China's Geography : its Mountains, Basins, Rivers and Plains

Tibetan Plateau Yunnan - Guizhou Plateau Inner Mongolian Plateau Loess Plateau Himalayan Mountains Altay Mountains Tianshan Mountains Kunlun Mountains Karakoram Mountains Qingling Mountains Nanling Mountains Changbai Mountains Khingan Mountains Hengduan Mountains Wuyi Shan Mountains Northeastern Plain North China Plain Tarim Basin Junggar Basin Sichuan Basin Shandong peninsula

Hover the mouse over an area in the map of China, an information box will pop-up with details of the region.

Geography of China

China has many distinct geographical regions. It has deserts, high mountains, grasslands, vast lakes, huge rivers, glaciers, tropical forests and almost every other geographical feature that you can think of.

In general, China's terrain falls in steps from the high Tibetan plateau in the south west to the flat North Coastal plain in the north east. Three great rivers run vaguely west to east to divide the nation into three east-west zones, the Huang He (Yellow River), Chang Jiang (Yangzi River) and Yu Jiang (Pearl River). North-eastern China is dominated by flat plains and coastlines while southern China is mountainous with a rocky coastline. The usual line taken to divide northern from southern China is the course of the Huai River which runs through Henan and Anhui. The lack of rain in western China is one of the most important features of China's climate (see separate climate section).

Yading Nature Reserve,  Tibet
Chanadorje (Xianuoduoji, 5958m) and Chonggu Grassland, Yading National Nature Reserve. Oct. 2016. Image by Dcpeets available under a Creative Commons License

Tibetan Plateau

This high plateau covers Tibet, Qinghai, southern Xinjiang and western Sichuan. It has an average altitude of 14,764 feet [4,500 meters] making it the world's highest and largest plateau. The plateau has permanent glaciers providing source water for East Asia's major rivers: Yellow, Yangzi, Mekong, Brahmaputra, Salween, Indus, Ganges and Tarim. There are many brackish lakes, the largest of which is Qinghai Lake. Monsoons over India bring heavy rain in summer to the extreme southern fringe of Tibet, elsewhere it is extremely dry. The Yarlung Zangbo Valley supports some growing of barley but elsewhere the land provides poor pasture for yaks.

Guizhou, view, mountains
Mountains on the Guizhou-Yunnan border

Yunnan - Guizhou Plateau

The altitude of this region falls from the Tibetan plateau in the west to about 1,640 feet [500 meters] in the east. It is scoured by very deep valleys running north to south making east-west travel almost impossible. The climate is wet and humid as tropical air from the south is funneled up the valleys making it suitable for intensive agriculture in the valley bottoms. The weathering of limestone has generated spectacular karst scenery.

Inner Mongolia, landscape, view
View of Inner Mongolia near border with Russia

Inner Mongolian Plateau (Gobi desert)

Stretching across the north of China the Mongolian plateau is broad and flat with an average altitude of 3,281 feet [1,000 meters]. Inner Mongolia covers most of the area extending into northern Gansu, Ningxia and western Manchuria (Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang). No geographical feature forms China's northern border, the plateau stretches on to cover the country of Mongolia as well. Winters are cold and long with low rainfall. Underground water supplies support limited agriculture. Pasture is the main resource to support the herds of grazing animals. The climate is drier in the west and wetter in the east. The Gobi sand desert covers much of the core of this region. Taken all together deserts represent about 20% of China's land area.

Gansu, terraces, land form
Terraced farmland in the loess lands of Gansu

Loess Plateau

Famous for giving the Yellow River its name, the yellow loess plateau stretches south of the Gobi Desert covering Shanxi and parts of Ningxia; Gansu and Shaanxi. Loess (fine calcareous sand and silt) forms in places a 197 feet [60 meters] thick layer of friable yellow earth with an average altitude of 3,281 feet [1,000 meters]. The soil retains water well, and that is the reason that this dry region can still produce high crop yields. Over-cultivation of the land over the centuries has removed the important vegetation that bound the soil together; and now vegetation is sparse. Trees find it hard to become established in the fine, dry earth. Rainfall is infrequent but heavy and these deluges move vast amounts of material causing flash flooding. Terracing of the hills has greatly increased the area available for cultivation. Traditionally houses were made by excavating caves into loess cliffs (most famously at Yan'an), the caves are cool in summer and warm in winter.

mount everest, everest, himalayas
Mount Everest as seen from the aircraft of Drukair in Bhutan. The aircraft is south of the mountains, facing north. 2006. Image by shrimpo1967 available under a Creative Commons License

Himalayan Mountains

The highest mountains in the world are on the southern edge of the Tibetan plateau. Mount Everest and other high peaks form the most secure of all land borders. Himalaya means ‘Home of snow’ in Tibetan. Nine of the top 14 highest mountains in the world are in this range. The southern slopes receive huge amounts of rainfall as warm, moist monsoon air hits the mountain barrier.

