East Asia in Geographic Perspective

Basic Points of Interest on the Geography of East Asia

  • The climate of East Asia is both similar to and different from that of Europe and the United States. It is similar in that it is a temperate climate, with colder winters and warm summers. It is different in that most of the rainfall occurs during the warm summer months, rather than during the winter months. This abundant water supply during the warm growing season allows for intensive agriculture, with two and sometimes three crop cycles per year. (The summer rains are borne by monsoon winds, determined by the land mass of Central Asia: in the winter, the cold, dry heavy air over Central Asia flows outward toward the sea; in the summer months, when the warm air over the Central Asian land mass rises and cools, moist air from the ocean flows back bringing rainfall over the land.)**

  • Rice, the primary cereal crop grown in East Asia, is particularly suited to the warm, wet growing season. (Rice is best grown in flooded fields, or paddies.) Since rice produces a much higher yield per acre than does a crop such as wheat, it can support a much greater population per acre than does wheat. Climate, agriculture, and population size are closely related in East Asia where large population densities have existed throughout history.** The northern part of China has a wheat-based agriculture, while the southern part of China has a rice-based agriculture.

  • The distinctive geographical characteristics of China (continental), Japan (insular), and Korea and Vietnam (both peninsular) affected the historical development of each country.

  • Chinese or "Sinic" civilization (written script, Confucian thought, and Buddhism that had come to China from India) spread northward to the Korean peninsula and then to the islands of Japan, and southward to what is today northern Vietnam — facilitating and engendering dialogue and exchange among the four countries of the East Asian cultural sphere. The climate of all four countries supports wet rice agriculture.

  • Chinese civilization first developed along the major river systems of the Huang He (Yellow River) in eastern China and also along the Chang Jiang (Yangzi or Yangtze River), where recent archaeological discoveries of the Sanxingdui civilization to the west in what is now Szechuan province, suggest "pluralistic" origins of Chinese civilization. China's population and agricultural settlement spread southward through history and remain concentrated today in the central and southern regions of east China, south of the Great Wall, in an area known as "China Proper."

  • The west and north of what is China today are dominated by mountains, steppe lands, plateaus, and deserts. These areas were predominantly settled in the past by nomadic peoples. Over the course of Chinese history, neighboring and Turkic peoples from China's border regions have often ruled kingdoms, intermarried with Chinese ruling families, and/or attacked and conquered other settled, agricultural kingdoms of "core" China. In recent centuries, Chinese from the eastern provinces have settled in the western, interior provinces, often at government instigation.

  • Japan is an island country composed of four main islands and thousands of smaller ones. The main islands are, at their closest point, 120 miles off the coast of Asia. Japan's geographic distance from the Asian mainland is cited as one reason why Japan has been able so consciously and deliberately to borrow and adapt innovations from other civilizations and to forge a strong cultural identity.

  • China, along with India, is one of the top two most populous countries in the world. Japan, Vietnam, and the combined population totals of South and North Korea all fall within the top 20 most populous countries in the world...larger than Canada, England, France, or South Africa. China supports approximately one-fifth of the world's population but has only 7% of the world's arable land. Japan supports its very large population on a land area is comparable to that of Italy or California. Japan's population is approximately half that of the United States; China's population is approximately five times larger than that of the United States.

  • The Korean peninsula shares borders with China and Russia; it is the portion of the Asian mainland closest to the Japanese islands. The Korean peninsula is well endowed with natural resources. Korea is presently divided politically into two countries, the Republic of Korea ("South Korea") in the south and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea ("North Korea") in the north.

  • Vietnam is divided by topography into northern and southern regions, each dominated by an alluvial plain. The Red River delta is in the north, the Mekong River and its delta are in the south. Despite the large delta regions, three-fourths of Vietnam's territory is mountainous.
  • The Japanese islands lack most of the natural resources necessary to support an industrialized economy. These resources must be imported.

** For more information on the climate of East Asia in comparison with that of India and Europe, see John K. Fairbank, Edwin O. Reischauer, and Albert Craig, East Asia: Tradition and Transformation (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973).

Please see also, the AFE module devoted to EAST ASIA in GEOGRAPHIC PERSPECTIVE.