Mark Henderson

in Chinese Studies

ISBN: 9780199920082
Published online April 2013 | | DOI:

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As a vast sociopolitical entity, China defies easy generalizations. Many regional subdivisions have been invoked to make China’s varied landscapes and populations more tractable. Traditionally, distinctions have been drawn between “north” and “south” China, and since 1949 a dichotomous “coastal” versus “interior” regionalization has been popular. Most scholars, “for reasons of both habit and convenience, find it hard to resist dividing China up into provinces” (Cohen 1984, p. 166; cited under Introductory Works). Provincial boundaries, however, rarely correspond to the limits of either natural or socioeconomic systems. The watersheds of major rivers provide an alternative regionalization: natural resource flows (through river systems) and social and economic exchanges (across the transport network, which is invariably more dense and efficient in riverine lowlands than across mountain passes) have mutually reinforced the historical importance of these kinds of regions. Starting with watershed boundaries, G. William Skinner introduced the concept of “physiographic macroregions” in an essay in The City in Late Imperial China: “In late imperial times, [Chinese cities] formed not a single integrated urban system but several regional systems, each only tenuously connected with its neighbors. In tracing out the overlapping hinterlands of the cities in each one of these regional systems, I came to the realization that they . . . coincided with minor exceptions to a physiographic unit” (Skinner 1977, p. 211; cited under Introductory Works). Skinner postulated that the macroregions were the natural marketing areas of the major metropolises of China, representing a culmination of the hierarchical market systems starting with local market towns that he had previously described (Skinner 1964, cited under Introductory Works). Skinner’s analysis identified nine physiographic macroregions covering agrarian China, identifying the core zones of each and delineating boundaries between them. In subsequent work Skinner developed the Hierarchical Regional Space (HRS) framework, further identifying regional systems below the macroregional level and offering social scientists a means to control on the systematic spatial variation observed in many socioeconomic phenomena. The macroregional framework for China has been widely adopted among historians and anthropologists for contextualizing local studies, but it has also found detractors, especially among economists and geographers, who viewed it as overly deterministic. Skinner addressed some criticisms in elaborating the HRS framework, incorporating concepts from quantitative geography, and identifying “socioeconomic macroregions” that deviate from physiographic boundaries as social patterns and transportation networks develop. Even so, the nine physiographic macroregions of agrarian China remain useful for introducing students to the major geographical variations in China’s landscape and society.

Article.  5341 words. 

Subjects: East Asian Studies ; Asian History ; East Asian Philosophy ; East Asian Religions

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