China proper (also Inner China) or Eighteen Provinces was a term used by Western writers on the Qing Dynasty to express a distinction between the core and frontier regions of China. There is no fixed extent for China proper, as many administrative, cultural, and linguistic shifts have occurred in Chinese history. One definition refers to the original area of Chinese civilization, the North China Plain; another to the "Eighteen Provinces" system of the Qing Dynasty. There is no direct translation for "China proper" in the Chinese language and the expression is controversial among scholars, particularly in China, partly because it implies the frontier regions outside China proper are in some way distinct or even illegitimate territories of China.
Origin of the concept
It is not clear when the concept of "China proper" in the Western world appeared. However, it is plausible that historians during the age of empires and the fast changing borders in the eighteenth century, applied it to distinguish China's 18-provinces from its newly acquired properties. This would also apply to Great Britain proper versus the British Empire, which would encompass vast lands overseas. The same would apply to France proper in contrast to the French Empire of the time, which Napoleon managed to expand all the way to Moscow.
In the Qing dynasty, the term Zhongguo was used by some scholar-officials to mark a distinction between the culturally Han Chinese areas and the territory newly brought into the Manchu Qing empire. In the early 19th century, Wei Yuan’s Shengwuji (Military History of the Qing Dynasty) calls the inner Asian polities guo, while the seventeen provinces of the traditional heartland, that is, “China proper,” and three eastern provinces of Manchuria are called “Zhongguo.” 
According to Harry Harding, the concept can date back to 1827. But as early as in 1795, William Winterbotham adopted this concept in his book. When describing the Chinese Empire under the Qing Dynasty, Winterbotham divided it into three parts: China proper, Chinese Tartary, and the States Tributary to China. He adopted the opinions of Du Halde and Grosier and suspected that the name of "China" came from Qin Dynasty. He then said: "China, properly so called,... comprehends from north to south eighteen degrees; its extent from east to west being somewhat less..." 
However, to introduce China proper, Winterbotham still used the outdated 15-province system of the Ming Dynasty, which the Qing Dynasty used until 1662. Although Ming Dynasty also had 15 basic local divisions, Winterbotham uses the name of Kiang-nan (江南, Jiāngnán) province, which had been called Nan-Zhili (南直隶, Nán-Zhílì) in Ming Dynasty and was renamed to Kiang-nan (i.e., Jiangnan) in 1645, the second year after the Qing Dynasty overthrew the Ming Dynasty. This 15-province system was gradually replaced by the 18-province system between 1662 to 1667. Using the 15-province system and the name of Kiang-nan Province indicates that the concept of China proper probably had appeared between 1645 and 1662 and this concept may reflect the idea that identifies China as the territory of the former Ming Dynasty after the Manchu conquest of Ming.
The concept of "China proper" also appeared before this 1795 book. It can be found in The Gentleman's Magazine, published in 1790, and The Monthly Review, published in 1749. In the nineteenth century, the term "China proper" was sometimes used by Chinese officials when they were communicating in foreign languages. For instance, the Qing ambassador to Britain Zeng Jize used it in an English language article, which he published in 1887.
Today, China proper is a controversial concept in China itself, since the current official paradigm does not contrast the core and the periphery of China. There is no single widely used term corresponding to it in the Mandarin language.
The separation of China into a "China proper" dominated by Han Chinese and one or more "Other Chinas" of ethnic minorities impugns on the legitimacy of China's current borders, which is based on the succession of states principle. According to Sinologist Colin Mackerras, foreign governments have generally accepted Chinese claims over its minority areas, because to redefine a country's territory every time it underwent a change of regime would cause endless instability and warfare. Also, he asks, "if the boundaries of the Qing were considered illegitimate, why should it go back to the much smaller Ming in preference to the quite extensive Tang dynasty boundaries?"
There is no fixed extent for China proper, as it is used to express the contrast between the core and frontier regions of China from multiple perspectives: historical, administrative, cultural, and linguistic.
One way of thinking about China proper is to refer to ancient Han Chinese dynasties. Chinese civilization developed from a core region in the North China Plain, and expanded outwards over several millennia, conquering and assimilating surrounding peoples, or being conquered and influenced in turn. Some dynasties, such as the Han and Tang dynasties, were particularly expansionist, extending far into Central Asia, while others, such as the Jin and Song dynasties, were forced to relinquish the North China Plain itself to rivals from Northeastern and Central Asia.
