March 21, 2010
This excerpt is part of a larger feature I wrote that was published by The Atlantic in November 2009. To read the introduction and access descriptions of the other eight “nations” of China, click here.
THE CROSSROADS(Anhui, Jiangxi, Hubei, Hunan)
Territory: 707,124 km2 (7% of total)
Population: 226 million (17% of total)
Per Capita GDP: $2,402 (#7 of 9)
Exports as % of GDP: 6%Net Trade Balance (ex-China): $6 billion surplus
All of the dynamics driving the first four nations converge in the Crossroads. The middle stretch of the Yangtze is a natural transportation and communications nexus. It is the heart of China, pumping the lifeblood of men and material to every other part along capillaries of water, road, and rail. Interrupt this heartbeat—as a freak snowstorm did last year when it hit the Crossroads during Lunar New Year—and the entire country can grind to a halt. But the region’s central strategic position has never translated into political power. Instead, it has always been a zone of competition among its stronger neighbors, a place for their rival armies to march and fight.
The wetlands along the Yangtze and its tributaries supply much of China’s rice, fish and fowl, and the surrounding hills are rich in orchards above ground and minerals below. But nearly all of its resources—the electricity generated by the Three Gorge Dam, the copper mined to make electrical wiring—flow outward to fuel China’s more developed coastal provinces. The most important outflow is human. Along with the Refuge, the Crossroads supplies the vast majority of China’s migrant workers, a floating population of 150 million people.
Standing in the crosscurrents of so many comings and goings, the Crossroads functions not only as China’s physical heart but as its emotional heartland as well. When migrants return home, they bring back ideas and experiences from every part of China, which mix and recirculate through the entire body. It helps that the inhabitants of Chu—as the Crossroads was called in ancient times—have long been known for their strong passions and fierce loyalties. It is no coincidence that the popular uprisings that began both the Nationalist and Communist revolutions happened here, or that many of China’s leading reformists and revolutionaries, including Mao, rank among its native sons. But while many things begin in the Crossroads, few ever reach their fruition there.