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Geographic regions of China

In a general sense, the topography of China exhibits a gradient from high elevations in the western regions to lower elevations in the eastern territories, which influences the predominantly eastward flow of the country’s principal rivers. The topographical features of China can be categorized into three distinct tiers.

The highest tier is exemplified by the Tibetan Plateau, straddling the Tibet Autonomous Region and Qinghai Province. This plateau stands as the preeminent highland region globally, with an average altitude exceeding 13,000 feet (4,000 meters) above sea level. Within this area, the western Qiangtang section boasts an average elevation of 16,500 feet (5,000 meters), earning it the moniker “roof of the world.”

Descending to the second tier, we find it situated north of the Kunlun and Qilian mountain ranges, and to the south, east of the Qionglai and Daliang ranges. Here, the mountains precipitously drop to elevations ranging from 6,000 to 3,000 feet (1,800 to 900 meters), transitioning into a landscape where basins are interspersed with plateaus. Notable features of this tier include the Mongolian Plateau, the Tarim Basin, the Loess Plateau—characterized by its wind-deposited yellow-gray silt—the Sichuan Basin, and the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau.

The third and lowest tier stretches from the eastern flanks of the Dalou, Taihang, and Wu mountain ranges, as well as from the eastern boundary of the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau, reaching all the way to the China Sea. This vast expanse is predominantly composed of hills and plains with elevations below 1,500 feet (450 meters).

One of the most striking aspects of China’s topography is the extensive network of mountain ranges, which have had a profound impact on the nation’s historical, economic, and cultural evolution. By approximate calculations, mountains constitute about one-third of China’s land area. The country is home to the world’s highest peak, as well as the largest and highest plateau, and it also features expansive coastal plains. The five principal landforms—mountain, plateau, hill, plain, and basin—are all prominently represented. The intricate and diverse nature of China’s topography is intrinsically linked to its rich natural resources and complex ecological landscape.

China’s topographical landscape is characterized by a remarkable diversity of geographical features. The nation’s terrain includes the world’s highest summit, Mount Everest, known as Qomolangma Feng, which stands at the China-Nepal border with an elevation of 29,035 feet (8,850 meters) above sea level. In stark contrast, the Turfan Depression’s lowest point, Lake Ayding, located in the Uygur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang, lies 508 feet (155 meters) below sea level. The Chinese coastline exhibits significant variation from south to north. South of Hangzhou Bay, the coastline is rugged with numerous harbors and islands, while the northern coastline, aside from the Shandong and Liaodong peninsulas, is predominantly sandy and flat.

China is subject to considerable seismic activity, largely due to the northward movement of the Indian tectonic plate beneath southern Asia. This geological process has given rise to the high mountains and plateaus in China’s southwest. Historically, China has endured numerous devastating earthquakes, with several in the 20th century, including those in Gansu province in 1920 and Tangshan in Hebei province in 1976, each resulting in approximately 250,000 fatalities. The 2008 Sichuan province earthquake also claimed tens of thousands of lives and caused widespread destruction.

The nation’s physical geography has played a significant role in shaping its historical development. The Han Chinese civilization originated on the southern Loess Plateau and expanded until it encountered natural barriers. The Gansu or Hexi Corridor, a notable geographical feature, is flanked by the Tibetan Plateau to the south and the Gobi Desert to the north, both of which impeded expansion. Consequently, Chinese civilization progressed along the corridor, supported by water from the Qilian Mountains for oasis farming. This corridor also served as a historical junction between the East and West.

Historically, China’s political center was situated along the lower Huang He (Yellow River). However, the country’s varied topography often made it challenging for the central government to maintain control, except during periods of strong dynastic rule. Regions such as the Sichuan Basin, a self-sufficient agricultural area protected by mountains, occasionally became an independent kingdom. Similarly, the remote Tarim Basin, connected to the rest of China by the Gansu Corridor, sometimes saw the rise of oasis states when central authority waned. Only during the Han, Tang, and Qing dynasties was the central government able to exert significant control over these regions.

