Special Issue: Disciplinary Structure and Development of Geographic Science

Disciplinary structure and development strategy of human geography in China

  • FAN Jie , 1, 2 ,
  • ZHAO Pengjun 3, 4 ,
  • ZHOU Shangyi 5 ,
  • DENG Xiangzheng 2, 6 ,
  • WANG Chen 7
  • 1.Key Laboratory of Regional Sustainable Development Modeling, Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, CAS, Beijing 100101, China
  • 2.College of Resources and Environment, University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100049, China
  • 3.College of Urban and Environmental Sciences, Peking University, Beijing 100871, China
  • 4.Key Laboratory of Earth Surface System and Human-Erath Relations, Ministry of Natural Resources of China, Shenzhen 518055, Guangdong, China
  • 5.Faculty of Geographical Science, Beijing Normal University, Beijing 100875, China
  • 6.Key Laboratory of Land Surface Pattern and Simulation, Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, CAS, Beijing 100101, China
  • 7.School of Earth Sciences, Zhejiang University, Hangzhou 310027, China

Fan Jie (1961-), PhD and Professor, specialized in regional development and planning. E-mail:

Received date: 2022-05-26

  Accepted date: 2022-06-22

  Online published: 2022-11-25

Supported by

National Natural Science Foundation of China(41630644)


Human geography is a discipline that studies the formation and evolution of the geographical distribution pattern of human activities. The main research objects of human geography focus on human activities and human-environment relationship. The scientific questions to be answered by human geography cover both natural science and social science, and thus it has distinctive interdisciplinary features. In China, human activities’ economic and social processes play an essential role in explaining the law in human geography discipline as human society development is approaching or has entered the post-industrialization stage. The logic and methods of social science have become important tools through which human geography’s changes in processes and patterns of human geography can be reasonably discussed and adequately understood. The research methodology of human geography shows integration characteristics between natural sciences and social sciences. The outcomes of human geography research reveal scientific laws in geographical distribution patterns and the evolution of human activities. It becomes one of the primary disciplines for both the national and local governments to manage and optimize spatial development and protection patterns. It has wide applications in spatial planning, regional strategy and policy-making, and the modernization of spatial governance. The unique feature in integrating academic research and policy-making applications provides human geography discipline in China a superiority of leading the world in the discipline. Besides integrated human geography, human geography in China has five subdisciplines: economic geography, urban geography, rural geography, socio-cultural geography and political geography. Each subdiscipline has priority and critical research fields and coordinates with the rest of the subdisciplines.

Cite this article

FAN Jie , ZHAO Pengjun , ZHOU Shangyi , DENG Xiangzheng , WANG Chen . Disciplinary structure and development strategy of human geography in China[J]. Journal of Geographical Sciences, 2022 , 32(9) : 1654 -1669 . DOI: 10.1007/s11442-022-2016-3

1 Current status and objectives of human geography

1.1 A brief history of human geography

Modern human geography in China began in the 1920s and 1930s when a group of returnees from Europe and the United States launched the scientific research and education of modern human geography in China. The topics covered almost all the sub-disciplines of human geography. They filled many research gaps in modern human geography in China, including human-environment relationship, population distribution, settlement geography, industry, agriculture and transportation layout, political and socio-cultural geography, and river basin and border area investigation. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Chinese human geography followed the Soviet Union’s disciplinary settings, abandoning socio-cultural geography as well as settlement geography (Zhang, 1959). Economic geography stood out from other sub-disciplines and formed a strong research team that had done rich research in the fields of industrial, agricultural, and transportation geography and raised the quantitative research level of economic geography in China (Wu, 1960). Since the reform and opening up in 1978, many branches of human geography in China, such as urban geography, tourism geography, socio-cultural geography, and transportation geography, had been fully developed by connecting to human geography in developed countries (Zhang, 1988; Yang, 1991). A new discipline system that emphasizes both emerging branches and classical economic geography has gradually formed, among which the theory of human-environment relationship and territorial systems has always been the cornerstone of human geography in China (Wu, 1991; Lu et al., 1998; Chen et al., 2022). China’s human geography has also made landmark scientific achievements in meeting national strategic needs. For example, the point-axis theory and the “T” structure of territorial spatial development, the theory of PRED (Population, Resources, Environment, Development), the theory and methodology of major function-oriented zoning and territorial spatial planning, the Belt and Road shared development model and geopolitical relations, research on the sustainable development of urban agglomerations and rural revitalization etc. have made important contributions to the scientific formulation of major regional development strategies (Fan, 2012). In recent years, with the development of post-industrial society, the research perspective of human geography has been more micro-focused, and the way of thinking has been more social sciences oriented. More attention has been paid to knowledge creation, mass consumption, women’s rights, racial and economic segregation, social equity, and public well-being, and the methodology adopted is characterized by an integration of both natural and social sciences.

