You might think that China travel is relatively the same no matter where you head to in the country, but the Middle Kingdom is not homogenous. In particular, a cultural and geographical divide between the north and south exists to this day.
You can see this divide in the language differences alone, between north and south. While Mandarin is the country’s official language, it was historically used by the northern royal courts and imposed on the nation by the upper classes. There’s a reason that the term “Mandarin” used to be slang for “bureaucrat.” While people in the south generally understand Mandarin, they speak southern dialects like Cantonese, Min, and Hakka.
There are many reasons for the divide between north and south. One theory posits that most of the cultural differences between the regions are due to the north growing wheat, with the south growing rice. In general, you can attribute the major differences to geography, as the north and south vary a lot in terms of landscape, and that landscape determines a lot of the culture.
To help you decide how to approach China travel, we’ve broken down the major differences between the north and south in terms of landscape, infrastructure, landmarks, cuisine, history, and culture. We’re generalizing here, as the north and south are not monolithic, and China has more cultural variation region-to-region and city-to-city than most countries in the world. But it’s useful to break down one of the major divides in Chinese culture to help you plan a trip to China that best suits you.
We’ve left Hong Kong and Macau out of the conversation because they’re distinct from the mainland and don’t fit into the conversation. They should be approached as distinct entities when planning a China vacation. Now, without further ado, here is how China’s north and south compare.
Landscape and Climate
In general, the north is colder and the south is warmer. The dividing line between the two is usually considered the Huai River and the Qin Mountains, or, alternatively, the Yangzi River, which runs a little further to the south. The western regions, Qinghai, Tibet, and Xinjiang are not considered a part of either north or south.
North China consists of flat plains, grasslands, and deserts. It doesn’t get much rain and has long and cold winters, although it’s warm in the summer. The average temperature in Beijing gets as high as 27°C in July and as low as -4°C in January. The temperature made it impossible to grow rice, for most of Chinese history, so wheat is the grain of choice. Although they’re not the conventional areas to visit on China travel, Manchuria and Inner Mongolia both count within China’s north.
South China is defined by its mountainous terrain and deep river valleys. This landscape provides a lot of moisture that makes the region abound with vegetation. It also makes the south a more appealing home for animals than the north. In fact, certain regions, such as Yunnan Province, are famous for their starling diversity of wildlife. The average temperature in Shanghai is 32°C in July and 1°C in January. The warm and wet climate of the south is also conducive to rice cultivation, so rice has long been the primary agricultural product of the region.
If you’re automatically drawn to warmer temperatures, then you’ll want to visit China’s south or head to the country in the summer. Regardless, Beijing has been known to get very cold in winter, so be forewarned if your trip north coincides with the winter months.
Expenses and Infrastructure
In terms of expenses and infrastructure, you won’t find that much difference between the north and south. As in most countries, the cities are more expensive than the countryside, but offer much better travel infrastructure.
Accommodations in China’s north and south are cheaper than in many countries around the world, although not nearly as cheap as they were a few short decades ago. Generally speaking, Beijing is mildly cheaper than Shanghai. For instance, a three-star hotel in February in Beijing averages around $86CAD a night while a three-star hotel in Shanghai on the same night averages around $95CAD.
Transportation will be your other largest cost on China travel. As China is massive, you’ll have to travel significant distances to visit new destinations. Luckily, you’ll have plenty of options to get around the country. As well, transportation in China is vastly better than it was a few decades ago.
To get between cities, you can choose between planes, trains, and buses. Trains interconnect everywhere in China, but tickets sell out quickly and there are varying grades of service on board. The new bullet trains between Beijing and Shanghai offer blistering travel speeds and new cabins, but many trains in more remote parts of the country are rundown and short on amenities. As well, service is not as punctual as in many other countries. For options, you can buy tickets for soft or hard sleeper cabins, and soft and hard seats. Some trains even have standing room tickets.
Buses are more affordable than trains and often faster, but they can fall prey to the insane traffic jams that have been known to clog China’s highways for days on end. However, buses can be newer than trains and offer more comfortable seats and more amenities. You just have to weigh your desire for a speedier journey with the potential for delays; like everywhere in the world, buses are subject to the whims of traffic while trains are not.
Air travel is the undisputed best way to get around the country. As mentioned before, China is large. It can take a while to get from one major city to another, especially when you add in delays and missed connections. Air travel lets you get to your next destination with little delay.
As for other expenses when visiting China’s north and south, landmarks like the Forbidden City and the Great Wall will cost admission, but it’s nothing exorbitant. Other costs, like food, are tiny compared to most other countries.
China has no shortage of landmarks no matter where you travel in the country. If you visit the north, you’re guaranteed to explore Beijing, which famously has the Forbidden City, the ancient capital of the emperors that ruled China until 1911. It also has the Temple of Heaven and Tiananmen Square. For more contemporary landmarks, it has the Bird’s Nest National Stadium of the 2008 Summer Olympics. You also find the half-egg-shaped National Grand Theatre of China and the CCTV New Tower.
