/shen"see"/; Chin. /shun"shee"/, n.
Older Spelling. Shaanxi.

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Chinese (Wade-Giles)  Shen-hsi,  (Pinyin)  Shaanxi,  

      sheng (province) of China. It is bordered by the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region to the north, by the Huang Ho (Yellow River) and Shansi Province in the east, by Szechwan Province in the south, by Hupeh and Honan provinces in the southeast, and by the Hui Autonomous Region of Ningsia and Kansu Province on the west. Its total area is 79,400 square miles (205,600 square kilometres). The capital is Sian.

Physical and human geography

The land
Relief and drainage
      Shensi Province comprises three distinct natural regions—the mountainous southern region, the Wei River valley, and the northern upland plateau.

      The mountainous southern region forms the drainage area of the upper Han River, which is a northern tributary of the Yangtze. The Han flows between two mountain complexes that structurally form part of a great, single fold zone. These complexes are the Ta-pa Mountains (Daba Mountains), forming the boundary with Szechwan Province to the south, and the Tsinling Mountains (Qin Mountains)—the major environmental divide between northern and central China—to the north. The Ta-pa Mountains range from 5,000 to 6,000 feet (1,500 to 1,800 metres) in height, with individual peaks reaching altitudes of up to 8,000 feet. Its northern flank in Shensi is heavily dissected by the complex pattern of the Han River's southern tributaries. The only major break in this mountain chain occurs in the far southwest of the province where the Chia-ling River (Jialing River), which rises to the north in the Tsinling Mountains, cuts through the Ta-pa chain to flow into Szechwan on its way to join the Yangtze at Chungking. This valley forms the major communication route from the Wei Valley in central Shensi to Szechwan and the southwest.

      The Han Valley itself broadens out near the city of Han-chung into a fertile and densely cultivated basin about 60 miles (100 kilometres) long and 10 miles broad. Farther downstream the valley again narrows, after which the river flows between mountains and through deep gorges, only emerging into the plain once more in Hupeh Province.

      The Tsinling Mountains to the north of the Han Valley form an even more impressive barrier than the Ta-pa range. Structurally a continuation of the great Kunlun Mountains to the west, the range runs continuously across Shensi from west to east at an average height of some 8,000 feet, with individual peaks reaching 12,300 feet. The range merges into the Fu-niu and the Hsiung-erh Mountains in Honan. The main watershed of the range is in the north; the southern slope of the range, draining into the Han, is deeply sculptured by an extremely complex drainage pattern. Three major passes cross the Tsinling Mountains: the San-kuan Pass south of Pao-chi, which leads to the Chia-ling Valley and thus into Szechwan; the Kao-kuan Pass south of Sian, which leads to the Han-chung Basin; and the Lan-t'ien Pass southeast of Sian, which affords a route to Nan-yang in Honan and to northern Anhwei Province.

      The second major region is the valley of the Wei River, a tributary of the Huang Ho, which flows from west to east across the province from its headwaters in Kansu to join the Huang Ho at the border with Shansi and Honan. This valley is a major geological trough, bounded on the south by a vast complex of faults and fractures along the base of the Tsinling Mountains; it is a zone of considerable seismic instability, especially vulnerable to earthquakes. The northern border of the Wei River trench is less abrupt, and the large northern tributaries of the Wei, Ching, and Lo rivers, have themselves formed in their lower courses quite extensive alluvial plains that are continuations of the Wei River plain. The plain consists largely of loess (which also mantles parts of the northern face of the Tsinling Mountains), as well as of redeposited loess washed off the plateau to the north. The rivers are heavily silted.

      The third region, to the north, is the great upland plateau of northern Shensi. Structurally this is a basin of largely undisturbed sedimentary rocks of immense thickness. Its raised western rim forms the Liu-p'an Mountains (Liupan Mountains), which extends from the far west of Shensi northward into Kansu and Ningsia. A minor northwest-to-southeast axis forms the Ta-liang and Huang-lung ranges, which constitute the watershed between the Lo River system and the northern part of the province, which drains directly into the Huang Ho (Huang He). On the eastern border of the basin the Huang Ho flows from north to south through a narrow, gorgelike trough. In this section it falls some 2,000 feet in less than 500 miles, and it is mostly unnavigable, with frequent rapids, culminating in a very deep, narrow gorge and falls at Lung Gorge.

