Northern and southern China

Northern and southern China

Northern China and southern China[1] are two approximate regions within China. The exact boundary between these two regions has never been precisely defined. Nevertheless, the self-perception of Chinese people, especially regional stereotypes, has often been dominated by these two concepts, given that regional differences in culture and language have historically fostered strong regional identities (鄉土, xiangtu, 'localism') of the Chinese people.[2]



Often used as the geographical dividing line between northern and southern China is the Huai River–Qin Mountains line. This line approximates the 0 °C January isotherm and the 800 millimetres (31 in) isohyet in China.

Culturally, however, the division is more ambiguous. In the eastern provinces like Jiangsu and Anhui, the Yangtze River may instead be perceived as the north–south boundary instead of the Huai River, but this is a recent development.

There is an ambiguous area, the region around Nanyang, Henan, that lies in the gap where the Qin has ended and the Huai River has not yet begun; in addition, central Anhui and Jiangsu lie south of the Huai River but north of the Yangtze, making their classification somewhat ambiguous as well. As such, the boundary between northern and southern China does not follow provincial boundaries; it cuts through Shaanxi, Henan, Anhui, and Jiangsu, and creates areas such as Hanzhong (Shaanxi), Xinyang (Henan), and Xuzhou (Jiangsu) that lie on an opposite half of China from the rest of their respective provinces. This may have been deliberate; the Mongol Yuan Dynasty and Han Chinese Ming Dynasty established many of these boundaries intentionally to discourage regionalist separatism.

The Northeast (Manchuria) and Inner Mongolia, areas that are often thought of as being outside "China proper", are also conceived to belong to northern China according to the framework above. Xinjiang and Tibet[vague] are, however, not usually conceived of as being part of either north or south.


The concepts of northern and southern China originate from differences in climate, geography, culture, and physical traits; as well as several periods of actual political division in history. Northern China is too cold and dry for rice cultivation (though rice is grown there today with the aid of modern technology) and consists largely of flat plains, grasslands, and desert; while Southern China is warm and rainy enough for rice and consists of lush mountains cut by river valleys. Historically, these differences have led to differences in warfare during the pre-modern era, as cavalry could easily dominate the northern plains but encountered difficulties against river navies fielded in the south. There are also major differences in language, cuisine, culture, and popular entertainment forms.

The Qin Mountains and Huai River approximately separate northern Mandarin-speaking regions on the one hand, and southwestern Mandarin-, eastern Mandarin-, and non-Mandarin-speaking regions on the other. ("Mandarin" and "Southern" on this map refer to Sinitic languages, while other groups are not Sinitic.)
The Qin Mountains and Huai River also mark the approximate boundary between wheat and rice cultivation.

Episodes of division into North and South include:

The Southern and Northern Dynasties showed such a high level of polarization between North and South that northerners and southerners referred to each other as barbarians; the Mongol Yuan Dynasty also made use of the concept: Yuan subjects were divided into four castes, with northern Han Chinese occupying the second-lowest caste and southern Han Chinese occupying the lowest one.

For a large part of Chinese history, northern China was economically more advanced than southern China  . The Jurchen and Mongol invasion caused a massive migration to southern China, and the Emperor shifted the Song Dynasty capital city from Kaifeng in northern China to Hangzhou, located on the south of the Yangtze river. The population of Shanghai increased from 12,000 households to over 250,000 inhabitants after Kaifeng was sacked by invading armies. This began a shift of political, economic and cultural power from northern China to southern China. The east coast of southern China remained a leading economic and cultural center of China until the Republic of China. Today, southern China remains economically more prosperous than northern China.

During the Qing dynasty, regional differences and identification in China fostered the growth of regional stereotypes. Such stereotypes often appeared in historic chronicles and gazetteers and were based on geographic circumstances, historical and literary associations (e.g. people from Shandong, were considered upright and honest) and Chinese cosmology (as the south was associated with the fire element, Southerners were considered hot-tempered).[2] These differences were reflected in Qing dynasty policies, such as the prohibition on local officials to serve their home areas, as well as conduct of personal and commercial relations.[2] In 1730, Kangxi emperor made the observation in the Tingxun Geyan (庭訓格言):[2][3]

The people of the North are strong; they must not copy the fancy diets of the Southerners, who are physically frail, live in a different environment, and have different stomachs and bowels.
—Kangxi emperor, Tingxun Geyan (庭訓格言)

During the Republican period, Lu Xun, a major Chinese writer, wrote:[4]

According to my observation, Northerners are sincere and honest; Southerners are skilled and quick-minded. These are their respective virtues. Yet sincerity and honesty lead to stupidity, whereas skillfulness and quick-mindedness lead to duplicity.
—Lu Xun, Lu Xun Quanji (魯迅全集), pp. 493–495


GDP per capita in 2004. Disparity in terms of wealth runs in the east-west direction rather than north–south direction. The map, based on provincial borders, also hides an additional sharp disparity between urban and rural areas. However, the southeast coast is still wealthier than the northeast coast in per capita terms.

