A 1912 map from an issue of National Geographic magazine showing the Republic of China. China proper is shaded in pink, while other Chinese territories have pink borders
China proper
Traditional Chinese中國本土
Simplified Chinese中国本土
Hanyu Pinyinzhōngguó běntǔ
Literal meaningChina proper
Alternative Chinese name
Traditional Chinese中國本部
Simplified Chinese中国本部
Hanyu Pinyinzhōngguó běnbù
Literal meaningChina core
Second alternative Chinese name
Hanyu Pinyinshíbā xíngshěng
Literal meaningEighteen Provinces
Third alternative Chinese name
Traditional Chinese關內十八省
Simplified Chinese关内十八省
Hanyu Pinyinguānnèi shíbā shěng
Literal meaningEighteen Provinces inside Shanhaiguan
Fourth alternative Chinese name
Traditional Chinese內地十八省
Simplified Chinese内地十八省
Hanyu Pinyinnèidì shíbā shěng
Literal meaningEighteen Provinces in mainland
Fifth alternative Chinese name
Traditional Chinese中原漢地
Simplified Chinese中原汉地
Hanyu Pinyinzhōngyuán hàndì
Literal meaningHan territory in Central Plain
Map of China proper in 1900 from the Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary

China proper, also called Inner China[note 1] are terms used primarily in the West in reference to the traditional "core" regions of China centered in the southeast. The term was first used by Westerners during the Manchu-led Qing dynasty to describe the distinction between the historical "Han lands" (漢地)—i.e. regions long dominated by the majority Han population—and the "frontier" regions of China where more non-Han ethnic groups and new foreign immigrants (e.g. Russians) reside, sometimes known as "Outer China".[1] There is no fixed extent for China proper, as many administrative, cultural, and linguistic shifts have occurred in Chinese history. One definition refers to the original area of Chinese civilization, the Central Plain (in the North China Plain); another to the Eighteen Provinces of the Qing dynasty. There was no direct translation for "China proper" in the Chinese language at the time due to differences in terminology used by the Qing to refer to the regions. Even to today, the expression is controversial among scholars, particularly in mainland China, due to issues pertaining to contemporary territorial claim and ethnic politics.[citation needed]

Outer China usually includes the geographical regions of Dzungaria, Tarim Basin, Gobi Desert,[note 2] Tibetan Plateau, Yunnan–Guizhou Plateau, and Manchuria.[2]


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It is not clear when the concept of "China proper" in the Western world appeared. However, it is plausible that historians during the age of empires and the fast-changing borders in the eighteenth century, applied it to distinguish the 18 provinces in China's interior from its frontier territories. This would also apply to Great Britain proper versus the British Empire, which would encompass vast lands overseas. The same would apply to France proper in contrast to the First French Empire, which Napoleon managed to expand all the way to Moscow.

According to Harry Harding, the concept can date back to 1827.[3] But as early as in 1795, William Winterbotham adopted this concept in his book. When describing the Chinese Empire under the Qing dynasty, 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..."[4]

However, to introduce China proper, Winterbotham still used the outdated 15-province system of the Ming dynasty, which the Qing dynasty maintained until 1662. Although Ming dynasty also had 15 basic local divisions, Winterbotham uses the name of Kiang-nan (江南, Jiāngnán) province, which had been called South Zhili (南直隶, Nán-Zhílì) during the Ming dynasty and was renamed to Kiang-nan (i.e., Jiangnan) in 1645, the second year after the Qing dynasty replaces the Ming dynasty. This 15-province system was gradually replaced by the 18-province system between 1662 and 1667. Using the 15-province system and the name of Kiang-nan Province indicates that the concept of China proper probably had appeared between 1645 and 1662 and this concept may reflect the idea that identifies China as the territory of the former Ming dynasty after the Ming–Qing transition.

A 1944 map of China Proper, Manchuria (Northeast China), Mongolia (Outer Mongolia), Sinkiang (Xinjiang), and Tibet from the War Information Office propaganda film Why We Fight: The Battle of China. Note that the outer borders include several areas claimed by the Republic of China

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.[5] 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.[6]