1.2 Current features of human geography

Human geography research in China has basically followed a paradigm that raises key scientific questions from real needs, achieves innovation and advances disciplinary development by problem-solving, and enhances the quality level of serving national needs with the support of disciplinary construction (Lu, 2017; Fan, 2019). The current situation of the development of human geography in China can be summarized as follows: (1) Focus on regional research, conducting comprehensive research on regional sustainable development at different spatial scales, globally, nationally, and locally. This type of research plays a landmark and overarching role in forming human geography with Chinese characteristics. It is also where Chinese human geography has made the most significant innovative contributions to the world (Fan, 2019). (2) The three pillars of contemporary Chinese human geography have been constructed, namely, urban and rural geography that focuses on the geographical feature of human being’s living environment, economic geography that focuses on the geographical processes of human production activities, and tourism geography that focuses on the space for leisure and recreational activities. (3) Socio-cultural geography and political geography are flourishing. As political, social, and cultural factors play a more and more important role in the formation and evolution of human geographic patterns, the development of these disciplines will increasingly help to accurately reveal the fundamental laws of the spatial processes of human activities (Gu, 2009). It will enrich and improve China’s human geography due to the strong social demand. (4) The research methods of Chinese human geography have also undergone a shift, from local studies relying on field research, studies of holistic and historical processes using a simple analysis of statistical data, and qualitative studies using basic principles and empirical accumulation, to the extensive use of remote sensing data, multi-source big data, and modern computer technology supported analysis and simulation methods guided by the fundamental theories and models of geography, economics, and management sciences.

1.3 Issues in the development of human geography

The main problems in the development of human geography in China can be summarized as follows: (1) Compared with the outstanding achievements in the field of national policy-making applications, there are not enough systematic and fundamental theoretical outputs, especially not many theoretical achievements that can lead international academic development. (2) Compared with the rapid development of new topics, new fields and new subject branches that are tightly related to contemporary society, the development of traditional sectoral human geography such as agricultural geography, industrial geography, population geography, regional geography (including world geography, national geography, Chinese geography) as well as rural geography. (3) Compared with the remarkable integration with humanities and social disciplines, there is insufficient interaction with natural sciences, especially in the development of disciplinary theories and research paradigms of complex sciences.

1.4 Discipline development objectives of human geography

The development goals of human geography in China in the coming 15 years are: (1) To explore the spatial distribution of modern human activities and their changing patterns, and to promote the cross-disciplinary research of human geography with physical geography and environmental elements. (2) To enhance the global influence and international discourse of Chinese human geography by promoting a global perspective and international cooperation in human geography, adapting to the evolution of global geopolitical and economic relations and regional responses, and adjusting global strategies based upon China’s reality. (3) To uphold the excellent tradition of human geography in serving national strategic decision-making, and to support the optimization of development and protection of territorial space and the modernization of the spatial governance system. (4) To overcome the shortcomings that limit the development of human geography in China by continuously strengthening the research characteristics and development advantages achieved by Chinese human geography. Strive to build a new pattern of human geography disciplines with global influences and especially leading the development of human geography in developing countries by innovating and enriching the sub-disciplines and cross-disciplinary areas of human geography. (5) To encourage the use of new technological methods such as big data and artificial intelligence in human geography research; 6) to complete the disciplinary structure of human geography that matches China’s status as a great nation and the needs of national development.

2 Main areas of the human geography discipline

By summarizing the development of human geography, one can find that four major fields of human geography have emerged in China, namely, integrated human geography, economic geography, urban and rural geography, socio-cultural geography and political geography.

