China, officially the People’s Republic of China (PRC), is the world’s most populous state, with a population of over 1.381 billion. The PRC is governed by the Communist Party, with its seat of government in thecapital city of Beijing. It exercises jurisdiction over 22 provinces, five autonomous regions, four direct-controlled municipalities (Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, and Chongqing), two mostly self-governing special administrative regions (Hong Kong and Macau), and claims sovereignty over the Republic of China (island of Taiwan) off the southeast coast of the mainland.
Covering approximately 9.6 million square kilometers, China is the world’s second largest state by land area, and either the third or fourth-largest by total area, depending on the method of measurement. China’s landscape is vast and diverse, ranging from forest steppes and the Gobi and Taklamakan deserts in the arid north to subtropical forests in the wetter south. The Himalaya, Karakoram, Pamir and Tian Shan mountain ranges separate China from South and Central Asia. The Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, the third- and sixth-longest in the world, run from the Tibetan Plateau to the densely populated eastern seaboard. China’s coastline along the Pacific Ocean is 14,500 kilometres (9,000 mi) long, and is bounded by the Bohai, Yellow, East and South China Seas.
China is a cradle of civilization, with its known history beginning with an ancient civilization – one of the world’s earliest – that flourished in the fertile basin of the Yellow River in the North China Plain. For millennia, China’s political system was based on hereditary monarchies known as dynasties. Since 221 BCE, when the Qin Dynasty first conquered several states to form a Chinese empire, the state has expanded, fractured and reformed numerous times. The Republic of China (ROC) replaced the last dynasty in 1912, and ruled the Chinese mainland until 1949, when it was defeated by the Communist Party of China in the Chinese Civil War. The Communist Party established the People’s Republic of China in Beijing on 1 October 1949, while the ROC government relocated to Taiwan with its present capital in Taipei. Both the ROC and PRC continue to claim to be the legitimate government of all China.
China had the largest economy in the world for most of the past two thousand years, during which it has seen cycles of prosperity and decline. Since the introduction of economic reforms in 1978, China has become one of the world’s fastest-growing major economies. As of 2014, it is the world’s second-largest economy by nominal total GDP and largest by purchasing power parity (PPP). China is also the world’s largest exporter and second-largest importer of goods. China is a recognized nuclear weapons state and has the world’s largest standing army and second-largest defence budget. The PRC has been a United Nations member since 1971, when it replaced the ROC as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. China is also a member of numerous formal and informal multilateral organizations, including the WTO,APEC, BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the BCIM and the G-20. China is a great power and a major regional power within Asia, and has been characterized as a potential superpower.
The word “China” is thought to have been originally derived from the Sanskrit word Cīna (चीन), which is translated into the Persian word Chīn (چین) Cīna was first used in early Hindu scripture, including the Mahābhārata (5th century BCE) and the Laws of Manu (2nd century BCE). The word “China” itself was first recorded in 1516 in the journal of the Portuguese explorer Duarte Barbosa. The journal was translated and published in England in 1555. The traditional theory, proposed in the 17th century by Martino Martini and supported by many later scholars, is that the word China and its earlier related forms are ultimately derived from the state of “Qin” (秦), the westernmost of the Chinese kingdoms during the Zhou dynasty which unified China to form the Qin dynasty. Other suggestions for the derivation of “China” however exist.
The official name of the modern state is the People’s Republic of China (Chinese: 中华人民共和国; pinyin: Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó). The common Chinese names for the state are Zhōngguó (Chinese: 中国, from zhōng, “central” or “middle”, and guó, “state” or “states”, and in modern times, “nation”) and Zhōnghuá (Chinese: 中华), although the state’s official name has been changed numerous times by successive dynasties and modern governments. The term Zhōngguó appeared in various ancient texts, such as the Classic of History of the 6th century BCE, and in pre-imperial times it was often used as a cultural concept to distinguish the Huaxia tribes from perceived “barbarians”. The term, which can be either singular or plural, referred to the group of states or provinces in the central plain, but was not used as a name for the state as a whole until the nineteenth century. The Chinese were not unique in regarding their state as “central”, with other civilizations having the same view of themselves.
