Physical characteristics: Nothing so dominates and defines southwest China as its rugged, highly eroded topography. Because it is close to the tropical cyclones of the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea it has abundant rainfall (often causing erosion or denuded slopes). This location and terrain create numerous distinctive local "niches" that often are self-sufficient, which in turn support an abundance of distinct ethnic groups, many of which also live in the neighboring countries of Laos, Vietnam, Burma, and even Thailand.
History: This region first came into the Chinese sphere during the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). Its history reflects both its rugged topography as well as its proximity to the modern countries and peoples of southeast Asia, such as Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar (Burma). Trade between these countries and the Southwest Uplands often has been illegal and generally consisted of small items of great value, such as jade or opium.
Economic activities and resources today: Land for grazing and the cultivation of rice, winter wheat, tea, and beans is available in the region. The tropical plateau along the border of Vietnam and Laos is ideal for cultivating rubber and bananas. The mining of tin, another major industry of this region, is the only distinctive economy that is both traditional and modern. More valuable, however, has been the cultivation and export of opium, an activity developed as a result of Britain's Opium War with China.
Housing: caves carved into the loess cliffs and mud-brick houses in rural areas; apartments in urban areas
Social organization: nuclear families
Transportation: walking, mule, and horse in rural areas
Food staples: vegetables, rice, ducks and geese
Physical characteristics: China's largest province is a landscape of deserts, mountains, and oases. Most of the region is dominated by the Tarim Basin, which is filled mostly by the formidable Taklamakan desert and rimmed by high mountains-the Kunlun Shan to the south, the Karakorum to the west, and the Tian Shan to the north. The alpine beauty of the Tian Shan separates the Tarim Basin from the smaller Junggar Basin, which is characterized by more moisture and grass.
History: The inhabitants of the Junggar Basin have a long association with various Mongol peoples, but they are more pastoral than nomadic. Located between the cultural empires of China in the east and central Asia in the west, Xinjiang was an important historic link along the Silk Roads. The peoples living along oases around the rim of the Tarim Basin had closer ties to Persia and the Islamic influences of the Middle East. The Uighurs, Xinjiang's largest minority, are predominantly Muslim and Turkic in ethnicity and language. Their economic history is more closely linked to the mercantile cities and trade of the ancient Silk Road than to the irrigation practices of eastern China. The trade and traffic along this famous route integrated people and cultures and introduced distinctive styles of music and musical instruments, especially the suona and pipa, or Chinese-style lute. The beginning of the twentieth century found the British, Germans, American, Japanese, and Russians vying for control of this strategically important location.
Economic activities and resources today: Xinjiang is rich in oil. The Taklamakan is too barren for agriculture but is often used as a nuclear test site. Despite the fact that the railroad does not extend very far west into the province, tourism is gaining in this remote region of spectacular scenery with a wealth of archaeological treasures, including Buddhist cave temples, ruined cities and fortresses, petrogylphs, and 4,000-year-old mummies.
Housing: earth/adobe houses, two-storied with flat roofs. Nomads live in tents, while apartments are common in urban areas. Mosques and some residential architecture have Central Asian or Persian-style influences.
Social organization: nuclear families in urban areas; groups of families for nomads
Transportation: long-distance trucks and buses in rural areas; bicycles within cities. Mules are used in cities, and horses and camels in rural areas.
Food staples: wheat noodles, flat wheat bread (nan), and mutton