2.1 Integrated human geography

The key to the development of integrated human geography is the establishment of a territorial system theory of human-environment relationship that reveals the laws of human-nature interaction, provides a theoretical basis for global, national and local sustainable development in terms of spatial structure, temporal processes, organizational sequential changes, holistic effects as well as synergy and complementarity (Lu et al., 1998), and effectively avoids the once hollowing out of human geography in developed countries caused by humanism and socialization (Wu, 1991; Zhu et al., 2017). The research on regional sustainable development of human-environment relationship system theory has produced significant scientific outputs in understanding the overall optimization, comprehensive balance and effective regulation mechanisms and approaches of global, national or regional human-environment relationship systems, such as the condensation and application of PRED research themes, the application of territorial function theory and major function-oriented zoning, and the resource and environmental basis and effects of urban agglomerations, etc. Those studies have set an example for the return of regional research in global human geography by insisting on comprehensive regional research (Fan et al., 2013). From the extension of natural carrying capacity to comprehensive carrying capacity, from the geographic environment to its integration with economic and social development, from regional differentiation to regional development model, from regional development mechanism to spatial governance system etc., the research on regional sustainable development has made systematic achievements and been recognized by international counterparts and national policy-makers because of the significant role in scientifically supporting the formation and implementation of the major function-oriented zoning strategy, major regional development strategies, and the Belt and Road vision (Fan et al., 2009; Lu et al., 2011; Liu et al., 2018). Since 2000, Chinese population geography has made important contributions in terms of population migration and mobility as well as population urbanization (Jin, 1996; Feng et al., 2017) and has undergone a shift from a focus on the analysis of macro-spatial patterns of the population to a focus on micro-individual demographic processes, which primarily benefits from the interaction with demography, but also makes it more and more separated from the scope of geography (Zhu et al., 2017).

2.2 Economic geography

Economic geography is a branch of geography with a long history and distinctive features in China. It is characterized by a cross-disciplinary application of the law of value in economics, the law of ecological balance and the principle of material and energy flow in natural science, the concept of social equity in social sciences, and the logic of historical evolution and quantitative analysis and other theoretical methods, combined with the comprehensive view and spatial-temporal differentiation in geography, to explain the laws of regional development (Yang, 1992; Wu, 1996). Innovative research has been conducted on new economic geography phenomena and mechanisms to discuss industrial innovation space, financial geography and information system layout (Wang, 2016). Economic geography has also paid attention to typical regions research such as large river basins, coastal zones, mountainous areas, resource-depleted cities and old industrial bases (Jin et al., 2016; Miao, 2019). Because of its emphasis on human-environment relationship and sustainability, its focus on differentiated development based on regional comparative advantages, and its emphasis on combining international frontiers with Chinese characteristics, economic geography has played an important role in spatial governance and regional planning in China since the new century (Fan et al., 2013). Economic geography has the following characteristics in current China: the research objects range from the vertical expansion of the whole chain based on enterprise activities to the horizontal expansion focusing on the relationship between enterprises and geography (Li, 1999; He, 2018); sub-disciplines such as theoretical economic geography, sectoral economic geography, company (enterprise) geography, regional economic geography and evolutionary economic geography have developed rapidly (Lu et al., 2020); the research results of regional and local development, globalization and international territorial division of labour, industrial clusters, national and local innovation systems, financial geography, and transportation geography have not only produced an international impact (Lin, 2009; Fan et al., 2021), but also have supported the formulation of national comprehensive transportation plans and other decisions (Zhao et al., 2020). Tourism geography research, on the other hand, has established a China-based theoretical system of tourism geography based on “process-structure-mechanism” (Bao et al., 2017; Fan, 2019).

2.3 Urban geography and rural geography

Urban geography in China focuses on national strategic needs and is thus more normative and strategic (Lin et al., 2020). In recent years, theories with Chinese characteristics have been developed in China’s urbanization, and suburbanization dynamics, urban agglomerations, megalopolis, and regional integration (Fang et al., 2018; Zeng et al., 2020), and increasing attention has been paid to the study of urban residents’ behavior, urban history and culture, ecology and environment, as well as urban globalization and internationalization (Feng et al., 2017). Multi-dimensional studies of complex and pluralistic urban societies, urban crime, urban equity and mobile populations’ impact on cities have received increasing attention (Lv et al., 2010; Xue et al., 2014). The research outputs are of efficient guidance and significantly contribute to the compilation and development of China’s urban system planning (Yu et al., 2011). Rural geography had experienced three stages during which it was the critical discipline of human geography in China before 1978 but was weakened significantly after 1978 and has been gradually revitalized since the 21st century. In the process of revitalization, new research fields are explored. Themes with a sense of times that focus on academic frontier and practical applications are developed (Fan, 2019), including comprehensive research on agricultural and rural geography, research on rural development issues such as the hollowing out of rural areas, the governance of hollow villages, and the expansion of geographical engineering, research on the spatial characteristics of rural settlements and their evolution, research on rural ecology and rural landscapes. They all serve to national decision-making about rural revitalization, rural poverty alleviation, and urban-rural coordinated development (Long et al., 2014; Liu, 2019).