Archaeological evidence suggests that early hominids inhabited China between 250,000 and 2.24 million years ago. A cave in Zhoukoudian (near present-day Beijing) exhibits hominid fossils dated at between 680,000 and 780,000 BCE. The fossils are of Peking Man, an example of Homo erectus who used fire. Fossilised teeth of Homo sapiens dating to 125,000–80,000 BCE have been discovered in Fuyan Cave in Dao County, Hunan. Chinese proto-writing existed in Jiahu around 7000 BC, Dadiwan from 5800 BC to 5400 BC, Damaidi around 6000 BC and Banpo dating from the 5th millennium BC. Some scholars have suggested that Jiahu symbol (7th millennium BC) was the earliest Chinese writing system.
Early dynastic rule
According to Chinese tradition, the first dynasty was the Xia, which emerged around 2100 BCE. The dynasty was considered mythical by historians until scientific excavations found early Bronze Age sites at Erlitou, Henan in 1959. It remains unclear whether these sites are the remains of the Xia Dynasty or of another culture from the same period. The succeeding Shang dynasty is the earliest to be confirmed by contemporary records. The Shang ruled the plain of the Yellow River in eastern China from the 17th to the 11th century BCE. Their oracle bone script (from c. 1500 BCE) represents the oldest form of Chinese writing yet found, and is a direct ancestor of modern Chinese characters. The Shang were conquered by the Zhou, who ruled between the 11th and 5th centuries BCE, though centralized authority was slowly eroded by feudal warlords. Many independent states eventually emerged from the weakened Zhou state and continually waged war with each other in the 300-year Spring and Autumn Period, only occasionally deferring to the Zhou king. By the time of the Warring States period of the 5th–3rd centuries BCE, there were seven powerful sovereign states in what is now China, each with its own king, ministry and army.
The Warring States period ended in 221 BCE after the state of Qin conquered the other six kingdoms and established the first unified Chinese state. Qin Shi Huang, the emperor of Qin, proclaimed himself “First Emperor” (始皇帝) and imposed reforms throughout China, notably the forced standardization of Chinese characters, measurements, length of cart axles, and currency. The Qin Dynasty lasted only fifteen years, falling soon after Qin Shi Huang’s death, as its harsh legalist and authoritarian policies led to widespread rebellion.
The subsequent Han Dynasty ruled China between 206 BCE and 220 CE, and created a lasting Han cultural identity among its populace that has endured to the present day. The Han Dynasty expanded the empire’s territory considerably with military campaigns reaching southern Korea, Vietnam, Mongolia and Central Asia, and also helped establish the Silk Road in Central Asia. Han China gradually became the largest economy of the ancient world. The Han Dynasty adopted Confucianism, a philosophy developed in the Spring and Autumn period, as its official state ideology. Despite the Han’s official abandonment of Legalism, the official ideology of the Qin, Legalist institutions and policies remained and formed the basis of the Han government.
After the collapse of Han, a period of disunion known as the period of the Three Kingdoms followed. The brief unification of the Jin dynasty was broken by the uprising of the Five Barbarians. In 581 CE, China was reunited under the Sui. However, the Sui Dynasty declined following its defeat in the Goguryeo–Sui War (598–614).
Under the succeeding Tang and Song dynasties, Chinese economy, technology and culture entered a golden age. After the campaigns against the Turks, China returned control of the Western Regions and reopened the Silk Road during the flourishing age of Tang dynasty, which was devastated and weakened by the An Shi Rebellion in the 8th century. The Song dynasty was the first government in world history to issue paper money and the first Chinese polity to establish a permanent standing navy which was supported by the developed shipbuilding industry along with the sea trade. Between the 10th and 11th centuries, the population of China doubled in size to around 100 million people, mostly because of the expansion of rice cultivation in central and southern China, and the production of abundant food surpluses. The Song dynasty also saw a revival of Confucianism, in response to the growth of Buddhism during the Tang, and a flourishing of philosophy and the arts, as landscape art and porcelain were brought to new levels of maturity and complexity. However, the military weakness of the Song army was observed by the Jurchen Jin dynasty. In 1127, Emperor Huizong of Song and the capital Bianjing were captured during the Jin–Song Wars, remnants of the Song retreated to southern China.
