The Geography of Ancient China

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Geography of Ancient China

Like the other early civilizations, it was along rivers and in river valleys that the first civilization developed in Ancient China. There were two important river valleys in Ancient China: the Huang He, or “Yellow” River, to the north and the Yangtze River to the south.

Flowing west-to-east, the Yellow River gets its name from the yellowish tint of its water. This is a result of a rich, yellow colored soil beneath and around the river that was ideal for farming.

The river valley around the Huang He has come to be known as the cradle of Chinese civilization because it was here that China's earliest civilization developed.

The Yangtze River lies to the south of the Yellow River and also flows to the east. Here, Neolithic farmers began to cultivate rice. The region's warm, rainy climate helped make the Yangtze Delta the most fertile soil in all of China.

Fishing in the Yangtze and nearby ponds helped provide abundant amount of fish. Between extensive rice cultivation and fishing, there was enough food for a booming population along the river valley. 

Geography of Ancient China

However, one problem with people living along these rivers is the periodic flooding that occurs. The Yellow River often flooded and destroyed farmland.

Chinese mythology tells of how the first emperor Yu the Great organized large-scale projects in irrigation and dike-building. This irrigation helped to distribute flood waters through canals and bring water to more farms.

Yu would then go on to establish the first dynasty of China, the Xia. While this is a legend, archaeologists have found evidence of early dikes and canals around the river.

China’s geography also helped to protect it against invaders. The Himalaya Mountains are the largest in the world and protect China to the southwest. Spanning across northern and northeastern China is the Gobi Desert, while the Pacific Ocean lies to the east.

For centuries, the Chinese were in relative isolation from the rest of the world. In fact, because the Chinese believed they were in the middle of the world surrounded by natural barriers on all sides, the Chinese thought of themselves as "Zhong Guo" — the Middle Kingdom.

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