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China proper (also known as Inner China) refers to the historical lands of Chinamarker where the Han Chinese are the majority ethnic group, in contrast with outer regions of China. Territories that have generally been considered outside China proper (also known as Outer China) include Xinjiang (East Turkestan), Tibet, much of Manchuria (Northeast China), and Inner Mongolia. Its area is approximately 3,900,000 km². China Proper was separated from the vast territories of Outer China to the north by the Great Wall of China.

Origin of the concept

It is not clear when the concept of "China proper" in the Western world appeared. According to Harry Harding, it can date back to 1827 (see Harding 1993). But as early as in 1795, William Winterbotham adopted this concept in his book (see Winterbotham, 1795, pp.35-37). When describing the Chinese Empire under the Qing Dynastymarker, Winterbotham divided it into three parts: China proper, Chinese Tartary, and the States Tributary to China. He adopted the opinions of Du Halde and Grosier and suspected that the name of "China" came from Qin Dynasty. He then said: "China, properly so called,... comprehends from north to south eighteen degrees; its extent from east to west being somewhat less..."

However, to introduce China proper, Winterbotham still used the outdated 15-province system of the Ming Dynasty, which the Qing Dynasty used until 1662. Although Ming Dynastymarker also had 15 basic local divisions , Winterbotham uses the name of Kiang-nan (江南, Jiāngnán) province, which had been called Nan-Zhili (南直隶, Nán-Zhílì) in Ming Dynasty and was renamed to Kiang-nan (i.e., Jiangnan) in 1645, the second year after Manchu overthrew the Ming Dynastymarker. This 15-province system was gradually replaced by the 18-province system between 1662 to 1667. Use of 15-province system and the name of Kiang-nan Province indicates that the concept of China proper probably had appeared between 1645 and 1662.

The concept of "China proper" also appeared before this 1795 book. It can be found in The Gentleman's Magazine, published in 1790, and The Monthly Review, published in 1749.

In the nineteenth century, the term "China proper" was sometimes used by Chinese officials when they were communicating in foreign languages. For instance, the Qing ambassador to Britain Zeng Jize used it in an English language article, which he published in 1887.


Today, China proper is a controversial concept in China itself, since the current official paradigm does not contrast the core and the periphery of China. There is no single widely used term corresponding to it in the Mandarin language.

In the People's Republic of China, the official policy is that territories such as Taiwanmarker, Xinjiang, and Tibet are an integral part of China, and many government-issued documents go even further, saying that these regions always have been. The concept of China proper is avoided since it may be used to justify separatism. On the other hand, proponents of Taiwanese, Tibetan, Uyghur or Inner Mongolian separatism would support such a distinction, as they want to make clear the difference between the concept of "China proper", a culturally-based nation, and "China", a political entity. In this view, China proper is regarded as "China", and other regions are regarded as colonial acquisitions of China rather than a part of China itself.

The term "China proper" is less controversial if interpreted as the historical and cultural-anthropological center of the Chinese people. Generally speaking, the idea of China proper is quite malleable and its definition often changes depending on the context. Territories that are incorporated or ceded can affect the contemporary interpretation of China proper. In this light, the government of the Republic of Chinamarker (Taiwanmarker) has never formally rescinded its claim that the territory now forming Outer Mongolia, the Republic of Mongoliamarker, an independent nation, is rightfully a part of China. It also had claims of some other territories that the PRC ceded.


The Eighteen Provinces of China proper in 1875, before Taiwan's separation from Fujian in 1885 and its annexation by Japan in 1895.
There is no fixed extent for China proper, as it is used to express the contrast between the core and frontier regions of China from multiple perspectives: historical, administrative, cultural, and linguistic.

Historical perspective

One way of thinking about China proper is to refer to ancient Han Chinese dynasties. Chinese civilization developed from a core region in the North China Plain, and expanded outwards over several millennia, conquering and assimilating surrounding peoples, or being conquered and influenced in turn. Some dynasties, such as the Han and Tang dynasties, were particularly expansionist, extending far into Central Asia, while others, such as the Jin and Song dynasties, were forced to relinquish the North China Plain itself to rivals from Northeastern and Central Asia.

