1. China’s Geography
The third largest country in the world (after Russia and Canada) and slightly larger than the United States (see the overlapped maps of China and the United States at ), China is much bigger than its east and southeast Asian neighbors. Unlike the United States, which enjoys coasts on both sides of the north American continent, China has a coastline only on its east side, and the western part of China is covered with mountainous plateaus reaching as high as 3,000 feet above sea level. The highest peak, Mount Everest, could be as high as 29,029 feet. Only less than half of Chinese land is arable land, in the east, so the majority of the Chinese population concentrates on the eastern coast or nearby. Unlike most mountain ranges in the U.S. that go north—south, the Chinese mountain ranges largely go northeast—southwest, creating very different climates in different regions. Thus when it pours in north China, south China can be suffering from a severe drought, or vice versa.
2. History and Development of Civilization in China
China is one of the four most ancient civilizations in the world. (The other three are Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Indian.) Historically, China was one of the earliest developed civilizations in Asia. China is also the most continuous civilization in the world. Despite dynastic changes, China has also remained a unified political entity since 200 B.C. Other ancient civilizations, such as the Egyptians, Mesopotamians and Indians, all stopped using their ancient languages after a period of time, but the Chinese language has enjoyed continuity over at least four thousand years. China’s history of written records dates back to 4,000 years ago (the Chinese talk about a civilization of five thousand years). Paper was invented in China around 200 A.D., spread to west Asia around 800 A.D., and to Europe around 1,100 A.D. The Chinese also contributed the compass and gunpowder to world civilizations. Starting from around the 2nd century B.C., China had already established extensive trading networks with central, west Asian countries and peoples. The trade route extended as far as Rome. In the 19th century, German geographer Ferdinand Baron von Richthofen named this trade route “The Silk Road,” a name that has carried to this day. According to Kenneth Pomeranz, Chinese science and technology continued to be advanced until around 1800, when Europe started to surpass China in these areas.
3. A China-Centered World
In contrast to the warring states of central and east/southeast Asia, China seemed to tower above its neighbors and was able assimilate any military conquerors. The early development and dominance of Chinese civilization led to a Sino (China)-centric view of the world. China, or zhong guo in Chinese, literally means the “center of the world”, and this conceited view of the world was predominant among the leading Chinese.
Before 1550, that conceitedness did not block China from extensive communications with the outside world through trade and the foreign students who came to study the Chinese language and culture. The most notable exchange was perhaps a maritime expedition led by Zheng He between 1405-1433, with 317 ships and 27,870 men