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The land of China

Geography, People, Culture, and Economic Profile

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Soils plant and animal life of China

Soils

China’s extensive and varied climatic conditions contribute to its rich diversity of soil types. The nation boasts nearly all soil varieties found on the Eurasian continent, with the notable exceptions of tundra soils and the heavily leached podzolic-gley soils characteristic of the northern taiga. The climatic disparities between the drier, cooler north and the more humid, warmer south have led to a bifurcation of soil classifications. To the north of the Qin Mountains–Huai River demarcation, the soils are predominantly pedocals, which are calcareous and range from neutral to alkaline in pH. Conversely, to the south of this line, one finds pedalfers, which are leached noncalcareous soils with a neutral to acidic pH.

China’s soil zones are distinctly shaped by variations in climate, vegetation, and proximity to the ocean, with the exception of the high-altitude plateaus and mountains in the southwest. The eastern and southeastern coastal areas are enveloped by a forest zone, indicative of a humid to semi-humid climate. In contrast, the northern and northwestern inland regions are characterized by steppe, semi-desert, and desert zones, reflecting a semi-arid to arid climate. Bridging these contrasting soil zones is the forest-steppe transitional zone, where forest and steppe soils intermingle.

Nestled between the northern pedocals and the southern pedalfers are the neutral soils. The Yangtze River floodplain, particularly below the Three Gorges, is blanketed with a rich layer of noncalcareous alluvium. These soils, often referred to as paddy soils due to their suitability for rice cultivation, are exceptionally fertile and well-textured. Paddy soils are a distinct cultivated soil type, developed over extended periods under the specific conditions of intensive rice farming.

In North China’s coastal regions, there are stretches of saline and alkaline soils. These result from inadequate drainage combined with low precipitation, which fails to dissolve or flush away the accumulated salts.

The natural challenges to soil quality have been exacerbated by centuries of intensive farming, leading to a widespread deficiency in nitrogen and organic matter across China’s agricultural lands. This deficiency is largely due to the common practice of removing crop residues for use as livestock fodder and fuel, rather than allowing them to enrich the soil. Although animal and human waste is employed as fertilizer, it does not sufficiently replenish the organic content lost from the soil. Additionally, while deficiencies in phosphorus and potassium are present, they are not as prevalent or critical as the nitrogen shortfall.

Historically, it is estimated that forests once spanned approximately 50% of what is now recognized as Chinese territory. However, contemporary assessments indicate that forest coverage in China has diminished to a mere fraction, with less than 10% of the land maintaining forested areas. The significant reduction in forested land is primarily attributed to the conversion of extensive tracts of forest in central and southern China into agricultural land, a process which has led to pronounced soil erosion on hill slopes and the subsequent accumulation of sediment in adjacent valleys.

To mitigate the effects of soil erosion and to facilitate the cultivation of rice, farmers have ingeniously developed leveled terraces, reinforced by structural walls, which serve to retain water. These terraces have proven to be highly effective in preventing soil erosion, to the extent that regions with comprehensive terrace systems exhibit negligible erosion. Consequently, these terraced landscapes have become a defining characteristic of China’s rural topography.

Furthermore, detrimental practices such as overgrazing have contributed to the degradation of grasslands, exacerbating soil loss. The deterioration of the soil’s granular structure and permeability renders it susceptible to erosion, particularly during the rainy season when it can be readily washed away, and in arid regions where wind erosion prevails. The Loess Plateau is particularly prone to severe soil erosion due to its exposure to both precipitation and wind, resulting in a unique topography characterized by deep gullies with steep sides. The repercussions of intense summer rainfall extend beyond soil erosion to include frequent flooding events, which are exacerbated by the high sediment loads carried by rivers.

Plant and animal life

Flora

China’s remarkable topographical and climatic variety has given rise to an extensive assortment of indigenous vegetation. The nation boasts approximately 30,000 species of seed plants, encompassing around 2,700 genera, with over 200 genera being unique to China. Among the roughly 2,500 species of forest trees found in the country, 95 percent are broad-leaved varieties. Several of these arboreal species hold significant economic value, including tung, camphor, and varnish trees, as well as star anise, which provides a flavoring oil, and glossy privet.

The diversity of plant life in China, blending tropical and temperate flora, is facilitated by several factors. These include the absence of formidable geographical barriers separating different climatic zones, the alternating wind patterns between winter and summer, and the common occurrence of cyclones. A comparison between the vegetation of Heilongjiang province in the north and Guangdong province in the south reveals virtually no shared plant species, save for some ubiquitous weeds. Conversely, the taiga regions of China’s northern border and the high mountains share many plant species with the Arctic Circle, while the tropical species in China’s southern regions also thrive south of the Equator.

From an ecological standpoint, the tropical forests in southern China share similarities with those in Indonesia and Southeast Asia, while the desert and steppe vegetation in northwestern China resembles that of Mongolia or Kazakhstan. The taiga landscapes bordering Russia are virtually indistinguishable from those in Siberia.

Travelers in China can observe nearly all forms of natural vegetation native to the Northern Hemisphere, with polar tundra species being the notable exception. The country’s diverse ecosystems range from mangrove swamps along the South China Sea to rainforests on Hainan Island and in southern Yunnan, and from deserts, steppes, and meadows to regions dominated by tropical and temperate coniferous, evergreen, and deciduous broad-leaved plants.

For a broad categorization, China can be divided along a southwest to northeast diagonal into two distinct vegetation zones: the arid northwest and the moist southeast. The tropical region adjacent to the humid southeast shares more geographical affinity with Southeast Asia. In the northwest, arid conditions support a sparse array of drought-resistant plants, with pockets of salt-tolerant vegetation in lowlands and depressions, particularly in the Junggar, Qaidam, and Gobi areas. Bordering the southern fringe of the Gobi lies an expansive grassland belt.

Animal life

The diverse topography and rich vegetation across various regions in China have fostered an exceptional array of wildlife, some of which are unique to the area and have managed to persist when they have become extinct elsewhere. Among these rare species are the impressive Yangtze paddlefish, a distinct species of alligator found in eastern and central China, and the formidable giant salamander residing in western China, which shares its lineage with its counterparts in Japan and North America.

The multiplicity of fauna is particularly notable in the mountainous terrains and valleys of Tibet and Sichuan, with the latter being celebrated as the habitat of the iconic giant panda. The takin, which is akin to a goat-antelope, an array of pheasant species, and diverse laughing thrushes are indigenous to the Chinese mountainous regions. China is also recognized as a principal region for the diversification of the carp family and the ancient lineage of old-world catfish.

The zoogeographical connections of China’s fauna are intricate. The northeastern fauna shares similarities with the wildlife found in Siberian forests. Animals typical of Central Asia are present in the steppe regions of northern China. The biodiversity of the great mountain ranges is predominantly Palearctic, yet it includes species or genera that are distinctly Chinese. To the southeast, both lowlands and highlands provide a corridor to the eastern region, showcasing a gradation from temperate-zone Palearctic species to the rich assortment of tropical species characteristic of Southeast Asia. The southernmost provinces of China are dominated by tropical varieties of reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals, reflecting the region’s proximity to the tropics.

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