      The whole of this basin plateau, which is mostly above 3,000 feet, is a peneplain (a region reduced almost to a plain by erosion) covered with a deep mantle of loess, blown from the Gobi and the Ordos Desert by the prevailing northwesterly winds of the winter season. Much of the area is covered to a depth of 150 or even 250 feet, and the loess completely masks the original relief and structure of the region. The loess, in turn, has been heavily eroded, leaving a characteristic landscape of almost vertical walls, cliff faces, and deep ravines. This erosion has been intensified by the effects of human occupation, which have destroyed the natural vegetation cover.

      The Tsinling Mountains are not only a physical divide but also separate Shensi into two sharply differentiated climatic regions. The southern mountain area has a subtropical climate, similar to that of the Middle Yangtze Basin or of Szechwan. Mean temperatures in January are from 37° to 39° F (3° to 4° C), and the frost-free growing season is from 260 to 280 days, although the summer and autumn are not so hot as in the Middle Yangtze region. Total precipitation is between 30 and 40 inches (750 and 1,000 millimetres), falling mostly between May and October. The driest part of the year is spring and early summer, when irrigation is necessary. But in general the climate is hot and moist. The rugged and varied topography, however, produces great local variations.

      The Wei Valley has a much drier and somewhat colder climate. Average winter temperatures are about 32° F (0° C), and the frost-free period lasts for about 240 days. Total precipitation is between 20 to 25 inches, mostly falling between May and October, with a sharp peak in September and October. Rainfall is generally deficient in spring and early summer, but the climate is not seriously dry. It is, however, an area subject to severe and prolonged droughts. On the Loess Plateau farther north and west the climate grows progressively drier and colder. The extreme north and west have only about 10 inches of annual precipitation, most of which occurs in late summer and autumn, when evaporation loss is at its maximum. The growing season and frost-free period become progressively shorter until in the north the former is only about 190 days. In this area agriculture depends on techniques for minimizing evaporation losses and in conserving moisture in the soils. The northern frontier with the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, roughly coinciding with the line of the Great Wall, remains an important cultural divide. Beyond it conditions for agriculture become extremely precarious.

Plant and animal life
      The vegetation in the northern and southern zones is also sharply differentiated. The southern mountain area forms a part of the mixed deciduous broad-leaved and evergreen forest zone that formerly covered the Lower Yangtze and Han river basins; this region is characterized by a rich variety of vegetation that includes more than 50 broad-leaved genera and a dozen or more coniferous genera. Owing to the difficulty of access, large areas of natural timber remain standing.

      The northern slopes of the Tsinling Mountains and the lower Wei Valley were originally covered with deciduous broad-leaved forest. The bulk of northern Shensi, except for the pure steppe (treeless plain) of the northern and western borders, was originally part of the so-called northwestern forest-steppe area, where deciduous broad-leaved woodland grows only on the highest ground and around watercourses, most of the area being covered by grass or low, drought-resistant scrub. This northern area has been intensively cultivated since the 1st millennium BC, and its natural vegetation has been virtually destroyed.

The people
      The people are nearly all Han (Chinese) and speak the Northwest Mandarin dialect. Some Hui (Chinese Muslim) communities remain in the south and northwest of the province. Most of the population is settled in the Wei and Han valleys; the uplands are more sparsely settled. The chief cities are Sian, Pao-chi, Hsien-yang, T'ung-ch'uan, and Han-chung. Other cities include An-k'ang, San-yüan, Yen-an, Wei-nan, and Yü-lin. Most of the province's county seats are very small. Sian (Xi'an) is the provincial metropolis and the main communication centre and chief industrial city. It has an important university, a medical college, and an institute of art and music, as well as libraries and museums. Pao-chi (Baoji) is an important road and rail transportation centre. San-yüan and Hsien-yang (Xianyang) are both satellite cities of Sian, as well as rail and road transport centres. Han-chung (Hanzhong) is the main communication and administrative centre for the southern region.

The economy
      The basin in the north of the province has enormous coal reserves, second in size only to those of Shansi. Important modern mines are those at T'ung-ch'uan, on the northern slope of the Wei Valley, and at Han-ch'eng, near the Huang Ho. There are minor coal and oil-shale deposits in the Han Basin in the south, where there are also iron-ore deposits. The Tsinling Mountains contain some minor gold-producing areas (mostly in the west), as well as some minor deposits of manganese and other minerals. There are also significant deposits of molybdenum, graphite, zeolite, limestone, and barite.

