtze. About 40 percent of the Yangtze's water travels through several channels into the lake. Lake Tai is located at the base of Mount Yu Shan on the other side of the Great Canal, just inland from Shanghai. Baiyangdian Lake (360 square kilometers/140 square miles) is used as a water source for the region just to the southwest of Beijing, which is home to hundreds of thousands of people. The lake is drying up due to overuse for industrial and agricultural production and drinking water, as well as a result of recurring drought.

There are several other notable lakes in China, many of which are located in the various mountain ranges, catching water from the many mountain streams. Erhai Lake is a freshwater lake on the plateau of Yunnan. Tianchi Lake (Heavenly Lake) lies in the Tian Shan Mountains in the northwest, about 115 kilometers (70 miles) northeast of Ürümqi. Also in the northwest between the Tian Shan and Kuruktag Shan Mountains is Lake Bosten, which receives the Kaidu River and other streams.


China's most important rivers lie in the eastern and northeastern part of the country. The three major river systems here are the Yangtze River (Chang Jiang), the Yellow River (Huang He), and the Hai River. The Yangtze is found south of the Kunlun and Qinling Mountains. It is the longest river in China—5,525 kilometers (3,434 miles)—and is navigable over much of its length. The Yangtze begins on the Plateau of Tibet and flows east through the heart of the country, draining an area of 1.8 million square kilometers (694,000 million square miles) before emptying into the East China Sea. The large Jinsha River is a major tributary of the upper Yangtze. The Hai River rises southwest of Beijing and flows through several lakes before joining the Yangtze.

Flowing initially northeast from its source in the Kunlun Shan, the Yellow River follows a winding path, measuring 4,671 kilometers (2,903 miles), as it courses toward the sea through the Loess Plateau. It is China's second-longest river. Over the centuries, the Yellow River has become choked with silt as it brings down a heavy load of sand and mud from its upper reaches, much of which is deposited on the flat plain. The water travels through artificial embankments that require constant repair. After years of these repairs, the river now actually flows on a raised ridge, the river-bed having risen 50 meters (164 feet) or more above the plain.

The Hai River flows west to east and is located north of the Yellow River. Its upper course consists of five rivers that converge near Tianjin, then flow 70 kilometers (43 miles) before emptying into the Gulf of Chihli.

Other significant rivers in northeastern China include the Amur River (Heilong Jiang), which flows a total 4,350 kilometers (2,719 miles) through Russia and China; the Liao River; and the Yalu River, which, along with the Tumen River, forms the border with North Korea. The largest river flowing in the southeast is the Pearl River (Zhu Jiang). The Pearl River flows to form the large Boca Tigris estuary between Hong Kong and Macau, linking Guangzhou to the South China Sea. The West River in southeastern China is an important commercial waterway. All of these rivers drain into the Pacific Seas.

Between the high mountains of the north and northwest, the rivers have no outlet to the sea. Many such waterways terminate in lakes or else diminish in the desert. A few are useful for irrigation. The largest of these rivers are the Konqi, the Kaidu, the Ulungur, and the Tarim. Its length of 2,179 kilometers (1,354 miles) makes the Tarim River China's longest river without an outlet to the sea.


One of the significant problems facing China is desertification. Currently, the total desert area comprises more than 2.6 million square kilometers (1 million square miles), or about 30 percent of the country's total land area. In the extreme west of the country, between two east-west mountain ranges, lies the Tarim Basin, where Asia's driest desert, the Taklimakan Desert, is found. Brutal sandstorms, arid conditions, extreme temperatures, and the remoteness of the area have prevented any significant exploitation of the vast petroleum reserves of this desert region. The Gobi Desert lies along the northern border with Mongolia. In China, the Badanjilin Shamo forms the southern limit of the Gobi. Much of the Gobi is mountainous, stark terrain. The Ordos (or Mu Us) Desert is the extension of the Gobi that lies along the southern edge of Inner Mongolia (Nei Mongol).


Only about 12 percent of China's land area may be classified as grasslands. Because of the country's size, however, there are still some significant plains regions. A principal feature of the south-central part of China is the fertile plain that is home to the Yangtze River. To the south of the river, a large plate-shaped section of the plain surrounds Lake Tai.

