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The Nine Nations of China

November 16, 2009

[UPDATE:  In November 2009, The Atlantic published an interactive online feature I authored called “The Nine Nations of China” (九色中国).  Due to a revamp of their website, I decided to migrate all the material to this blog.  You can access descriptions of each of the “nine nations” by clicking on the links in the chart below.  The original Atlantic feature can be viewed here, but last I checked, the map was not functioning properly, but you can find the full text here.]

China often seems like a monolith of 1.3 billion people, but it’s not.  It’s a mosaic of distinct regions, and understanding those regions is vital to understanding China.  This article presents a framework for how to think about those regions, what they’re like, and why they matter.  It’s the product of over 20 years of business travel and personal exploration that covered every one of China’s 31 provinces, plus Taiwan.  And it’s just the tip of the iceberg — I hope to expand on this framework and explore it further in various venues, including this blog, in the weeks and months ahead.

(Click on the map above to get the full-size version that’s easier to read.)

I want to make one important observation, especially for my friends in China.  This is a conceptual framework, not a political statement.  It does not predict or advocate the break-up of China into pieces.  It’s meant to offer readers a richer way of seeing China in more than one dimension.  The use of the word “nations” (which I translate in Chinese as “colors”) is simply meant to emphasize just how large and distinct each component of China’s mosaic really is.

The chart below really drives that point home.  If each of China’s nine distinct regions were actually a separate country, they would account for eight of the 20 most populous nations in the world.  The smallest would rank between Britain and Italy.  That’s pretty astounding, and it demonstrates how inadequate it really is to keep painting our image of China with one giant brush.

World’s Largest Nations By Population, 2008
(If China’s Nine Nations Were Broken Out Separately)

Rank Country Population
#1 India 1,140,566,211
#2 The Yellow Land 358,790,000
#3 United States 304,059,724
#4 Indonesia 237,512,355
#5 The Crossroads 226,260,000
#6 Brazil 196,342,587
#7 Pakistan 171,852,793
#8 Bangladesh 154,037,902
#9 The Metropolis 146,850,000
#10 Nigeria 146,255,306
#11 Russia 140,702,094
#12 Shangri-La 131,520,000
#13 Japan 127,288,419
#14 The Back Door 111,510,000
#15 Mexico 109,955,400
#16 The Refuge 109,770,000
#17 The Rust Belt 108,740,000
#18 Philippines 96,061,683
#19 Vietnam 87,558,363
#20 The Frontier 86,320,000
#29 United Kingdom 60,943,912
#30 The Straits 59,080,000
#31 Italy 58,145,321

Sources:  National Bureau of Statistics of China and U.S. Census Bureau

Click on the links in the above chart to read the descriptions of each of the “nine nations” that appeared in The Atlantic.

68 Comments leave one →
  1. Josh permalink
    November 16, 2009 6:48 pm

    Thank you for this article. I really found it enlightening.

  2. Swift Loris permalink
    November 16, 2009 11:23 pm

    As I read this post and your superb “Nine Nations” article/map in The Atlantic, I kept thinking of Saul Steinberg’s famous 1976 New Yorker cover, “View of the World from Ninth Avenue”:

    It’s amazing how little information is required to enable one to redraw one’s mental maps to more usefully reflect reality, when that information is thoughtfully selected and artfully presented.

    Do most Chinese paint *us* with a similar giant brush, I wonder?

    • July 20, 2012 6:33 am

      Growing up in the UK, the USA was one big unified block on the map. After coming here it took many years for me to understand Federal as derived from Federation. And the reality of the retention of States Rights. Even more years to comprehend that the States are almost like separate countries under the Federal umbrella, with their own histories, culture, evolution, etc. The obscuring factor was the shared use of one language, (almost), English, (almost!), American being a dialect in the process of becoming a language. So the US probably seems monolithic to most of the Chinese, as it seems a more general human phenomenum.

  3. William permalink
    November 16, 2009 11:25 pm

    Quite daring to depict Taiwan as a fledgling colony off Fujian where people just “desire complete independence” – while they have had de facto sovereignty for generations and did quite a lot better out of it than the mainlanders under Mao and Deng.

