Located in the east on the Asian continent on the western shore of the Pacific Ocean, the People's Republic of China has a land area of about 9.6 million sq km, and is the third-largest country in the world, next only to Russia and Canada.
From north to south, the territory of China stretches from the center of the Heilong River north of the town of Mohe to the Zengmu Reef at the southernmost tip of the Nansha Islands, covering a distance of 5,500 km. From east to west, the nation extends from the confluence of the Heilong and Wusuli rivers to the Pamirs, covering a distance of 5,200 km.
China’s topography was completely formed around the emergence of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, the most important geological event over the past several million years. Taking a bird’s-eye view of China, the terrain gradually descends from west to east like a staircase. Due to the collision of the Indian and Eurasian plates, the young Qinghai-Tibet Plateau rose continuously to become the top of the four-step “staircase,” averaging more than 4,000 m above sea level, and it is called "the roof of the world". Soaring 8,848 m above sea level on the plateau, Mt. Qomolangma is the world’s highest peak and the main peak of the Himalayas. The second step includes the gently sloping Inner Mongolia Plateau, the Loess Plateau, the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau, the Tarim Basin, the Junggar Basin and the Sichuan Basin, with an average elevation of between 1,000 m and 2,000 m. The third step, dropping to 500-1,000 m in elevation, begins at a line drawn around the Greater Hinggan, Taihang, Wushan and Xuefeng mountain ranges and extends eastward to the coast of the Pacific Ocean. Here, from north to south, are the Northeast Plain, the North China Plain and the Middle-Lower Yangtze Plain. Interspersed amongst the plains are hills and foothills. To the east, the land extends out into the ocean, in a continental shelf, the fourth step of the staircase. The water here is less than 200 m deep. The area of mountains and hills and plateaus account for 65 percent of the total land area of China.
Rivers, Lakes and Mountains
China has over 1,500 rivers. Most of the major rivers - like the Yangtze - have their source on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and drop greatly from the source to the mouths. As a result, China is rich in water-power resources, leading the world in hydropower potential, with reserves of 680 million kw.
Known as Chang Jiang or "Long River" in Chinese, the Yangtze at 6,300 km is not only the longest river in China but in all of Asia. It is the third longest river in the world, next only to the Nile in Africa (6,670 km) and the Amazon in South America (6,400 km). In its upper reaches, the Yangtze tumbles through steep, forested gorges. In its middle and lower reaches, the Yangtze River flows through important agricultural regions that have a warm and humid climate, plentiful rainfall and fertile soil.
Also known as the "golden waterway," the Yangtze serves as an important trade and transportation route. The second longest river in China is the Yellow River with a length of 5,464 km. The Yellow River valley was one of the birthplaces of ancient Chinese civilization. It has lush pasturelands along its banks, flourishing agriculture and abundant mineral deposits.
The Heilong River is a large river in north China with a total length of 4,350 km, of which, 3,101 km are in China. The Pearl River (Zhujiang), 2,214 km long, is a major river in south China. In addition, China has a famous man-made river - the Grand Canal, running from Beijing in the north to Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province in the south. Work first began on the Grand Canal as early as in the fifth century A.D. It links five major rivers: the Haihe, Yellow, Huaihe, Yangtze and Qiantang. With a total length of 1,801 km, the Grand Canal is the longest as well as the oldest man-made waterway in the world.
China's many rivers can be categorized as exterior and interior systems. The catchment area for the exterior rivers that empty into the oceans accounts for 64 percent of the country's total land area. The Yangtze, Yellow, Heilong, Pearl, Liaohe, Haihe and Huaihe rivers flow east, and empty into the Pacific Ocean. The Yarlungzangbo River in Tibet, which flows first east and then south into the Indian Ocean, boasts the Yarlungzangbo Grand Canyon, the largest canyon in the world, 504.6 km long and 6,009 m deep. The Ertix River flows north from the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region to the Arctic Ocean. The catchment area for the interior rivers that flow into inland lakes or disappear into deserts or salt marshes makes up about 36 percent of China's total land area. Its 2,179 km makes the Tarim River in southern Xinjiang China's longest interior river.
China's territory includes numerous lakes, most of which are found on the Middle-Lower Yangtze Plain and the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Freshwater lakes mostly lie in the former area, such as Poyang, Dongting, Taihu, and Hongze; while in the latter are saltwater lakes, such as Qinghai, Nam Co and Siling Co. Poyang Lake, in the north of Jiangxi Province and with an area of 3,583 sq km, is the largest one of its kind and Qinghai Lake, in northeast Qinghai Province and with an area of 4,583 sq km, is the largest one of its kind.
