Qinghai and the Tibetan Plateau
Physical characteristics: Altitude, which can average 3962.4 meters (13,000 feet), best defines the physical environment of the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau. Except in the bright sunlight, it always is very cold. Located mostly in the rain shadow of the Himalayas, the region is arid to semi-arid. This means that despite a latitude close to the Tropic of Cancer, Qinghai and Tibet are nontropical for the most part. Still, there are areas along its southern and western boundaries, where rhododendron and banana trees grow in the shadow of active glaciers. This is attributable to the heavy rainfall and temperatures associated with the Indian monsoon.
History: Because of the region's adjacence to India and central Asia, the people, economies, and even religion of Qinghai and Tibet have seldom been affected by those of China in the east. Even Mongolia had closer cultural links to this region than did China proper. Animal husbandry and nomadism are traditional ways of life. Until the 1950s, one out of every five Tibetans was a Buddhist nun or monk. Monasteries have been at the center of society since at least the eighth century.
Economic activities and resources today: Qinghai and Tibet remain remote and largely unpopulated. Where conditions permit, the Chinese have encouraged the westward migration of farmers from overpopulated areas to the east. Animals continue to be raised, and wool weavings are another important product. Goods are also produced from indigenous gold and turquoise.
Housing: nomads live in yak-felt tents. Homes are two stories with inward-slanting mud, earthen, brick, or stone walls and earthen floors.
Social organization: monasteries play a role in Buddhist communities, mosques in Islamic ones. Nomads gather in family clusters.
Transportation: walking, caravans, trucks and buses, horses in rural areas; bicycles and cars in urban areas
Food staples: yak butter, tea, barley, vegetables, yak, or lamb
Tying It All Together: From Empire to State
Clearly, to create political "China," it is still important to tie these different regions together. Transportation remains the most crucial factor. As the means of tying the country and its regions together proceeded, a common written language and shared cultural values evolved. The written language and the bureaucratic class that used it were pivotal in creating a net of a shared experience and cultural values that bonded the disparate geographies and spoken languages of China and linked the past to the present.
Because the origins of China's empire lay in its interior, imperial highways were initially the most important features of the transportation system. The network of imperial highways was first established by Qin Shihuangdi (258-210 B.C.E.), who united the kingdoms of China in 221 B.C.E. He also initiated the construction of a canal system. By the Song dynasty (960-1279 C.E.), canals linked the lower Yangzi Valley and regions south of it to the North China Plain. Natural lakes and rivers also helped unify the Chinese Empire, with the Yangzi and its tributaries tying together coastal and interior regions. Except in Qinghai and the Tibetan Plateau and Xinjiang, an extensive rail system links China and is the most common form of long-distance travel.
One cannot underestimate the importance of television and telephones as well as the airlines in promoting the Chinese view of themselves as one people and culture. Their value in political control was demonstrated in 1989 when televised "wanted" posters were broadcast instantaneously throughout China, and in June 1997 when the reunification of Hong Kong became an ethnic rallying point. The images and issues were simultaneously shared with Han Chinese throughout the People's Republic as well as in other parts of the world. The Internet is gaining popularity, though chiefly in urban areas. However, the central government is fearful of its inability to actually monitor and control such communication.