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Viewing China: Observations of China’s Cultural Landscapes

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aerial photo of a house and fields full of crop coverings
Figure 1. High population densities and limited land resources lead to little idle land, Anhui Province.

Twenty-nine photos accompany this article.

Most Americans lack accurate mental images of what China looks like. For example, geography textbooks often present students with a limited range of Chinese images such as terraced rice fields, a modern city skyline, or historical landscapes such as the Forbidden City or the Great Wall. As a result, Americans have an extremely limited, often inaccurate, perception of the structures in China’s everyday built environment. Many Westerners have difficulty understanding China, which makes what one sees on the landscape even harder to comprehend. A recent travel writer summed up this challenge with the title to his book Lost On Planet China: The Strange and True Story of One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation.1 So, what does the built environment of China look like? What can a Westerner visiting China expect to see? This article attempts to answer these questions.

A cultural landscape is the visible result on the earth’s surface of the interaction between a culture and its natural environment.

photo of a street market and high apartment buildings behind it
Figure 5. Various street markets. On the left is an urban produce market in Nanjing. On the upper right is a roadside market in Yunnan Province, and below right is a village market in Yunnan Province.

Geographers refer to the built envi­ronment as a cultural landscape. One scholar defined a cultural landscape as simply what you see when you go out­side.2 A cultural landscape is the visi­ble result on the earth’s surface of the interaction between a culture and its natural environment. While the word “landscape,” particu­larly in an Asian context, invokes images of well-manicured Japanese gardens or old Chinese paintings of mountains, this article will emphasize one type of cultural landscape, namely a vernacular (or ordinary) cultural landscape.


[These are] the everyday landscapes that people create in the course of their lives together. From crowded city cen­ters to leafy suburbs and quiet rural villages, these are landscapes that are lived in and changed and that in turn influence and change the perceptions, values, and behav­iors of the people who live and work in them.3


The importance of vernacular cultural landscapes are echoed in the words of another scholar, who claimed that they provide


strong evidence of the kind of people we are, and were, and are in the process of becoming. In other words, the culture of any nation is unintentionally reflected in its ordinary vernacular landscape.4

With a land as vast and populated as China, it is a daunting task to identify char­acteristics in its vernacular cultural land­scapes, but there are some common features that can be identified and contribute to a greater understanding of the country. This article does not attempt to provide a comprehensive assess­ment of China’s cultural landscapes, but only my observa­tions of them, as a student of cultural landscapes in the re­gions of China that I have visited, Yunnan Province, Beijing, Xi’an, the Yellow Mountains, Suzhou, Nanjing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong.

At the most general level, the character and look of Chi­na’s cultural landscapes are heavily influenced by population density and the amount of arable land. George Cressey, a ge­ologist and geographer, wrote,

The most significant element in the Chinese landscape is thus not the soil or vegetation or the climate, but, the peo­ple. Everywhere there are human beings. In this old, old land, one can scarcely find a spot unmodified by man and his activities.5

While China and the US are comparable in territorial size, China has four times the population of the US, and most of that population lives in the eastern half of the country. Imag­ine taking the entire population of the US, moving them east of the Mississippi River, and multiplying that population by four. The resultant density is similar to what is experienced daily by those living in eastern China. What surprised me the most were not the high population densities in the urban ar­eas of eastern China (that was expected), but the densities experienced in rural eastern China. In the US, rural is often synonymous with few people, not so in rural China. Rural population densities are higher in China than the US, and the more labor-intensive nature of agriculture in rural China compared to the US contributes to a much busier rural scene. In addition, only 31 percent of China is comprised of basins and plains, so space is at a premium, leading to cultural land­scapes that are manipulated to maximize human use of the land. As a result, little land goes unused, as can be seen in Figure 1 where agricultural fields occupy as much space as possible and come right up to the house.


