If there is one quality a good administrator of an empire ought to have, it’s knowing where everything is. In early history, the tribes that were the forerunners to the Chinese civilization called their homeland “the Central Plains,” defined as the plains in the “center” of the various tribes that surrounded them. This name later gave rise to the term zhōngguó, or “Central Kingdom,” the literal translation of the name of said civilization. It probably helped save many ancient Chinese kids from the ignominy of being unable to point out their home on a map.
The names of many (though not all) Chinese administrative regions today retain the helpful references to directions and geographic features to let you know roughly where they are—for instance, “South of the River,” or “North of the River,” provided you know enough basic history and geography to know what river is being referred to. Test yourself with the following guide to see if you can guess the relative location of your favorite Chinese province based on the name.
Easy: Henan (河南, Hénán), Hebei (河北, Héběi), Hunan (湖南，Húnán), Hubei (湖北，Húběi), Shandong (山东, Shāndōng), Shanxi (山西, shānxī)
First, brush up on your cardinal directions: 东(dōng, east), 西 (xī, west), 南 (nán, south), 北 (běi, north). These are also extremely helpful words to know in a game of mah jong.
河 (hé) refers to “river,” 湖 (hú) is “lake,” and 山 (shān) is “mountain(s).” But actually in ancient times, 河 was the exclusive name of the Yellow River, the major river of consequence in northern China, whereas your run-of-the-mill tributaries, streams, channels, conduits, and waterways would have all been referred to as 川 (chuān, as in Sichuan, “four rivers”). That more or less gives away the answer to the first pair of provinces: Henan and Hebei are regions (and later provinces) north and south of the Yellow River. Hunan and Hubei are likewise north and south of the lake, which in this case is Dongting Lake at the border of, well, Hunan and Hubei provinces, the biggest lake in China during ancient times.
The mountains referred to in Shandong and Shanxi, on the other hand, are open to some dispute. They could refer to the Taihang Mountains, which are located between Shanxi and Hebei province (but not present-day Shandong) or Xiao Mountain in present-day Henan province. It could also refer not to any particular mountain, as up until the Qing dynasty “Shandong” referred to a much larger region roughly comprising the plains around the eastern section of the Yellow River, east of the “mountains,” generally speaking, that were found north of the Central Plains.
Moderate: Guangxi (广西, Guǎngxī), Guangdong (广东, Guǎngdōng), Jiangxi (江西, Jiāngxī）
These province names also include cardinal directions, but no clear geographic marker. The 广 (guǎng) in Guangxi Autonomous Region and Guangdong province literally means “wide,” but the name of the region traces itself to Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty in the 2nd century BCE. During his reign the Han conquered the southern kingdom of Nanyue (南越, also known as Southern Yue), focused around the present-day city of Guangzhou. According to ancient historians, at this time, Emperor Wu said “初开粤地宜广布恩信 (as we develop the Yue region, we must widely broadcast favor and trust).” The characters 广 and 信 quote gave rise to the name to the new regional capital Guangxin, and the entire region of present-day Guangdong and Guangxi came to be called “Guangzhou” after this city. In the Song dynasty, the road leading to this region had two branches called “Guangxi South Road” and “Guangdong South Road,” which gave the two present-day administrative regions their names.
Jiangxi also has many confusing explanations: in ancient times the character 江 (jiāng), for river, belonged like 河 exclusively to one river, which in this case is the Yangtze (长江, Chángjiāng). Since the Yangtze actually flows through present-day Jiangxi province, it would make sense that Jiangxi refers to the western part of the Yangtze, except Jiangxi is actually located quite far east. Some other explanations are that the 江 actually refers to the 赣 (Gàn) River, another major river in the province.
The real answer is that Jiangxi is an abbreviation: for 江南西部 (jiāngnán xībù), or “western part of the Jiangnan region,” the name given to the geographic and cultural area immediately south of the Yangtze. It follows, then, that if there is a Jiangxi there would also be a Jiangdong, and in ancient times this was indeed a name given to regions that today form parts of Anhui, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang provinces. Unfortunately, this name never acquired provincial status, and Jiangxi is left by itself to the puzzlement all modern-day Chinese children.
Hard: Shaanxi (陕西, Shǎnxī), Yunnan (云南, Yúnnán), Hainan (海南, Hǎinán), Tibet (西藏，Xīzàng)
Like Jiangxi, the names of these provinces and regions also lack a direct counterpart. However, unlike Jiangxi, the reason here is that these names all refer to former Chinese border regions and are named according to their cardinal direction relative to some description of China’s borders, highlighting their status “outside” the ancient definition of the homeland; their “counterpart” would simply be existing Chinese regions that already had names or more broadly, China itself.