The Loess Plateau is mainly a large plain, also known as the North China Plain. It is actually a continuation of the central Manchurian Plain to the northeast, but is separated from it by the Gulf of Chihli. The Han people, China's largest ethnic group, have farmed the rich alluvial soils of the plain since ancient times, constructing the Grand Canal (Dayun He) for north-south transport.

There are also grasslands in the massive Tarim Basin and the Junggar Basin in China's northwest corridor. Rich deposits of coal, oil, and metallic ores lie in this area. The Tarim is China's largest inland basin, measuring 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) from east to west and 600 kilometers (373 miles) from north to south at its widest parts.

Being so mountainous, China has many hill regions between and at the feet of the various ranges. There are also some notable hilly regions in the south, along the coastline of the South China Sea, where farmers must carve terraces into the land to grow rice.


Mountains cover more than two-thirds of the nation's territory, impeding communication and leaving only limited areas of level land for agriculture. The Himalayas form a natural boundary with countries on the southwest. Similarly, the Altay Shan Mountains form the extreme northwest border with Mongolia.

The Himalayas are the highest mountains on Earth. They extend along a 2,414-kilometer (1,500-mile) arc from Jammu and Kashmir in the northwest to where the Brahmaputra River cuts south through the mountains near the Myanmar border. This range forms much of China's western and all of its southwestern international borders. Mount Everest, the world's highest mountain—8,850 meters (29,035 feet)—is found in this region on the border between Nepal and China. Seven of the world's nineteen peaks with summit elevations greater than 7,000 meters (23,000 feet) are also located here.

Bei Heng Shan Shanxi Province 3,060 meters (10,095 feet) Taoism
Nan Heng Shan Hunan Province 1,282 meters (4,232 feet) Taoism
Hua Shan Shanxi Province (along the Yellow River) 1,985 meters (6,552 feet) Taoism
Song Shan Henan Province (along the Yellow River) 1,485 meters (4,900 feet) Taoism
Tai Shan Shandong Province 1,530 meters (5,069 feet) Taoism
Emei Shan Sichuan Provnice 3,060 meters (10,095 feet) Buddhism
Jiuhua Shan Anhui Province 1,322 meters (4,340 feet) Buddhism
Putuo Shan Zhejiang Province 282 meters (932 feet) Buddhism

Moving north from the Himalayas, several ranges also run west to east, including the Kailas Mountains (Gangdisê Shan), Tanggula Mountains, the Kunlun Shan, the Kuruktag Shan, the Qilian Shan, and the Tian Shan. The Tian Shan stretch across China between Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia. The Qinling Shandi (Ch'in Ling Shan), a continuation of the Kunlun Shan, divides the Loess Plateau from the Yangtze River Delta. The Qinling Shandi forms both geographic and cultural boundaries between the two great parts of China. To the south lie the densely populated and highly developed areas of the lower and middle plains of the Yangtze. To the north are the more remote, more sparsely populated areas.

In the far northeast, north of the Great Wall, the Great Khingan Mountains (Da Hinggan Ling) form a barrier along the border with Mongolia, extending from the Amur to the Liao River in a north-south orientation, with elevations reaching 1,715 meters (5,660 feet). The Lesser Khingan Mountains (Xiao Hinggan Ling) line the northeastern border with Russia. To the east, along the border with Korea, lie the Changbai Shan (Forever White Mountains), where snow covers the peaks year-round.

The Yellow Mountains (Huang Shan), southwest of Shanghai, contain seventy-two peaks, the tallest of which is Lianhua Feng (Lotus Flower Peak) at 1,864 meters (6,151 feet). The Yellow Mountains region also includes hot mineral springs, where the water temperature is constant at 42°C (108°F).


The Grand Yarlung Zangbo Canyon in the Tibet autonomous region is the largest canyon in the world at 505 kilometers (316 miles) long and 6,009 meters (10,830 feet) deep. The Yar-lung Zangbo, the river that eventually becomes the Bramaputra, carved this canyon.

The Three Gorges, a famous 322-kilometer-deep (200-mile-deep) canyon on the Yangtze, will be submerged when the Three Gorges Dam becomes operational in 2009. The Hutiaojian ("Tiger Leaping") Canyon, located along the Jinsha River, an upper tributary of the Yangtze, is one of the world's deepest canyons at 3,000 meters (9,900 feet) deep.