2.4 Socio-cultural geography and political geography

In China, social geography, cultural geography and political geography are the later-development branches of human geography. Those branches have basically continued the development trend, characteristics and scope during the period 1978‒2000, and have also developed and borrowed new research paradigms and application areas. This has changed the general situation of human geography in China. The social geography research in China is relatively weak, mainly exploring the spatial activities of different social groups, social ecology, and geographical issues related to social problems such as crime and poverty (Zeng et al., 2014). Chinese cultural geographers have produced relatively rich results that focus on themes such as cultural origins, cultural diffusion, cultural ecology, cultural integration, cultural landscapes, and traditional cultural areas (Bai et al., 2014; Zhou et al., 2014), and explore research paradigms for a new cultural geography. They have been involved in research projects in applied fields such as cultural industries, urban regeneration, conservation of tangible and intangible cultural heritage, and toponymic management. Political geographers used to lay much emphasis on administrative division geography. In recent years, the research in political geography had extended to geopolitics and geopolitical economy that learns from a multi-scalar/cross-scalar new political geography abroad and mainly discusses the issues such as hot spots and global political patterns, the geo-strategy of China’s peaceful rise, global resource geopolitical patterns and China’s resource security strategy, as well as China’s neighboring geo-environment and geo-economic cooperation (Liu et al., 2018; Du et al., 2020).

3 Strategic layouts of the human geography discipline

Human geography in China is strategically arranged in five sub-disciplinary clusters as follows (Figure 1).
Figure 1 The discipline system of human geography in China

3.1 Integrated human geography

This sub-disciplinary cluster includes the study of “human-environment system coupling processes”, “sustainable geographical patterns” and population geography. The main focus is on research on theoretical and methodological systems of human- environment relationship and territorial systems. It also pays attention to key scientific issues such as the ordering process of economic and social spatial structures and the stability of regional development patterns and conducts comprehensive research on spatial structures and regional development. Facing new trends in global governance and China’s needs for modernizing spatial governance, research on the basic theories and methods of spatial governance systems and territorial spatial planning systems is necessary. It should strive to enhance the international discourse on sustainable development, and vigorously promote the research on quantitative evaluation and scenarios prediction of human-environment relationship for the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The level of technical methods should be improved, and the identification of human-environment relationship based on big data analysis and artificial intelligence technology should be encouraged, and high-precision regional sustainable geographic detectors should be developed.
Chinese population geography should focus mainly on the spatial distribution of population, population migration and mobility, population urbanisation, the relationship between population and resources and environment, and crimes committed by floating populations. In particular, the level of quantitative research on complex systems such as the relationship between population, resources, environment and sustainable development should be enhanced. It should also actively explore new research directions on ageing, population vulnerability and human well-being etc. and provide a Chinese paradigm for the common problems of world population. In addition, emphasis should be placed on global, regional, key countries and vernacular human geography research as well as historical human geography research in typical historical periods. By enhancing theoretical research level, China’s integrated human geography can develop a more mature research paradigm, expand its influence on global human geography and earth system science, and play a leading role in the implementation of the Future Earth scientific programme, the Livable Planet and global sustainable development goals.

