China is the third largest nation in the world, with a total area of 3,705,407 square miles (9,596,960 km2). It is slightly more than half the size of Russia. Maximum distances are about 2,700 miles (4,300 km) east-west and 1,800 miles (2,900 km) north-south—approximately the same maximum dimensions as the United States, excluding Hawaii and Alaska.
China's land boundaries have a total length of almost 13,800 miles (22,200 km). China shares its borders with 14 countries—the largest number of any nation in the world. Counterclockwise from the north, these countries are North Korea, Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Burma, Laos, and Vietnam. Taiwan lies 100 miles (160 km) offshore. Some of the boundaries were imposed on China during periods of weakness and are not recognized by the present government. Among those disputed, are parts of the Russian and Indian borders. On its seaward side China fronts primarily on three great arms of the Pacific: the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea. Smaller bodies of water include the Gulf of Tonkin, the Taiwan Strait, and the Bo Gulf.
China may be divided into two major geographic regions: Tibet-Xinjiang-Inner Mongolia, spanning the west and the north, and China Proper, occupying the rest of the country.
Tibet-Xinjiang-Inner Mongolia is a sparsely populated region of lofty mountains, high plateaus, and great basins occupied by steppes and deserts.
Most of the mountains are in Tibet and Xinjiang, where they rise as majestic towering ranges capped by ice and snow. The two highest chains, the Himalayas and the Karakoram Range, lie along China's southwestern border and attain heights of more than 28,000 feet (8,500 m). Mount Everest, the world's highest peak, rises 29,035 feet (8,850 m) above sea level on the Nepal border in the Himalayas; K2 (Godwin Austen), in the Karakoram Range, reaches 28,250 feet (8,611 m).
Two other massive ranges, cresting at 25,000 feet (7,600 m), are the Kunlun Mountains and the Tien Shan. The Qilian and the Altun Mountains have elevations exceeding 19,000 feet (5,800 m). Considerably lower are the Altai Mountains along the Mongolian border.
Between the western ranges lie the great plateaus, basins, and deserts of China. The Plateau of Tibet, roughly a fourth of China's area, is the highest and most extensive tableland on earth. It is a cold, desolate, windswept area lying at elevations of more than 15,000 feet (4,600 m).
North of the Plateau of Tibet are the great basins of China—the Tarim, the Junggar, and the Qaidam. Each contains uninhabited deserts; the largest one is the Taklimakan. Covered mainly by sand and shifting dunes, it is largely unexplored and rarely crossed. Also in Xinjiang, at the eastern tip of the Tien Shan, is the Turpan Depression. The lowest point in China, 505 feet (154 m) below sea level, is here.
From eastern Xinjiang a broad belt of semiarid and arid land extends eastward through Inner Mongolia into Manchuria. Much of it lies within the Gobi, a desert edged on the south by the Great Wall of China. Around the great bend of the Huang He lie the Tengger and Mu Us deserts.
China Proper consists of all the land east of a line running southwestward from Heilongjiang province in the north to Sichuan and Yunnan provinces in the south. It is made up partly of lowland plains and basins and partly of hills and mountains. Except for the highest and most remote parts, the land has been densely populated and intensively cultivated for centuries.
The lowlands form the core of China: here are most of the nation's cropland, industry, and population. The largest lowland areas are the Manchurian Plain, the North China Plain, the Yangtze Valley, and the Sichuan, or Red, Basin. Smaller lowland areas include river valleys and deltas and isolated pockets and basins. Probably the most economically important of these is the Xi River delta, site of Guangzhou, in the south.
The mountains of China Proper form an intricate system of rough terrain, separating the lowland areas. Among the more prominent ranges are the Da Hinggan Mountains in the north, the Wutai Mountains and other ranges in the vicinity of Beijing, the Qin Mountains in the west, and the Nan Mountains in the south. The Yunnan Plateau in the south-west, with its deep, steep-sided valleys and mountains of more than 16,000 feet (4,900 m), is especially rugged.
China's two major rivers, the Huang He and the Yangtze, begin at high elevations in the Tibetan highlands and flow eastward to the sea. The Huang He (Chinese for Yellow River, referring to the color of its silt-laden water) follows a 2,900-mile (4,670-km) course, through northern China to the Bo Gulf, an arm of the Yellow Sea. Devastating floods occur periodically along the lower course, explaining the river's nickname of “China's Sorrow.” Few large cities lie on the banks of the river.
