China developed a highly unique and individualized civilization over the last five thousand years that began largely in isolation due to a variety of geographical boundaries that kept it separated from outside cultural influences. About two-thirds of China's almost six million square miles are covered in mountains and plateaus that...
China developed a highly unique and individualized civilization over the last five thousand years that began largely in isolation due to a variety of geographical boundaries that kept it separated from outside cultural influences. About two-thirds of China's almost six million square miles are covered in mountains and plateaus that served as a natural barrier to both outside explorers and invaders. Many of these mountains to the south and west were frigidly cold due to the high elevations and virtually impassible until the developments of modern technology like air travel. In addition, vast dry deserts to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the east provided further global confinement.
Within China were an abundance of foothills, plains, and basins with fertile soil that proved suitable for growing food. The Yellow River to the north and the Yangtze River to the south not only provided essential nutrients for the soil, but also fresh drinking water and a source of transportation that allowed tribes in different parts of the country to exchange goods, technology, and ideas. China's lakes were equally vital, especially around the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and Middle-Lower Yangtze Plain, where they provided food, tide power, and various aquatic resources.
Climates varied across the country due to its sheer size. The northeast boasted hot, dry summers and freezing cold winters that served as both economic and physical impediments. The central region was temperate, with modest rainfall and diverse seasons that allowed for routine farming and agricultural self-sufficiency. The southeast's semi-tropical environment featured more modest winters and heavy rainfall that often led to flooding. As such, growing seasons and the type of crops that could grow in these regions were more limited and forced an expansion in trade with tribes to the north.
Many significant cultural developments originated from within China, from pasta to paper to gunpowder, and modern day scholars believe that a proclivity to trade with outside empires benefited the Chinese by providing resources and knowledge that was otherwise unavailable within their borders. Naval expeditions began in the third century BC under the Qin Dynasty, with foreign relations greatly expanding under the Han dynasty and continuing through much of the Sui, Tang, and Song dynasties, all despite occasional periods of unrest.
Not until the Mongol raids after the collapse of the Song Dynasty did the nation adopt a more averse stance to certain outside influences, even though the Mongols (who lived in the Gobi desert) often limited raids to tribes in the northern regions of China and didn't venture much further south. While fortifications that formed the earliest parts of the Great Wall began as early as the eighth century BC, much of the modern wall seen today was built in order to repell the Mongol hordes. However, diplomatic missions by Marco Polo and other Europeans, as well as the resurgence of military power under the Ming Dynasty in the fourteenth century, led to a renaissance in cultural exchange that accelerated national development until the seventeenth century.
As such, much of China's early development was shaped by the vast geographical and climatic barriers that kept it isolated from other nations and kept various tribes within its boundaries isolated from each other. However, through gradual advancements in technology, water travel, agriculture and general knowledge, China's political leaders were able to open the nation up to trade with other empires that greatly enhanced the development of its civilization and ultimately mitigated the isolating effects of its geography.