      The southern part of the province forms a portion of the southwestern highland and basin area, which is characterized by double-cropping, wet-field agriculture, and forestry production. Most of the cultivated land is below 3,000 feet. The Han-chung Basin grows rice intensively, followed by winter wheat, but in the mountain zones of the T'ai-pai and Tsinling ranges the main cereal crops are corn (maize) and winter wheat. Such subtropical crops as tea, tung oil, and citrus fruits are grown, as are a variety of other fruits.

      The Wei Valley area is very intensively cultivated. Well over half of the total area is under cultivation, and it supports a dense agricultural population. The valley area produces some rice, good winter wheat, tobacco, and cotton, but millet, barley, and corn are also increasingly important crops, as is kaoliang (a variety of grain sorghum). On the higher ground, millet, oats, and buckwheat are common. Hemp, sesame, sugar beets, and rapeseed are important subsidiary crops, particularly in the upper Wei and the Ching valleys. Normally three crops are raised every two years.

      The northern plateau is too cold in the winter for winter wheat to survive. It forms a part of the Inner Mongolia dry agricultural and pastoral zone. Spring-sown wheat and millet are the main grain crops, and these depend largely on the availability of irrigation water. Grazing becomes particularly important toward the northern and western borders, and the growing season is so short that only one crop yearly is possible.

      Shensi's output and agricultural income remain below the national average, but improvements in a province known for famine and natural disaster have been considerable. Since the mid-1950s much attention has been directed toward stopping and reversing the extensive soil erosion that has long plagued the province north of the Tsinling Mountains. A large-scale multipurpose conservancy scheme has been underway on the Huang Ho, designed to reduce the enormous silt load discharged into the Huang by the Wei and its other west-bank tributaries. A great effort has been made to spread terraced cultivation in Shensi. The plan also calls for the construction of numerous dams in the loess uplands to retain silt before it reaches the Huang Ho. These small dams quickly silt up, forming new farmland. In addition, projects have been initiated to sow grass on denuded land, to plant trees for the protection of new terraced fields and slopes, and to prevent gullying. Even more ambitious is a plan to plant a belt of trees a mile or more wide, mostly consisting of drought-resistant poplar, elm, or willow, in an attempt to contain the spread of sand dunes from the Ordos Desert. This belt extends southwestward for about 375 miles from northeastern Shensi across Ningsia and into Kansu, skirting the edge of the desert. The irrigation system has also been greatly extended. The ancient irrigation systems of the Wei and Ching valleys, restored (after centuries of neglect) following the famine of 1932, have been extended, while great numbers of small dams and wells have also been constructed to increase the irrigated area.

      The major industrial area in Shensi is that centred around Sian. Principal industries in this area include cotton and other textiles, electrical equipment, engineering and chemical manufacturing, and iron and steel production. There are minor centres of industry at Pao-chi and at Shih-ch'üan in the Han Valley, near An-k'ang, and Yao-hsien, near T'ung-ch'uan, has a large and important cement plant. A small petroleum refinery is located at Yen-ch'ang. The production of consumer goods in Shensi has been emphasized, including bicycles, radios, televisions, watches, and apparel.

      The Wei Valley since prehistoric times has formed part of the main east–west route running from the North China Plain in the east to the Kansu Corridor and the steppelands in the west. Sian is a natural centre, where the great route east to west meets the routes that cross the Tsinling Mountains to the south and southeast, an alternative route to the northwest via the Ching Valley, and routes to the Ordos region in the north and to Shansi in the northeast. All these routes are now followed by modern highways. In the south a highway crosses the province from east to west, joining Han-chung with Wu-han, in Hupeh Province to the east, and Lan-chou, in Kansu Province to the west. In the far southwestern corner of Shensi, a main highway follows the route of an ancient post road from Pao-chi to Ch'eng-tu in Szechwan.

      The first railway to reach Shensi was the Lung-hai line, the great east–west trunk line from the sea at Lien-yün-kang in Kiangsu, via the industrial centres of Honan. This line, extended in the 1930s through the Wei Valley to Pao-chi, was largely destroyed during the war with Japan. It was reconstructed in the late 1940s and extended westward to Kansu. A branch was also constructed from Hsien-yang to the coalfields at T'ung-ch'uan. Another major line now extends from Pao-chi to Ch'eng-tu in Szechwan, where it links with various lines to the southwest. Sian has become an important regional centre of air traffic.

