When people think of China geographically today, they more than likely refer to the modern People’s Republic of China, a country the size of the European Union that expands from the southern borders of Russia to the South China Sea. But this is a rather recent development when it comes to China’s history, and indeed, the borders defining the country “China” have changed repeatedly from military and cultural expansions. To understand China’s expansions, one must understand where China originated.
Archaeologists refer to original China as “China Proper.” Located on the eastern coast, China Proper was established as the home of native Chinese, or Han descendants, as early as the Shang dynasty (approx. 1800-1050 BCE). China Proper sat in the basin of both the Yellow and Yangtze rivers, as the mountain ranges of Tibet and deserts to the west made expansion incredibly difficult. Expanding north was also problematic, as the north was already home to Mongols and Xiongnu barbarian tribes, which the Chinese had repeat contact with.
The culture of a settlement was largely determined by the river it was located along; the northern Yellow River saw consistent drought, and people came to rely on wheat as a staple food. On the other hand, the southern Yangtze river was part of a warmer and wetter region, which led to the cultivation of rice.
As emperors fought to expand territory via military expeditions, China’s borders spread north, south, and westward. China would gain and lose territory as dynasties rose and fell, but over time, China spread and eventually overtook three key locations. Northward, they assimilated Manchuria and Inner Mongolia. To the west, China’s borders came to include former East Turkestan (now home of Xinjiang Autonomous Region) and Tibet. And while China spread south to include tributary states, its current border resides along the borders of Vietnam, Laos, Burma, and India.