    I guess your point is that “quantity has a quality all its own” and that this gives the Party the right to subjugate Taiwan, Uyghuristan and Tibet under some sort of Manifest Destiny — but I think that you managed to offend anyone who doesn’t think that might makes right or that a gulag archipelago is an acceptable trade-off for gaining natural resources (and undermined your own point of looking at nine distinct “nations”).

    • prchovanec permalink*
      November 18, 2009 1:31 pm

      I don’t think it’s as daring or as political as you make out. The Taiwanese dialect is, in fact, Hokkien or Fujianese. The vast majority of people who settled Taiwan (besides the aboriginal tribes) were Fujianese or Hakka from Fujian. If you visit the shrine of Mazu (the sea goddess) on Meizhou Island, in Fujian, there are hordes of Taiwanese pilgrims coming to pay homage. If you visit Xiamen (in Fujian), you’ll see a huge statue of Coxingha, the half-pirate half-patriot who was the first Chinese to set himself up as the ruler of Taiwan (kicking out the Dutch, who had preceded him) in the mid-17th Century — an event that led to the annexation of Taiwan by the Chinese empire. For a long time after annexation, Taiwan was actually administered as part of Fujian province. That’s why I call these two provinces “twins” — although they have been separated by tumultuous history and political rivalries, they share deep roots in common. That is true regardless of how one feels about Taiwan as a political entity.

      • Michael Dowling permalink
        February 21, 2010 1:03 pm

        If you look at investment in the last 10 years into China by “foreigners” you will find a disproportionate amount into Fujian from Taiwan. The ties are stong and the analysis sound.

        As an anecdotal comment look at the contributions to natural disaster relief. Strong Taiwanese component.

      • Jingle permalink
        November 9, 2011 5:27 am

        I totally agree to Mr. Prchovanec’s discussion.

        Guys, no matter how much you are against the idea of unification between Mainland China and Taiwan, do have a study on the Chinese history before you make your comments and your thoughts.

      • John permalink
        November 10, 2011 7:12 pm

        I would suggest a knowledge of world history instead of just chinese history. Accordingly, regardless of ethnicity (Taiwan being 80% Han Chinese) since ethnicity has absolutely no grounds of reason in bending current political territorial borders, or legal borders, Taiwan was occupied by the Japanese Empire for 50 years after the Qing, and was a legal and political part of the Empire of Japan. Thereafter, it was never part of the PRC that the author implied as “China”. Yes, after the surrender of Japan to US, the crippling forces of the ROC from “China” fled to Taiwan agreed with the US, not with the PRC or Mao’s forces at the time. Taiwan today is politically different from the PRC, and legally different from the PRC. Nothing can dispute this fact, except on insufficient grounds of “ethnicity and language”.

    • November 20, 2009 12:59 pm

      > I guess your point is that “quantity has a quality all its own
      > and that this gives the Party the right to subjugate Taiwan,
      > Uyghuristan and Tibet under some sort of Manifest Destiny

      Not Manifest Destiny but Democracy where the “needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few…”

      • prchovanec permalink*
        November 20, 2009 2:24 pm

        Actually, I’m not trying to make a political point about the rights or wrongs either way, but simply highlight the historical process I see taking place. People can reach their own conclusions about whether this process is a good or bad thing.

  4. ramster permalink
    November 17, 2009 3:48 am

    To be fair, when one is a professor at Tsinghua, not including Taiwan isn’t really an option. As far as splitting China into 9 regions in the population ranking, it’s only reasonable if you did something similar to India; though the point still stands.

    • June 20, 2010 5:31 am

      I tried to work out something similar for India. One must note that the constituent states of India are defined on a linguistic basis, so in many ways most of the 28 states are nations among themselves. Also, the Chinese ‘nations’ make sense as parts of the whole, their development over centuries has been influenced a great deal by their political contacts with the centre. This is truly remarkable and perhaps singular (with the relatively recent exception of America) in the world.