China can be divided into three primary topographic regions based on geological structure, climatic conditions, and geomorphological evolution: the eastern, northwestern, and southwestern zones. The eastern zone is defined by its river systems, which have shaped the landscape through erosion and alluvial deposition, and features a monsoonal climate. The northwestern region is characterized by its arid climate and wind-eroded terrain, forming an inland drainage basin. The southwest region is a high-altitude area with mountainous terrain, intermontane plateaus, and inland lakes.

Further subdivision of these regions results in secondary geographic divisions: ten in the eastern region, two in the southwest, and three in the northwest. Each division possesses distinct characteristics that contribute to the overall complexity of China’s topographical identity.

The eastern region

The Northeast Plain

The Northeastern Plain, also recognized as the Manchurian Plain or the Sung-liao Plain, is situated in the northeastern sector of China, within the territory historically referred to as Manchuria. This expansive plain is flanked by the Da Hinggan Range to its west and north, and the Xiao Hinggan Range to its east. It features a gently rolling landscape that is divided into northern and southern sections by a modest elevation gradient, ranging from 150 to 260 meters in height.

The hydrology of the region is characterized by the Sungari River and its tributaries, which irrigate the northern portion, while the southern part is served by the Liao River. Although the surface of the plain predominantly exhibits signs of erosion, it is endowed with a layer of fertile soil of considerable depth. Encompassing approximately 350,000 square kilometers, the Northeastern Plain is renowned for its diverse and productive agricultural landscape, which includes forest-steppe, steppe, meadow-steppe, and extensively cultivated areas.

The soil within this region is notably fertile and dark, contributing to its reputation as a distinguished agricultural zone. The river valleys within the plain are broad and level, featuring a succession of terraces that have been shaped by the accumulation of silt. Seasonal flooding of the rivers results in the inundation of vast tracts of land, which further enriches the soil with nutrients.

The Changbai Mountains

Located to the southeast of the Northeast Plain, the mountainous region encompasses the Changbai, Zhangguangcai, and Wanda ranges. Collectively referred to in Mandarin as the Changbai Shan, or the “Forever White Mountains,” this area is characterized by a landscape of intermittent open valleys and elevations predominantly ranging from 1,500 to 3,000 feet (approximately 450 to 900 meters). The terrain is marked by striking features, including rugged peaks and sheer cliffs in certain areas. The volcanic Mount Baitou, rising to an elevation of 9,003 feet (2,744 meters), stands as the highest peak in the region, crowned with a snow-capped summit that cradles a picturesque crater lake.

This region is recognized as one of China’s principal forested zones, renowned for its abundance of valuable fur-bearing animals and a variety of esteemed medicinal plants. Agricultural activities are largely confined to the more hospitable valley floors due to the challenging topography.

The North China Plain

The North China Plain, which is roughly equivalent in dimensions to the Northeast Plain, predominantly rests at altitudes not exceeding 160 feet (50 meters), presenting a landscape that is notably level and uniform. This expansive plain has been shaped by substantial accumulations of sediment, predominantly delivered by the Yellow River (Huang He) and the Huai River from the Loess Plateau. The sedimentary layers from the Quaternary period, dating back up to 2.6 million years, have amassed to impressive depths ranging between 2,500 and 3,000 feet (760 to 900 meters).

The riverbeds in this region, elevated above the adjacent terrain, act as natural levees, creating distinct drainage divides. Interspersed between these elevated channels are low-lying areas, often giving rise to lakes and marshlands. In areas where the terrain is exceptionally flat and low, the water table beneath the surface can vary between 5 and 6.5 feet (1.5 to 2 meters), which frequently leads to the formation of meadow marshes and, in certain localities, contributes to the development of saline-affected soils.

The North China Plain is a region with a dense population and a history of extensive settlement. It boasts the highest percentage of land dedicated to agricultural use in comparison to any other region within China, reflecting its significance in the nation’s agricultural productivity.