Xinjiang, landscape, river
Kanas national park in Xinjiang

Altay Mountains

These mountains form the far north-western border of China with Mongolia and Russia; they rise to 9,843 feet [3,000 meters].

Tianshan Mountains

The Tiān shān range that rise to 16,404 feet [5,000 meters] stretch from Kyrgyzstan into China to form a divide between the Tarim depression to the south and the Junggar basin to the north. The ancient Silk Route into China passed close to the mountains, with alternative ways to the north (via Alma Ata) or south (via Kashgar) to avoid the high peaks. The influence of Arctic air over Russia brings rain to the north of the mountains, producing rich pasture land.

Qinghai, snow, mountains
Rugged Kunlun mountains

Kunlun Mountains

Forming the northern edge of the Tibetan Plateau and stretching into western Sichuan, the Kunlun Mountains define the border of Tibet. At about 16,404 feet [5,000 meters] with peaks up to 22,966 feet [7,000 meters] the 昆仑 Kūn lún mountains are a little known but impressive range. The precious mineral jade has been mined here for thousands of years.

Penglai, coast, Shandong, pavilion
Penglai Pavilion at the northern tip of Shandong province

Shandong Peninsula

The Shandong or Jiaodong peninsula is like an island set in the North China plain. Historically the high mountains have made internal settlement difficult so many towns are spread along the rocky coastline with transport by boat. The surrounding North China Sea gives it a moist maritime climate, at least near the coast. On the western side the mountains fall away to a flat plain. The Yellow River has in historical times flowed south of Shandong's western edge cutting it off from the rest of China.

Pakistan, Karakoram highway
Karakorum Highway in Pakistan leading to China

Karakoram Mountains

The Karakoram (or Karakorum) Pass is one of the most important mountain passes into western China. The mountains form the border with Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Tajikistan. The second highest mountain in the world, K2 , is located in this range.

qinling, mountain, shaanxi
shoot on 2017/05/28 Xi'an, Shaanxi, China, by charlie Yan part of the mountains. Image by Charlie439753 available under a Creative Commons License

Qinling Mountains

The Qín lǐng mountains form the division between the Yellow and Yangzi River basins. They jut out east from the Tibetan plateau into the North China plain forming the northern edge of the Sichuan basin. Rising to 9,843 feet [3,000 meters] they make an important historical and climatic dividing line in China between ‘north’ and ‘south’. They prevent moist summer air reaching further north and in winter cold air reaching central China.

Nanling Mountains

South of the Nán lǐng mountains is the basin of the Pearl River draining south into Guangdong, to the north the Yangzi river drains east towards Nanjing. Relatively low at 3,281 feet [1,000 meters] the mountains are rugged with deep valleys. They form a climatic division between the tropical high rainfall of the south and the drier cooler part of central China.

Jilin, Changbai, waterfall
Waterfall, Changbai mountains, Jilin

Changbai Mountains

Lying on the Korean-China border these high, snow capped mountains of Changbai separate China from North Korea. Cháng bái means ‘forever white’.

khingan, forest, mountains
A forest near the Root River Wetlands in Daxing Anling. Image by Charlie fong available under a Creative Commons License

Khingan Mountains

Separating Siberia from the flat Manchurian plain these mountains enhance the rainfall that falls over north-eastern China. They are split into the ‘Greater Khingan’ ( Dà xīng ān lǐng) running southwest to northeast and the ‘Little Khingan’ ( Xiǎo xīng ān lǐng) running northwest to southeast forming the northeastern border with Russia. They are densely wooded with conifers, providing a great deal of timber for China and home to the few remaining Siberian tigers.

Hengduan Mountains

Separating the Tibetan Plateau and the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau is a transitional zone of high mountains with deep valleys running north-south. Héng duàn 横断 means ‘cut across’ in Chinese. Many of the mountains are over 19,685 feet [6,000 meters] high.

Fujian, Wuyishan, landscape, river
Wuyishan Mountain, Fujian

Wuyi Shan Mountains

The Wuyi Shan form a continuation of the Nanling mountains in an arc along the southeastern coast which isolate Fujian from the rest of China. The Wǔ yí shān mountains are at the heart of this rugged barrier. Travel to Fujian was historically by boat to its many coastal ports rather than crossing these high mountains.