In modern times, North and South is merely one of the ways that Chinese people identify themselves, and the divide between northern and southern China has been complicated both by a unified Chinese nationalism and as well as by local loyalties to province, county and village which prevent a coherent Northern or Southern identity from forming.

During the Deng Xiaoping reforms of the 1980s, South China developed much more quickly than North China leading some scholars to wonder whether the economic fault line would create political tension between north and south. Some of this was based on the idea that there would be conflict between the bureaucratic north and the commercial south. This has not occurred to the degree feared in part because the economic fault lines eventually created divisions between coastal China and the interior, as well as urban and rural China, which run in different directions from the north–south division, and in part because neither north or south has any type of obvious advantage within the Chinese central government. In addition there are other cultural divisions that exist within and across the north–south dichotomy.


Nevertheless, the concepts of North and South continue to play an important role in regional stereotypes.


  • Is taller and larger in stature[5][6]
  • Has smaller eyes with single eyelids
  • Has lighter, fairer skin color[5]
  • Speaks Mandarin with a northern accent
  • Eats more noodles, dumplings and wheat-based foods[6] (rather than rice-based food)[5][7]


  • Is slightly shorter and smaller in stature[5][6]
  • Has higher frequency of double eyelids[8]
  • Has slightly darker, tanner skin color[5]
  • Speaks Mandarin with a southern accent and/or a southern variety of Chinese such as Yue (Cantonese), Wu, Hakka, Xiang, Min or Gan
  • Eats more rice-based foods (rather than wheat-based food)[5][6][7]

Note that these are only rough and approximate stereotypes, and are greatly complicated both by further stereotypes by province, city, or even county, and by real life. Though many of these are considered to be stereotypes, there are some studies that illustrate variations of physiological differences in height and body weight, with Southerners on average, lighter and shorter than Northerners.[9][10]

See also


  1. ^ simplified Chinese: 华北; traditional Chinese: 華北; pinyin: Huáběi (northern China), and simplified Chinese: 华南; traditional Chinese: 華南; pinyin: Huánán (southern China), also referred to in China as simply (Chinese: 北方; pinyin: Běifāng) the north and (Chinese: 南方; pinyin: Nánfāng the south
  2. ^ a b c d Smith, Richard Joseph (1994). China's cultural heritage: the Qing dynasty, 1644–1912 (2 ed.). Westview Press. ISBN 9780813313474. 
  3. ^ Hanson, Marta E. (July 2007). "Jesuits and Medicine in the Kangxi Court (1662–1722)". Pacific Rim Report (San Francisco: Center for the Pacific Rim, University of San Francisco) (43): 7, 10. 
  4. ^ Young, Lung-Chang (Summer 1988). "Regional Stereotypes in China". Chinese Studies in History 21 (4): 32–57. OCLC 10.2753/CSH0009-4633210432. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f Fodor's (2009). Kelly, Margaret. ed. Fodor's China. Random House. pp. 135. ISBN 9781400008254. 
  6. ^ a b c d Eberhard, Wolfram (December 1965). "Chinese Regional Stereotypes". Asian Survey (University of California Press) 5 (12): 596–608. JSTOR 2642652. 
  7. ^ a b Regions of Chinese food-styles/flavours of cooking, University of Kansas
  8. ^ Classifcation of Races. Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia. (2006). World Almanac Education Group
  9. ^ Floyd, B. (7 March 2008). "Clinal variation in Chinese height and weight: Evidence from the descendants of emigrants to Taiwan". HOMO – Journal of Comparative Human Biology (Auckland, New Zealand: Department of Anthropology, University of Auckland) 59 (1): 47–66. doi:10.1016/j.jchb.2007.03.002. 
  10. ^ Zhang, Xuan; Huang, Ze (July–August 1988). "The Second National Growth and Development Survey of Children in China, 1985: children 0 to 7 years". Annals of Human Biology (Informa Healthcare) 15 (4): 289–305. OCLC 10.1080/03014468800009761. PMID 3408235. 
  • Brues, Alice Mossie (1977). People and Races. Macmillan series in physical anthropology. New York: Macmillan. ISBN 978-0023156700. 
  • Lamprey, J. (1868). "A Contribution to the Ethnology of the Chinese". Transactions of the Ethnological Society of London (Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland) 6: 101–108. JSTOR 3014248. 
  • Morgan, Stephen L. (July 2000). "Richer and Taller: Stature and Living Standards in China, 1979–1995". The China Journal (Contemporary China Center, Australian National University) 44: 1–39. JSTOR 2667475. 
  • Muensterberger, Warner (1951). "Orality and Dependence: Characteristics of Southern Chinese." In Psychoanalysis and the Social Sciences, (3), ed. Geza Roheim (New York: International Universities Press).

Further reading

  • Ebrey, Patricia Bukley; Liu, Kwang-chang. (1999). The Cambridge illustrated history of China. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521669917 (ch. 4, 5)
  • Lewis, Mark Edwards. (2009). China Between Empires: The Northern and Southern Dynasties. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0674026056
  • Tu, Jo-fu. (1992). Chinese Surnames and the Genetic Differences Between North and South China. Project on Linguistic Analysis, University of California, Berkeley.

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