"Dulimbai Gurun" is the Manchu name for China (中國, Zhongguo; "Middle Kingdom").[7][8][9] After conquering the Ming, the Qing identified their state as "China" (Zhongguo), and referred to it as "Dulimbai Gurun" in the Manchu language. The Qing emperors equated the lands of the Qing state (including both "China proper" and present day Manchuria, Xinjiang, Mongolia, Tibet and other areas) as "China" in both the Chinese and Manchu languages, defining China as a multiethnic state, rejecting the idea that China only meant Han-populated areas in "China proper", proclaiming that both Han and non-Han peoples were part of "China", using "China" to refer to the Qing in official documents, international treaties, and foreign affairs, and the "Chinese language" (Dulimbai gurun i bithe) referred to Chinese, Manchu, and Mongol languages, and the term "Chinese people" (中國人, Zhongguo ren; Manchu: Dulimbai gurun i niyalma) referred to all Han, Manchu, and Mongol subjects of the Qing.[10]

When the Qing conquered Dzungaria in 1759, they proclaimed that the new land was absorbed into "China" (Dulimbai Gurun) in a Manchu language memorial.[11][12][13] The Qing expounded on their ideology that they were bringing together the "outer" non-Han peoples like the Manchus, Mongols, Uighurs and Tibetans together with the "inner" Han people, into "one family" united under the Qing state, showing that the diverse subjects of the Qing were all part of one family, the Qing used the phrase "Zhong Wai Yi Jia" (中外一家) or "Nei Wai Yi Jia" (內外一家, "interior and exterior as one family"), to convey this idea of "unification" of the different peoples.[14] A Manchu language version of a treaty with the Russian Empire concerning criminal jurisdiction over bandits called people from the Qing as "people of the Central Kingdom (Dulimbai Gurun)".[15]

In the Manchu official Tulisen's Manchu language account of his meeting with the Torghut Mongol leader Ayuki Khan, it was mentioned that while the Torghuts were unlike the Russians, the "people of the Central Kingdom" (dulimba-i gurun; 中國, Zhongguo) were like the Torghut Mongols, and the "people of the Central Kingdom" referred to the Manchus.[16]

While the Qing dynasty used "China" (Zhongguo) to describe non-Han areas, some Han scholar-officials opposed the Qing emperor's use of Zhongguo to refer to non-Han areas, using instead Zhongguo to mark a distinction between the culturally Han areas and the territories newly acquired by the Qing empire. In the early 19th century, Wei Yuan's Shengwuji (Military History of the Qing Dynasty) calls the Inner Asian polities guo, while the seventeen provinces of the traditional heartland, that is, "China proper", and three eastern provinces of Manchuria are called "Zhongguo".[17] Some Ming loyalists of Han ethnicity refused to use Zhongguo to refer to areas outside the borders of Ming China, in effect refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Qing dynasty. Han Chinese intellectuals gradually embraced the new meaning of "China" and began to recognize it as their homeland.[18]

The Qing dynasty referred to the Han-inhabited 18 provinces as "nèidì shíbā shěng" (內地十八省), which meant the "interior region eighteen provinces", or abbreviated it as "nèidì" (內地), "interior region" and also as "jùnxiàn" (郡县), while they referred to the non-Han areas of China such as the Northeast, Outer Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet as "wàifān" (外藩) which means "outer feudatories" or "outer vassals", or as "fānbù" (藩部, "feudatory region"). These wàifān were fully subject to and governed by the Qing government and were considered part of China (Zhongguo), unlike wàiguó (外國, "outer/foreign countries") like Korea, Vietnam, the Ryukyus and Japan[dubiousdiscuss], who paid tribute to Qing China or were vassal states of China but were not part of China.

Political use

In the early 20th century, a series of Sino-Japanese conflicts had raised Chinese people's concern for national unity, and the concept of a unified, undivided Chinese nation became more popular among Chinese scholars. On Jan 1, 1939, Gu Jiegang published his article "The term 'China proper' should be abolished immediately",[19] which argued that the widely accepted area covered by "China proper" is not the actual territory of any of the Chinese dynasties. Gu further theorized that "中国本部",[20] the Chinese and Japanese term equal to "China proper" at the time, actually originated from Japan and was translated into "China proper", hence the concept of "China proper" was developed by Japanese people, and it had become a tool to divide Chinese people, making way for the Japanese invasion of Mongolia, Manchuria, and other parts of China. Gu's article sparked a heated debate on the definition and origin of "Zhonghua minzu" (Chinese nation),[21][22] which contributed to unifying the Chinese people in the Second Sino-Japanese War, and to an extent shaped the later established concept of Zhonghua minzu.


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 Chinese language.

