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When East meets West;Geography;Subject of the week

Two years ago the geography department at my school was planning its Year 11 teaching for the new MEG "Bristol Project" GCSE course. We chose China as our main case study of a "less economically developed country" and considered the ways in which it could be used to meet the syllabus requirements.

The first unit was "population". With the aid of census statistics from 1990 we constructed a population density map by province, and related the statistics to physical and climatic influences. Mapping this information also provided an introduction to the basic geography of the country as major natural regions and centres of population were identified. We studied China's demographic transition since 1950, which illustrated the theoretical pattern of change and introduced the question of population growth rates. These were investigated further by analysing population pyramids for different years, leading up to a discussion of the practical and moral aspect of the much-publicised "one child" policy.

The next teaching unit, on "economic systems and development", saw us revisiting China a number of times. The topic of agriculture gave us the opportunity to refer back to climatic zones - slides that I had taken during a visit to China showed the wide variation in farming activities throughout the country. We used a video excerpt about the Fifties' "great leap forward" from the BBC television series The People's Century to outline the legacy of the commune system, and a detailed study of a township in the Yangtze delta near Shanghai demonstrated the beneficial effects of the "production responsibility system", initiated in 1980, which gave farmers freedom to produce what they liked for their own profit. We also examined rice cultivation and the impact of the green revolution in this area.

We explored China's rapid expansion as a manufacturing nation through a case study of the Pearl River Delta and its major urban centres of Guangzhou, Hong Kong and the special economic zone of Shenzhen. We used several newspaper articles which described the role of migrant labour from the countryside in the new factories and the working conditions they experience, and reinforced this by showing an excerpt from the television series The Giant Awakes, which focused on a footwear factory in Guangzhou, owned and run by the Chinese Army. We then compared the provinces of Guangdong, in which the Pearl River Delta is situated, and Xinjiang, in the arid north-west, to point out the disparities between China's go-ahead coastal belt and the neglected rural interior.

We looked at service industries by studying tourism in China, based on statistics indicating the origin of travellers to the country and visitor numbers at the main tourist attractions. We then assessed the economic, social and environmental impacts of tourism on indigenous people, especially China's 60 minority groups.

All our work on China was pulled together in a classroom GCSE assessment unit based on the Three Gorges Dam project (see box, far left). This controversial scheme combines elements of river management, energy production, transport, population movement, ecology and politics.

To resource this work we collected material from newspapers, magazines, academic papers, textbooks, television programmes and from personal contacts - whenever and wherever we could. I was fortunate in having been able to travel to China and take my own slides, but this is not a prerequisite. All you need is a willingness to teach about this intriguing country and the enthusiasm to follow it through.

Mike Morrish is head of geography at The Haberdashers' Aske's School, Elstree, Hertfordshire

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