In the 13th century, China was gradually conquered by the Mongol empire. In 1271, the Mongol leader Kublai Khan established the Yuan Dynasty; the Yuan conquered the last remnant of the Song dynasty in 1279. Before the Mongol invasion, the population of Song China was 120 million citizens; this was reduced to 60 million by the time of the census in 1300. A peasant named Zhu Yuanzhang overthrew the Yuan Dynasty in 1368 and founded the Ming Dynasty. Under the Ming Dynasty, China enjoyed another golden age, developing one of the strongest navies in the world and a rich and prosperous economy amid a flourishing of art and culture. It was during this period that Zheng He led voyages throughout the world, reaching as far as Africa. In the early years of the Ming Dynasty, China’s capital was moved from Nanjing to Beijing. With the budding of capitalism, philosophers such as Wang Yangming further critiqued and expanded Neo-Confucianism with concepts of individualism and equality of four occupations. The scholar-official stratum became a supporting force of industry and commerce in the tax boycott movements, which, together with the famines and the wars against Japanese invasions of Korea and Manchu invasions led to an exhausted treasury.
In 1644, Beijing was captured by a coalition of peasant rebel forces led by Li Zicheng. The last Ming Chongzhen Emperor committed suicide when the city fell. The Manchu Qing Dynasty then allied with Ming Dynasty general Wu Sangui and overthrew Li’s short-lived Shun Dynasty, and subsequently seized control of Beijing, which became the new capital of the Qing Dynasty.
Republic of China (1912–49)
On 1 January 1912, the Republic of China was established, and Sun Yat-sen of the Kuomintang (the KMT or Nationalist Party) was proclaimed provisional president. However, the presidency was later given to Yuan Shikai, a former Qing general who in 1915 proclaimed himself Emperor of China. In the face of popular condemnation and opposition from his own Beiyang Army, he was forced to abdicate and reestablish the republic.
After Yuan Shikai’s death in 1916, China was politically fragmented. Its Beijing-based government was internationally recognized but virtually powerless; regional warlords controlled most of its territory. In the late 1920s, the Kuomintang, under Chiang Kai-shek, the then Principal of the Republic of China Military Academy, was able to reunify the country under its own control with a series of deft military and political manoeuvrings, known collectively as the Northern Expedition. The Kuomintang moved the nation’s capital to Nanjing and implemented “political tutelage”, an intermediate stage of political development outlined in Sun Yat-sen’s San-min program for transforming China into a modern democratic state. The political division in China made it difficult for Chiang to battle the Communists, against whom the Kuomintang had been warring since 1927 in the Chinese Civil War. This war continued successfully for the Kuomintang, especially after the Communists retreated in the Long March, until Japanese aggression and the 1936 Xi’an Incident forced Chiang to confront Imperial Japan.
The Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945), a theatre of World War II, forced an uneasy alliance between the Kuomintang and the Communists. Japanese forces committed numerous war atrocities against the civilian population; in all, as many as 20 million Chinese civilians died. An estimated 200,000 Chinese were massacred in the city of Nanjing alone during the Japanese occupation. During the war, China, along with the UK, the US and the Soviet Union, were referred to as “trusteeship of the powerful” and were recognized as the Allied “Big Four” in the Declaration by United Nations. Along with the other three great powers, China was one of the four major Allies of World War II, and was later considered one of the primary victors in the war. After the surrender of Japan in 1945, Taiwan, including the Pescadores, was returned to Chinese control. China emerged victorious but war-ravaged and financially drained. The continued distrust between the Kuomintang and the Communists led to the resumption of civil war. In 1947, constitutional rule was established, but because of the ongoing unrest, many provisions of the ROC constitution were never implemented in mainland China.
The People’s Republic of China is the second-largest country in the world by land area after Russia, and is either the third- or fourth-largest by total area, after Russia, Canada and, depending on the definition of total area, the United States. China’s total area is generally stated as being approximately 9,600,000 km2 (3,700,000 sq mi). Specific area figures range from 9,572,900 km2 (3,696,100 sq mi) according to the Encyclopædia Britannica, 9,596,961 km2 (3,705,407 sq mi) according to the UN Demographic Yearbook, to 9,596,961 km2 (3,705,407 sq mi) according to the CIA World Factbook.