3.2 Economic geography

Enterprise geography should be improved by conducting research on the spatial characteristics of enterprise activities to produce world-leading theoretical achievements. Actively revitalize traditional sub-disciplines such as industrial geography, agricultural geography, commercial geography and transport geography. Emerging sub-disciplines such as tourism geography and financial geography should be developed too. Guide economic geography from focusing on the spatial location and distribution, spatial organization and spatial relations of economic activities at different geographical scales to the analysis of economic costs and benefits, institutional mechanisms and behavioral decision-making in the formation of global and regional geographical processes and patterns. While focusing on enterprises and companies as microscopic subjects of economic activities, it should also pay attention to the macroscopic influence of natural and socio-cultural spheres on economic activities. While focusing on different types of economic actions and spatial response of the whole chain, including research and development, production, distribution, consumption and recycling, it should also innovate and continuously strengthen economic geography research on non-physical economic activities as well as new industries, new business forms and new modes. Research should be expanded to the impact on human well-being and social equity from only focusing on national and local industrial competitiveness and economic development levels. Research methods should be extended from geographical records of economic activities, descriptions of phenomena and process-pattern analyses to multidisciplinary explanations and comprehensive simulations and prediction of the relationship between economic activities and geographical environment.
Economic geography in China should support the national strategy of creating a community with a shared future for mankind, and contribute Chinese economic geography wisdom in order to accelerate the economic development of less developed regions, improve human well-being, reduce poverty, narrow regional inequality, conserve and efficiently use economic resources, and vigorously develop a green economy etc. To meet the requirements of new national strategies such as high-quality economic development and rural revitalization, the laws and mechanisms of economic elements’ layout and flows in different regions and developmental levels of urban and rural areas should be discussed. It is necessary to enrich the theoretical approaches of global economic geography and lead the development of economic geography in developing countries.

3.3 Urban geography

Urban geography should continue to strengthen the traditional directions of urbanization, urban transformation, urban agglomerations and regional development, and urban planning and management. It should focus on urban geography issues with major national strategic needs and Chinese characteristics, including new urbanization, high-quality urban development, metropolitan areas, urban-rural living areas, sustainable city-regional development and integration, and urban governance, etc. To adapt to the development trend of science and technology, urban geography should expand research in emerging directions such as smart cities, resilient cities, urban computing and urban science. In order to build a community with a shared future for mankind, research on low-carbon cities and climate change, urban disasters, urban social equity, and urban development in the era of globalization should be conducted.

3.4 Rural geography

Rural geography should strengthen research in rural revitalization, rural territorial systems, integrated urban-rural development and agricultural and rural modernization. Based on the characteristics of future rural development in China, rural geography should take rural transformation research as the entry point, and pay attention to the characteristics, dynamic mechanisms, and typical patterns of rural settlement reconstruction to build a theoretical system for spatial transformation of rural settlements. It should strengthen research in the fields of rural revitalization, rural territorial systems, integrated urban-rural development, and agricultural and rural modernization and explore the relationship between rural development and planning and management, as well as the driving factors and ways of coordination in the evolution of urban-rural settlement systems in China.

3.5 Socio-cultural geography and political geography

This sub-discipline should accelerate the process of localisation of socio-cultural geography’s theories and methods, construct and develop a socio-cultural geography with Chinese regional characteristics based on the study and understanding of foreign socio-cultural geographies. It should highlight the unique and fundamental starting points for socio-cultural geography research such as human worldview, values and outlook on life to reveal the cultural driving forces behind human spatial behavior, explore the social geography themes such as spatial differences in culture-driven socio-spatial institutions and organizations and socio-spatial relations as well as the political geography themes such as identity (rights, power), territory and geo-relations. The study of socio-cultural geography should be explored, nurtured and developed in conjunction with related disciplines to provide other disciplines with a geographic perspective and analytical tool. It should also construct a theoretical and methodological system of socio-cultural geography with Chinese characteristics and highlight the value of the discipline in the process of China’s participation in global governance and the modernization of national spatial governance.

