officially PEOPLE'S REPUBLIC OF CHINA,
Chinese (Wade-Giles) CHUNG-HUA, or CHUNG-HUA JEN-MIN KUNG-HO-KUO,
(Pinyin) ZHONGHUA, or ZHONGHUA RENMIN GONGHEGUO, country
of East Asia. It is the largest of all Asian countries and has
the largest population of any country in the world. Occupying
nearly the entire East Asian landmass, it stretches for about
3,100 miles (5,000 kilometers) from east to west and 3,400
miles from north to south and covers an area of about
3,696,100 square miles (9,572,900 square kilometers), which is
approximately one-fourteenth of the land area of the Earth.
Among the major countries of the world, China is surpassed in
area only by Russia and Canada, and it is almost as large as the
whole of Europe.
China's land frontier is about 12,400 miles in length, and
its coastline extends for some 8,700 miles. The country is
bounded by Mongolia to the north; Russia and North Korea to the
northeast; the Yellow Sea and the East China Sea to the east;
the South China Sea to the southeast; Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar
(Burma), India, Bhutan, and Nepal to the south; Pakistan to the
southwest; and Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and
Kazakstan to the west. In addition to the 14 countries that
border directly on it, China also faces South Korea and Japan,
across the Yellow Sea, and the Philippines, which lie beyond the
South China Sea.
China has 31 administrative units directly under the central
government; these consist of 22 provinces, five autonomous
regions, three municipalities (Peking, Shanghai, and Tientsin),
and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. The island
province of Taiwan, which has been under separate administration
since 1949, is discussed in the article Taiwan.
Peking (Beijing), the capital of the People's Republic, is also
the cultural, economic, and communications center of the
nation. Shanghai is the main industrial city; Hong Kong is
the leading commercial center and port.
Within China's boundaries exists a highly diverse and complex country. Its
topography encompasses the highest and one of the lowest places on Earth, and
its relief varies from nearly impenetrable mountainous terrain to vast coastal
lowlands. China's climate ranges from extremely dry, desert like conditions in
the northwest to tropical monsoon in the southeast, and the country has the
greatest contrast in temperature between its northern and southern borders of
any nation in the world.
The diversity of both China's relief and its climate has resulted in one of
the world's widest arrays of ecological niches, and these niches have been
filled by a vast number of plant and animal species. Indeed, practically all
types of Northern Hemisphere plants, except those of the polar tundra, are found
in China, and, despite the continuous inroads of humans over the millennia,
China still is home to some of the world's most exotic animals.
Probably the single most identifiable characteristic of China to the people
of the rest of the world is the size of its population. More than one-fifth of
mankind is of Chinese nationality. The great majority of the population is
Chinese (Han), and thus China is often characterized as an ethnically
homogeneous country; but few countries have as wide a variety of indigenous
peoples as does China. Even among the Han there are cultural and linguistic
differences between regions; for example, the only point of linguistic
commonality between two individuals from different parts of China may be the
written Chinese language. Because China's population is so enormous, the
population density of the country is also often thought to be uniformly high,
but vast areas of China either are uninhabited or are sparsely populated.
With more than 4,000 years of recorded history, China is one of the few
existing countries that also flourished economically and culturally in the
earliest stages of world civilization. Indeed, despite the political and social
upheavals that frequently have ravaged the country, China is unique among
nations in its longevity and resilience as a discrete politico-cultural unit.
Much of China's cultural development has been accomplished with relatively
little outside influence, the introduction of Buddhism from India constituting a
major exception. Even when the country was penetrated by such
"barbarian" peoples as the Manchus, these groups soon became largely
absorbed into the fabric of Han Chinese culture.
This relative isolation from the outside world made possible over the
centuries the flowering and refinement of the Chinese culture, but it also left
China ill prepared to cope with that world when, from the mid-19th century, it
was confronted by technologically superior foreign nations. There followed a
century of decline and decrepitude, as China found itself relatively helpless in
the face of a foreign onslaught. The trauma of this external challenge became
the catalyst for a revolution that began in the early 20th century against the
old regime and culminated in the establishment of a Communist government in
1949. This event reshaped global political geography, and China has since come
to rank among the most influential countries in the world.
Central to China's long-enduring identity as a unitary country is the
province, or sheng
("secretariat"). The provinces are traceable in their current form to
the T'ang dynasty (AD 618-907). Over the centuries, provinces
gained in importance as centres of political and economic authority and
increasingly became the focus of regional identification and loyalty. Provincial
power reached its peak in the first two decades of the 20th century, but since
the establishment of Communist rule in China this power has been curtailed by a
strong central leadership in Peking. Nonetheless, while the Chinese state has
remained unitary in form, the vast size and population of China's
provinces--which are comparable to large and midsize nations--dictate their
continuing importance as a level of subnational administration.