China has the longest combined land border in the world, measuring 22,117 km (13,743 mi) from the mouth of the Yalu River to the Gulf of Tonkin. China borders 14 nations, more than any other country except Russia, which also borders 14. China extends across much of East Asia, bordering Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar (Burma) in Southeast Asia; India, Bhutan, Nepal and Pakistan in South Asia; Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan in Central Asia; and Russia, Mongolia, and North Korea in Inner Asia and Northeast Asia. Additionally, China shares maritime boundaries with South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
Landscape and climate
The territory of China lies between latitudes 18° and 54° N, and longitudes 73° and 135° E. China’s landscapes vary significantly across its vast width. In the east, along the shores of the Yellow Sea and the East China Sea, there are extensive and densely populated alluvial plains, while on the edges of the Inner Mongolian plateau in the north, broad grasslands predominate. Southern China is dominated by hills and low mountain ranges, while the central-east hosts the deltas of China’s two major rivers, the Yellow River and the Yangtze River. Other major rivers include the Xi, Mekong, Brahmaputra and Amur. To the west sit major mountain ranges, most notably the Himalayas. High plateaus feature among the more arid landscapes of the north, such as the Taklamakan and the Gobi Desert. The world’s highest point, Mount Everest (8,848m), lies on the Sino-Nepalese border. The country’s lowest point, and the world’s third-lowest, is the dried lake bed of Ayding Lake (−154m) in the Turpan Depression.
China’s climate is mainly dominated by dry seasons and wet monsoons, which lead to pronounced temperature differences between winter and summer. In the winter, northern winds coming from high-latitude areas are cold and dry; in summer, southern winds from coastal areas at lower latitudes are warm and moist. The climate in China differs from region to region because of the country’s highly complex topography.
A major environmental issue in China is the continued expansion of its deserts, particularly the Gobi Desert. Although barrier tree lines planted since the 1970s have reduced the frequency of sandstorms, prolonged drought and poor agricultural practices have resulted in dust storms plaguing northern China each spring, which then spread to other parts of East Asia, including Korea and Japan. China’s environmental watchdog, SEPA, stated in 2007 that China is losing a million acres (4,000 km²) per year to desertification. Water quality, erosion, and pollution control have become important issues in China’s relations with other countries. Melting glaciers in the Himalayas could potentially lead to water shortages for hundreds of millions of people.
China currently has the largest number of active cellphones of any country in the world, with over 1 billion users by February 2012. It also has the world’s largest number of internet and broadband users, with over 591 million internet users as of 2013, equivalent to around 44% of its population. A 2013 report found that the national average internet connection speed is 3.14 MB/s. As of July 2013, China accounts for 24% of the world’s internet-connected devices.
China Telecom and China Unicom, the world’s two largest broadband providers, accounted for 20% of global broadband subscribers. China Telecom alone serves more than 50 million broadband subscribers, while China Unicom serves more than 40 million. Several Chinese telecommunications companies, most notably Huawei and ZTE, have been accused of spying for the Chinese military.
China is developing its own satellite navigation system, dubbed Beidou, which began offering commercial navigation services across Asia in 2012, and is planned to offer global coverage by 2020.
Since the late 1990s, China’s national road network has been significantly expanded through the creation of a network of national highways and expressways. In 2011 China’s highways had reached a total length of 85,000 km (53,000 mi), making it the longest highway system in the world. In 1991, there were only six bridges across the main stretch of the Yangtze River, which bisects the country into northern and southern halves. By October 2014, there were 81 such bridges and tunnels.
China has the world’s largest market for automobiles, having surpassed the United States in both auto sales and production. Auto sales in 2009 exceeded 13.6 million and may reach 40 million by 2020. A side-effect of the rapid growth of China’s road network has been a significant rise in traffic accidents, with poorly enforced traffic laws cited as a possible cause—in 2011 alone, around 62,000 Chinese died in road accidents. In urban areas, bicycles remain a common mode of transport, despite the increasing prevalence of automobiles – as of 2012, there are approximately 470 million bicycles in China.
