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Asia, China

Encarta Encyclopedia, British dependency, Chinese dialects, vast deserts, Putonghua

China, officially the People's Republic of China (Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo), country in East Asia, the world’s largest country by population and one of the largest by area, measuring about the same size as the United States. The Chinese call their country Zhongguo, which means “Central Country” or “Middle Kingdom.” The name China was given to it by foreigners and is probably based on a corruption of Qin (pronounced “chin”), a Chinese dynasty that ruled during the 3rd century bc.

China proper centers on the agricultural regions drained by three major rivers—the Huang He (Yellow River) in the north, the Yangtze (Chang Jiang) in central China, and the Zhu Jiang (Pearl River) in the south. The country’s varied terrain includes vast deserts, towering mountains, high plateaus, and broad plains. Beijing, located in the north, is China’s capital and its cultural, economic, and communications center. Shanghai, located near the Yangtze, is the most populous urban center, the largest industrial and commercial city, and mainland China’s leading port.

More than one-fifth of the world’s population—1.3 billion people—live in China. More than 90 percent of these are ethnic Han Chinese, but China also recognizes 55 national minorities, including Tibetans, Mongols, Uighurs, Zhuang, Miao, Yi, and many smaller groups. Even among the ethnic Han, there are regional linguistic differences. Although a common language called Putonghua is taught in schools and used by the mass media, local spoken languages are often mutually incomprehensible. However, the logographic writing system, which uses characters that represent words rather than pronunciation, makes it possible for all Chinese dialects to be written in the same way; this greatly aids communication across China.

In ancient times, China was East Asia’s dominant civilization. Other societies—notably the Japanese, Koreans, Tibetans, and Vietnamese—were strongly influenced by China, adopting features of Chinese art, food, material culture, philosophy, government, technology, and written language. For many centuries, especially from the 7th through the 14th century ad, China had the world’s most advanced civilization. Inventions such as paper, printing, gunpowder, porcelain, silk, and the compass originated in China and then spread to other parts of the world.

China’s political strength became threatened when European empires expanded into East Asia. Macau, a small territory on China’s southeastern coast, came under Portuguese control in the mid-16th century, and Hong Kong, nearby, became a British dependency in the 1840s. In the 19th century internal revolts and foreign encroachment weakened China’s last dynasty, the Qing, which was finally overthrown by Chinese Nationalists in 1911. Over the course of several decades, the country was torn apart by warlords, Japanese invasion, and a civil war between the Communists and the Nationalist regime of the Kuomintang, which established the Republic of China in 1928.

In 1949 the Chinese Communist Party won the civil war and established the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland. The Kuomintang fled to the island province of Taiwan, where it reestablished the Nationalist government. The Nationalist government controlled only Taiwan and a few outlying islands but initially retained wide international recognition as the rightful government of all of China. Today, most countries recognize the PRC on the mainland as the official government of China. However, Taiwan and mainland China remain separated by different administrations and economies. Therefore, Taiwan is treated separately in Encarta Encyclopedia. In general, statistics in this article apply only to the area under the control of the PRC.

After coming to power in 1949, the Communist government began placing agriculture and industry under state control. Beginning in the late 1970s, however, the government implemented economic reforms that reversed some of the earlier policies and encouraged foreign investment. Although China remains a poor country by world standards, the economy has grown dramatically as a result of the reforms of the 1980s and 1990s.

In 1997 Hong Kong was transferred from Britain to China under an agreement that gave the region considerable autonomy. Portugal recognized Macau as Chinese territory in the late 1970s and later negotiated the transfer of Macau’s administration from Portugal to China. Macau, too, was guaranteed a special degree of autonomy.

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