China’s rural landscapes are generally characterized by a clustered settlement pattern, meaning that farmers tend to live in settlements and travel to their fields. As a result, there is a large volume of pedestrian/bicycle traffic on roads be­cause farmers must travel to and from their fields. Such a spatial pattern is opposite of what is found in much of the US Midwest, where rural residents live dispersed among agricul­tural fields. Figure 2 is an aerial view of this Chinese type of settlement pattern. Notice in Figure 3 how all homes are clustered together in the center of the photograph, with agri­cultural fields surrounding the settlement. Visually, this cre­ates a dramatic transition between urban and rural at the edge of the settlement. For example, Figure 4 is a view arriv­ing in a village; the buildings to the left are the edge of the village, and the agricultural fields to the right continue out of camera range until you arrive at the next village. In this case, there is no suburban transition between urban and rural.

In China, life is lived on the streets much more than in the US, and such space is an integral part of the daily lives of citizens. For example, street markets are found throughout China in a variety of locations, including urban, rural, and roadside settings (Figure 5). Produce comprises a significant percentage of the items sold in such markets. During an ear­ly-morning stroll through the streets of Shangri-La (formerly Zhongdian), I watched as a local farmer with a wagon full of fresh produce stopped in front of a number of restaurants as employees purchased items (Figure 6). As I passed this street a little later, restaurant employees were cleaning the produce on the sidewalk in preparation for the day’s menu.

However, one of the more unexpected activities that oc­curred on the sidewalks was local citizens playing billiards (Figure 7). On several occasions, I saw billiard tables on side­walks, usually covered with a lean-to for protection against the weather. Why is billiards more of an outdoor game in China than in the US? One possible reason is because the popularity of billiards in China is such a recent phenomenon (late 1980s), and because the table consumes a considerable amount of floor space, most homes and establishments do not have available space or are not designed to make room for a billiard table. Also, since many Chinese games are played outside, anyway, placing billiards tables outside is not seen as much of a cultural anomaly as it would be in the US.6

One of the most common items on the Chinese street is the bicycle. Bicycles and similar motorized and nonmotor­ized vehicles have influenced the character of Chinese cities. Space has even been carved out of the urban fabric for them as seen in this bicycle/scooter lane (top center of the photo­graph) in Nanjing between the sidewalk and the road (Figure 8).

photo of a home with a courtyard
Figure 15. An example of how elements of the cultural landscape can reflect broader social forces. In the part of Yunnan Province where this photograph was taken, Tibetans are in the majority, but Chinese populations have been migrating here for decades. This house has been built in the Tibetan style but the forecourt was created using Chinese-style walls and gate.


While house types vary across China, courtyards and forecourts are two residential architectural elements that are common throughout the country. Both of these elements are spatial expressions of a need for private outside space in a society of high population densities. Buildings with rooms often surround courtyards and forecourts in various arrange­ments, including buildings on all four sides, creating a cen­tral courtyard (Figure 9); buildings on three sides (U-shaped); and buildings on two sides (L-shaped). When buildings are absent from a side, walls usually fill the space to enclose the courtyard or forecourt. These courtyards or fore­courts serve as the activity center for the inhabitants, and household activities that take place here are varied. I wit­nessed these courtyards serving as a place to dry laundry, cook, perform certain agricultural tasks, and house cages for racing pigeons. Figure 10 shows a variation of the courtyard house, with buildings on four sides and one side having a gap for a driveway leading directly into the courtyard. In the foreground of Figure 11 is a four-sided courtyard house sub­divided into a number of apartments made of cinder blocks and metal roofs, which lack many distinctly Chinese archi­tectural details. The clutter in the courtyard attests to the im­portant functionality of this space. Another variant of the courtyard house is one where rooms frame three sides of the courtyard in an inverted U-shaped fashion, while the fourth side is a wall. Figure 12 is an example of one of these, as the front two gables form two sides of the house with rooms, and a third side with rooms is barely visible as a roof line in the background. The fourth side is a wall that is between the two front-facing gables and inscribed with Chinese language characters.