      Anyways as far as post 1950 Republican India is concerned, the only two regions that can be compared to the Chinese ‘nations’ are:

      1) The Heartland and the Punjab Plains (states of UP, MP, Haryana, Punjab and Delhi): Area: around 650,000 sq. km. Population: Around 350 million. Can be compared with the Yellow Land.

      2) North East India (google it) : Area: Around 260, 000 sq km. Population : Around 40 million. Can be compared with the Frontier.

      I think there would be 5 more regions in India,

      The Himalayan North
      Tribal lands (where tribal populations or adivasis dominate) : Cite of recent Maoist troubles
      West Coast (Excluding South): Interacted heavily with Middle East and Africa
      East Coast (Excluding South) : Interacted heavily with South East Asia
      South India

  5. rantingcynic permalink
    November 18, 2009 12:19 am

    I really like this blog, you are exactly what the internet needs more of… I just make fun of things which can be equally entertaining, but like I said I am a big fan of national geographic.

  6. historian permalink
    November 18, 2009 9:55 am

    The article missed the part where the Manchurians (sometimes called Khitan) annexed the Rustbelt region to China after they conquered mainland China and founded the Qing Dynasty. Before that the Mongols annexed the Shangri-La & the Refuge regions to expand their Yuan Dynasty (30% non Han Chinese ethnic)

    Likewise, your article missed the part where Mao invaded Tibet and Uighur not too long ago (again 30% on Han Chinese ethnic)

    Well, it is tough for you to point these out since you are not teaching history and you are an employee of Tsinghua University. It is tough to caught in between a rock and a hard place, don’t you agree?

    • prchovanec permalink*
      November 18, 2009 1:44 pm

      I was very limited in space and could only give a flavor of the history involved in each region. In fact, The Refuge has been a core part of China since it was conquered by the State of Qin in the 4th Century BC — the irrigation works at Dujiangyan bear testament to this. Shangri-La has been a buffer zone for many centuries and was really only brought under Han control in the 15th Century, although it was conquered by the Mongols before that, as you note.

      To be fair to the official Chinese point of view, what is presently Xinjiang has been in and out of Chinese control since at least the Tang Dynasty (7th-8th Century AD). During periods of unity in China, it definitely maintained garrisons along the Silk Road. What is new in the past few years in the influx of Han Chinese settlers overwhelming the indigenous population, which has been made possible by the extension of the railroad (hence my analogy to the American West).

      Tibet is complex case which people in China and the West have strong feelings about, obviously. It has certainly been a Chinese protectorate at various points in the past, most notably under the Qing Dynasty, although its remoteness has made direct administration a non-issue until recently. What is undoubtably true is that, regardless of the rights and wrongs of the matter, Tibet today is de facto part of the People’s Republic of China (even the DL admits this is unlikely to change anytime soon), and is subject to the forces that are shaping The Frontier as a whole. And you’re right, given my current position, that’s about all I can say on the matter.

      You’re right, the Rust Belt (Manchuria) became part of the Chinese Empire in the 17th Century when the Manchus conquered China — I thought I had mentioned that, though perhaps the nuances weren’t clear. In my original draft, I also mentioned that the Manchus actually prohibited Han Chinese settlement there until the arrival of Russian interests (the railroad) around 1900; then they unleashed a flood of Han migrants to try to retain control of the Manchu homeland. Some of the details of this process fell prey to editing cuts.

      • Houhui permalink
        March 18, 2010 7:29 pm

        I always marvel at how post Qing Chinese leaders managed to keep hold of what were undoubtedly Imperial possessions whilst simultaneously drawing support from anti-Imperialist nationalists. (Opposed to Western imperialism). This is a dilemma that haunts China to this day, and seriously affects the quality of debate that can be made within the PRC on that fact that a political entity which contains various nationalities (some of whom are significantly unhappy with the situation) is by definition an Empire.

        Barry Buzan, in People, States and Fear, divides the world’s states into several types. One of which is the multi-nation state, a category further subdivided into Federalist and Imperial.

        Federalist states “contain two or more nations without trying to impose an artificial nation state over them”.

        Imperialist ones “are those in which one of the nationas within the state dominates the state structures to its own advantage”. The dominant nation may seek to “suppress” the minorities by various methods “from massacre to cultural and racial absorbtion” or other ways.