There are a large number of natural and hand-carved caves in China that were created and used by religious monks and followers. The Longmen Grottoes in the city of Luoyang contain one of the largest collections of Chinese and Buddhist art of the late Northern Wei and Tang Dynasties (c. 316-907 A.D. ), including statues carved into rock, sculptured walls and ceilings, and rock paintings. The site has about 2,345 caves.

The Yungang Grottoes, in Datong city, contain similar Chinese and Buddhist art, including about 51,000 statues in 252 caves. The Magao Grottoes in Dunhuang (also called the Dunhuang Grottoes) are located along the old Silk Road of China. This region features 492 caves with an estimated 45,000 square meters of frescos and 2,415 painted statues. Nearly fifty thousand artifacts were found in Magao, including Buddhist scriptures, historical documents, textiles, and other relics. All of these cave sites have been designated as United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Sites.


About 25 percent of China's total area may be characterized as plateau. The Plateau of Tibet is in China's southwest, enclosed by the Himalayas and the Kunlun Shan. It is the highest and most extensive plateau in the world, incorporating some 2.3 million square kilometers (888,000 square miles) with elevations that average more than 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) above sea level. The loftiest summits rise to over 7,200 meters (23,622 feet). It is referred to as the "roof of the world," and the land there continues to rise, gaining an average of 10 millimeters (0.04 inches) per year in elevation. North of Tibet rise two more plateaus: the Tarim Basin and the Junggar Basin. In these regions, the elevation averages 4,600 meters (15,000 feet). The Tian Shan range separates the two plateaus.

The Inner Mongolia (Nei Mongol) Plateau, China's second-largest plateau, lies in the northeast near the border with Mongolia. It covers an area of about 1,000,000 square kilometers (386,100 square miles), with 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles) stretching from east to west and 500 kilometers (300 miles) from north to south. The elevation averages between 1,000 and 2,000 meters (3,300 to 6,600 feet).


The Great Wall of China is one of the largest structures ever built by humans. Construction began around the seventh and eighth centuries B.C. Most of the Great Wall along the country's northern flank, the east-west extent of which is more than 3,300 kilometers (2,050 miles), was completed about 220 B.C. The wall was built as a barrier against invaders and became, for a time, the world's largest military structure. In its most complete stage, it stretched across 6,000 kilometers (3,729 miles) of mountainous and desert terrain in northeastern China. Today, some of the sections are in ruins or seriously decayed. Several segments remain intact and are visited by tourists, however, including guard towers.

To the south is Loess Plateau, the third largest plateau in China, covering 600,000 square kilometers (308,881 square miles). The plateau is covered by a layer of loess, a yellowish soil blown in from the deserts of Inner Mongolia. The loess layer ranges from 100 to 200 meters (330 to 660 feet) in depth and rises to elevations that range from 800 to 2,000 meters (2,640 to 6,600 feet). The Loess Plateau experiences some of the most severe soil erosion conditions of anywhere in the world.

The last notable plateau in China is the Yunnan-Guizhou plateau in the southwest. The smallest plateau in China, it features unusual geology with dramatic stone outcroppings and overhangs.


In 1994, work began on the seventeen-year-long project to construct the world's largest dam on the Yangtze. The Three Gorges Dam will be the largest hydroelectric dam in the world, measuring just over 2 kilometers (about a mile) across and 185 meters (610 feet) high when it is completed (projected for 2009). Its reservoir is expected to extend more than 560 kilometers (350 miles) upstream, flooding the towns and villages that are home to an estimated two million people, all of whom will be forced to relocate when the dam is completed.

The Grand Canal (Dayun He), running from Beijing in the north to Hangzhou in the south, is the longest (1,801 kilometers/1,126 feet) and oldest artificial canal in the world. It links five rivers: the Hai River, Yellow River, Huai River, the Yangtze River, and the Qian-tang River. It was dug by hand over a period that stretched from 486 B.C. to 1293 A.D.



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Harper, Damian. The National Geographic Traveler: China. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2001.

Leeming, Frank. The Changing Geography of China. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1993.

Smith, Christopher J. China: People and Places in the Land of One Billion. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991.


Riboud, Marc. "China's Magic Mountain." Life, 7 (March 1984): 48ff.

Web Sites

"China in Brief." China Guide. (accessed June 4, 2003).

Gray, Martin. "Sacred Mountains of China." Places of Peace and Power . (accessed June 13, 2003).

NOVA: Everest. (accessed June 13, 2003).

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