Land and Mineral Resources
Cultivated land, forests, grasslands, deserts and tidelands are distributed widely across China. Cultivated land is mainly located in east China, grasslands are mainly located in north and west China, and forests mainly in the remote northeastern and southwestern areas.
In China today, 130.04 million hectares of land is cultivated, mainly on the Northeast Plain, the North China Plain, the Middle-Lower Yangtze Plain, the Pearl River Delta and the Sichuan Basin. The fertile black soil of the Northeast Plain, the largest plain in China with an area of more than 350,000 sq km, abounds in wheat, corn, sorghum, soybeans, flax and sugar beet. The deep, brown topsoil of the North China Plain is planted with wheat, corn, millet and cotton. The Middle-Lower Yangtze Plain's flat terrain and many lakes and rivers make it particularly suitable for paddy rice and freshwater fish, hence its designation of "land of fish and rice." This area also produces large quantities of tea and silkworms.The purplish soil of the warm and humid Sichuan Basin is green with crops in all four seasons, including paddy rice, rapeseed and sugarcane, making it known as the "land of plenty." The Pearl River Delta abounds with paddy rice gathered 2-3 times every year.
Forests cover only 158.94 million ha of China. The Greater Hinggan, Lesser Hinggan and Changbai mountain ranges in the northeast are China's largest natural forest areas. Major tree species found here include conifers, such as Korean pine, larch and Olga Bay larch, and coniferous-broadleaf trees such as white birch, oak, willow, elm and Northeast China ash. Major tree species in the southwest include the dragon spruce, fir and Yunnan pine, as well as teak, red sandalwood, camphor, nanmu and padauk. Often called a "kingdom of plants," Xishuangbanna in the south of Yunnan Province is a rare tropical broadleaf forest area in China, playing host to more than 5,000 plant species.
Grasslands in China cover an area of 400 million ha, stretching more than 3,000 km from the northeast to the southwest. They are the centers of animal husbandry. The Inner Mongolian Prairie is China's largest natural pastureland, and home to the famous Sanhe horses, Sanhe cattle and Mongolian sheep. The important natural pasturelands north and south of the Tianshan Mountains in Xinjiang are ideal for stockbreeding. The famous Ili horses and Xinjiang fine-wool sheep are raised here.
China's cultivated lands, forests and grasslands are among the world's largest in terms of sheer area. But due to China's large population, the areas of cultivated land, forest and grassland per capita are small, especially in the case of cultivated land - only one-third of the world's average.
China is rich in mineral resources, and all of the world's known minerals can be found here. To date, geologists have confirmed reserves of 158 different minerals. These include 10 energy-related minerals, including oil, natural gas, coal, and uranium; 54 metallic minerals, including iron, manganese, copper, aluminum, lead and zinc; 91 non-metallic minerals, including graphite, phosphorus, sulfur and sylvite. The reserves of the major mineral resources, such as coal, iron, copper, aluminum, stibium, molybdenum, manganese, tin, lead, zinc and mercury, are in the world's front rank. China's basic coal reserves total 331.76 billion tons, mainly distributed in northeast China and north China, with Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, Shanxi Province and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region taking the lead. China's 21.36 billion tons of the basic reserve of iron ore are mainly distributed in northeast, north and southwest China. The country also abounds in petroleum, natural gas, oil shale, phosphorus and sulphur. Petroleum reserves are mainly found in the northwest, northeast and north China, as well as in the continental shelves of east China. The national reserves of rare earth metals far exceed the combined total for the rest of the world.
Administrative Divisions and Cities
China's administrative units are currently based on a three-tier system, dividing the nation into provinces, counties and townships:
The country is divided into provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities directly under the Central Government.
A province or an autonomous region is subdivided into autonomous prefectures, counties, autonomous counties and/or cities.
A county or an autonomous county is subdivided into townships, ethnic townships and/or towns.
Municipalities directly under the Central Government and large cities are subdivided into districts and counties;autonomous prefectures are subdivided into counties, autonomous counties and cities. Autonomous regions, autonomous prefectures and autonomous counties are all ethnic autonomous areas. The Constitution specifically empowers the state to establish special administrative regions when necessary. A special administrative region is a local administrative area directly under the Central Government.