The Loess Plateau

The expansive Loess Plateau, encompassing an area of approximately 154,000 square miles (400,000 square kilometers), constitutes a distinctive geographical zone characterized by loess-covered hills and sparse mountain ranges situated between the North China Plain and the western deserts. The Great Wall of China demarcates its northern boundary, while the southern periphery is defined by the Qin Mountains in Shaanxi Province. The plateau’s average elevation hovers around 4,000 feet (1,200 meters), with certain bedrock formations within the region, such as the Liupan Mountains, ascending to heights of up to 9,825 feet (2,995 meters). A significant portion of the plateau is blanketed by loess deposits, varying in depth from 165 to 260 feet (50 to 80 meters), with even thicker accumulations observed in the northern areas of Shaanxi and the eastern regions of Gansu Province. The loess terrain is highly prone to water erosion, leading to a network of ravines and gorges that traverse the plateau. It is estimated that these erosive features occupy nearly half of the plateau’s landscape, with some areas experiencing erosion depths ranging from 300 to 650 feet (90 to 200 meters).

The Shandong Hills

The topography of these hills is primarily characterized by the presence of primordial crystalline shales and granites, which date back to the early Precambrian period, signifying an age exceeding 2.5 billion years. These geological formations are accompanied by relatively younger sedimentary rocks, which originated approximately 540 to 420 million years ago. The current landscape has been significantly influenced by tectonic activity, with faults being instrumental in shaping the terrain. Consequently, numerous hills in the area are classified as horsts, which are segments of the Earth’s crust that have been elevated due to faulting, whereas the valleys are typically grabens, formed by downward displacement of crustal blocks along fault lines.

The Jiaolai Plain bisects the region, resulting in a division into two distinct sections. The eastern section is comparatively lower in elevation, with average heights not surpassing 1,500 feet (450 meters). Within this area, only select peaks and ridges reach elevations of 2,500 feet, and on rare occasions, some may extend up to 3,000 feet (900 meters). The pinnacle of this section is Mount Lao, which ascends to an elevation of 3,714 feet (1,132 meters). In contrast, the western section exhibits a slightly higher elevation profile, culminating at Mount Tai, which soars to 5,000 feet (1,524 meters) and is revered as one of China’s most hallowed mountains. The Shandong Hills converge with the ocean to form a rugged and irregular coastline.

The Qin Mountains

The Qin Mountains, traditionally known as Tsinling, situated within Shaanxi province, represent the most prominent mountain range to the east of the Tibetan Plateau. This extensive range forms a formidable and elevated barrier that stretches from Gansu to Henan. Geographically, the delineation between the Qin Mountain chain and the Huai River serves as a demarcation, segregating China into northern and southern regions. The altitude of these mountains fluctuates between 3,000 and 10,000 feet (approximately 900 to 3,000 meters), with the western segment being notably higher. The apex of the range is Mount Taibai, which reaches an impressive elevation of 12,359 feet (about 3,767 meters). The Qin Mountains are characterized by multiple parallel ridges aligned predominantly in a west-east orientation. These ridges are interspersed with a complex network of branching valleys, where the canyon walls frequently ascend almost vertically, reaching heights of 1,000 feet (roughly 300 meters) above the valley floors.

The Sichuan Basin

The Sichuan Basin stands out as a particularly captivating geographical area within China. Encircled by towering mountains that ascend higher towards the west and north, the basin benefits from a natural barrier against the incursion of frigid northern winds, resulting in a notably milder winter climate compared to the southeastern plains of China, which lie further south.

While the Chengdu Plain presents a notable exception, the region predominantly features a hilly landscape. The eastern portion of the basin is characterized by a complex topography with numerous folded structures, giving rise to an alternating pattern of ridges and valleys that predominantly extend from the northeast to the southwest.

The scarcity of flat, cultivable land has necessitated that local agriculturalists adapt by cultivating hillside terrains. Ingeniously, they have constructed extensive terraces along these slopes, which often span from the summit to the base. This terracing technique not only mitigates soil erosion but also maximizes agricultural space, enabling the use of steeper inclines for cultivation—some with gradients exceeding 45 degrees.