4 Priority areas and key directions of human geography

4.1 Objectives of priority development area

Human geography should pay close attention to the impact and feedback of global changes, achieve breakthroughs in research on regional models of sustainable development and high-quality development, develop the basic theory of human-environment relationship and territorial systems in the new era, promote the return and innovative development of population geography, and play a leading and exemplary role in the integration of global human geography into unified geography, the Future Earth research programme and the Livable Earth research programme. Improve the sub-disciplinary structure of economic geography by adapting to the restructuring trend of national industrial system and create the major productivity layouts principle around new industries, new business models, new economic spaces and new modes of production. Produce a number of theoretical and application results that reveal the laws of urbanization since the fourth urbanization climax, especially in developing countries by deepening research on the process and spatial pattern of new urbanization, urban agglomerations and new rural areas. Focus on the impact of natural resources and sustainable food security patterns of population systems at both global and national scales, explore the dynamic interaction processes of transport and other infrastructure with the organization and spatial patterns of economic activities, the rules and characteristics of spatial interactions under high-speed transport technologies (high-speed rail, Internet, Internet of Things, etc.) as well as the laws of space of flows and its impact on the layout of infrastructure, especially new infrastructure systems, and foster the new growth poles in the research fields of homeland security and homeland quality. Strengthen the connection with the research frontiers in the field of socio-cultural transformation in developed countries, improve the research system of China’s socio-cultural geography, and explore the geopolitical basis of global strategic patterns’ reconfiguration. Meeting the needs of modernizing spatial governance, develop systematic theories to explain spatial governance models, regional policies and coordinated development mechanisms, form the cognition of human activities, regional analysis and assisted decision-making system in the context of big data, and significantly improve the theoretical level as well as analytical and simulation capabilities of human geography in serving decision-making and management.

4.2 Key research directions in human-environment systems and regional sustainable development

4.2.1 Research on human-environment relationship and territorial systems

Discuss the causal mechanisms and simulation techniques of multi-element, multi-interface and multi-scale processes and patterns centering around the two main themes of “coupling processes of human-environment systems” and “sustainable geographic patterns” to improve the theoretical and methodological systems of human-environment relationship. Key research directions include: the impact of global climate change and changes in the natural geographic environment on human activities and their spatial distribution effects; the interface processes and regional effects of material, energy and information exchange between human activities circles and different natural spheres of the earth; the reciprocal feedback of natural resource constraints, ecological civilization construction and industrial transformation, cultural transformation and regional function transformation; the impact of zonality in the spatial distribution of human activities as well as the stabilization and driving forces of the spatial distribution pattern of human activities; the coupling characteristics, sustainability and scale effects of spatial pattern of human production and living activities and the pattern of natural geography and environment; the forming mechanism of territorial composite functions and its conflict and coordination mechanism; the relationship between economic efficiency and social equity and people’s well-being in the coupling process of human-environment relationship; the coupling effect of flow space and traditional space, interactions between short- and long-range spaces and regional dependency, and the characteristics and effects of spatial interactions in scale transformation; flow functions, flows’ economies of scale and agglomeration as well as the structure and evolution laws of flow space; the openness of territorial systems and the basic laws of changing human-environment relationship resulted from changes in flow space; the spatial governance model regulated by economic-social-ecological coupling and its institutional mechanism guarantee; spatial distribution difference in low fertility and ageing of the population and its impact on the natural and human patterns of land surface; the impact of population, labor force and innovative talents’ flows on the vulnerability of regional ecological, economic and social systems; population vulnerability in the post-epidemic era and population mobility in the context of the Belt and Road Initiative; human-centered and minority friendly living space and the approach of a balanced distribution of population in different settlements and production spaces; using remote sensing, GIS and big data technologies to quantify and evaluate the relationship between people and the environment, and to simulate, predict, forecast and optimize the coupling process of human-environment systems and sustainable geographical patterns.

4.2.2 Research on spatial governance and territorial spatial planning

Under the guidance of the new trend of global governance and the modernization of spatial governance in China, construct the research system supported by theoretical innovation of spatial governance, capacity building of spatial planning and application of geographic knowledge for decision making and management, and enhance the comprehensive and fundamental functions of human geography. Key research directions include: exploring the ways integrating with natural sciences, social sciences, engineering and technology and constructing a theoretical system led by big science to serve the modernization of spatial governance; enhancing the capacity of basic data collection, sharing and analysis, and improving modelling methods for simulation, prediction and optimization; building an application system for the creation, learning and diffusion of scientific and technological knowledge that meets the needs of spatial governance’ modernization; the basic constraints, target systems and territorial spatial planning approaches to achieve the optimization of spatial comprehensive benefits; the natural carrying capacity, spatial carrying capacity and the suitability of regional functions in the coupling process of natural and environmental system and human social system; the reciprocal feedback and response mechanisms between territorial function, spatial structure and regional policy; the role of the government and the market in spatial governance and their rational matching under the socialist system with Chinese characteristics; the trajectory, turning points, spatial and temporal effects and regional responses to the evolution of global governance. Serve major national strategies such as the integration of the Yangtze River Delta, the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, the Yangtze River Economic Belt and the high-quality development of the Yellow River Basin and investigate the coordination of the territorial system of human-environment relationship and the transformation and regulation of regional sustainable development.