The Ming Dynasty was the last Han Chinese dynasty and second-last imperial dynasty to rule China. It governed fifteen administrative entities, which included thirteen provinces (Chinese: 布政使司; Pinyin: Bùzhèngshǐ Sī) and two "directly-governed" areas. After the Manchu-founded Qing Dynasty conquered the Ming Dynasty, the Qing court decided to continue to use the Ming administrative system to rule over former Ming lands, without applying it to other domains within the Qing Dynasty, namely Manchuria, Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet. The 15 administrative units of the Ming Dynasty underwent minor reforms to become the Eighteen Provinces (一十八行省 Pinyin: Yīshíbā Xíngshěng, or 十八省 Shíbā Shěng) of China proper under the Qing Dynasty. It was these eighteen provinces that early Western sources referred to as China proper.
There are some minor differences between the extent of Ming China and the extent of the eighteen provinces of Qing China: for example, some parts of Manchuria were a Ming possession belonging to the Ming province of Liaodong (now Liaoning); however, the Qing conquered it before the rest of China and did not put the region back into the provinces of China proper. On the other hand, Taiwan was a new acquisition of the Qing Dynasty, and it was put into Fujian, one of the provinces of China proper. Eastern Kham in Greater Tibet was added to Sichuan, while much of what now constitutes northern Burma was added to Yunnan.
Near the end of the Qing Dynasty, there was an effort to extend the province system of China proper to the rest of the empire. Taiwan was made into a separate province in 1885; however it was ceded to Japan in 1895. Xinjiang was reorganized into a province in 1884. Manchuria was split into the three provinces of Fengtian, Jilin and Heilongjiang in 1907. There was discussion to do the same in Tibet, Kokonor, Inner Mongolia, and Outer Mongolia, but these proposals were not put to practice, and these areas were outside the province system of China proper when the Qing Dynasty fell in 1912.
The Provinces of the Qing Dynasty were:
|Additional provinces in late Qing Dynasty|
Some of the revolutionaries who sought to overthrow Qing rule desired to establish a state independent of the Qing Dynasty within the bounds of the Eighteen Provinces, as evinced by the Eighteen-Star Flag they used. Others favoured the replacement of the entire Qing Dynasty by a new republic, as evinced by the Five-Striped Flag they used. Some revolutionaries, such as Zou Rong, used the term Zhongguo Benbu (中国本部) which roughly identifies the Eighteen Provinces. When the Qing Dynasty fell, the abdication decree of the Qing Emperor bequeathed the entire Empire to the newborn Republic of China, and the latter idea was therefore adopted by the new republic as the principle of Five Races Under One Union, with Five Races referring to the Han Chinese, Manchus, Mongols, Muslims (Uyghurs, Hui etc.) and Tibetans. The Five-Striped Flag was adopted as the national flag, and the Republic of China viewed itself as a single state encompassing all five regions handed down by the Qing Dynasty. The People's Republic of China, which was founded in 1949 and replaced the Republic of China on the mainland, has continued to claim essentially the same borders, with the only major exception being the recognition of independent Mongolia. As a result, the concept of China proper fell out of favour in China.
The Eighteen Provinces of the Qing Dynasty still exist, but their boundaries have changed. Beijing and Tianjin were eventually split from Hebei (renamed from Zhili), Shanghai from Jiangsu, Chongqing from Sichuan, Ningxia autonomous region from Gansu, and Hainan from Guangdong. Guangxi is now an autonomous region. The provinces that the late Qing Dynasty set up have also been kept: Xinjiang became an autonomous region under the People's Republic of China, while the three provinces of Manchuria now have somewhat different borders, with Fengtian renamed as Liaoning.
When the Qing Dynasty fell, Republican Chinese control of Qing territory, including of those generally considered to be in "China proper", was tenuous, and practically nonexistent in Tibet and Outer Mongolia (since 1922), which were controlled by governments that declared independence. The Republic of China subdivided Inner Mongolia in its time on the mainland, although the People's Republic of China later joined Mongol-inhabited territory into a single autonomous region. The PRC joined the Qamdo area into the Tibet area (later the Tibet Autonomous Region). Nationalist China was forced to acknowledge the independence of Mongolia (former Outer Mongolia) and Tannu Uriankhai (now part of Russia as The Tyva Republic), in 1945.