The southeastern mountains

The southeastern region of China is characterized by a rugged coastal boundary, which is further enhanced by the scenic mountain ranges that lie beyond. The region exhibits a clear structural and topographic orientation that extends from the northeast towards the southwest. The mountainous terrain features prominent peaks, with some reaching altitudes between approximately 1,500 and 2,000 meters (5,000 to 6,500 feet). The region’s rivers are typically brief in length and exhibit rapid flows, having carved out valleys with steep sides. Settlements are predominantly concentrated along slender coastal plains, which are also the principal zones for rice cultivation. Additionally, the coastline is dotted with a multitude of islands, which serve as hubs for a thriving fishing industry.

Plains of the middle and lower Yangtze

To the east of Yichang, within the boundaries of Hubei province, one can observe a sequence of plains adjacent to the Yangtze River, also known as Chang Jiang, that vary in breadth. These plains exhibit a notable expansion in the delta region and in vicinities where the river welcomes its significant tributaries. This includes extensive lowland areas surrounding Dongting, Poyang, Tai, and Hongze lakes, all of which maintain a hydrological connection with the Yangtze. The terrain here is characterized as an alluvial plain, formed by the deposition of riverine sediments over extensive periods. While the landscape does feature occasional isolated hills, it predominantly presents as flat, with most areas not exceeding an elevation of 160 feet (50 meters). The region is crisscrossed by an intricate network of rivers, canals, and lakes. Moreover, the topography of the plain has been meticulously transformed into a series of leveled terraces that gracefully step down along the valley inclines.

The Nan Mountains

The Nanling Mountains, also known as the Nan Mountains, consist of multiple mountain ranges that extend in a northeast to southwest direction. These ranges serve as a significant divide, delineating the watershed for the Yangtze River to the north and the Pearl (Zhu) River to the south. The predominant peaks situated along this divide surpass an elevation of 5,000 feet, with certain summits reaching in excess of 6,500 feet. Despite the prominence of these mountains, the terrain to the south is predominantly hilly, with flatlands constituting less than 10 percent of the total area. The Pearl River Delta stands out as the sole expansive plain within this locale and is recognized as the most fertile and economically productive area in Southern China. The coastal landscape is characterized by its rugged and uneven nature, featuring numerous headlands and sheltered bays, notably those surrounding Hong Kong and Macau. The Xi River, originating from the elevated terrains of eastern Yunnan and southern Guizhou, is the primary watercourse in the region.

The southwest

The Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau

The area in question encompasses the northern sector of Yunnan and the western segment of Guizhou, characterized by a highly dissected periphery. Yunnan distinctly presents itself as a plateau, boasting a more extensive expanse of rolling uplands in comparison to Guizhou. Nonetheless, both regions are marked by their canyon-like valleys and steep mountains. The most elevated points are situated in the western area, with Mount Diancang, also known as Cang Shan, reaching an altitude of 13,524 feet (4,122 meters). Within the major river valleys, the elevation descends to approximately 1,300 to 1,600 feet (400 to 490 meters). The western portion of this region exhibits particularly stark elevation contrasts and a pronounced ruggedness of terrain, especially within the gorges carved by the large rivers. To the east, the landscape has been extensively shaped by karst processes, resulting in features such as sinkholes, ravines, and subterranean watercourses within the limestone terrain. The highlands are dotted with numerous small lake basins, each isolated by intervening mountain ranges.

The Plateau of Tibet

This expansive highland region encompasses approximately one-quarter of the nation’s territory. The majority of this elevated plateau is situated at altitudes ranging from 4,000 to 5,000 meters, or 13,000 to 16,500 feet above sea level. The plateau is flanked by even loftier mountain ranges—the Kunlun Mountains and the Himalayas—where peaks ascend to remarkable elevations between 7,000 to 8,000 meters, or 23,000 to 26,000 feet. Generally, the inner slopes of these bordering ranges, facing towards Tibet, have a more gradual incline, in contrast to the steep declines of their outer slopes.

