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 – it doesn’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. 

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.