One often encounters statements that Chinese civilization has existed for 5,000 years. Though the written and archaeological historical record in this part of the world is indeed impressively ancient, relatively continuous, and more complete than in many other places – including, for much of recorded history, Europe – such claims obscure an enormous amount of geographic, regional and cultural diversity, as well as considerable influence from other cultures.
Moreover, even after the formal creation of the Chinese empire, boundaries shifted, expanded and contracted, and only relatively recently in this long history did “China” become similar to the physical entity it is today. Geography still plays an enormously significant role in economic development, migration patterns, local and national identities, political affiliations and environmental issues.
For all of these reasons, geography and its historical role constitutes essential knowledge for anyone approaching the study of greater China.
A fine introduction to the basic geographic regions of China and their characteristics can be found in the Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization http://depts.washington.edu/chinaciv/geo/geo.htm. This site also provides a set of extremely useful set of historical maps (by dynasty) and contemporary political and provincial maps.
Current maps and geographic information can be found through most of the resources listed in “Starting Points” on the main page of this section. For more specialized or historical maps, consult these resources:
Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection, University of Texas, Austin http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/index.html. An excellent online collection of current and historical maps (mostly in English and other European languages), arranged by region and then by type. Useful links as well.
China in Maps: 16th-19th Century, Hong Kong University of Science & Technology Library.
http://library.ust.hk/info/exhibit/maps-9706/. An online exhibition exploring a period in which cartographic knowledge of China and its neighbors exploded, producing images of considerable beauty as well as utility. Includes thumbnails and PDF files of both European and Chinese maps.
Jingban Tianwen Quantu (Capital Edition of a Complete Map [of the World Based on] Astronomy), Rice University http://www.rice.edu//fondren/erc/projects/jingban/. A project created by Professor Richard J. Smith, this is an interactive version of a late 18th century map of the world produced by a Chinese scholar. It offers not only a fine introduction to the themes and images by which late imperial Chinese elites conceived of their empire, but also an instructive comparison to the Europe-centered world maps of the time more familiar to Western audiences.
China Historical Geographical Information System (CHGIS), Harvard Yenching Institute http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~chgis/. A massive resource, drawing on decades of research by American and Chinese scholars. Various historical datasets have been used to generate GIS maps in a wealth of configurations (by political division, time period or economic region; showing locations of Buddhist monasteries, etc.) The site takes some exploration to get to know, and is geared towards the scholarly (and Chinese-literate) user. First-time visitors might start with the following:
- Under “quick search”, you may enter a Romanized place name to receive a list of available GIS maps for that location.
- Under “search tools” you may do a more detailed search of the CHGIS system, explore the newly-available Japan GIS datasets, and search a locator index to East Asian map collections at Harvard University.
- Under “maps”, you can gain access to sample and specialized maps created with the CHGIS datasets, interactive webmaps (one of China ca. 1820, and a long-term one of Shanghai), and a small selection of scanned historical maps.