This background essay introduces the diversity of China's natural and man-made features, as well as the relative population of its various areas. Used as background information, learners can explore the many different uses of maps (see related lesson plans). Road maps to find our way to other places. Physical maps show different landforms and elevations and bodies of water. Historical maps help us understand political boundaries and the movement of people, goods, and ideas. Military leaders need maps as they plan their campaigns, and tourists need maps in order to figure out interesting places to visit. Many maps show both natural and man-made features. They often reflect values of the people who create them and define their place in the world. Maps were used for military and political purposes and show how China viewed itself in relation to the rest of the world. In China ownership of a map indicated sovereignty over the land it depicted.
Understanding the interaction between a natural environment and various human and cultural patterns is an essential aspect of geography. To fully appreciate China's broad geographic and cultural diversity, one needs to identify general characteristics that act as guidelines. The technical term used to describe distinctive areas is "homogeneous regions." Today "fingerprint" carries the same idea, namely some thing or place that is distinctive. Just as fingers share general characteristics, each has a unique "print" or pattern. This same principle can be used to facilitate understanding complex cultures and societies, such as those in China.
A distinct geographic print might include the following variables: physical and environmental features, such as climates, soils, topography, and location; historic patterns and their relationship to the natural environment; the economic activities and resources that define the area today.
An aid to creating an understanding of the nature of such fingerprints would be tables showing each region's common (yet distinctive) characteristics. An important characteristic is vernacular housing (houses built without architects and that reflect local materials and conditions), but today many people live in apartment buildings, especially in urban areas. Social organization, transportation, and food are other important aspects of a fingerprint.
The North China Plain
Physical characteristics: As its name indicates, this is an area of gently rolling topography. It is subject to flooding, and water often stands in large pools and "lakes," as there is no place for drainage. This creates marshes and shallow, reed-filled lakes, which are good for thatching and weaving as well as migratory birds, fish, and snails. Winter and summer temperatures can be extreme, and dust storms are common. Highly variable weather means good harvests for only three out of every five years.
History: The North China Plain was one of the cradles of Chinese civilization. China's earliest agricultural societies as well as dynasties formed there. People traditionally lived in dispersed communities rather than nucleated settlements because food and water were available everywhere. The primary need to nucleate was as a defense against invaders and raiders. The earliest archaeological sites of "cities" are at the foot of the Taihang Mountains, where there are minerals as well as manageable water resources for all seasons.
Economic activities and resources today: Even today the North China Plain is a land of dispersed agricultural settlements. There is little or no industry other than distinctive indigenous handicrafts. Fresh water must come from wells that often are salty because of poor drainage. The lack of topographic relief means seasonal winds are strong and often destructive. The result is that many areas have planted windbreaks to protect the soil of the fields from erosion. Life on the North China Plain is one of self-sufficiency and subsistence. Wheat, cotton, tobacco, peanuts, persimmons, and other seasonal fruits and vegetables are grown there.
Housing: mud-based, single-story structures with flat roofs
Social organization: villages and clans
Transportation: walking, wheelbarrows, bicycles, cars
Food staples: wheat-based foods