A forecourt is what a Westerner would call a front yard, but in China, this outside space in front of the house is typi­cally walled with a gate to create private space. Examples of forecourts abound throughout China. The house in Figure 1 showed a small forecourt created by walls surrounding sev­eral sides of the house. The forecourt for the house in Figure 13 is created with the concrete wall, windows, and a gate with red pillars. Even the house in Figure 14 with its contem­porary Western architectural elements still retains the fore­court with wall and gate. Notice that the gate is accented on each side with Greek columns. Figure 15 is a good example of how the built environment can often reflect broader soci­etal forces. In many minority-dominated areas, Chinese (or Han) populations have been increasing for decades, and the house in Figure 15 is a reflection of this demographic change through its combination of Tibetan and Chinese architec­tural styles. This photograph was taken in northern Yunnan Province, an area of predominately Tibetan populations, and while the house is Tibetan in style, the wall and gate sur­rounding the forecourt is Chinese.

Although China is still ruled by a government that is of­ficially “Communist,” beginning in 1979, the late Deng Xiaoping and his predecessors transformed the economy into primarily a capitalist system. The pre-reform era (1949– 1979) involved the rise of the state as the most influential shaper of the built environment and resulted in a rather au­thoritarian cultural landscape characterized by a drab, mo­notonous, box-like architecture, as seen in Figure 16. This style is found in all regions of China, particularly those set­tled by the Chinese, but increasingly so, in areas like Lijiang, where Chinese have migrated into regions initially settled by non-Chinese. Another such region is Tibet and Tibetan-set­tled areas in Yunnan, Sichuan, and Qinghai Provinces (see Figure 15). These areas have seen an increase in the drab, sterile architecture of the pre-reform Communist era that stands in stark contrast to traditional Tibetan architectural elements. The spatial impact of this period on China’s cul­tural landscape has been significant and can be easily over­looked by the visitor because of its lack of aesthetics and the tremendous changes wrought by the country’s recent mod­ernization.

Visitors are often exposed to this unremarkable architec­ture and may not even be aware of it. A case in point is dan­wei, which are self-contained work units where an individu­al and family not only works, but lives, shops, and socializes. A variety of social services are offered for danwei residents, such as education, health care, retail, and recreation. Danwei were typically walled with buildings facing inward to en­courage cohesion among unit members.7 Although most functioning danwei were abolished in the economic reforms that occurred, some are still operational. On two separate oc­casions, I witnessed government-owned restaurants operat­ing as danwei. The Golden Celestial Restaurant in Figure 17, between Beijing and the Great Wall, is on the site of a former danwei factory. The restaurant and gift shop are in the former factory, and the employees of these establishments live in housing once occupied by factory workers. Evidence of an­other danwei was found in the small tourist town of Tangkou in the Yellow Mountains of southern Anhui Province. After arriving late one evening in Tangkou, our group was taken to a government-owned restaurant’s dining room on the sec­ond floor of the building shown in Figure 18. To get to the restaurant, we were escorted through a gift shop on the first floor that was closed for the evening. After dinner, we were escorted downstairs, through the now-open gift shop, where about a dozen employees were ready to assist our group of about thirty people. Our hosts explained that the gift shop manager was able to summon employees on the spur of the moment for this late dining group because they all lived within walking distance.

Another landscape feature that is a holdover from the pre-reform Communist era is the presence of government-sponsored billboards. While billboards during this era were almost exclusively government-sponsored, they are over­whelmed on the landscape by commercial ones today, though government-sponsored billboards still exist.8 The billboard in Figure 19 was sponsored by a local government and found outside of Lintong, near the site of the terra-cotta warriors. The billboard includes two saluting officials with the follow­ing message: “Build Lintong into a city famous for tourism in China and a district strong in economy in Xi’an.” Another nearby billboard by a different local government displays two saluting officials and promotes the safety, security, and acces­sibility of local highways.