Administration and social conditions
      The province has three prefecture-level municipalities (shih) directly subordinated to the provincial government. One of these municipalities includes the provincial capital, Sian. The rest of the province is organized into seven prefectures (ti-ch'ü); the northern plateau area is divided between the Yü-lin Prefecture in the far north and the Yen-an Prefecture farther south; the central and eastern Wei Valley is divided into the prefectures of Hsien-yang and Wei-nan; and the mountainous southern area is divided into the Han-chung, An-k'ang, and Shang-lo prefectures. At the next administrative level the province is divided into counties (hsien) and municipalities (shih) under the jurisdiction of prefectural governments. For purposes of economic planning, the province, together with Kansu and the Uighur Autonomous Region of Sinkiang, forms part of the northwestern economic region.

      Citizens of Shensi take pride in their region as a historic centre of Chinese civilization and in their distinctive traditions in art, ceramics, and folksinging. The Yang-ko is a local form of musical folk opera with comic themes. Shensi-style Ch'in-ch'iang opera is also popular, as are shadow plays using local leather puppets.


Northern Shensi
The early period
      The northern parts of Shensi, particularly the Wei Valley, were some of the earliest settled parts of China. In the valley some remains of the Mesolithic Period have been found, while there are Neolithic (Neolithic Period) Yang-shao culture sites spreading along the whole of the west–east corridor from Kansu to Honan, showing that this was already an important route. Chinese Neolithic culture was probably first developed in the Wei Valley. It remained an important centre of the later Neolithic Lung-shan culture and then became the first home of the Chou (Zhou dynasty) people, who in the late 12th century BC invaded the territories of their overlords, the Shang, to the east, and set up a dynasty in 1111 that exercised some degree of political authority over much of North China. Until 771 BC the political centre of the Chou was at Hao, near modern Sian.

      For the early agriculturalists, working the ground with primitive stone-tipped tools, the slopes of loess and river terraces provided ideal farmland—light, stone-free, and fertile. The natural cover, too, was mostly grass and scrub and could be easily cleared for temporary cultivation.

      After the 8th century BC the Chou lost much of their authority and moved their capital eastward to Lo-yang in Honan Province, after which Shensi became something of a backwater. Gradually, however, the predynastic Ch'in state, which controlled the area, began to develop into a strong centralized polity of a totally new kind, able to mobilize mass labour for vast construction projects, such as the part of the Great Wall of China built between Shensi and the Ordos Desert. One of the greatest of these tasks was the completion in the Wei Valley of a large and efficient irrigation system based on the Cheng-kuo and Pai-kung canals and centred around the junction of the Ching and Wei rivers. This system, completed in the 3rd century BC, watered some 450,000 acres (180,000 hectares) and provided the powerful economic base for the Ch'in's eventual conquest of the whole of China.

The middle period
      In 221 BC Hsien-yang (Xianyang), in Shensi, became the capital of the Ch'in dynasty (Qin dynasty), which unified China for the first time; it was a city of vast wealth and the focus of a nationwide road system. The area remained extremely populous and was a major centre of political authority for the next millennium. The Han (Han dynasty) (206 BC–AD 220), successors of the short-lived Ch'in dynasty, made their capital Ch'ang-an (Chang'an), near Hsien-yang. Later, in the 6th century, when after some centuries of disunion the Sui (581–618) again unified the empire, their capital—Ta-hsing—was on the same site as Ch'ang-an, which also was the capital of the T'ang (Tang dynasty) (618–907). Ch'ang-an, as the capital was now once more known, was by far the largest and most magnificent city in the world in its day and was immensely wealthy. But by this time the irrigation system upon which Shensi primarily depended had begun to deteriorate, soil erosion and deforestation had begun to be problems, and the productivity of the area declined. The maintenance of a huge metropolis of more than 1,000,000 people in the area consequently necessitated the difficult and costly transportation of vast quantities of grain and provisions from the eastern plains and the Yangtze Valley. The capital remained in Shensi largely because the area (known as Kuan-chung—literally “Within the Passes”) was easily defended and was of crucial importance, as a frontier with China's neighbours. After the sack of Ch'ang-an in 882, however, no dynasty ever again had its capital in the northwest, and the area rapidly declined in importance as the economic centre of the empire gradually gravitated toward the Yangtze Valley and the South. During the next millennium Shensi became one of the poorest and most backward of China's provinces.