The separation of China into a "China proper" dominated by Han people and other states for ethnic minorities such as East Turkestan (Chinese Turkestan) for the Uyghurs impugns on the legitimacy of China's current territorial borders, which is based on the succession of states principle. According to sinologist Colin Mackerras, foreign governments have generally accepted Chinese claims over its ethnic minority areas, because to redefine a country's territory every time it underwent a change of regime would cause endless instability and warfare. Also, he asks, "if the boundaries of the Qing were considered illegitimate, why should it go back to the much smaller Ming in preference to the quite extensive Tang dynasty boundaries?"[23]


The approximate extent of China proper during the late Ming dynasty, the last dynasty of China ruled by the Han people.
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 geographical 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 the long-standing territories held by dynasties of China founded by the Han people. 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 Inner Asia, while others, such as the Jin and Song dynasties, were forced to relinquish the North China Plain itself to rivaling regimes founded by peoples from the north.

The Ming dynasty was the last orthodox Chinese dynasty of ethnic Han origin and the second-last imperial dynasty of 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-led Qing dynasty succeeded the Ming dynasty in China proper, the Qing court decided to continue to use the Ming administrative system to rule over former Ming lands, without applying it to other domains under Qing rule, namely Manchuria, Mongolia, Xinjiang, Taiwan and Tibet. The 15 administrative units of the Ming dynasty underwent minor reforms to become the "Eighteen Provinces" (一十八行省; 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 Ming possessions belonging to the province of Liaodong (now Liaoning); however, the Qing conquered it before entering the Central Plain and did not administer as part of a regular province of China proper. On the other hand, Taiwan was a new acquisition of the Qing dynasty, and it was placed under the administration of Fujian, one of the provinces of China proper. Eastern Kham in Greater Tibet was added to Sichuan, while much of what now constitutes northern Burma was added to Yunnan.

Near the end of the Qing dynasty, there was an effort to extend the province system of China proper to the rest of the empire. Taiwan was converted into a separate province in 1885, but was ceded to Japan in 1895. Xinjiang was reorganized into a province in 1884. Manchuria was split into the three provinces of Fengtian, Jilin and Heilongjiang in 1907. There was discussion to do the same in Tibet, Qinghai (Kokonor), Inner Mongolia, and Outer Mongolia, but these proposals were not put to practice, and these areas were outside the provincial system of China proper when the Qing dynasty fell in 1912.

The Provinces of the Qing Dynasty were:

Eighteen provinces
Postal Pinyin Chinese Postal Pinyin Chinese Postal Pinyin Chinese
Anhwei Ānhuī 安徽省 Hunan Húnán 湖南省 Kweichow Guìzhōu 貴州省
Chekiang Zhèjiāng 浙江省 Kansu Gānsù 甘肅省 Shansi Shānxī 山西省
Chihli Zhílì 直隸省 Kiangsu Jiāngsū 江蘇省 Shantung Shāndōng 山東省
Fukien Fújiàn 福建省 Kiangsi Jiāngxī 江西省 Shensi Shǎnxī 陝西省
Honan Hénán 河南省 Kwangtung Guǎngdōng 廣東省 Szechwan Sìchuān 四川省
Hupeh Húběi 湖北省 Kwangsi Guǎngxī 廣西省 Yunnan Yúnnán 雲南省
Additional provinces in late Qing dynasty
Fengtien Fèngtiān 奉天省 Heilungkiang Hēilóngjiāng 黑龍江省 Kirin Jílín 吉林省
Sinkiang Xīnjiāng 新疆省

Some of the revolutionaries who sought to overthrow Qing rule desired to establish a state independent of the Qing dynasty within the bounds of the Eighteen Provinces, as evinced by their Eighteen-Star Flag. Others favoured the replacement of the entire Qing dynasty by a new republic, as evinced by their Five-Striped Flag. Some revolutionaries, such as Zou Rong, used the term Zhongguo Benbu (中国本部) which roughly identifies the Eighteen Provinces.[24] When the Qing dynasty fell, the abdication decree of the Xuantong Emperor bequeathed all the territories of the Qing dynasty to the new Republic of China, 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, Manchus, Mongols, Muslims (Uyghurs, Hui etc.) and Tibetans. The Five-Striped Flag was adopted as the national flag, and the Republic of China viewed itself as a single unified 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 Chinese mainland, has continued to claim essentially the same borders, with the only major exception being the recognition of an independent Mongolia. As a result, the concept of China proper fell out of favour in China.

The Eighteen Provinces of the Qing dynasty still largely exist, but their boundaries have changed. Beijing and Tianjin were eventually split from Hebei (renamed from Zhili), Shanghai from Jiangsu, Chongqing from Sichuan, Ningxia autonomous region from Gansu, and Hainan 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, Republican Chinese control of Qing territories, including of those generally considered to be in "China proper", was tenuous, and non-existent in Tibet and Mongolian People's Republic (former Outer Mongolia) since 1922, which were controlled by governments that declared independence from China. The Republic of China subdivided Inner Mongolia in its time on the mainland, although the People's Republic of China later joined Mongol-inhabited territories into a single autonomous region. The PRC joined the Qamdo area into the Tibet area (later the Tibet Autonomous Region). The Republic of China officially recognized the independence of Mongolia in 1946, which was also acknowledged by the PRC government since its founding in 1949.