During the reform era (post-1979), China has witnessed some of the most dramatic changes to its cultural landscapes. One industry to emerge and create its own distinct cultural landscapes—experienced by many visiting Westerners—is tourism. During the Mao years, domestic and international tourism was ignored and practically nonexistent because of its association with capitalism and consumerism. In China today, tourism is an essential part of economic development strategies. Tourism in China has grown from practically nothing in the late 1970s to being third in the world for inter­national tourist arrivals and receipts.9 This ranking does not even represent the large number of domestic tourists who are estimated to pump about $122 billion a year into the coun­ try’s economy.10 The impact of tourism on China’s cultural landscapes, however, is still somewhat limited, partly be­cause of the industry’s brief history, language barriers, and the geographic limitation of group tours that prevent many tourists from exploring areas beyond traditional tourist ar­eas. Even in large cities often visited by tourists, there are dis­tricts that see very few tourists, and those landscapes have yet to be affected by the tourist industry. Despite this, tourist landscapes are becoming a feature of China’s cultural land­scapes, including the conversion of historical sites into tour­ist venues, the creation of man-made attractions, and an ar­ray of services to cater to the growing number of tourists.

Many of China’s historic sites have undergone significant transformations to accommodate the increasing numbers of tourists. For example, the terra-cotta warriors are housed in several enclosed pits, and the grounds surrounding them consume a considerable amount of land outside Xi’an.11 Chi­na’s historic tourist sites are increasingly becoming commer­cialized within the sites themselves and especially on their perimeters (Figure 20). During most of the 2000s, Starbucks operated a store within the walls of the Forbidden City.12 En­trepreneurs have popped up along the perimeters of historic sites, such as this gift shop and restaurant adjacent to the en­trance to the Stone Forest (Figure 21). Nature is also being commercialized as sites of outstanding natural beauty are shaped into tourist venues. For example, the Stone Forest in eastern Yunnan Province (Figure 22), recognized as a World Heritage Site in 2007, has become a heavily visited destina­tion by both international and domestic tourists. Guides (dressed in Yi minority clothing) escort visitors along a series of paths through the various rock formations. There were a large number of tourists on the day I visited, leading to ques­tions about the sustainability of such practices.

Man-made attractions are another type of space being created by the growth of China’s tourist industry. In the fore­ground of Figure 3, note the constructed tourist attraction along the shores of the small lake with a parking lot (with tourist buses) to the left and numerous structures along a road with a bridge. The location of this tourist attraction is not random, because it is along a major tourist highway and reflects the increasing role that market forces are playing in determining the location of business establishments in a country where state regulation is still of paramount influ­ence. Some manmade attractions use geographic realities as a basis for development. For example, the large and diverse minority populations in Yunnan Province are a major com­ponent of the tourist industry and are used as the basis for a large theme park built by the provincial government in the early 1990s in Kunming, called the Yunnan Nationalities Museum (Figure 23). On this site, twenty-five different Yun­nan minority groups are displayed and showcased for visi­tors.

One of the most common cultural landscape elements to emerge during the reform era has been private businesses. During the pre-reform Communist era, private businesses were not allowed, but when this policy was reversed, mil­lions of Chinese began their own businesses. For most, it was such a risky venture with an unknown outcome that the Chi­nese referred to such a decision as “jumping into the sea.” This phrase was chosen as one of the top ten phrases to enter the Chinese vocabulary as a result of the reform movement, according to a recent survey.13 This policy change had a dra­matic impact on the country’s cultural landscape as busi­nesses sprung up all over the country in a variety of settings. One very visible landscape development has been the ap­pearance of roadside structures that include business space on the ground floor and residential space on the upper floors (Figure 24). Such structures were common in areas I visited, and they suggest the changing economic value of roadside space.