        He interestling notes of these Multi-nation Imperialist states, “they may be threatened by seperatism.” Examples he gives include the Soviet Union, China, and Sudan. Two of the above have (with a possible solution to part of Sudan’s problem imminent) seemingly resolved much of their problems (Chechyns, Dagestanis, Ingushetians etc aside).

  7. GM Redmer permalink
    November 18, 2009 2:15 pm

    I am American, but I have been living and working in Taiwan for 12 years. I can tell you that Taiwan should NOT be described as a ‘nation’ or even a ‘region’ of mainland China. This is not only true because of obvious political facts, but also culturally and economically. I have visited many of your so-called ‘nations’ of mainland China. I can tell you that there are gaping differences between China and Taiwan in all matters political, economic, and culturally. For the latter, I am referring to deep-seated differences in people’s mindset and behavior. Taiwan is the seat of the Republic of China, NOT the People’s Republic of China. Its listing as a ‘nation’ or even region of China has many faults.

    • November 20, 2009 1:04 pm

      There are also “gaping differences” between New Yorkers and Texans but we’re still Americans.

      In fact, I would dare to say the differences between a New Yorker vs. a Texan is greater than a Taiwanese vs. a Mainland Chinese person.

      • August 23, 2010 6:58 pm

        Not in any objective sense, no.

        From an income point of view, the average income in China is around $4000, while the average income in Taiwan is $16,000. Adjusting for purchasing power only increases the absolute size of the disparity.

        Culturally, they’ve lived through completely different styles of government for the previous 60 years and for the most part, speak different languages.

        This really is quite a bit different then anything that exists in the US….

      • Wario Mosley permalink
        October 29, 2011 8:02 am

        David Shor : Not quite – Min Nan and Hokkien are also spoken on the mainland. Taiwan is to Fujian as ROC is to PRC

      • John permalink
        November 10, 2011 7:29 pm

        Your argument seems to be that because “hokkien and Taiwanese dialect” are very simlar, and because ehtnically, Fujianese and Taiwanese people have a dominant chinese ethinicity, therefore they belong to the same POLITICAL and LEGAL border that is the People’s Republic of China? That is the best argument for PRC citizens to argue that Taiwan is a part of PRC. But, it is insufficient. Juxtaposing New Yorkers vs. Texans against Taiwanese vs. Fujianese is irrelevant because the point of national borders was not achieved based on ethinicity, but political and legal differences. So, the fact that Texans and New Yorkers might be culturally different yet live under the same national identity is not determined because they all accept to unite under the same political and legal structure that forms the united state, and not because of ethnicity or language. Similarly, Taiwan and Fujian are seperate entities simply because the two accepts and have been ruled by completely different national identities in terms of political and legal system. At no point in history was political and legal borders based on ethnicity or language similarity. Therefore,

        Taiwan is NOT to Fujian as ROC is NOT to PRC.

      • John permalink
        November 10, 2011 7:32 pm

        Edit: *…culturally different yet live under the same national identity IS determined because they all accept to unite under the same political and legal structure that forms the united state…

  8. China Realist permalink
    November 19, 2009 12:04 am

    Outstanding article, Patrick. Thanks ! I saw a clip of your interview the other day – I believe it may have been on a PBS channel – and was equally impressed.

    To the previous commenter who has worked and lived in Taiwan for the last 12 years: that’s great, you should be proud. I have lived and worked in China for the last 12 years, and have been traveling to Taipei since 1998 as well. Your contentions are absurdly overstated, and seem to serve your own agenda. Are there differences between the two regions ? Of course – there are differences between all of the “nations” Patrick refers to. But to suggest that there are “gaping” differences is just silly talk. There is a lot more in common between the two that different.

  9. Scott permalink
    November 19, 2009 5:40 am

    I love the interactive map! I teach a college course in World Regional Geography and plan to pass along a link to my students and use it in class lectures. It’s a great framework for learning about the diversity of China.

  10. historian permalink
    November 19, 2009 11:58 am

    I agree with Professor Chovanec that it is impossible to squeeze everything into your article, given many constraints that you have and I apologize.

