7 maps that make China (somewhat) make sense

By Erik Crouch, May 26, 2015

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Sometimes it helps to take a step back and let a cartographer take the wheel. China is a huge, rambunctious, anarchic place - and many of its biggest issues (pluses and minuses) make the most sense when projected on a good ol' map. We're taking a page out of the Vox playbook on this one, and presenting a set of 7 maps that attempt to answer the eternal question, "China, WTF?"



If you're reading this in China, we bet you're on the right side

If you're on the left side of that yellow line then, statistically speaking, you're probably reading this alone. If you're on the right side, then you're likely reading this while nose-deep in someone's armpit on the subway. That's because 96 percent of people in China - that's about 1.27 billion people - live in the dark red area.

Those wealthy eastern cities are busting at the seams, while in more remote areas like Tibet or Xinjiang, a humble 6 percent of the population lives on about 43 percent of the country's land.

Similarly, this map below shows the countries of the world scaled to the size of their populations. China's borders remain pretty much the same, while pool little Canada looks like it deflated while atop the USA. Taiwan and Australia come in at about the same size and, from the looks of things, Mongolia simply doesn't exist.



Tibet and Qinghai aren't real. Henan, Anhui and Jiangxi are poor, while the north-east is just plain old cold. This map, featured in Foreign Policy shows the oft-searched adjectives accompanying Chinese provinces on Baidu. Many people search Baidu asking why Xinjiang is so chaotic, or why Tianjin isn't a top tier city. Poor Guangdong - the country's economic powerhouse, arguably the biggest driver of China's leap out of poverty, and all they're known for is eating monkeys.


Coins vs. Bills

In 1992, the central bank rolled out a new currency scheme: for denominations one yuan or lower, some regions (blue) would use bills, and others (red) would use coins. If you live in Shanghai and haven't spent much time outside of the city, then you can go months without seeing a battered, torn-to-crap, utterly useless 5-mao bill. But in other areas of the country, coins are unheard of (ok, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but they are rare).

The coin scheme was confined to certain regions for a number of reasons. Some suggest that it was kept away from border areas to prevent metal outflow, and to keep the metals within the country. Others suggest that it was because the wet coastline decreases the lifespan of bills, while they hold up fairly well inland.


Provinces vs. Nations

This map is a bit old - it was originally produced by The Economist in 2011. Nevertheless, it provides a fascinating look at how China's provinces stand up to various countries in terms of GDP.

The elite east coasters are boasting equivalent GDPs of countries like Austria, Switzerland and the UAE. But work your way inland, and you're getting into Libya and Bolivia territory. It's a reminder that, while some areas of China are bedecked with Hermes stores and Ferrari dealerships, it is not a nationwide phenomenon.


The China that wasn't

The Nationalists lost the Civil War - but it didn't have to be that way (sorry, historical determinists). Had they been able to pull off a victory, Chiang and Co. had plans for how the Mainland would be divvied up. This 1951 "Provincial Adjustment Draft Plan," issued after the Civil War came to a close (but not before the Nationalists had properly given up plans to retake the Mainland) shows the ROC's plans for organizing the nation.

68 provinces, instead of today's 23 (plus the SARs, municipalities and such), and divided on the basis of local dialects. If this map had ever been implemented - and, by the way, it was never even close - then the nation could be more of a federation of linguistic groups, instead of a standard-Mandarin behemoth.


Pollution and cancer

It turns out that breathing in coal emissions is like, really bad for you. This map, released by Greenpeace in 2013, charts the premature deaths from air pollution-related illnesses.The darker red, the more deaths. In the year of Greenpeace's stats, the provinces of Shandong, Shanxi and Inner Mongolia alone burned more than the entire United States (which, when it comes to clean energy, isn't exactly nailing it either). 


So, do you understand China now? Good. Stay tuned for more maps - something tells us that organizing provinces by number of Taobao purchases or STD rates could also be informative...

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