In This Article Macroregions

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Data Sources
  • Theoretical Underpinnings
  • Historical Precursors and Alternative Regionalizations

Chinese Studies Macroregions
Mark Henderson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0055


As a vast sociopolitical entity, China defies easy generalizations. Many regional subdivisions have been invoked to make China’s varied landscapes and populations more tractable. Traditionally, distinctions have been drawn between “north” and “south” China, and since 1949 a dichotomous “coastal” versus “interior” regionalization has been popular. Most scholars, “for reasons of both habit and convenience, find it hard to resist dividing China up into provinces” (Cohen 1984, p. 166; cited under Introductory Works). Provincial boundaries, however, rarely correspond to the limits of either natural or socioeconomic systems. The watersheds of major rivers provide an alternative regionalization: natural resource flows (through river systems) and social and economic exchanges (across the transport network, which is invariably more dense and efficient in riverine lowlands than across mountain passes) have mutually reinforced the historical importance of these kinds of regions. Starting with watershed boundaries, G. William Skinner introduced the concept of “physiographic macroregions” in an essay in The City in Late Imperial China: “In late imperial times, [Chinese cities] formed not a single integrated urban system but several regional systems, each only tenuously connected with its neighbors. In tracing out the overlapping hinterlands of the cities in each one of these regional systems, I came to the realization that they . . . coincided with minor exceptions to a physiographic unit” (Skinner 1977, p. 211; cited under Introductory Works). Skinner postulated that the macroregions were the natural marketing areas of the major metropolises of China, representing a culmination of the hierarchical market systems starting with local market towns that he had previously described (Skinner 1964, cited under Introductory Works). Skinner’s analysis identified nine physiographic macroregions covering agrarian China, identifying the core zones of each and delineating boundaries between them. In subsequent work, Skinner developed the Hierarchical Regional Space (HRS) framework, further identifying regional systems below the macroregional level and offering social scientists a means to control the systematic spatial variation observed in many socioeconomic phenomena. The macroregional framework for China has been widely adopted among historians and anthropologists for contextualizing local studies, but it has also found detractors, especially among economists and geographers, who viewed it as overly deterministic. Skinner addressed some criticisms in elaborating the HRS framework, incorporating concepts from quantitative geography, and identifying “socioeconomic macroregions” that deviate from physiographic boundaries as social patterns and transportation networks develop. Even so, the nine physiographic macroregions of agrarian China remain useful for introducing students to the major geographical variations in China’s landscape and society.

Introductory Works

Skinner’s five essays in The City in Late Imperial China (Skinner 1977) set out the logic and evidence for identifying the nine macroregions of Qing China in the 19th century. In particular, “Regional Urbanization in Nineteenth-Century China” identifies the core economic zones of each macroregion, making the argument that urban cores and peripheries cut across provincial boundaries. “Cities and the Hierarchy of Local Systems” contrasts the economic functions of cities with their positions in the Qing imperial administrative system. This builds on Skinner’s fieldwork in China in 1949–1950 that traced local marketing systems and social structures (Skinner 1964, Skinner 2017), and culminates in his application of the hierarchical model to the long-term structure of Chinese history (Skinner 1985). Concise summaries of the theory and evidence for macroregions, and the concept’s impact on scholarship, are provided in Eastman 1988 and Cohen 1984. Henderson, et al. 1999 and Skinner, et al. 2000 outline the methods for delineating macroregional systems (and other levels in the Hierarchical Regional Space framework) using contemporary census data and geographic information systems (GIS).

  • Cohen, Paul A. Discovering History in China: American Historical Writing on the Recent Chinese Past. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

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    Notes the impact of the macroregion concept on scholarship in China, calling it “a new conceptual vocabulary that enables us to look at old problems in new ways and to see connectedness where previously we had been blind to it” (p. 165).

  • Eastman, Lloyd E. Family, Fields, and Ancestors: Constancy and Change in China’s Social and Economic History, 1550–1949. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

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    Provides a brief and accessible summary of the theory and evidence for rural market systems culminating in macroregional economies.

  • Henderson, Mark, G. William Skinner, and Lawrence W. Crissman. “A Hierarchical Regional Space Model for Contemporary China: Conceptualizing HRS and Constructing Tabular and Spatial Datafiles.” Paper prepared for the Geoinformatics ’99 conference, held at the University of Michigan, 20 June 1999.

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    Spatially referenced data from the 1990 Chinese census provides the basis for delineating cores and peripheries within “socioeconomic macroregions” that show many continuities (and notable changes) from the “physiographic macroregions.”

  • Skinner, G. William. “Marketing and Social Structure in Rural China, Part I.” Journal of Asian Studies 24.1 (1964): 3–43.

    DOI: 10.2307/2050412E-mail Citation »

    Continued in Journal of Asian Studies 24.2 (1965): 195–228, and 24.3 (1965): 363–399. Printed as an independent compilation by the Association for Asian Studies (2001). Part 1 argues that local periodic markets structured social interactions in rural premodern China, and that local marketing systems, rather than villages, should be regarded as fundamental social units. Parts 2 and 3 trace the evolutionary development of these market systems up through the advent of rural collectivization.

  • Skinner, G. William. “Presidential Address: The Structure of Chinese History.” Journal of Asian Studies 44.2 (1985): 271–292.

    DOI: 10.2307/2055923E-mail Citation »

    Links the geographical structure of marketing and social systems to the arc of Chinese history: “Chinese history [has] a hierarchical structure that parallels and expresses the on-the-ground hierarchy of local and regional systems. [E]very level from the standard marketing community to the macroregional economy [has] characteristic rhythms and distinctive histories. They should be seen as spatial-cum-temporal systems of human interaction” (p. 287).

  • Skinner, G. William. Rural China on the Eve of Revolution: Sichuan Fieldnotes, 1949–1950. Edited by Stevan Harrell and William Lavely. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017.

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    Recounts Skinner’s anthropological field work outside Chengdu, including investigations of the local periodic marketing system.

  • Skinner, G. William, ed. The City in Late Imperial China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1977.

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    Includes five essays by Skinner that lay out the logic and evidence for using macroregions to analyze urbanization in China, including maps of the macroregions and their urban systems (pp. 214–215 and endpapers). Also available as an e-book.

  • Skinner, G. William, Mark Henderson, and Yuan Jianhua. “China’s Fertility Transition through Regional Space: Using GIS and Census Data for a Spatial Analysis of Historical Demography.” Social Science History 24.3 (2000): 613–652.

    DOI: 10.1215/01455532-24-3-613E-mail Citation »

    Demonstrates the application of the HRS framework to analyze historical changes in fertility rates in the Lower Yangzi macroregion.

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