China’s railways, which are state-owned, are among the busiest in the world, handling a quarter of the world’s rail traffic volume on only 6 percent of the world’s tracks in 2006. As of 2013, the country had 103,144 km (64,091 mi) of railways, the third longest network in the world. All provinces and regions are connected to the rail network except Macau. The railways strain to meet enormous demand particularly during the Chinese New Year holiday, when the world’s largest annual human migration takes place. In 2013, Chinese railways delivered 2.106 billion passenger trips, generating 1,059.56 billion passenger-kilometers and carried 3.967 billion tons of freight, generating 2,917.4 billion cargo tons-kilometers.
China’s high-speed rail (HSR) system, built entirely since the early 2000s, had 11,028 kilometres (6,852 miles) of track in 2013 and was the longest HSR network in the world. The network includes the Beijing–Guangzhou–Shenzhen High-Speed Railway, the single longest HSR line in the world, and the Beijing–Shanghai High-Speed Railway, which has three of longest railroad bridges in the world. The HSR track network is set to reach approximately 16,000 km (9,900 mi) by 2020. The Shanghai Maglev Train, which reaches 431 km/h (268 mph), is the fastest commercial train service in the world.
As of May 2014, 20 Chinese cities have urban mass transit systems in operation, with a dozen more to join them by 2020. The Shanghai Metro, Beijing Subway, Guangzhou Metro, Hong Kong MTR and Shenzhen Metro are among the longest and busiest in the world.
There were 182 commercial airports in China in 2012. With 82 new airports planned to open by 2015, more than two-thirds of the airports under construction worldwide in 2013 were in China, and Boeing expects that China’s fleet of active commercial aircraft in China will grow from 1,910 in 2011 to 5,980 in 2031. With rapid expansion in civil aviation, the largest airports in China have also joined the ranks of the busiest in the world. In 2013, Beijing’s Capital Airport ranked second in the world by passenger traffic (it was 26th in 2002). Since 2010, the Hong Kong International Airport and Shanghai Pudong International Airport have ranked first and third in air cargo tonnage.
Some 80% of China’s airspace remains restricted for military use, and Chinese airlines made up eight of the 10 worst-performing Asian airlines in terms of delays. China has over 2,000 river and seaports, about 130 of which are open to foreign shipping. In 2012, the Ports of Shanghai, Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Ningbo-Zhoushan, Guangzhou, Qingdao, Tianjin, Dalian ranked in the top in the world in container traffic and cargo tonnage.
China officially recognizes 56 distinct ethnic groups, the largest of which are the Han Chinese, who constitute about 91.51% of the total population. The Han Chinese – the world’s largest single ethnic group – outnumber other ethnic groups in every provincial-level division except Tibet and Xinjiang. Ethnic minorities account for about 8.49% of the population of China, according to the 2010 census. Compared with the 2000 population census, the Han population increased by 66,537,177 persons, or 5.74%, while the population of the 55 national minorities combined increased by 7,362,627 persons, or 6.92%. The 2010 census recorded a total of 593,832 foreign citizens living in China. The largest such groups were from South Korea (120,750), the United States (71,493) and Japan (66,159).
There are as many as 292 living languages in China. The languages most commonly spoken belong to the Sinitic branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family, which contains Mandarin (spoken natively by 70% of the population), and other Chinese varieties: Wu (including Shanghainese), Yue (including Cantonese and Taishanese), Min (including Hoochew, Hokkien and Teochew), Xiang, Gan, and Hakka. Languages of the Tibeto-Burman branch, including Tibetan, Qiang, Naxi and Yi, are spoken across the Tibetan and Yunnan–Guizhou Plateau. Other ethnic minority languages in southwest China include Zhuang, Thai, Dong and Sui of the Tai-Kadai family, Miao and Yao of the Hmong–Mien family, and Wa of the Austroasiatic family. Across northeastern and northwestern China, minority ethnic groups speak Altaic languages including Manchu, Mongolian and several Turkic languages: Uyghur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Salar and Western Yugur. Korean is spoken natively along the border with North Korea. Sarikoli, the language of Tajiks in western Xinjiang, is an Indo-European language. Taiwanese aborigines, including a small population on the mainland, speak Austronesian languages.