Ethnic perspective

The approximate extent of the Han ethnicity in China and Taiwan as of 1983, denoted in brown[note 3]. Scattered distribution is denoted by circles

China proper is often associated with the Han people, the majority ethnic group of China and with the extent of the Chinese languages, an important unifying element of the Han ethnicity.

However, Han regions in the present day do not correspond well to the Eighteen Provinces of the Qing dynasty. Much of southwestern China, such as areas in the provinces of Yunnan, Guangxi, and Guizhou, was part of successive dynasties of ethnic Han origin, 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 minority groups, such as the Zhuang, the Miao people, and the Bouyei. Conversely, Han people form the majority in most of Manchuria, much of Inner Mongolia, many areas in Xinjiang and scattered parts of Tibet today, not least due to the expansion of Han settlement encouraged by the late Qing dynasty, the Republic of China, and the People's Republic of China.

Ethnic Han is not synonymous with speakers of the Chinese language. Many non-Han ethnicities, such as the Hui and Manchu, are essentially monolingual in the Chinese language, but do not identify as ethnic Han. 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.

In polls the majority of the people of Taiwan call themselves "Taiwanese" only with the rest identifying as "Taiwanese and Chinese" or "Chinese" only. 98% of the people of Taiwan are descendants of immigrants from mainland China since the 1600s, but the inclusion of Taiwan in the definition of China proper, is still a controversial subject. See History of Taiwan and Political status of Taiwan for more information.

See also


  1. ^ Eighteen Provinces inside the Pass (关内十八省; 關內十八省) used within China, in reference to the eighteen provinces within the Great Wall.[1]
  2. ^ Sometimes including the Mongolian Plateau as a whole.
  3. ^ Source: United States Central Intelligence Agency, 1983. The map shows the distribution of ethnolinguistic groups according to the majority ethnic group by region in 1983. Note that this map does not represent the current distribution of ethnic groups due to internal migration and assimilation.



  1. ^ a b "Glossary – China. Library of Congress Country Studies". Library of Congress. Used broadly to mean China within the Great Wall, with its eighteen historic provinces.
  2. ^ "Outer China". depts.washington.edu.
  3. ^ Harry Harding, "The Concept of 'Greater China': Themes, Variations, and Reservations", in The China Quarterly, 136 (December 1993), pp. 660–686. [1]
  4. ^ 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.)
  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. ^ Hauer 2007, p. 117.
  8. ^ Dvořák 1895, p. 80.
  9. ^ Wu 1995, p. 102.
  10. ^ Zhao 2006, pp. 4, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 13, 14.
  11. ^ Dunnell 2004, p. 77.
  12. ^ Dunnell 2004, p. 83.
  13. ^ Elliott 2001, p. 503.
  14. ^ Dunnell 2004, pp. 76–77.
  15. ^ Cassel 2012, pp. 44, 205.
  16. ^ Perdue 2009, p. 218.
  17. ^ Joseph Esherick, "How the Qing Became China," in Joseph W. Esherick, Hasan Kayali and Eric Van Young, ed., Empire to Nation: Historical Perspectives on the Making of the Modern World (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006 ISBN 0742540308): 233.
  18. ^ Rowe, Rowe (15 February 2010). China's Last Empire - The Great Qing. Harvard University Press. p. 284. ISBN 9780674054554.((cite book)): CS1 maint: date and year (link)
  19. ^ 颉刚, . "中国本部"一名亟应废弃 (PDF). 益世报.
  20. ^ 中国本土.
  21. ^ "中华民族是一个"?——追记抗战初期一场关于中国是不是多民族国家的辩论. 29 December 2008. Archived from the original on 10 February 2019. Retrieved 9 February 2019.
  22. ^ , 兆光 (27 February 2017). 徘徊到纠结——顾颉刚关于"中国"与"中华民族"的历史见解. Sohu. Archived from the original on 9 February 2019. Retrieved 9 February 2019.
  23. ^ Mackerras, Colin (2012). "Han-minority relations". In Gries, Peter Hays (ed.). State and Society in 21st Century China: Crisis, Contention and Legitimation. Psychology Press. pp. 219–220.
  24. ^ Zou, Rong (1903). "Chapter 4". The Revolutionary Army.


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