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.
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)
|#2||The Yellow Land||358,790,000|
|#14||The Back Door||111,510,000|
|#17||The Rust Belt||108,740,000|
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.