Standard Mandarin, a variety of Mandarin based on the Beijing dialect, is the official national language of China and is used as a lingua franca in the country between people of different linguistic backgrounds.
Chinese characters have been used as the written script for the Sinitic languages for thousands of years. They allow speakers of mutually unintelligible Chinese varieties to communicate with each other through writing. In 1956, the government introduced simplified characters, which have supplanted the older traditional characters in mainland China. Chinese characters are romanized using the Pinyin system. Tibetan uses an alphabet based on an Indic script. Uyghur is most commonly written in a Perseo-Arabic script. The Mongolian script used in China and the Manchu script are both derived from the Old Uyghur alphabet. Modern Zhuang uses the Latin alphabet.
Since 1986, compulsory education in China comprises primary and junior secondary school, which together last for nine years. In 2010, about 82.5 percent of students continued their education at a three-year senior secondary school. The Gaokao, China’s national university entrance exam, is a prerequisite for entrance into most higher education institutions. In 2010, 27 percent of secondary school graduates are enrolled in higher education. Vocational education is available to students at the secondary and tertiary level.
In February 2006, the government pledged to provide completely free nine-year education, including textbooks and fees. Annual education investment went from less than US$50 billion in 2003 to more than US$250 billion in 2011. However, there remains an inequality in education spending. In 2010, the annual education expenditure per secondary school student in Beijing totalled ¥20,023, while in Guizhou, one of the poorest provinces in China, only totalled ¥3,204. Free compulsory education in China consists of primary school and junior secondary school between the ages of 6 and 15. In 2011, around 81.4% of Chinese have received secondary education. By 2007, there were 396,567 primary schools, 94,116 secondary schools, and 2,236 higher education institutions in China.
As of 2010, 94% of the population over age 15 are literate, compared to only 20% in 1950. In 2009, Chinese students from Shanghai achieved the world’s best results in mathematics, science and literacy, as tested by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a worldwide evaluation of 15-year-old school pupils’ scholastic performance. Despite the high results, Chinese education has also faced both native and international criticism for its emphasis on rote memorization and its gap in quality from rural to urban areas.
Over the millennia, Chinese civilization has been influenced by various religious movements. The “three teachings”, including Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, historically have a significant role in shaping Chinese culture. Elements of these three belief systems are often incorporated into popular or folk religious traditions. Freedom of religion is guaranteed by China’s constitution, although religious organizations that lack official approval can be subject to state persecution.
Demographically, the most widespread religious tradition is the Chinese folk religion, which overlaps with Taoism, and describes the worship of the shen (神), a character that signifies the “energies of generation”. The shen comprises deities of the natural environment, gods representing specific concepts or groups, heroes and ancestors, and figures from Chinese mythology. Among the most popular folk cults are those of Mazu (goddess of the seas), Yellow Emperor (one of the two divine patriarchs of the Chinese race), Guandi (god of war and business), Caishen (god of prosperity and richness), Pangu and many others. China is home to many of the world’s tallest religious statues, including the tallest of all, the Spring Temple Buddha in Henan.
The government of the People’s Republic of China is officially atheist. Religious affairs and issues in the country are overseen by the State Administration for Religious Affairs. A 2015 poll conducted by Gallup International found that 61% of Chinese people self-identified as “convinced atheist.” Scholars have noted that in China there is no clear boundary between religions, especially Buddhism, Taoism and local folk religious practice. According to the most recent demographic analyses, an average 30—80% of the Chinese population practice some form of Chinese folk religions and Taoism. Approximately 10—16% are Buddhists, 2—4% are Christians, and 1—2% are Muslims. In addition to Han people’s local religious practices, there are also various ethnic minority groups in China who maintain their traditional autochthone religions. Various sects of indigenous origin comprise 2—3% of the population, while Confucianism as a religious self-designation is popular among intellectuals. Significant faiths specifically connected to certain ethnic groups include Tibetan Buddhism and the Islamic religion of the Hui and Uyghur peoples.