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China proper refers to the historical heartlands of China in the context of that paradigm which contrasts these heartlands and frontier regions of Outer China (including sections of Inner Asia and other regions). Territories often considered to be outside "China proper" include Taiwan, Xinjiang, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia. The conception implicit within the term is the historical development of the Chinese political entity from a distinct "Chinese" social entity and historically later additions of other territories not originally forming part of this "Chinese" entity. Many consider the term to be a politically correct usage.
"China proper" is a controversial concept. Within the People's Republic of China (PRC) it is generally accepted that territories such as Taiwan, Xinjiang, and Tibet are just as much a part of China as any other part of the country in every way. As a result, the concept of "China proper" is seen as obsolete and redundant, if not downright offensive, as it implies that some of China's territory is not as "proper", which can be used to justify separatism, a generally unpopular idea. On the other hand, proponents of Taiwanese, Tibetan, Uyghur, or Inner Mongolian separatism would support such a distinction, as they want to make clear the difference between the concept of "China proper" and "China", merely a political entity. They go on to call China proper "China", and the regions for which they want to see independence the colonial acquisitions of China, not a part of China at all. However, the potential offensiveness of the term may be mitigated in the eyes of many if it is taken to mean, as it often is, the historical and cultural-anthropological center of the Chinese people, and not an intrinsically divisive political reference. Indeed, the historical evolution of China from a historical core to a later, larger, entity, is an indisputable fact.
Generally speaking, the idea of "China proper" is quite volatile from time to time and its definition often changes depends on the context. Territories that are incorporated or ceded can affect the contemporary interpretation of "China Proper".
Extent of "China" and "China proper"
The extent of "China proper" is generally accepted to be that of ancient Han Chinese dynasties. This, however, is a highly ambiguous definition, since different dynasties had very different borders, some extending deep into territory that would not be considered part of China proper (or even China), while others relinquished huge areas (including all of North China on several occasions) to non-Han Chinese neighbours. A convenient guideline for the bounds of "China proper" are the 18 provinces under the Manchu Qing Dynasty, which used a different administrative structure for each of the 5 regions it governed: Manchuria, China proper, Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet. This guideline, however, is rough at best, since the cultural, ethnic, and political reality of China is much more complicated than what 5 regions with distinct defined borders can explain or illustrate. Another source of ambiguity arises from changes in extent that the 18 provinces themselves went through: many border areas, such as Taiwan, eastern Kham, central Inner Mongolia, and frontier regions bordering Burma were part of the 18 provinces for only part of the Qing Dynasty, and / or their status was ambiguous at best for part or all of the period.
The general rough extent given for China proper is as follows: it is bounded north by Inner Mongolia, west by Tibet and Xinjiang, southwest by Burma, south by Tonkin (northern Vietnam) and the Gulf of Tonkin, southeast by the South China Sea, east by the East China Sea, the Yellow Sea, Bohai Sea and Manchuria. Its area is approximately 1,500,000 kmē.
Outer China was the homeland of many non-Han Chinese tribes, like the Xiongnu and other minority ethnic groups in Chinese history, some of which tried to invade China proper, but sometimes became partially or wholly Sinicized, such as the Manchus.
It should be noted in this light that the entity which styles itself the government of the Republic of China (on Taiwan) maintains or has historically maintained that the territory now forming Mongolia, an independent nation, is or should be part of China.
The term in Chinese
There is no direct translation for the term China proper in the Chinese language. China proper no longer corresponds to ethnic, demographic, or administrative boundaries in China, and the concept is generally unfamiliar to contemporary Chinese; moreover, the concept of "China proper" may imply that China proper is "separate" from Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, or Tibet, or that areas outside of China proper are somehow less a part of China; many Chinese would find this idea offensive. Contemporary Chinese usually think in terms of modern political divisions of China, which do not correspond well to the boundaries of these historical regions.
To express the concept, one way is to refer to zhongguo bentu (中国本土), the same construction used to distinguish countries like the United Kingdom and France from their colonial empires. However, this is immediately and deeply offensive to most mainland Chinese, and will likely be construed as an insult on the nation of China. A second way is to refer to "areas populated by Han Chinese", or hanzu qu (汉族区); but this circumlocution would include most of Manchuria, much of Inner Mongolia, and scattered parts of Xinjiang and Tibet, but would in turn exclude much of southwestern China that was traditionally part of China proper but is populated by various non-Han Chinese minority groups. Another possibility is zhongyuan (中原), which, when used in the context of Mongols or Manchus taking over zhongyuan in ancient texts, means that they've conquered China proper, but zhongyuan is a narrow term that usually refers to only the North China Plain, or, even more narrowly, the central parts of Henan province. One final possibility is the Eighteen Provinces (一十八行省 Pinyin: Yishiba Xingsheng, or 十八省 Shiba Sheng), which were the eighteen provinces under the Qing Dynasty that roughly corresponded to China proper. But the term "eighteen provinces" would be incomprehensible to a contemporary Chinese, because the People's Republic of China now administers 33 province-level divisions (of which 22 are provinces).
The 18 provinces were:
- Zhili (now Hebei): capital-province
These provinces still exist today, but their boundaries have changed. Guangxi is now an autonomous region. There have also been 5 more provinces set up, 4 outside the traditional bounds of China proper.
Since both China proper and Taiwan are controversial topics, the question of whether Taiwan is included within "China proper" is highly thorny.
In general, people who support independence for Taiwan, whether Taiwanese or outside observers, would argue that Taiwan is not a part of China at all, let alone China proper, from historical, cultural, or other grounds. Such a point of view often bears a strong affinity with sympathy to other independence movements such as those in Tibet and Xinjiang, and would promote receptivity to the concept of "China proper" as an entity is separate and different from "China."
On the other hand, a stance not supporting independence for Taiwan, and in favour of a unified China, are more likely to consider Taiwan a part of China in every respect. In fact, this perspective would lead those who hold it would completely deny the very viability of "China proper" as a concept, since they are likely to equate "China proper" with "China", and consider every part of China, Han Chinese or otherwise, to be equally integral and indivisible.
See Political status of Taiwan for more on the dispute over Taiwan's status.
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