One overriding feature of China’s current built environ­ment is change. The recent modernization of China’s built environment has led to dynamic cultural landscapes. Figure 25 shows a traditional neighborhood being torn down to make way for more apartment buildings like the ones in the background. In cities where there is a significant supply of old structures, the desire to preserve such historic land­scapes, largely for tourist purposes, competes with the mod­ernization process (seen in Figure 25) for urban space, often creating contrasting landscapes in close proximity to each other (Figure 26). The ever-changing technology field also contributes to China’s dynamic cultural landscapes. It seems that everyone has a cell phone. Even small villages have cell phone stores (Figure 27). The rapid diffusion of cell phone technology creates scenes such as the one in Figure 28 that shows a man on a horse talking on a cell phone.

The degree to which technology has penetrated even the most remote regions of China is evidenced by the following story. Shangri-La is in Yunnan Province, a province in Chi­na’s southwest near Tibet and Myanmar, at an elevation of about 10,500 feet, which ranks as the third-poorest province based on GDP per capita. Upon walking into a store on the market square, I was immediately drawn to what the two store employees were watching on a small TV. It was a live broadcast of the NBA finals. China’s constantly changing cultural landscapes often blend elements of the traditional, modern, and foreign. For example, notice that the Nike store in Shangri-La is located in a modern building that incorpo­rates architectural elements from local Tibetan culture (Fig­ure 29).

This is a good time to develop a better understanding of China’s cultural landscapes. If the twenty-first century turns into the “Asian century,” as some have predicted, then a bet­ter understanding of the character of China’s built environ­ment will be necessary. As we better understand the cultural landscapes of China’s citizens, the better our relationship with them will be.





  1. J. Maarten Troost, Lost On Planet China: The Strange and True Story of One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mysti­fying Nation (New York: Broadway Books, 2008).
  2. Pierce F. Lewis, “Axioms for Reading the Landscape: Some Guides to the American Scene,” The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes, ed. Donald W. Meinig (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 11–32.
  3. Paul L. Knox and Sallie A. Marston, Places and Regions in Global Context: Human Geography, 3rd edition (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc., 2004), 32.
  4. Lewis, “Axioms for Reading,” 15.
  5. George B. Cressey, China’s Geographic Foundations: A Survey of the Land and Its People (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1934), 1.
  6. Thanks to my colleague, Dr. Zibin Guo, for insight into the pos­sible reasons for this practice.
  7. E. M. Bjorklund, “The Danwei: Socio-Spatial Characteristics of Work Units in China’s Urban Society,” Economic Geography 62, no. 1 (1986): 21.
  8. See for examples of Chinese posters and billboards.
  9. “United Nation’s World Tourism Organization Tourism High­lights 2011 Edition,” accessed September 21, 2011, Wg8i7K.
  10. “Factbox: Basic Facts about China’s Economy,” China View, last updated August 6, 2008,
  11. For an aerial perspective of the extensive grounds surrounding the terra-cotta warrior pits, go to Google Earth, type in Lintong, China, and scroll about four miles east and slightly north of the city.
  12. Dexter Roberts, “Forbidden Starbucks,” Bloomberg Business­week, July 16, 2007,
  13. John Ng, “’Opening Up’ China’s Vocabulary,” Asian Times On­line, last updated December 18, 2008, atimes/China/JL18Ad01.html.

Further Reading

Guo, Huancheng, Ren Guozhou, and Lu Mingwei. Countryside of China (China Intercontinental Press, 2007).

Knapp, Ronald G. “East Asia and the National Geography Stan­dards.” Education About Asia 16, no. 1 (Spring 2011): 5–11.

Knapp, Ronald G. Chinese Houses: The Architectural Heritage of a Nation (Tuttle Publishing, 2004).

McColl, Robert W. “The Rise of Eastern China: From Hoe Culture to Factory Culture: Understanding China’s New Geographies,” Ed­ucation About Asia 16, no. 1 (Spring 2011): 12–16.

All of the photographs in this article were taken by Craig R. Laing.

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