General Introduction

China's topography is varied and complicated, with towering mountains, basins of different sizes, undulating plateaus and hills, and flat and fertile plains. In terms of percentage, about 33% is mountainous area, about 26% the plateau, about 19% the basins, about 12% the plains and about 10% the hills. China is topographically high in the west and low in the east. In accordance with the distinctive variation of elevation, four steps may be divided from west to the east.

The top of this four-step "staircase" is the Qinhai-Tibet Plateau. Averaging more than 4,000 m above sea level, it is often called the "roof of the world." Rosomg 8,848 m above sea level is Mt. Qomolangma, the world's highest peak and the main peak of the Himalayas.

The second step includes the Inner Mongolia, Loess and Yunnan-Guizhou plateaus, and the Tarim, Junggar and Sichuan basins, with an average elevation of between 1,000 m and 2,000 m.

The third step, about 500 - 1,000 m in elevation, begins at a line drawn around the Greater Hinggan, Taihang, Wushan and Xuefeng mountain ranges and extends eastward to the coast. Here, from north to south are the Northeast Plain, the North China Plain and the Middle-Lower Yangtze Plain. Interspersed amongst the plains are hills and foothills.

To the east, the land extends out into the ocean, in a continental shelf, the fourth step of the staircase. The water here is less than 200 m deep.

The four major plateaus of China are the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, the Inner Mongolia Plateau, the Loess Plateau and the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau.

Central China is drained mainly by the Yangtze and its tributaries. Northern China is in a major earthquake zone; on 28 July 1976, a tremor measuring 8.2 on the Richter scale struck the city of Tangshan (145 km/90 mi east of Beijing), causing widespread devastation and the deaths of over 650,000 people.


The great rivers of China flow eastward toward the Pacific. In the northeast, the Amur drains a great part of the Manchurian Basin as it winds along its 4,350 km (2,719 mi) course. Other northeastern rivers include the Liao, the Tumen, and the Yalu, the last two both rising in Mt. Paaktu, flowing respectively northeast and southwest, and forming the boundary between China and the DPRK. The main river of north China, and the second largest in the country, is the Yellow River (Huang He). From Gansu it winds about 4,671 km (2,903 mi) eastward to Shandong Province, where it empties into Bo Hai (Gulf of Zhili, or Chihli). The valley of the Yellow River covers an area of 1,554,000 sq km (600,000 mi).

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