However, Han Chinese areas today do not correspond well to the Eighteen Provinces of the Qing Dynasty. Much of southwestern China, such as areas in the provinces of Yunnan, Guangxi, and Guizhou, was part of successive Han Chinese dynasties, including the Ming Dynasty and the Eighteen Provinces of the Qing Dynasty. However, these areas were and continue to be populated by various non-Han Chinese minority groups, such as the Zhuang, the Miao people, and the Bouyei. Conversely, Han Chinese are the majority in most of Manchuria, much of Inner Mongolia, many areas in Xinjiang and scattered parts of Tibet, not least due to the expansion of Han Chinese settlement encouraged by the late Qing Dynasty, the Republic of China, and the People's Republic of China.
Ethnic Han Chinese is not synonymous with speakers of the Chinese language. Many non-Han Chinese ethnicities, such as the Hui and Manchu, are essentially monolingual in Chinese, but do not identify as Han Chinese. The Chinese language itself is also a complex entity, and should be described as a family of related languages rather than a single language if the criterion of mutual intelligibility is used to classify its subdivisions.
In polls a slim majority of the people of Taiwan call themselves "Taiwanese" only with the rest identifying as "Taiwanese and Chinese" or "Chinese" only. 98% are descendants of immigrants from China since the 1600s, a large number of which also have aboriginal ancestry, but the inclusion of Taiwan in Greater China, or let alone from China proper, is still a controversial subject. See History of Taiwan for more information.
The approximate extent of Chinese-speaking regions, denoted in light yellow and light green. Although Chinese is spoken elsewhere, only mainland China and Taiwan are shown.
- Chinese world
- Greater China
- Mainland China
- North China Plain
- Outer Mongolia
- Outer Manchuria
- Zhonghua Minzu
- Chinese macro-regions—Socio-economic divisions of China proper
- Willow Palisade
- Great Wall of China
- "Glossary -- China. Library of Congress Country Studies". Library of Congress. "Used broadly to mean China within the Great Wall, with its eighteen historic provinces. Divisible into two major, sharply contrasting regions, north China and south China. The dependencies on the north and west--Manchuria (now usually referred to as northeast China), Mongolia, Xizang (Tibet), and Xinjiang or Chinese Turkestan--were known in the imperial era as Outer China."
- Joseph Esherick, "How the Qing Became China," in Joseph W. Esherick, Hasan Kayali and Eric Van Young, ed., Empire to Nation: Historical Perspectives on the Making of the Modern World (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006 ISBN 0742540308): 233.
- Harry Harding, "The Concept of 'Greater China': Themes, Variations, and Reservations", in The China Quarterly, 136 (December1993), pp. 660–686. 
- Winterbotham, William (1795). An Historical, Geographical, and Philosophical View of the Chinese Empire..., London: Printed for, and sold by the editor; J. Ridgway; and W. Button. (pp. 35–37: General Description of the Chinese Empire → China Proper→ 1. Origin of its Name, 2. Extent, Boundaries, &c.)
- Copyright has passed, "Full View" available through Google Books.
- Marquis Tseng, "China: The Sleep and the Awakening", The Asiatic Quarterly Review, Vol. III 3 (1887), p. 4.
- Mackerras, Colin (2012). "Han-minority relations". In Gries, Peter Hays. State and Society in 21st Century China: Crisis, Contention and Legitimation. Psychology Press. pp. 219–220.
- Zou, Rong (1903). "Chapter 4". The Revolutionary Army.
- Du Halde, Jean-Baptiste (1736). The General History of China. Containing a geographical, historical, chronological, political and physical description of the empire of China, Chinese-Tartary, Corea and Thibet..., London: J. Watts.
- Grosier, Jean-Baptiste (1788). A General Description of China. Containing the topography of the fifteen provinces which compose this vast empire, that of Tartary, the isles, and other tributary countries..., London: G.G.J. and J. Robinson.
- Darby, William (1827). Darby's Universal Gazetteer, or, A New Geographical Dictionary. ... Illustrated by a ... Map of the United States (p. 154),. Philadelphia: Bennett and Walton.