The geography of China stretches some 5,026 kilometers across the East Asian landmass bordering the East China Sea, Korea Bay, Yellow Sea, and South China Sea, between North Korea and Vietnam in a changing configuration of broad plains, expansive deserts, and lofty mountain ranges, including vast areas of inhospitable terrain. The eastern half of the country, its seacoast fringed with offshore islands, is a region of fertile lowlands, foothills and mountains, deserts, steppes, and subtropical areas. The western half of China is a region of sunken basins, rolling plateaus, and towering massifs, including a portion of the highest tableland on earth.
China is one of the world’s largest countries in total area, only smaller than both Russia and Canada. The official figure by the People’s Republic of China is 9.6 million square kilometers.
China has a total of 22,117 km of land boundaries with 14 other nations: Afghanistan (76 km), Bhutan (470 km), Burma (2,185 km), India (3,380 km), Kazakhstan (1,533 km), North Korea (1,416 km), Kyrgyzstan (858 km), Laos (423 km), Mongolia (4,677 km), Nepal (1,236 km), Pakistan (523 km), Russia (northeast 3,605 km, northwest 40 km), Tajikistan (414 km), and Vietnam (1,281 km).
China’s coastline extends 14,500 km from the border with North Korea in the north to Vietnam in the south. China’s coasts are on the East China Sea, Korea Bay, Yellow Sea, and South China Sea.
China claims a 12 nautical mile (22 km) territorial sea, a 24 nautical mile (44 km) contiguous zone, a 200 nautical mile (370 km) exclusive economic zone, and a 200 nautical mile (370 km) continental shelf or the distance to the edge of the continental shelf.
From the Tibetan Plateau and other less-elevated highlands rise rugged east-west trending mountains, and plateaus interrupted by deep depressions fanning out to the north and east. The Tibetan Plateau is a vast, elevated plateau covering most of the Tibet Autonomous Region and Qinghai Province in the People’s Republic of China and Ladakh in Kashmir. With an average elevation of over 4,500 meters, the highest and biggest plateau in the world and an area of 2.5 million square kilometers. A continental scarp marks the eastern margin of this territory, a scarp that extends from the Greater Khingan Range in northeastern China, through the Taihang Mountains (a range of mountains overlooking the North China Plain) to the eastern edge of the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau in the south. All of the low-lying areas of China, which support dense population and intensive cultivation, are to the east of this scarp line.
The east-west ranges include some of Asia’s greatest mountains. In addition to the Himalayas and the Kunlun Mountains, there are the Kailash (Gangdise) and the Tian Shan ranges. The latter stands between two great basins, the massive Tarim Basin to the south and the Dzungarian Basin to the north. Rich deposits of coal, oil, and metallic ores lie in the Tian Shan area. The largest inland basin in China, the Tarim Basin measures 1,500 kilometres from east to west and 600 kilometres from north to south at its widest parts. The Himalayas form a natural boundary on the southwest as the Altai Mountains do on the northwest. Lesser ranges branch out, some at sharp angles from the major ranges. The mountains give rise to all the principal rivers. The spine of the Kunlun Mountains separates into several branches as it runs eastward from the Pamir Mountains. The northernmost branches, the Altyn-Tagh and the Qilian Range, form the rim of the Tibetan Plateau in west-central China and overlook the Qaidam Basin, a sandy and swampy region containing many salt lakes. A southern branch of the Kunlun Mountains divides the watersheds of the Yellow River (Huang He) and the Yangtze River (Chang Jiang). The Gansu Corridor, west of the great bend in the Yellow River, was traditionally an important communications link with Central Asia.