    I’d like to point out a few points that most people rarely stumble upon unless they study both China’s history and literature. The Buddhist texts reflecting the transmission of Buddhism from India and Central Asia to China are also important references that can help understand more about the Xinjiang region.

    Xinjiang is the birth place of Kumarajiva, the famous Buddhist scholar who translated important Buddhist texts such as the Diamond Sutra, the Lotus Sutra, the Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way, the Vimalakirti Nirdessa Sutra, from Sanskrit to Chinese. Kumarajiva’s mother is a Turk and not a Chinese. His father is not Chinese either. This made sense because historical records reflected that Kumarajiva spent more than 10 years to learn Chinese.

    In addition, Xuanjang, the famous Chinese Buddhist scholar who lived during the Emperor Taizong’s era of the Tang Dynasty did mention in his travel log that Xinjiang was never part of China and most of Xinjiang residents were Turks.

    Regarding Taiwan, the indigenous language of Taiwan is Austronesian and not Chinese. Their close cousins are the Philippines, Malaysians, and Indonesians. If you have time, do some research on this and you will find interesting things pertaining the indigenous people of Taiwan.

    • prchovanec permalink*
      November 19, 2009 3:44 pm

      Yes, the connection between the Silk Road and the arrival of Buddhism in China, and the story of the people who lived along that route — not just the Uighurs, but the Yueh-chi (Kushans) and Tocharians — is indeed a fascinating one.

    • DeepBlue permalink
      January 29, 2011 9:48 am

      “the indigenous language of Taiwan is Austronesian and not Chinese.”
      This is really a very misleading statement. The population of indigenous people of Taiwan is a little shy of 2 percent. And there are somewhere between 15~25 indigenous languages. This is like saying the Navajo or Cherokee or any of the first nation languages are the indigenous language of US, not English. In real life, the vast majority people either speak Mandarin or Hakka (which is the same as Fujianese, or more accurately, Southern-Fujian-Dialect). Somewhere around 80% of Taiwanese can trace their root to migrants from Fujian over last 300 years. The rest just need to go back one or two generations, to Chiang’s exodus from mainland in 1949.

      p.s. The high profile aboriginal legislator May Chin is one of the most sino-centric political figures.

  11. historian permalink
    November 19, 2009 12:05 pm

    Professor Chovanec,

    Just out of curiosity, does Tsinghua University allow you to do some research on economic development of Chinese who have illegally settled in Russian Siberia recently?

    Thank you

    • prchovanec permalink*
      November 22, 2009 9:09 am

      This is a really interesting topic and I’ve only been able to find a handful of articles discussing it. I’ve been very tempted to just head up there and check out the situation myself. As you probably know, prior to the Treaty of Aigun in 1858 and the Treaty of Beijing in 1860, China’s Qing Dynasty ruled the area north and east of the Amur — “outer” Manchuria, if you will — that is now part of Russia. This region is rich in timber (which China lacks) and other resources, and has only a meager (and declining) Russian population. Many Chinese migrants have flooded into the region in search of jobs and trading opportunities, but exactly how many and what the future political implications will be is unknown. It’s interesting to note that the premise of Tom Clancy’s thriller “The Bear and the Dragon” is a Chinese invasion of Siberia — but of course, this is fiction and nothing similar appears on the immediate horizon.

  12. Peter KT Chew permalink
    November 19, 2009 3:15 pm

    The Nine Nations of China is an informative presentation of China. A very useful overview that covers socio-economic, geographical and historical facts about the different regions in China. A must read and the interactive map makes it easy.

    Professor Chovanec, have you done any studies on declining fertile lands for agriculture (caused by development, changing environment, desert encroachment and over-farming) and the socio-economic impact? I am a keen supporter of natural methodologies for the revival of fertile agriculture lands in China and would be interested in hearing your views.

  13. Chieni McCullough permalink
    November 20, 2009 7:55 pm

    Thank you for this article. I found it interesting. However, I was quite perplexed that you included Taiwan as part of the map of China. Even though not recognized by the UN, Taiwan functions as an independent country and should not be confused as China. Unlike China, Taiwan is a democracy and it values human rights as well as freedom of speech. Please do your research more carefully in the future.