Shaanxi, currently home to Xi’an, the former imperial capital of Chang’an, was integrated into the central Chinese civilization early on. However, the name of the region comes from its location west of the Shaan Plateau (陕塬, shǎnyuán) in present-day Shaan county, Henan province, and was decidedly a frontier region of the Western Zhou dynasty, which was based around the Central Plains. At around the 9th century BCE the region became the seat of the Qin Kingdom, one of the Warring States, which was considered by the other states to be a western border-region upstart beneath their notice. As we now know, the Qin exploited this advantage and conquered all the other states to become the Qin Empire, the first Chinese empire, and with this the former frontier of Shaanxi and the Qin capital of Chang’an became the new Chinese heartland.
The names of Yunnan and Hainan both connote places that, to the ancient year, were really, incredibly, unimaginably far away. Yunnan literally means “South of the Clouds,” and that is the actual origin of the name: it was the mysterious region south of the cloud-shrouded mountains that marked the southwestern boundary of the ancient Chinese civilization, but a more colorful legend states that one day, Emperor Wu of Han saw iridescent clouds on top of a mountain and ordered his servant to follow it. When the servant reported back that he found land south of those clouds, Emperor Wu named it “Yunnan.”
Hainan, on the other hand, comes from Hainan Island and the name means “South of the Sea,” and was among many folk names that the island used to go by in ancient times including “southern extremity” (南极, nánjí), “edge of the sea” (海角, hǎijiǎo), and “edge of the sky” (天涯, tiānyá). The island was not formally ruled by any Chinese state until the Wu Kingdom in the Three Kingdoms era, and even afterwards, it was mostly governed from the mainland until the Northern and Southern States period in the fifth century CE. The island and surrounding regions on the mainland were one of the major destination for disgraced officials, criminals, generals sent on punitively far posts, and other “exiles” from the Chinese civilizations, and all of its names were meant to convey its remoteness and position on the edge of the familiar world.
“Xizang,” finally, has several explanations: the character 藏 (zàng) itself is said to be a transliteration of a Tibetan word for the region populated by the Tibetan ethnic group, which also included present-day parts of Sichuan and Qinghai provinces. “Xi,” however, comes from a slightly different origin, as part of the general name that Chinese empires since the Yuan dynasty gave to their western border regions (西域, xīyù). The name, thus, both refers to the area’s remoteness and its main ethnic group.
Expert level: Guandong (关东, Guāndōng); all provincial abbreviations
Guandong, not to be confused with Guangdong, was the old name for the northeastern region of China, which in English today is still called “Manchuria” (incidentally, this name was a name first created by French missionaries). The name translates to “East of the Pass” and referred to the region’s position east (but mostly north) of the passes on the Great Wall, through which the Manchu rulers of the Qing dynasty eventually entered China and integrated the region into the Chinese homeland. Today this region is dividied into the three northeaster provinces: Heilongjiang (黑龙江，Hēilóngjiāng), Jilin (吉林, Jílín), and Liaoning (辽宁, Liáoníng), all named after local geographic features and landmarks.
If you take a close look at license plates or the names of culinary traditions, styles of opera, and other cultural heritage associated with particular provinces, you’ll also notice that each province is also represented by a single (usually archaic) character that’s known in Chinese as its 简称 (jiǎnchēng, “abbreviation”). There are too many such names to list, but many are also named after geographic features such as 赣 for Jiangxi, after the Gan River, or 湘 (xīang) for Hunan after the Xiang River; others are named after ancient kingdoms that used to exist on the location or are actual abbreviations that take one character from the longer name of the province. Memorize these and abuse them if you wants to sound extremely well educated, or impress your classmates and coworkers.
But don’t take the meaning too literally: while these meanings have some bases in ancient geography, parts of Henan are now north of the Yellow River after many changes of course, and we no longer consider Yunnan to be literally south of the clouds (though perhaps we ought, as the Ministry of Environment revealed this year that of the six remaining 100-percent smog free cities in China, two are in Yunnan). As the Chinese proverb goes, “山川形便，犬牙相入 (follow the mountains and rivers, but accept ‘canine teeth’ [i.e. jagged intersections]).” This was the principle of border-drawing followed by China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, which states that natural boundaries are helpful guides in drawing borders, but that the administrator must also be open to the idea of creating unnatural or uneven borders in order prevent individual states from branching off and becoming hard to recapture due to their natural defenses. Nowadays province names far more often connote the history, people, and culture of a region, more than their relative locations and borders.
Unless, of course, you are referring to food. As we have already shown, the Great North-South Dumpling Divide is one boundary in China that will always remain etched in our imagination, of which both sides will never give up defense.
Cover image from Qian Tu