4.2.3 Regional analysis and aided decision-making system in the context of big data

Focus on the innovation of research paradigms and methods in human geography brought by big data to promote theoretical construction and discipline development. The key directions include: spatial-temporal big data collection and processing technologies for human activities; applying big data to perceive and analyze the entire field, whole process and changing spatial organization of human production and life activities; improving the cognitive ability of human activities’ across time and space characteristics; inverting the spatial patterns and dynamic processes of people movement, logistic as well as technological, financial and information flows; realizing the interaction between big data methods and technologies and traditional human geography research paradigms; testing, modifying and innovatively developing classic theories of human geography; establishing a human geography process and pattern simulator based on big data; establishing a human-computer interaction visualization platform and aided decision-making system for urban and regional system simulation, regulation and optimization based on big data.

4.3 Key research areas in economic geography

Adapting to the changes in the spatial organization of new industries and new business models, economic geography should focus on globalization and localization, innovation space and enterprise growth, the evolution of spatial structure of the real and virtual economies and promote theoretical innovation of industrial layout and the revival of economic geography. Key research directions include: new trends in globalization and localization and their driving mechanisms; the spatial distribution characteristics, evolution and regional responses of global industrial chain, supply chain, value chain and innovation chain; the impact of transnational investment and international trade patterns on geo-economic systems; the mechanisms of global production networks, distributed production systems and the spatial organization of multinational corporations; the relationship and mutual adaptation among economic globalization, industrial transfer and the security of national economy; the inter-relationship between the micro-mechanism of life cycle of the growth and demise of enterprises and the macro-mechanism of the evolution of industrial distribution pattern; the new industrial location theory, new business model theory of industrial firm location as well as the industrial spatial structure theory based on new management model; the growth factors and ways of innovative spatial environment for enterprises and local industrial competitiveness; the coupling of the firm-based national and local technological innovation system and industrial layout; the spatial response and effects of industrial intelligence; the rules and spatial interactions of regional economic factor flows; the trends of spatial agglomeration and dispersion of economic activities; industrial clusters, evolution of regional economic complexes and spatial organizational efficiency; spatial organizational response to the revival of Chinese manufacturing and spatial layout principles of modern service industries; innovation of regional governance models under industrial ecologization and eco-industrialization; behavioral economic space, relational economic geography and their impacts on the development of economic geography; the spatial-temporal relationship between infrastructure and economic activities; the impact of changes in transportation networks on the organization of economic activities and the impact of new infrastructure such as the Internet, the Internet of Things and high-speed transportation on the locational selection of economic activities, the spatial pattern of the economy and its changes; the disaster-causing mechanisms and early warning and prevention of natural disasters such as global climate change and extreme weather on infrastructure; the response and adaptation of infrastructure to disaster and its resilience building; the approaches to achieving green and low carbon models for infrastructure.

4.4 Key research areas in urban geography and rural geography

4.4.1 Urban geography in the context of new urbanization

Aiming at the strategic goal of human-centered new urbanization and integrated urban-rural development, urban geography should explore theoretical systems and methodological innovations that are applicable to urban development in developing countries. Key research directions include: the connotation and mechanism of new urbanization for high-quality development; the formation mechanism of metropolitan areas, urban agglomerations and city-regions as well as the guiding mechanism of urban-rural integration; equivalent development principle of scale and functions of different settlement forms; the multi-scale, multi-dimension and multi-perspective understanding and interpretation of urban economic, social, cultural and institutional space and their transformations; resilient cities, sustainable urbanization and the ranking characteristics and spatial effects of urban intelligence and ecologization; the methods of modelling and predicting the urbanization process by new technologies such as artificial intelligence and big data.