The Ming Dynastymarker was the last Han Chinese dynasty and second-last imperial dynasty to rule China. It governed fifteen administrative entities, which included thirteen provinces (Chinese: 布政使司; Pinyin: Bùzhèngshǐ Sī) and two "directly-governed" areas. After the Manchu Qing Dynastymarker conquered the Ming Dynasty, the Manchus decided to continue to use the Ming administrative system to rule over former Ming lands, without applying it to other domains within the Qing Empire, namely Manchuria, Mongolia, Xinjiang (Uyghurstan), and Tibet. The 15 administrative units of the Ming Dynasty underwent minor reforms to become the Eighteen Provinces (一十八行省 Pinyin: Yīshíbā Xíngshěng, or 十八省 Shíbā Shěng) of China proper under the Qing Dynasty. It was these eighteen provinces that early Western sources referred to as China proper.

There are some minor differences between the extent of Ming China and the extent of the eighteen provinces of Qing China: for example, some parts of Manchuria were a Ming possession belonging to the Ming province of Shandongmarker; however, the Manchus conquered it before the rest of China and did not put the region back into the provinces of China proper. On the other hand, Taiwan was a new acquisition of the Qing Empire, and it was put into Fujianmarker, one of the provinces of China proper. Eastern Kham in Greater Tibet was added to Sichuanmarker, while much of what now constitutes northern Burma was added to Yunnanmarker.

Near the end of the Qing Dynasty, the Manchu court began to feel the acute pressure of foreign expansionism, such as Japanese ambitions upon Manchuria and Taiwan and Russian ambitions upon the entire northern frontier. As a result, there was an effort to extend the province system of China proper to the rest of the empire. Taiwan was made into a separate province in 1885; however it was ceded to Japan in 1895. Xinjiang was made into a province in 1884. Manchuria was made into the three provinces of Fengtian, Jilin and Heilongjiang in 1907. There was discussion to do the same in Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and Outer Mongolia, but these proposals were not put to practice, and these areas were outside the province system of China proper when the Qing Dynasty fell in 1912.

The Provinces of the Qing Dynasty were:
Eighteen provinces
Additional provinces in the late Qing Dynasty

Some of the revolutionaries who sought to overthrow Manchu rule desired to establish a state independent of the Manchu Empire within the bounds of the Eighteen Provinces, as evinced by the Eighteen-Star Flag they used; others favoured the replacement of the entire Manchu Empire by a new republic, as evinced by the Five-Striped Flag they used. When the Qing Dynasty fell however, the abdication decree of the Qing Emperor bequeathed the entire Empire to the newborn Republic of Chinamarker, and the latter idea was therefore adopted by the new republic as the principle of Five Races Under One Union, with Five Races referring to the Han Chinese, Manchus, Mongols, Muslims (Uyghurs etc.) and Tibetans. The Five-Striped Flag was adopted as the national flag, and the Republic of China viewed itself as a single state encompassing all five regions handed down by the Qing Dynasty. The People's Republic of China, which was founded in 1949 and replaced the Republic of China on the mainland, has continued to claim essentially the same borders, with the only major exception being the recognition of independent Mongoliamarker. As a result, the concept of China proper fell out of favour in China.

The Eighteen Provinces of the Qing Dynasty still exist, but their boundaries have changed. Beijing and Tianjinmarker were eventually split from Hebei (renamed from Zhili), Shanghai from Jiangsu, Chongqingmarker from Sichuanmarker, Ningxia autonomous region from Gansumarker, and Hainanmarker from Guangdong. Guangxi is now an autonomous region. The provinces that the late Qing Dynasty set up have also been kept: Xinjiang became an autonomous region under the People's Republic of China, while the three provinces of Manchuria now have somewhat different borders, with Fengtian renamed as Liaoning.

