Nine Nations

With Obama in China lots of websites want to say something about China and What It All Means. For example, The Atlantic has a post by Patrick Chovanic that describes the Nine Nations of China, dividing China into nine separate regions, rather than viewing it as a monolithic whole. As Jeremiah Jenne points out this is such a good idea that William Skinner published a similar map back in 1977. Skinner’s macro-regions have become one of the old standbys of China studies (since before I was in school.)

I think Jeremiah is being a bit too kind here in praising Chovanic for popularizing Skinner’s work, and Chovanic is a bit off-base in claiming that Skinner’s work “reached similar conclusions” to his. If you read Chovanic’s descriptions of the regions he is trying, I think, to present the idea that each of these different areas has its own “animating force or character that defines each region.” This sound very fuzzy, and it is not fair to Skinner to compare his methodical work on economic and cultural patterns with data from  “personal experience traveling, living, and doing business in those places.” More importantly, Skinner did not see his regions as necessarily having different characters.1 As Esherick and Little pointed out in the Journal of Asian Studies in 1986 this is exactly what Skinner’s model does not do. 2 Skinner was interested in, among other things, in relations between core and peripheral counties inside the individual regions. Beijing -should- seem a lot like Shanghai in some respects because they are both top-level urban areas in their region. Chovanic seems to be suggesting that the only important distinctions are between individual regions. I’m not really sure this is helful at all. Skinner’s work had flaws, but it was remarkably robust, yeilding insights into what happened in China from well back into imperial times and forward to the present. Chovanic’s descriptions don’t even go back past 1980. Was the Northeast a “a Rust Belt of decaying industries with no future.” in the Qing or the Republic? Although the maps look similar, there is really not much in common between the two projects.

  1. Skinner argues that the economic geography of traditional China is best understood as a set of relatively distinct regions: nine “macroregions” defined by physiography and marketing hierarchies. Each macroregion is a functionally integrated rural-urban system with a relatively densely populated lowland core and a peripheral hinterland. The functional organization of each macroregion is constituted by the marketing hierarchies that link villages, market towns, and cities. Macroregions are distinct from one another; they are separated by relatively sharp boundaries defined by the orientation of local marketing systems. The factors that influence the shape and identity of each macroregion are economic-largely the constraints of transport cost. Thus Skinner provides a framework in terms of which to analyze the distribution of cities, transportation networks, trade networks, and so forth. This framework constitutes Skinner’s central thesis about the economic geography of China. He offers this thesis, however, in the context of a larger research hypothesis: that noneconomic phenomena (such as the spread of heterodox movements and rebellions, the structure of the imperial bureaucracy  and the cultural horizon of the peasant) are better understood when placed within the spatial framework of macroregions. This research hypothesis is of necessity less specific than the central thesis, for Skinner is fully aware of the many diverse factors that influence these noneconomic phenomena. Nonetheless the extended research hypothesis has stimulated much fruitful work on a wide range of phenomena. [summary from Esherick and Little] 

  2. Daniel Little and Joseph W. Esherick “Testing the Testers: A Reply to Barbara Sands and Ramon Myers’s Critique of G. William Skinner’s Regional Systems Approach to China” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 48, No. 1 (Feb., 1989), pp. 90-99 


  1. I think this whole idea applies universally. San Francisco has far more in common with Chicago than it does with, for example, Indo, CA. Conversely you could take a family from the farmlands of rural New York plop them down in the middle of Ohio and they’d fit right in. I think it might even cross between national borders, but that may be a bridge too far.

  2. Am I correct that China’s current provincial boundaries mostly date to the Ming dynasty? I don’t have my references and could be mistaken on this.

    The Nine Nations of North America was a brilliant concept, though like this the book was too journalism heavy but history light. But to understand the United States, its important to realize how little state boundaries align with cultural and economic boundaries. Chinese provinces have very different histories and certainly align much better with economic and historical realities. Anyway this article just lumps Chinese provinces together.

    It is probably helpful to try to educate Americans that China (and India) are not just countries analogous to France, Germany, Mexico, etc. China is more analogous to the Roman Empire, it has twice the population of the US and UK combined. Its amazing how many Americans I’ve met who visited China for the first time and were amazed that inland cities were actually different from Shanghai and Guangzhou! If you understand so little about a region you have no business “investing” there.

  3. Ed,

    Yes, the current provinces more or less date to the Ming, at least in China Proper. And yes, if you are looking at cultural identification (as Chavonic seems to be)provincial boundaries matter a lot. One of Skinner’s points was that the economic geography of China did not line up so well with the provinces, which was not to dismiss the importance of provincial identity but to add another level to it.

    P.S. To add on to your point about China being bigger than most countries, Sichuan is about the size of France and through history has had about the same population.

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