The Loess Plateau
Physical characteristics: The overwhelming distinctive characteristic of the Loess Plateau is the wind-blown alluvium (dust) that has accumulated to depths of over 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) in some places and is known as loess. While loess is rich in calcium and thus fertile, the overall aridity of the region coupled with the fact that loess does not hold water makes traditional methods of irrigation and farming useless. Environmental conditions, including highly variable rainfall (when it does occur), means that farmers seldom expect to harvest more than two crops every three years.
History: Two cultural patterns resulted from the physical environment and location of the Loess Plateau. One was human poverty and isolated communities; the other a dependency upon trade with nomadic peoples and the empires beyond the Great Wall. Economically the Loess Plateau has been dominated by trade and commercial cities that have flourished and died as routes and the direction of trade have shifted. It has never been a strong food-producing region.
Economic activities and resources today: As in the past, key cities in the Loess Plateau are those that facilitate trade and transport to and from eastern China and the North China Plain. Cities such as Xi'an and Lanzhou are trade hubs stemming from a reinvigorated economy in Xinjiang and the former Soviet countries of central Asia. Today, however, oil has replaced silk as the major economic commodity. Oil is a major resource in Gansu, Xinjiang, and the contiguous country of Kazakhstan.
Housing: caves carved into the loess cliffs and mud-brick houses in rural areas, apartments in urban areas
Social organization: nuclear families
Transportation: walking, mule, and horse in rural areas; cars, buses, and bicycles in urban areas
Food staples: wheat-noodles and sour cabbage
The Southeast Coast and Shanghai
Physical characteristics: This region shares the entire Yangzi Valley's dominant characteristics of water, wetlands, and hot and humid summers. However, the influence of the Pacific Ocean as well as access thereto make the area distinctive. The ocean's warm current creates milder winter temperatures than in the interior. In addition the nearby mountains (Huangshan and Wuyi) are favorable for crops other than aquaculture (rice, shrimp, ducks, and so on), which is prominent in the lowlands. Mild climates and abundant rainfall mean farmers in this area generally expect to obtain three or more crops every year. Some form of food, whether from land or sea, is always abundant and in surplus.
History: This was the first region to feel the impact of the West through the Opium War and "Treaty Ports" of the eighteenth century. It has had the greatest number of Christian missionaries, Chinese Christians, and Christian churches in China. Like so many of China's distinct physical environments, it is dominated by ethnic peoples not fully identifiable as "Han," who speak distinct languages and often have closer ties to Chinese overseas.
Economic activities and resources today: Shanghai is the major city of this region. Located at the mouth of the Yangzi, it is a thriving port and a center for steel, telecommunications, automobiles, power production equipment, petrochemicals and electric appliances. Having a strong service industry, the city is also focused on finance and insurance, commerce, real estate, tourism, and information. On the coast fishing and shipping are important industries. Other cities along the coast also have been designated "special economic zones." In the interior regions rice is an important cash crop, except in the mountainous areas, where fishing and forestry take place. Other specialty crops, such as tea and citrus fruits, are grown, but the coast is subject to typhoons.
Housing: plaster or brick to offset rain in rural areas, apartment buildings in urban areas
Social organization: class, family, or business compounds
Transportation: boats and ships on rivers and canals, cars, buses, and bicycles
Food staples: rice, seafood, and tropical fruits