    • Wario Mosley permalink
      October 29, 2011 8:04 am

      Culturally it is a part of China, even though a separate government controls it.

      The local language on Taiwan, Min Nam, is spoken in Mainland Fujian too

      • Jingle permalink
        November 9, 2011 6:07 am


        What you talk about is the political situation in the last 60 years. But historically and culturally, most of the Taiwanese are basically immigrants from Mainland China.

        So please don’t be solely blind-folded by your ideology in politics!

  14. GM Redmer permalink
    November 21, 2009 6:51 pm

    China Realist and KL, I do not want to take up space on this well-designed blog debating you. But I have to say that I am glad a few recent comments have agreed with me.
    Would you at least agree that listing Taiwan as a ‘nation’ of China could be misleading to the average reader? Here’s why:

    1. There are virtually no political links between Taiwan and the mainland—NONE. In fact, the two sides were not even talking to each other until last year. Taiwan has been completely independent for over 50 years since the Communist takeover of the mainland. Why do you think Beijing complains every year when America announces its arms sales for Taiwan to defend itself? Why do you think Beijing continues to threaten an invasion of Taiwan? Its because Taiwan is NOT a nation or region of China…although the Communist Party would love re-unification.

    2. Cultural links? Sure…there are some, but there are a lot of differences too since the Taiwan government actually protected traditional Chinese culture while the mainland destroyed it (i.e. cultural revolution–which still effects the thinking of mainlanders today). But as another person commented, Taiwan has a rich Austronesian culture too, which is not even related to Chinese culture.

    3. Economic links? Sure—but China has many links with America too…and then there is the fact that most of the economics links are still one-way. Taiwan has invested heavily into the mainland (not just Fujian province)…but there is not nearly as much investment from the mainland into Taiwan due to legal restrictions. As a matter of fact, Taiwan and China did not even have direct air and postal links until very recently.

    4. As I stated earlier, my visits to almost every part of the mainland have shown me that there are still deep-seated differences in mentality between Taiwan and the mainland. But could be due to the fact that Taiwan is a developed democracy with human rights awareness.

    Taiwan is not like Hong Kong or Tibet, it is not a region that is already under Chinese control. It has not come under Chinese control…yet.

    In short, to list Taiwan as a ‘disputed independent area’ or the seat of the Republic of China (which fled to Taiwan in 1949) would be more accurate. To list it as a ‘nation’ or ‘region’ (which is the exact same word that the CCP uses in its propaganda) is misleading.

  15. HJG permalink
    November 22, 2009 7:17 am

    This article just shows that the author knows no history and have eyes set on this narrow slice of present (if even). Ah well, at least this is amusing for the random voyeur.

    • prchovanec permalink*
      November 22, 2009 8:56 am

      I can understand comments like these, given the space constraints I was operating under in The Atlantic. But readers who enjoyed the article should know that, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Each of the Nine Nations has a rich and distinctive history. It was impossible to give a full account of these stories in three paragraphs. But I do plan to share such an account in the near future, and when you read it, I think you’ll be very surprised.

  16. April 2, 2011 5:18 pm

    Fascinating graphic. Really interesting reading. Like you say, I think its important that people in the West realise that China isn’t one great monolith, but rather comprises very different regions which share, to a lesser or greater degree, a certain cultural identity and historic traditions. (Although it could be debated whether certain regions share much of these traditions/identity at all)

  17. June 24, 2011 7:14 pm

    Taiwan is included ??

  18. February 3, 2012 10:44 pm

    So interesting…))

  19. king permalink
    July 6, 2012 3:20 am

    From the Western’s point of view to see China, I agree with most of your viewpoint, but only a small part we can to exchange personal views.Thanks for your teaching

  20. August 7, 2012 3:03 am

    Hey, why are you put my hometown Guangxi together with Yunnan and Guizhou, want to cry now..>o<.., we have nothing to do with this two. we have been together with Guangdong and Hainan for thousands of years!!


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