Why is Central China like the MidWest? Why big countries have names that don’t make sense

Some soldiers jump in the air before a 32m statue of Chairman Mao: by far the most interesting photo of Hunan province we could find. Image: Getty.

So a few weeks ago, reading some pretentious history thing or another, I caught a reference to Mao Zedong’s birth in – I paraphrase slightly, but this was the sense of it – “the central Chinese province of Hunan”. And, being the sort of nerd who will break out the Atlas faster than you can say “located on the south bank of the Yangtze River”, I opened Google Maps so I could get a sense of exactly where we were talking about here.

I’d be lying if I said I’d ever given any serious thought to exactly what the phrase “central China” might mean. But if pushed, I guess I’d probably have assumed Hunan to be somewhere roughly here:

It’s central China, central means “middle”, that’s roughly the middle of China, QED.

Except, as it turns out, it doesn’t. Here’s where Hunan actually is:

That to me looks like the south east. In that it’s the bottom right hand bit on a standard map.

But okay, the Chinese know their country better than I do – and, as it turns out, there is a region often known as central China. It consists of the provinces of Henan, Hubei and Hunan and also, sometimes, Jiangxi. Here it is:

In other words, Central China is nowhere near the centre of China. It actually means the central bit of eastern China. As opposed to west China, the government definition of which takes up more than half the landmass of the country:


All this reminds me of something. The MidWestern United States covers a vast swathe of territory, from North Dakota down to Kansas in the west, to Michigan and Ohio in the east. Like New England or the Deep South, “the MidWest” isn’t just a geographical region, but a label that carries a lot of associations about what MidWesterners are supposed to be like (short version: nice).

Whether these clichés are true is a matter of debate. But one thing that’s obviously not true is that they live in the Middle Western bit of the United states landmass, because look:

That X is the official geographic centre of the contiguous United States. It’s in Kansas, roughly 12 miles south of the border with Nebraska.

It’s blindingly obvious that most of the “MidWest” is actually to the north and – more damningly – east of this line. The easternmost edge of Ohio is under 550km from the Altantic Ocean; it’s more than six times that (over 3,600km) to the Pacific). The idea that this is “the west” seems nonsensical.

And yet, once, it was. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby bangs on about the difference between eastern old money snobbery and western nouveau-riche pretention. And when its author wrote of “the west”, he meant the MidWest, something like a third of the way across the continent, and still clearly in the eastern half of the United States. Even 150 years after the US declared independence, and 80 after its territorial expansion made it to the Pacific, it was still possible for New Yorkers to think of the shores of Lake Michigan as “the West”.

Even though China is approximately 17 times older than the United States, there’s a pretty close parallel at work here. Both the “midwestern United States” and “central China” were labels coined by officials and populations that were once crammed into the eastern corners of the modern states. Both China and the US started out hard against their eastern coast, and then populated the west. Even today, Western China, which makes up over half the country’s landmass, contains less than a quarter of its population.

The territorial expansion of China – in gif form! Image: Wikipedia.

So, at the time those labels came into common currency, they made some kind of sense. The Midwestern United States was the west (though not the proper west, with the deserts and cowboys in it); Central China was the centre of the historic heart of China.

To outsiders, looking at those countries today, they don’t quite make sense any more. But a) who cares what outsiders think, and b) the labels have stuck. Attempts by the official government census to re-label the MidWest “the North Central Region” were abandoned in 1984: it made much more sense in terms of where it was, but it just wasn’t what people actually called it.

In other words, if a country is going to experience major territorial expansion after people have already started naming things, there’s a chance that some of its geographical labels are going to end up seeming silly.

At least, that’s my theory. To stress test it, it’d be really helpful if there were a third giant country, whose historic and major population centres are all at one end of its landmass; and which retains an official name reflecting this fact, even though – when viewing the country as a whole – they don’t make a great deal of sense.

Anywhere, here’s a map of the “Central” Federal District of Russia:

Just saying.

UPDATE, 18.30hrs: A couple of people have been in touch to highlight something I failed to mention. Much of Western China was not historically Chinese at all (or at least, not historically Han, the dominant Chinese ethnic group). The west today is still dominated by other ethnic groups, including the Tibetans and the Uyghurs, some of whom still have lively independence movements today.

I don't think this changes my core point – that the country has ended up with some strange ideas of its internal geography, because it has expanded beyond its historic (Han) heartland – but it was an oversight not to mention it. Sorry.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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All maps in this post courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 


Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.