Written by Adam Horálek
Základní informace o čínském zeměpisu. 中国地理常识（中捷对照）[General Information on the Geography of China]. The Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council – Hanban – Sinolingua, Beijing, 2014, ISBN 978-7-5138-0631-2. 225 p.
The book General Information on the Geography of China is a Chinese-Czech bilingual introduction to all major topics on the geography of China, produced and published by Hanban (Confucius Institute Headquarter), Sinolingua and The Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council. The book is a compilation of major information covering all major topics – topography, physical, social, residential, economic and regional geography. It is, despite its limits, a very helpful book which shall be part of the geographical curriculum of all students of sinology.
The text of the book, which is originally in Chinese and was produced or modified definitely not after 2005, has two major limits. Firstly, we have to have in mind that the book does not expect the reader to have any deeper knowledge about China and its regions and geography. The book is a brief outline of geographical topics on China. Even though it is hardly beneficial for those with some extensive knowledge in this field, it is very worth reading for most students. The second limitation of the book is the outdated information in it. Even though the book was published in 2014, the data, graphics and information were not updated after 2005. The major aim of this edition – to provide bilingual versions of this book in as many language variations as possible (incl. English, German, Russian, Thai, etc.) – is not a sufficient excuse. Especially for a country with such great and rapid socio-economic as well as geographic changes as China, it is necessary to keep the data and graphics updated.
On the other hand, there are at least three major prons which make the book worth using in the education of future sinologists and experts in China. Firstly, it is a Chinese book, not a foreign translation of Chinese. Not only does this secure an accuracy in the Chinese language, but also it can be seen as a good insight into Chinese geographical thinking. The translations, which are simultaneous and on the same double-page, are therefore strictly limited and have to adapt to the Chinese version. At least the Czech-Chinese version does it perfectly, by far due to the capable translator – Tereza Slaměníková. Secondly, the book covers topics which are significant to the Chinese. It is very much descriptive rather than interpretative which makes it less useful for a critical study of China but at the same time the information remains much more stable. Moreover, the stress on regional geography is essential for students of Chinese and helps them to discover China a bit more. Thirdly, the book is richly embellished with substantial visualization of the topics – with maps and photographs in particular.
The book cannot be understood as a professional scholarly monograph but rather as a study book. As such, it covers all major topics. As expected, a significant part of the book covers touristic topics as in chapters Natural Beauties, Seven Historical Capitals, Wonderful Cities or Voyage through the Middle Kingdom. These chapters, worthy for students with a focus on Chinese tourism or for general orientation in the physical and socio-cultural regions of China, comprise three-fourths of the book. It covers all major regions, topographic units, river systems and historical places all students of sinology should know. Therefore, it is worth being placed on the list of compulsory reading. It does not suffer from an overload of information and the key data is repeated severally as one could expect from a Chinese original.
The first two chapters on general overview and the natural resources and environment of China includes much solid and sufficiently comprehensive information needed for the further critical understanding of China’s geography, including its climatic specifics, geological history, environmental limits and threats, etc. Compared to the rest of the book, these two chapters provide generalized and interpretable information. For example, not only does it cover water shortage in the north, which is due to the “three vertical steps” of China and the subsequent climatic situation, but also it discusses ecological limits for environmental as well as socio-economic developments in the region with possible solutions and ecologically protective and advancing plans.
In a formal way the book is very well made. Used for teaching purposes, it does not overload students with facts and it enables students to learn the basics in Czech and consequently, when they master Chinese better, they can match their knowledge with the Chinese version. Not only can it advance their Chinese vocabulary but also it enables them to learn basic expressions in geographical terminology; the terminology many of the students will need when doing business in tourism. Not mentioning the fact that after translation and interpretation, tourism is one of the core businesses that Chinese philology students deal with.
There are few more aspects that I miss in the book. Firstly, there is no pinyin in the book, and secondly, there are, as I see it, too many translations of geographic toponyms. By not combining these two bits of information, for an “outsider”, some of the geographic terms are hidden from him or her. The Heavenly Mountains can be learned to be placed in the Chinese Xinjiang but cannot help the beginner to understand that it matches with the mountain range called Tian Shan (Tien-Šan or in russified version Ťan-Šan) which are generally known. The simple appearance of the pinyin transcription after the translation in the Czech version of the text would fix this problem. However, even this weakness can be understood as a result of the Chinese origin and Chinese grasp for precision in translation, even though disserviceable. There is also the list of topographic names at the end of the book which also suffer from the lack of pinyin. At least here, its appearance would be appreciated.
In general, the book is worth reading and studying. It is not a comprehensive scholarly monograph but a study book that enables students to learn Chinese in a more entertaining way. Not only due to the form of the book – bilingual double-pages – but also due to the content which can be seen as a more scientific “tour guide” to China.