Nearby Beijing, you’ll find the Badaling Great Wall, which is the most popular stretch of the Great Wall of China. The north also has Xi’an, which is home to countless treasures of ancient China, not least of which are the Terracotta Warriors who guard the tomb of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. And right near the dividing border between north and south, you’ll find the mystical Wudang Mountains, which are holy sites in Daoism and some of the loveliest natural landmarks in the country.
China’s south is no slouch in terms of landmarks. Shanghai is home to the incredible waterfront of the Bund as well as the Shanghai TV Tower. For classical style within this modern city, you should head to Yuyuan Garden, which is a fully restored version of a Ming Dynasty garden. Chongqing has the incredible Egongyan Bridge and the Great Hall of the People, and is also nearby the Three Gorges Dam Project, which is one of the largest engineering projects in the world. Chengdu has many historical artifacts from the Shu Dynasty as well as the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. Guangzhou is known for being a river port northwest of Hong Kong and for the iconic Canton TV Tower.
Outside of the major metropolises, you’ll find both the Li River and the Yangzi River. Leshan has the famous Giant Buddha and Mount Emei, one of the holy mountains of Buddhism. You’ll also find the gorgeous natural landmark of the Reed Flute Cave in Guilin.
As you can see, both China’s north and south can boast of abundant world-class landmarks. However, if you’re going for the more iconic experience of Chinese treasures, the north has to win out. The Forbidden City, the Great Wall of China, and the Terracotta Warriors are what people think of when they envision China travel. While the south’s treasures are truly remarkable, they aren’t on quite the same level.
Food and Drink
There’s so much to like about food in China, regardless of whether you head north or south. Due to the region’s geography, the north has historically been home to wheat-based dishes that fill you against the winter cold. Most dishes are salty and packed with calories. However, most meals try to incorporate all the major flavours through a variety of dishes, so you’ll rarely eat a meal that is simply sweet or sour.
In the north, you’ll eat lots of noodle dishes as well as dumplings and steam buns and even varieties of pancakes. There’s generally more red meat and dairy in the north. In Beijing, you’ll find traditional imperial cuisine as well as famous dishes like Peking duck. In China’s south, you’ll find rice dishes instead of wheat dishes. Southern cuisine uses more spice than in the north, as the spices traditionally preserve the food against the humidity. Flavours are generally more delicate, while portions are smaller but with more dishes served at each meal. Travelling through the south you’ll find dim sum, lots of soup and broth-based dishes, and a greater reliance on seafood.
As for drinks, you’ll find both the north and the south swimming in baiju, the 104-proof clear grain alcohol that is the drink of choice for most Chinese people and the most widely-consumed alcohol in the world. People also drink a lot of beer in China and you’ll find popular brands like Tsingtao and Harbin all across the country. In the north, you might find other interesting types like Sinkiang Black Beer, which is essentially a dark lager. If you’re not into alcoholic beverages, you’ll find tea everywhere you go, and more trendy variations on tea like pearl milk tea or bubble tea, which has taken mainland China by storm, just as it has much of the western world.
As we said at the get-go, you’ll find great cuisine no matter where you head on China travel, but if you want more variety and a little more spice, southern China will do you right.
History and Culture
Like with landmarks, neither China’s north nor south has the monopoly on history and culture. In fact, few countries are as tied to their past as China. History in the north takes the form of the imperial court, as Beijing has long been the imperial capital and is home to the Forbidden City. As well, the north often engaged in military struggle with invaders to the even-further north – there’s a reason they built the Great Wall – while vying against rival dynasties within the country. The north has historically held more power than the south and been more politically united, although the south has had its moments of cultural dominance.
While the north dominated much of the early periods of Chinese unity, the south gained prominence after the Mongol invasions. The capital moved to Kaifeng, which was promptly sacked, causing a wave of people to move to Shanghai and consolidate southern power. You’ll find plenty of historical relics in both the north and south, although Xi’an might have primacy when it comes to history.
Culturally, the north and south share a lot in common while having some broad differences. In terms of coarse generalities, people in the north are a little more reserved than in the south. The south is louder than the north and you’ll generally find more interest in western culture in the south, due to the proximity to Hong Kong. You’ll hear Mandarin across the country, but in the south, most people will speak their own local dialects, even in the main cities.
No matter where you go in China, it’s important to remember that the national identity is significant. People will always identify first with their family and their village, but their national identity remains important. Despite their differences, both China’s north and south share a profound nationalism, and you won’t find any advantage in terms of culture or history in choosing one over the other.
Which Part of China is Right for You?
Ideally, you do the whole shebang and explore all of China, top to bottom. But if you only have a week or two, it’s smart to focus on one part of the country. If you have to pick and choose where to go in China, heed the following advice:
- If you want to experience the world-famous landmarks like the Forbidden City and the Great Wall of China, engage with ancient history, and enjoy hearty cuisine made for colder climates, head to China’s north.
- If you want to experience a wider variety of experiences and cities, feast on spicy dishes full of seafood and fresh ingredients, and enjoy a more temperate, even tropical, climate, head to China’s south.
You’ll find so much variety on your China travel that you’ll soon discover the country is essentially a world unto itself. However, of all the internal cultural divides, none are more prominent than north and south. If you’re to engage with China properly and make the most of a China vacation, you need to recognize the differences between these two divides and prioritize your trip accordingly.