This plateau is also notable for being the origin of several of the planet’s major rivers, such as the Yangtze, Yellow (Huang He), Mekong, Salween, Indus, and Brahmaputra. Human settlements are predominantly found in the lower valleys, especially within the vicinity of the Brahmaputra valley.

Within the northwestern expanse of the Tibetan Plateau lies the Qaidam (Tsaidam) Basin, the most extensive and lowest-lying depression in the region. The broader northwestern section of the basin is positioned at elevations between 2,700 and 3,000 meters, or 8,800 to 10,000 feet, while the more narrow southeastern area is marginally lower. The basin is characterized by its predominant landscape of gravel, sandy and clay deserts, semi-deserts, and saline wastelands.

The northwest

The Tarim Basin

Situated north of the Tibetan Plateau and at a considerably lower elevation of approximately 3,000 feet (900 meters), the Tarim Basin is encircled by formidable mountain ranges. To the north, it is bordered by the Tien Shan (Tian Shan; “Celestial Mountains”), the Pamirs to the west, and the Kunlun Mountains to the south. Streams, originating from glaciers on these elevated terrains, cascade down only to dissipate in the arid sands and gravels of the central Takla Makan Desert, one of the most inhospitable deserts on the planet. Within this desert, only a select few major rivers, such as the Tarim and Hotan (Khotan), manage to traverse the terrain. However, their flow is intermittent, maintaining water throughout their courses solely during the seasonal flood period.

The Tarim Basin spans an area of roughly 215,000 square miles (557,000 square kilometers), with varying elevations from 2,500 to 4,600 feet (750 to 1,400 meters) above sea level. The basin’s topography gently inclines towards the southeast, culminating at Lop Nur, a saline lake bed.

The Junggar Basin

To the north of the Tarim Basin lies the expansive Junggar Basin, also known as the Dzungarian Basin. This significant depression is bordered to the south by the majestic Tien Shan mountain range, while the Altai Mountains delineate its northeastern boundary, separating it from Mongolia. The topography of the Junggar Basin is predominantly level, exhibiting a subtle incline towards the southwest.

The majority of the terrain within the basin is situated at altitudes ranging from approximately 1,000 to 1,500 feet (300 to 450 meters). The elevation diminishes to just under 650 feet (200 meters) in the basin’s lowest areas. The central expanse of the basin is predominantly characterized by an extensive desert landscape, where barchans—crescent-shaped sand dunes that are mobile—predominate. Vegetation is sparse, but where it does exist, it plays a crucial role in anchoring the dunes and preventing their movement.

The Tien Shan

The eastern segment of the Tien Shan mountain system is characterized by an intricate array of mountain ranges and valleys, which are categorically divided into two principal range groups: the northern and the southern. These groups are delineated by a series of intermontane basins, which are further segmented by internal mountain ranges. The predominant geological composition of the interior ranges is ancient metamorphic rock, while the northern and southern peripheries are primarily formed of Paleozoic sedimentary and igneous strata, dating approximately 250 to 540 million years ago. Additionally, Mesozoic-era sandstones and conglomerates, aged around 65 to 250 million years, occupy the intermontane basins and form the lower hill ridges.

The principal elevations of the Tien Shan’s Chinese ranges typically span from 13,000 to 15,000 feet (4,000 to 4,600 meters), with certain peaks surpassing 16,000 feet (4,900 meters). The interior ranges reach an altitude of approximately 14,500 feet (4,400 meters). In the western regions, where moisture levels are more substantial, extensive glaciers develop, some extending beyond 20 miles (32 kilometers). This area is the source of significant rivers like the Ili (Yili) River and its tributaries, which have robust flow rates. The region’s alpine meadow steppe, fostered by the favorable climatic conditions, is recognized as one of China’s premier pastoral landscapes.

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