Understanding Chinese History Through Its Geography

Part 1: Yin and Yang: Geography of China

Foundations of Eastern Civilization

Dr Craig Benjamin (2013)

Film Review

In his introduction to the course Foundations of Eastern Civilization, Benjamin devotes an entire lecture to the impact of China’s unique geographical features on Chinese civilization.

The third largest country in area, after Russian and Canada, China is only slightly bigger than the US. The two countries also share a number of geographical features (northern hemisphere, roughly same size, extensive coastlines, diverse geography and history of uncivilized Wild West).

China’s Yangtze and Yellow Rivers clearly had a major impact on economic development, owing to devastating floods occurring on both during monsoon season. The Yangtze is the third longest river in the world after the Amazon and Nile.

China has four distinct geographic regions:

  • The eastern alluvial plains (at the mouth of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers) – featuring extremely rich river sediment, these plains have been farmed (with wheat, millet and sorghum) and densely settled for many thousands of years. This region has consistently sustained the densest populations in human history.
  • The southern hills – enjoy much more temperate weather (subtropical in places). It was here wild rice was domesticated.
  • The western mountains – consisting of mountain ranges interspersed with harsh  deserts, this region protected China from Western expansionist empires prior to  the European Age of Exploration. Comprises two-thirds of China’s land mass.
  • The northern grasslands – for thousands of hears, homeland to thousands of nomadic steppes warriors with enormous influence on the direction of Chinese civilization.

According to Benjamin, China’s relative isolation from the outside world forced early Chinese emperors to focus on the internal integration of 56 different ethnic groups.

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.


2 thoughts on “Understanding Chinese History Through Its Geography

  1. Thanks for the map. It helps to visualize the different areas and how they developed through history.
    Also, the arcs of the Yangtze and Yellow rivers show how China was able to consolidate the lands around and between into a loosely united and lasting civilization.


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