The world is inhabited by nearly 7.8 billion people. More than half of those people live in Asia, the world’s largest continent. And of all the people who live in Asia, more than half live in two countries, China and India, which are the first and second most populous countries in the world respectively. It isn’t surprising that these two countries have so many inhabitants as both are home to some of the world’s earliest civilizations. They are also both extremely diverse in terms of culture, language and religion.
In Chinese, China is known as Chung Kuo, which translates as the Middle Kingdom. The country comprises approximately 9.6 million square kilometers, which makes it the fifth largest country in the world by area. China is made up of several different regions. The most populous is China proper, which has constituted the core of the Chinese state for several millennia. The other regions include Manchuria in the northeast, Inner Mongolia in the central north, Xinjiang in the far northwest and Tibet in the extreme southwest.
The most diverse aspect of China is its people. The Han, or ethnic Chinese, comprise the vast majority of the country’s population, and within this population are groups that speak several different Chinese dialects. These dialects include Mandarin, the official language of China, Cantonese, Wu, Min, Hakka and several others. There are also 55 ethnolinguistic minority groups recognized by the Chinese government. Each region, for example, has a group indigenous to it. Manchuria, for example, is named for the Manchu people, who were once the country’s rulers as the Qing dynasty (1664-1912). Inner Mongolia is named for the Mongols native to the area, who share the same heritage as the people of Mongolia, located on part of China’s northern border. Xinjiang is largely populated by the Uighur people, who are of Turkic and Muslim heritage. And the region of Tibet is named after the local Tibetan population. The ethnic diversity in China has made for some tensions, most notably in Xinjiang and Tibet, where the local populations seek autonomy or outright independence from China.
Although China is officially atheist, there are several different religions that the various peoples of the country practice. Many of the Han Chinese practice traditional folk religions, which tend to be based on the worship of ancestors, spirits, or other local deities. These religions often blend elements of several religions, such as Buddhism and Taoism, both of which also have millions of followers in the country. Islam is practiced most notably by the Hui people, who are ethnic Chinese Muslims, as well as the Uighur people of Xinjiang. There is also a growing population of Christians. The Chinese government exercises a significant degree of control over organized religion in the country, and human rights campaigners have repeatedly accused it of severely restricting the religious freedom of its citizens.
The world’s second most populous country, India, is a nation-state comprised of close to 3.3 million square kilometers, and is one of China’s southern neighbors. The name India is derived from the Indus River. The Indus River Valley was the cradle of some of human history’s oldest civilizations. The country’s northern border is formed in part by the Himalayas, the highest mountain range in the world. The borders that separate India, China and Pakistan, another of the world’s most populous countries, have been in dispute for decades, serving as the focal point for violent skirmishes, or even wars, between the three countries.
As for its people, India is just as diverse as China, if not more so. The country boasts a multitude of different languages, most of them belonging to two language families, Indo-Aryan and Dravidian. The former is dominant in the north while the latter is more prevalent in the south of the country. The most widely understood language in the country is Hindi, especially in the north. It is one of India’s two official languages, the other being English, which is widely understood by the country’s more educated population. But there are more than four hundred other languages spoken in India. Some of the other major languages of the country include Bengali, Assamese, Kashmiri, Telugu, Kannada, Tamil, Malayalam, Marathi, Manipuri, Gujarati, Punjabi, Odia and Nepali. Many of these languages are attached to India’s states. Bengali, for example, is the main language spoken in West Bengal, which neighbors the country of Bangladesh, one of India’s eastern neighbors, where Bengali is also the main language. Gujarati is spoken in Gujarat, Tamil in Tamil Nadu, Punjabi in Punjab and so on.
India is also a country of many faiths. The vast majority of Indians practice Hinduism, but other religions in the country also have millions of followers. The most popular religion in India aside from Hinduism is Islam, followed by Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism and Zoroastrianism. Smaller religious communities include followers of the Bahá'í faith, as well as a very ancient community of Jews, numbering just a few thousand.
Other Countries With Large Populations
The United States follows China and India as the world’s third most populous country. Indonesia comes fourth, and also has the distinction of being the most populous Muslim country in the world. The fifth is Pakistan, which borders both India and China. Other countries on our list, including Brazil, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Russia, Mexico, Japan, Ethiopia, the Philippines, and Egypt all have populations of more than one hundred million people.