East Asia in Geographic Perspective

Environment & Society

STANDARDS & THEMES—Grey indicates the category of materials on this page

Human Actions Modify the Physical Environment

The modification of physical environments in order to develop highly productive agricultural systems in China, Japan, and Korea has a long history. The control of water, terracing, and the use of organic fertilizers over millennia have been critical elements in the fashioning of agricultural landscapes in East Asia. These efforts brought about not only highly productive agricultural systems based upon irrigated rice, but also landscapes of extraordinary beauty. Industrialization and consumerism, however, have accelerated over the past half century, leading to issues of depleted resources.


JAPAN: Rice in Japan

CHINA: Controlling Water Resources

• Terracing and Irrigation
  • Arteries of Empire [Asia for Educators] 

    This reading for students discusses China's hydraulic (water control) system and important improvements over time in canal transport. The reading can be used to enlarge the discussion of the Grand Canal and China's use of waterways.

  • Terracing and Irrigation [Asia for Educators]
    Dry crop terracing, Wubao, Shaanxi
    Rice fields at Lao Hu Zui, Yunnan Province
• Imperial Water Control in the 1700s
• Chang Jiang (Yangzi or Yangtze River) and the Three Gorges Dam Today
  • As China's "main street," the Chang Jiang (Yangzi or Yangtze River) courses over 6,300 km, through several of China's most economically developed regions. Several excellent river ports — Shanghai, Zhenjiang, Nanjing, Wuhan, Yichang, and Chongqing — are located near or along the Chang Jiang, making the Chang Jiang one of the world's busiest inland waterways.

  • The flow of the Chang Jiang is some 20 times greater than that of the Huang He. As much of 40% of China's total grain production, 70% of rice output, and more than 40% of the population are associated with the Chang Jiang's vast basin that includes more than 3,000 tributaries. With its numerous tributaries, the Chang Jiang drains nearly 20% of China's total area. Its upper reaches tap the uplands of the Tibetan Plateau before sweeping across the enormous and agriculturally productive Sichuan Basin that supports nearly 10% of China's total population. It is in the middle course of the Chang Jiang that the controversial Three Gorges Dam is being constructed.

  • Wrapped in environmental, engineering, and political controversy, the Three Gorges Dam is a huge public works project — the largest dam in the world, rivaling the building of not only China's great historical projects such as the Grand Canal and Great Wall, but also modern projects elsewhere in the world. Increasing clean energy, controlling floods, and stimulating economic development are but a few of the stated objectives of the Three Gorges project. Below the Three Gorges Dam are the great flood plains of the Chang Jiang, as well as the major tributaries on its north and south banks. At the mouth of the river is the great and productive Chang Jiang delta and metropolitan Shanghai. With the completion of this project, disastrous floods are expected to be eliminated.

  • Three Gorges Dam [International Rivers]

  • The Three Gorges: Should Nature or Technology Reign? [ThirteenEd Online]

    For grades 9-12. In this lesson students will gain exposure to a wide range of information available on the Internet, take the information from the websites and develop a cohesive argument about the benefits or disadvantages of the Three Gorges, hone their debating skills, and use technology to present their information.

  • Multiple Perspectives on the Three Gorges Dam [China Institute]

  • The Three Gorges: Should Nature or Technology Reign? [ThirteenEd Online]

    For grades 9-12. In this lesson students will gain exposure to a wide range of information available on the Internet, take the information from the websites and develop a cohesive argument about the benefits or disadvantages of the Three Gorges, hone their debating skills, and use technology to present their information.

  • Water is China's Greatest Weapon and its Achilles Heel [Harvard Political Review]

    Legend says that four millennia ago, the Yellow and Yangtze rivers frequently flooded, with devastating consequences for the ancient Chinese until a distant relative of the emperor, Yu, united the region's disparate tribes and constructed a revolutionary irrigation system, conquering the floodwaters. Yu then ascended to the role of emperor himself on the strength of his water taming prowess. Now, as China continues its Yu-like ascent to global power, it is once again dealing with liquid issues.

  • China's Water Challenges: National and Global Implications [Education about Asia]

    A variety of disturbing images and stories from media outlets have fueled a pervasive image of China as an environmental wasteland, while expanding scholarship has inventoried China's air, water, and land problems. Some estimates suggest that nearly half the world's population will be living in areas of acute water shortage. Water is connected to the security of food, energy, and a predictable environmental. Indeed, this nexus of issues is at play in China and will continue to shape China's internal economic, social, and political dynamics, as well as its role in international networks, for the foreseeable future. Download PDF on page.


VIETNAM: Agriculture in the Red River Delta




Physical Systems affect Humans

Humans have a great capacity to accommodate to changes in physical environments. Flood, drought, and even global warming lead pragmatic farmers to assess current ways of operating and seek ways to maximize production. Recurring natural hazards are among the most dramatic episodes that impact life in rural and urban areas.


• Mountainous island country, located on the "ring of fire"

  • Japan: Land, the Family, and Political Power [Asia for Educators]

    This short essay describes land cultivation (specifically, how and who cultivates the land) and the relationship between land ownership and political power. It also discusses the effect of Japan's mountainous topography on the relationship between local and central government control. Discussion questions are included

  • Japan’s Geography

    Students can discuss how a country composed of islands and located on “the ring of fire” – suffering earthquakes, tsunami, and volcanoes – respond to the impermanence of life.

  • Japan: The Effects of Limited Space on a Culture [Ohio State University]

    Students will predict the impact of population density on shelter, transportation, recreation, land use, and social skills and then research that impact on Japan.

• Sinking Cities—Tokyo

Resources: Use, Meaning, Distribution and Importance


Dams on the Mekong River

  • Dams on the Mekong River

    The Mekong River, is a trans-boundary river, twelfth longest river in the world. Originating on the Tibetan Plateau the river runs through China, MyanmarLaosThailandCambodia, and Vietnam.  As countries along the river build dams, it affects the flow of water in countries further downstream. Google “dam construction on the Mekong” to find the most current issues in China and Vietnam related to new dams.

Questions for discussion:
  • To what degree do river valleys and drainage basins help order the regional divisions of civilizations?
  • What relationships are there between the physical and cultural geographies of the Earth?

See also “Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze” above in this unit.


• CHINA: The Qinhai-Tibet Railway

The building of railroads in the middle of the 19th century helped to integrate vast areas of North America, Europe, and even Asia. Even now at the beginning of the 21st century, new railroad lines and the upgrading of old railroad lines are significant drivers of modernization.

In mid-October 2005, the Chinese government announced the completion of a railroad "on the top of the world" that connects once remote Tibet with China's internal railroad network. Chinese authorities state that the railroad will promote the development of "impoverished Tibet," but many are concerned about the accompanying environmental and cultural changes that may result. Passenger and freight traffic on this new line began in July 2006.

China's New Belt and Road Initiative (as of 2020) [Council on Foreign Relations]

China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), sometimes referred to as the New Silk Road, is one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects ever conceived. Launched in 2013 by President Xi Jinping, the vast collection of development and investment initiatives would stretch from East Asia to Europe, significantly expanding China's economic and political influence.