The Yangtze, some 3,400 miles (5,470 km) long and the nation's largest river, winds through central China to the East China Sea. From the Sichuan Basin eastward, it flows through some of China's most productive farmland and passes many of its largest cities, including Chongqing, Wuhan, and Nanjing. Shanghai, China's largest city, lies near the mouth of the river. Unlike the Huang He, the Yangtze has many tributaries. They drain most of central and southern China.
Other large rivers are the Songhua and the Liao in Manchuria, the Huai on the North China Plain, and the Xi in the far south. The principal river of Xinjiang, where virtually all the rivers disappear in the deserts, is the Tarim.
Some of Asia's largest rivers originate within China and flow great distances before crossing into other countries. They include the Yarlung (Brahmaputra) in southern Tibet and the Mekong and Salween in eastern Tibet and Yunnan province. For more than 1,000 miles (1,600 km) the Amur River forms the northeastern boundary, separating China and Russia.
There are few lakes except in Tibet and the lower Yangtze Valley. The Tibetan lakes, situated high on Tibet's cold, bleak plateau, are numerous and relatively small. Some are freshwater; many are brackish or somewhat salty. Lakes in the Yangtze Valley, including Dongting and Poyang, fluctuate greatly in size since they receive the seasonal overflow of the Yangtze and serve as natural reservoirs. China's largest lake is Qinghai Lake, a shallow, brackish body of water in eastern Qinghai province.
In many ways the climates of the various parts of China are comparable to those found in the United States, excluding Pacific coast states. Both countries lie at about the same latitude, have a similar continental location, and experience roughly the same atmospheric conditions. Summers in China, however, tend to be warmer than those in the United States, winters colder, and annual precipitation less.
Many factors—including latitude, proximity to the sea, elevation, and the height and orientation of mountain ranges—are important in determining the climate in any one part of China. Probably the chief factor, however, is the strong monsoonal wind system of Asia. It is marked by an outflow of bitterly cold, dry air from the continent's interior toward the sea during the winter and by a reverse flow of warm, moist air from the sea during summer.
Frigid air blankets all the northern and western parts of China during winter. Some areas, such as Manchuria, have average January temperatures below 0° F. (-18° C.). To the south winter becomes less severe. In the Yangtze Valley of central China winter is only moderately cold, January temperatures averaging about 40° F. (4° C.). In southern China, especially south of the Nan Mountains, winter is a time of subtropical warmth—much like that of southern Florida.
High temperatures are common in summer. Except at high elevations and in the far north and west, July temperatures average between 75° and 85° F. (24° and 29° C.). Extremely high temperatures, often well over 100° F. (38° C.), occur in the desert areas of western and northern China. High humidity accompanies the heat in many localities, particularly the Yangtze Valley and southern China.
Precipitation during winter is scant virtually everywhere; except in the south, it falls mainly as snow. During summer the inflow of warm, moist air from the sea causes heavy rains throughout much of eastern China. Amounts decline from as much as 80 inches (2,030 mm) in the south to 40 or 50 inches (1,015–1,270 mm) in the Yangtze Valley and 20 or 30 inches (510–760 mm) in Manchuria. Western China is extremely dry and is little affected by the summer monsoon, mainly because of its distance from the sea, high elevation, and protective mountain barriers.
Typhoons along the coastal areas and winter dust storms in the north are among the storms that occasionally strike China.
Vegetation is scant throughout much of China. In the west, where precipitation is limited, there are extensive areas with meager grassland, steppe, and desert vegetation, much of it drought-resistant. Also scantily covered or barren are many of the high mountains. Some of the slopes and valleys, however, are forested.
The natural vegetation in China Proper, especially in the lowlands and the more accessible parts of the mountains, was cleared centuries ago for use as fuel and to make way for farming. Probably the largest and best stands of timber that remain are those in the mountains of Manchuria, where pine, spruce, fir, birch, oak, and other trees are cut in large amounts. There are also sizable forests in Sichuan province and in the more rugged parts of the south. Bamboo, a fast-growing tall, woody grass, is wide-spread in the south; it is one of China's most useful plants. A rich, tropical kind of vegetation grows in the extreme south.
Large wild animals are found only in the more remote parts of China. Many of them are becoming rare and some are almost extinct. The far north, especially Manchuria, is the habitat of the Siberian tiger, bear, elk, deer, wild sheep, and many fur-bearing animals, including fox, mink, marten, and otter.
Parts of the mountain and plateau lands of western China are inhabited by pandas, snow leopards, yaks, antelopes, and wild sheep and goats. Wild camels, horses, and asses are occasionally found on the dry Mongolian plains. Animals in subtropical southern locales include tigers, leopards, bears, and monkeys.