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Why is Central China like the MidWest? Why big countries have names that don’t make sense

So a few weeks ago, reading some pretentious history thing or another, I caught a reference to Mao Zedong’s birth in – I paraphrase slightly, but this was the sense of it – “the central Chinese province of Hunan”. And, being the sort of nerd who will break out the Atlas faster than you can say “located on the south bank of the Yangtze River”, I opened Google Maps so I could get a sense of exactly where we were talking about here.

I’d be lying if I said I’d ever given any serious thought to exactly what the phrase “central China” might mean. But if pushed, I guess I’d probably have assumed Hunan to be somewhere roughly here:

It’s central China, central means “middle”, that’s roughly the middle of China, QED.

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Except, as it turns out, it doesn’t. Here’s where Hunan actually is:

That to me looks like the south east. In that it’s the bottom right hand bit on a standard map.

But okay, the Chinese know their country better than I do – and, as it turns out, there is a region often known as central China. It consists of the provinces of Henan, Hubei and Hunan and also, sometimes, Jiangxi. Here it is:

In other words, Central China is nowhere near the centre of China. It actually means the central bit of eastern China. As opposed to west China, the government definition of which takes up more than half the landmass of the country:

 

All this reminds me of something. The MidWestern United States covers a vast swathe of territory, from North Dakota down to Kansas in the west, to Michigan and Ohio in the east. Like New England or the Deep South, “the MidWest” isn’t just a geographical region, but a label that carries a lot of associations about what MidWesterners are supposed to be like (short version: nice).

Whether these clichés are true is a matter of debate. But one thing that’s obviously not true is that they live in the Middle Western bit of the United states landmass, because look:

That X is the official geographic centre of the contiguous United States. It’s in Kansas, roughly 12 miles south of the border with Nebraska.

It’s blindingly obvious that most of the “MidWest” is actually to the north and – more damningly – east of this line. The easternmost edge of Ohio is under 550km from the Altantic Ocean; it’s more than six times that (over 3,600km) to the Pacific. The idea that this is “the west” seems nonsensical.

And yet, once, it was. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby bangs on about the difference between eastern old money snobbery and western nouveau-riche pretention. And when its author wrote of “the west”, he meant the MidWest, something like a third of the way across the continent, and still clearly in the eastern half of the United States. Even 150 years after the US declared independence, and 80 after its territorial expansion made it to the Pacific, it was still possible for New Yorkers to think of the shores of Lake Michigan as “the West”.

Even though China is approximately 17 times older than the United States, there’s a pretty close parallel at work here. Both the “midwestern United States” and “central China” were labels coined by officials and populations that were once crammed into the eastern corners of the modern states. Both China and the US started out hard against their eastern coast, and then populated the west. Even today, Western China, which makes up over half the country’s landmass, contains less than a quarter of its population.

The territorial expansion of China – in gif form! Image: Wikipedia.

So, at the time those labels came into common currency, they made some kind of sense. The Midwestern United States was the west (though not the proper west, with the deserts and cowboys in it); Central China was the centre of the historic heart of China.


To outsiders, looking at those countries today, they don’t quite make sense any more. But a) who cares what outsiders think, and b) the labels have stuck. Attempts by the official government census to re-label the MidWest “the North Central Region” were abandoned in 1984: it made much more sense in terms of where it was, but it just wasn’t what people actually called it.

In other words, if a country is going to experience major territorial expansion after people have already started naming things, there’s a chance that some of its geographical labels are going to end up seeming silly.

At least, that’s my theory. To stress test it, it’d be really helpful if there were a third giant country, whose historic and major population centres are all at one end of its landmass; and which retains an official name reflecting this fact, even though – when viewing the country as a whole – it doesn’t make a great deal of sense.

Anywhere, here’s a map of the “Central” Federal District of Russia:

Just saying.

UPDATE, 18.30hrs: A couple of people have been in touch to highlight something I failed to mention. Much of Western China was not historically Chinese at all (or at least, not historically Han, the dominant Chinese ethnic group). The west today is still dominated by other ethnic groups, including the Tibetans and the Uyghurs, some of whom still have lively independence movements today.

I don’t think this changes my core point – that the country has ended up with some strange ideas of its internal geography, because it has expanded beyond its historic (Han) heartland – but it was an oversight not to mention it. Sorry.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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All maps in this post courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 
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