When the Qing Dynasty fell, Tibet, Inner Mongolia and Outer Mongolia were outside the administrative structure of China proper, and it is possible to argue that after the fall of the Empire, Tibet and Outer Mongolia exited the de facto borders of China altogether. (See Mongoliamarker and Tibet for more information.) The subsequent PRC and ROC governments have sought to eliminate this separation in order to consolidate their territory. The Republic of China reorganized Inner Mongolia into provinces like those of China proper, then the People's Republic of China joined them into a single autonomous region. Amdo and northern Kham in Greater Tibet was reorganized into Qinghai province by the Republic of China, an arrangement the People's Republic of China has not changed. Finally, U-Tsang and eastern Kham in Greater Tibet, governed by the Dalai Lama throughout the ROC period, was reconstituted by the PRC as Tibet Autonomous Region in 1965 after the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959. Outer Mongolia, on the other hand, became independent with the aid of the Soviet Union, a change that the PRC recognized at its founding due to Mongolia's status as a fellow Soviet bloc member.

Ethnic perspective

China proper is often associated with the Han Chinese, the majority ethnic group of China and with the extent of the Chinese language(s), an important unifying element of the Han Chinese ethnicity.

However, Han Chinese areas today do not correspond well to the Eighteen Provinces of the Qing Dynasty. Much of southwestern China, such as areas in the provinces of Yunnanmarker, Guangxi, and Guizhoumarker, was part of successive Han Chinese dynasties, including the Ming Dynasty and the Eighteen Provinces of the Qing Dynasty. However, these areas were and continue to be populated by various non-Han Chinese minority groups, such as the Zhuang, the Miao, and the Bouyei. Conversely, Han Chinese are the majority in most of Manchuria, much of Inner Mongolia, many areas in Xinjiang and scattered parts of Tibet, not least due to the expansion of Han Chinese settlement encouraged by the late Qing Dynasty, the Republic of China and the People's Republic of China.

Ethnic Han Chinese is not synonymous with speakers of the Chinese language. Many non-Han Chinese ethnicities, such as the Hui and Manchu, are essentially monolingual in Chinese, but do not identify as Han Chinese. The Chinese language itself is also a complex entity, and should be described as a family of related languages rather than a single language if the criterion of mutual intelligibility is used to classify its subdivisions.

Notably, 98% of Taiwan's population is officially classified as Han Chinese, the majority of which also has aboriginal ancestry, but the inclusion of Taiwan in China, let alone China proper, is itself a controversial subject. See History of Taiwan for more information.

See also

Notes and Citations

  5. Copyright has passed, "Full View" available through Google Books.
  6. Marquis Tseng, "China: The Sleep and the Awakening," The Asiatic Quarterly Review, Vol. III 3 (1887), p. 4.
  7. Republic of China Yearbook 2008 -- Chapter 2: People and Language


  • Du Halde, Jean-Baptiste (1736). The General History of China. Containing a geographical, historical, chronological, political and physical description of the empire of China, Chinese-Tartary, Corea and Thibet..., London: J. Watts.
  • Grosier (1788). A General Description of China. Containing the topography of the fifteen provinces which compose this vast empire, that of Tartary, the isles, and other tributary countries..., London: G.G.J. and J. Robinson.
  • Winterbotham, William (1795). An Historical, Geographical, and Philosophical View of the Chinese Empire..., London: Printed for, and sold by the editor; J. Ridgway; and W. Button. (pp.35-37: General Description of the Chinese Empire → China Proper→ 1. Origin of its Name, 2. Extent, Boundaries, &c.)
  • Darby, William (1827). Darby's Universal Gazetteer, or, A New Geographical Dictionary. ... Illustrated by a ... Map of the United States (p.154),. Philadelphia: Bennett and Walton.
  • Harding, Harry (1993). "The Concept of 'Greater China': Themes, Variations, and Reservations", in The China Quarterly, 1993, pp.660-686.

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