Jilin, Changchun, lake
South lake park, Changchun city, Jilin Copyright © Dreamstime see image license

North-eastern Plain

Surrounded by the Khingan mountains the north-eastern alluvial plain of Manchuria is an important agricultural zone. With very cold winters in the north the growing season is limited in length. It is geologically a sedimentary basin. Wheat, soybean, sorghum, sugar beet and flax are the main crops. The lower stretches of the Liáo river form marshy ground in Liaoning province.

Jiangsu, Nanjing, skyscraper
Nanjing City, Jiangxi Copyright © Dreamstime see image license

North China Plain

The vast bulk of the Chinese population lives on the vast North China Plain stretching from the north at Beijing to the south at Hangzhou, Zhejiang and from west at Yichang, Hubei to the Eastern sea. The Yangzi and Yellow rivers compete to provide the rich alluvial soil needed to support the high agricultural output. Prone to catastrophic flooding and dramatic changes of river course, life on the plain has at times been very perilous. The Three Gorges Dam and the canalization of the Yellow River have much reduced the risk in recent years. Much rice is grown generally in the southern half of the plain.

Xinjiang, Turpan, desert, flaming mountains
Landscape near Turpan in North West China - the hottest place in China

Tarim Basin

The arid Tarim Basin holds at its heart the scorching sand desert of the Taklamakan (literally translated as ‘go in, not come out’). The average elevation is a huge step down from the Tibetan Plateau at about 3,281 feet [1,000 meters]. On the northern edge runs the Tarim River Tǎ lǐ mù hé (1,305 miles [2,100 kms] long) but it dries up before it can leave this arid area. It is cold in winter and scorching hot in summer. At the north-eastern edge is the deep depression of Turpan. Here the land falls to 833 feet [254 meters] below sea level - the second lowest in the world after the Dead Sea and here the summer heat is trapped making it the hottest place in China at 49 ° C [121 ° F].

Junggar Basin

The Tianshan mountains separate the Tarim basin from its northern neighbor the Junggar Basin (准噶 Zhǔn gá ěr). From the north western direction a little more rainfall is received than the Tarim so it is possible to cultivate more crops in a few pockets, but it is mainly desert.

Chengdu Plain, Sichuan.
Image by Cdwaer available under a Creative Commons license

Sichuan Basin

Nestled by mountains on three sides the Sichuan or ‘Red basin’ receives a high rainfall from southerly, warm, moist winds. The average elevation of the Sichuan Basin is quite high at 1,969 feet [600 meters]. Winter frosts are extremely rare. It is named the ‘Red basin’ after the iron rich color of the soil. The good soil and favorable climate produce high yields of many crops.

Chinese Geographic terms

The names of Chinese provinces, cities and regions use common elements that are helpful to know when touring China and interpreting maps.

chéng shìCity or large town
chéng zhènTown
chíSmall lake, pond or pool
chì lǔ斥卤Saline marsh; salt marsh
cūn ziVillage
daǒAn Island. The character is a representation of a bird on a mountain. As in Qingdao , Shandong.
dì túMap or chart
dòngA cave or cavern
fēngPeak or summit of a mountain. As in Chifeng , Inner Mongolia
gāo yuánPlateau
gōng lùHighway, public road
gōng yuánPublic recreational park
gōuRavine or gully
haǐSea. As in Haimen , Jiangsu and Qinghai
haǐ yángOcean (vast sea)
haǐ tānBeach
River. As in Shihezi , Xinjiang
huǒ shānVolcano. Literally 'fire mountain'.
Lake. As in Wuhu , Anhui
jiāngLarge river. As in Lijiang , Yunnan
pù bù瀑布Waterfall
sēn línForest. The two characters are made up of five 'trees'.
shā mò沙漠Desert
shānMountain. As in Foshan , Guangdong
shān gǔValley
shān màiMountain Range
shù línWoodland
shuǐWater. As in Tianshui , Gansu
shuǐ kùWaterfall (literally 'water storehouse')
tánPool or pond. As in Xiangtan 湘潭, Hunan
tiě lùRailway; railroad (literally 'iron road')
Stream; brook. As in Benxi , Liaoning
xiáGorge; deep ravine
xiànCounty (administrative division)
xiaǒ lùPath; footpath
yángThe 'sunny side' of yin-yang so quite often a component of city names open to the sun. As in Shaoyang , Hunan
yùn héCanal
zhaǒ zéSwamp or marsh
zhènSmall town
zhōuPrefecture (administrative division). As in Xuzhou , Jiangsu; Guangzhou 广, Guangdong
zì zhì qūAutonomous region of minority people.

See also