4.4.2 Rural geography in the context of rural revitalization

Based on the background of urban-rural development transformation and institutional mechanism transformation, rural geography should focus on sustainable urban-rural development, integrated urban-rural system, and spatial reconstruction of rural settlements and develop the theories and methodologies of modern rural geography to serve the national strategy of rural revitalization. Key research directions include: the functional evolution and spatial structure theory of rural territorial systems with Chinese characteristics; the impact of urbanization and industrialization on the reorganization and transformation of rural settlement functions; the methods and theories of rural settlement reconstruction under the joint influence of rural internal elements and external regulation; the dynamic mechanism and spatial differentiation characteristics in the evolution of rural settlements under the development of urban-rural integration in the new era; the transformation of farmers’ production and life style and its spatial organization modes in the process of rural revitalization; the synergistic effect of rural revitalization planning and decision-making on the evolution of rural settlements, urban-rural integration and the creation of urban-rural settlement system; the coordination mode of rural industrial development and rural culture’s inheritance and protection in the process of urban-rural integration; the interrelationship between the inheritance of rural regional characteristics and modern rural construction under the rural revitalization strategy and the regulation strategies.

4.5 Key research areas in socio-cultural geography and political geography

4.5.1 Socio-cultural geography in the context of a community with a shared future for mankind

Key research directions include: (1) In order to overcome the analytical shortcoming that highlights social culture without standing out the characteristics of geography and to overcome the shortcomings of simple causal analysis, socio-cultural geography should explore the influential mechanism of social culture in the complex cause-effect network under the integrated system of nature, livelihood, society and ideology. (2) In order to build a community with a shared future for mankind and promote a harmonious coexistence between human and nature, the values of different people in China and abroad should be encouraged, including the values of humans towards themselves and others, as well as the values of humans towards nature. Understanding the differences in these values will help to understand the underlying reasons for people’s spatial behavior such as boundary demarcation, investment, consumption, migration and transfer payments, and thus find common goals. (3) In order to inherit and promote excellent Chinese traditional culture, social-cultural geography should encourage, explore and discover the geographical characteristics of excellent traditional culture that is adapted to local systems and has the capacity for spatial transmission and inter-generational inheritance. Cultural spatial diffusion and cultural spatial up-scaling are the key areas of academic research. (4) In order to stimulate cultural innovation in terms of technology, institutions and concepts, the various environmental characteristics of innovation should be explored, especially those when multi-scalar elements are considered.

4.5.2 World geography in the context of new geopolitics

Key research directions include: (1) In response to the challenges arising from the new world landscape and towards the new era of global governance and world peace, this sub-discipline should explore the geographical expression of geopolitical bodies in the adjustment period of world landscape and evolution of geopolitical relations by highlighting the analytical perspective of geography. Discuss the core concepts of geography based on political science such as politics of scale, domain politics, and critical geopolitics. (2) To overcome the disconnection between geopolitical studies and geo-economic studies, it should explore the mechanisms for the integration of geopolitics and geo-economics, and distinguish from disciplines such as international politics, international finance and international trade by highlighting the regional and comprehensive feature of geography. (3) In response to new issues of space competition and cooperation and the peaceful use of global maritime resources, it should investigate the forming mechanisms of geographical pattern of international rights and interests, and discuss the direction and intensity of various types of resource power, boundary formulation and governance as well as cross-border flows. Research at different spatial scales, such as global, Asia-Pacific, periphery of and within China scales should be encouraged, and the transition of research findings at different spatial scales should be analyzed.

5 Concluding remarks

With its long history of development and various sub-disciplines, human geography in China is a core discipline of geography that is both ancient and young, traditional and modern (Leng et al., 2016). While traditional branches of the discipline have continued to be innovative in their steady development, new sub-disciplines have emerged to form a multidisciplinary structure including integrated human geography, economic geography, urban geography, rural geography, socio-cultural geography, and political geography. The dynamics of human geography in China are mainly driven by the development and evolution of human activities, the demand for policy decisions, new theoretical perceptions of human activities, innovations in data analysis and processing techniques, and the development of other branches of geography (Chen et al., 2022). In particular, China’s strategic layout of building a community with a shared future for mankind, its rich and long-standing social and cultural heritage and the flourishing great cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics are facilitating the rapid development of human geography in China in the direction of catching up with the world and being unique.

We wish to thank Fahu Chen, George C.S. Lin and Juhua Xiong for their valuable comments during the preparation of this article. We are also grateful to Chuanglin Fang, Hualou Long, Hong Zhu, Weidong Liu, Yungang Liu, Yansui Liu, Debin Du, Ping Li, Changqing Song, Pingyu Zhang, Hongou Zhang, Changhong Miao, Fengjun Jin, Xuejun Duan, Canfei He, Yanwei Chai, Zenglin Han and Desheng Xue for participating in the discussion on the earlier version of this article.

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