North of the 3,300-kilometre-long Great Wall, between Gansu Province on the west and the Greater Khingan Range on the east, lies the Mongolian Plateau, at an average elevation of 1,000 metres above sea level. The Yin Mountains, a system of mountains with average elevations of 1,400 metres, extends east-west through the center of this vast desert steppe. To the south is the largest loess plateau in the world, covering 600,000 square kilometers in Shaanxi Province, parts of Gansu and Shanxi provinces, and some of Ningxia-Hui Autonomous Region. Loess is a yellowish soil blown in from the Inner Mongolian deserts. The loose, loamy material travels easily in the wind, and through the centuries it has veneered the plateau and choked the Yellow River with silt. Because the river level drops precipitously toward the North China Plain where it sluggishly crosses the delta, it carries a heavy load of sediment in the form of sand and mud from the upper reaches, much of which is deposited on the flat plain. The flow is controlled mainly by constantly repaired man-made embankments while floods and course changes have recurred over the centuries. As a result the river flows on a raised ridge fifty metres or more above the plain, Traditionally, rulers were judged by their concern for or indifference to preservation of the embankments.
Flowing from its source in the Tibetan highlands, the Yellow River courses toward the sea through the North China Plain, the historic centre of Chinese expansion and influence. Ethnic Chinese people have farmed the rich alluvial soils of the plain since ancient times, constructing the Grand Canal of China for north-south transport. The plain itself is actually a continuation of the Manchurian Plain to the northeast but is separated from it by the Bohai Gulf, an extension of the Yellow Sea. Like other densely populated areas of China, the plain is subject not only to floods but to earthquakes. For example, the mining and industrial centre of Tangshan, about 165 kilometres east of Beijing, was levelled by an earthquake in July 1976 that reportedly also killed 242,000 people and injured 164,000.
The Qinling mountain range, a continuation of the Kunlun Mountains, divides the North China Plain from the Yangtze River Delta and is the major physiographic boundary between the two great parts of China Proper. It is in a sense a cultural boundary as well, influencing the distribution of custom and language. South of the Qinling divide are the densely populated and highly developed areas of the lower and middle plains of the Yangtze and, on its upper reaches, the Sichuan Basin, an area encircled by a high barrier of mountain ranges. The country’s longest and most important waterway, the Yangtze River is navigable over much of its length and is now the site of the Three Gorges Dam. Rising on the Tibetan Plateau, the Yangtze River traverses 6,300 kilometers through the heart of the country, draining an area of 1.8 million square kilometers before emptying into the East China Sea. The Sichuan Basin, favoured by a mild, humid climate and a long growing season, produces a rich variety of crops; it is also a leading silk-producing area and an important industrial region with substantial mineral resources.
Second only to the Qinling as an internal boundary is the Nanling, the southernmost of the east-west mountain ranges. The Nanling overlooks the part of China where a tropical climate permits two crops of rice to be grown each year. Southeast of the mountains lies a coastal, hilly region of small deltas and narrow valley plains; the drainage area of the Pearl River (Zhu Jiang) and its associated network of rivers occupies much of the region to the south. West of the Nanling, the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau rises in two steps, averaging 1,200 and 1,800 metres in elevation, respectively, toward the precipitous mountain regions of the eastern Tibetan Plateau.
The Hai River, like the Pearl and other major waterways, flows from west to east. Its upper course consists of five rivers that converge near Tianjin, then flow seventy kilometers before emptying into the Bohai Gulf. Another major river, the Huai, rises in Henan Province and flows through several lakes before joining the Yangtze near Yangzhou. Inland drainage involving a number of upland basins in the north and northeast accounts for about 40 percent of the country’s total drainage area. Many rivers and streams flow into lakes or diminish in the desert. Some are useful for irrigation.
China’s extensive territorial waters are principally marginal seas of the western Pacific Ocean; these waters wash the shores of a long and much-indented coastline and approximately 5,000 islands. The Yellow, East China, and South China seas, too, are marginal seas of the Pacific Ocean. More than half the coastline (predominantly in the south) is rocky; most of the remainder is sandy. Hangzhou Bay roughly divides the two kinds of shoreline.
Areas of China have experienced earthquakes. On 23 August, 1976, a major earthquake in Tangshan killed hundreds of thousands of people. However, most regions of China do not experience earthquakes, as major population centres are a long distance from fault lines. Tangshan is one of the few places in China that is located within an earthquake zone. There are few volcanoes in China.