The early modern period
      Under the Mongols in the 13th century Shensi as a provincial unit assumed approximately its present form, incorporating the area formerly known as Shan-nan (literally “South of the Mountains”), or Li-chou. During this era, however, Shensi underwent many changes. In the course of the Yüan, or Mongol, dynasty (1206–1368) the province was devastated and largely depopulated as a result of the Mongol conquest. Subsequently there emerged a large Muslim element in the population. The area suffered badly from rebellion and disorders following the collapse of Mongol rule after about 1340, when two independent regimes—those of Chang Ssu-tao in the northwest and of Li Ssu-chi around Ch'ang-an—controlled most of Shensi. Later it was one of the areas in which disaffection with Ming (Ming dynasty) rule (which began in 1368) first appeared in the late 1620s, and it was somewhat badly damaged in the fighting leading up to the Ch'ing conquest in 1644. Under Ming rule Shensi Province also incorporated Kansu, but under the Ch'ing dynasty (Qing dynasty) (1644–1911/12) the two were separated once more.

The 19th and 20th centuries
      By the 19th century Shensi was seriously impoverished. Although only marginally affected by the Taiping Rebellion (1850–64) in its last stages, eastern and southern Shensi were slightly disturbed by the Nien Rebellion between 1853 and 1868. It then suffered the terrible Muslim rebellion of 1862 to 1878, which affected much of the western and northern parts of the province. Although the effects of the rebellion and its savage suppression were not as terrible as in Muslim Kansu, about 600,000 were killed in Shensi, and the resulting destruction left the province in serious plight.

      As this rebellion was coming to an end, Shensi was also affected by one of the worst drought famines (famine) of modern times. It had virtually no rain from 1876 to 1878, and, when the government tried to remedy the situation in 1877, poor transport facilities prevented effective relief. Perhaps 4,000,000 or even 5,000,000 people died in Shensi alone, with some single counties in the fertile Wei Valley losing more than 100,000 people each. As a result of the terrible death toll in the last decades of the 19th century, Shensi became a haven for a wave of land-hungry immigrants from Szechwan and Hopeh provinces.

      The end of the empire in 1911 brought yet further deterioration in living conditions. In 1912 the governors of Shensi and Kansu became engaged in a destructive civil war of an unusually brutal and violent character; the war, often affecting the whole province, continued until 1921, after which the province became involved in a still larger war between Yü-hsiang Feng and the Chihli warlords. In 1926 the capital, Sian (Xi'an), was besieged and badly damaged; the death toll numbered nearly 100,000 from starvation alone.

      In the earlier years of the 20th century Shensi also suffered badly from periodic famines, which occurred in 1915, in 1921, and finally in 1928. This last famine was as severe as that of 1877–78; it is estimated that at least 3,000,000 people died of starvation, after which a wave of epidemics increased the death toll still further. Whole counties were virtually depopulated. This time, however, some measures of relief were forthcoming. The International Famine Relief Organization began to rehabilitate the derelict irrigation system of the Wei Valley, while the extension of the Lung-hai Railway into the province meant that, if in the future famine should threaten, relief supplies could quickly be moved into the province.

      A further political upheaval followed in 1936 when Communist armies, driven out of their bases in Kiangsi, passed through the western parts of Shensi. They then established themselves in Yen-an in northern Shensi, which was to be the base from which they conducted their war of resistance against the Japanese and from which, after the end of World War II, they successfully undertook the conquest of all China. In Shensi itself they controlled the territory of the present Yen-an and Yü-lin prefectures from 1937 onward.

Southern Shensi
      The history of the southern part of the province has been considerably more placid than that of the north. Until the late 17th century the area was very sparsely peopled, and much of it, apart from the Han-chung basin, is still virgin forest. In the period after about 1680 the introduction of corn (maize) and sweet potatoes, followed in the 18th century by the introduction of the Irish potato, made upland farming possible. A pattern emerged of growing rice in the valley bottoms, corn on the lower mountain slopes, and Irish potatoes on the higher land. Southern Shensi, with its great amounts of vacant land, attracted immigrants on a large scale after severe famines and crop failures had occurred in Hupeh and Szechwan provinces in the 1770s. In the early 19th century immigrants from central and southern China constituted as much as 90 percent of the population in some parts of Southern Shensi.

      Rapid and often reckless development of the uplands, however, often led to soil erosion, rapid loss of fertility, and declining crop output. Local disaffection broke out in the so-called White Lotus Rebellion of 1796–1804, which was centred in the Szechwan–Shensi–Hupeh–Honan border regions. After its suppression, however, the area remained generally peaceful: in the 20th century it escaped the worst excesses of the northwestern warlords' civil wars, as well as of the repeated famines that occurred in northern Shensi.

Denis C. Twitchett Victor C. Falkenheim

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Universalium. 2010.

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