Which is the most obscure Chinese province?

by on March 28, 2016 at 1:46 am in Data Source, History, Political Science | Permalink

This is one of my favorite links of the year so far, namely how every Chinese province got its name.  I cannot recommend it to most of you however, but if you ever have worried about Shanxi vs. Shaanxi, this is the place to go:

Shaanxi is unique amongst Chinese provinces in being the only one whose name is rendered not in Hanyu Pinyin but in Gwoyeu Romatzyh (GR), the romanization system used in pre-Communist China. Instead of using accents above letters as in Pinyin, tones in GR were reflected in spelling. In Pinyin, which was invented in 1958, the provinces Shanxi and Shaanxi are indistinguishable in spelling, so the old romanization was retained to remove this ambiguity. However, authorities still tacked on the Pinyin “xi” instead of the GR “shi” to spell out the second character, making Shaanxi’s name even more unusual by combining two entirely different romanization systems within a single name.

I say the most obscure Chinese province is the very small Ningxia 寧夏, outlined in red below, what do you think?  Or does it count only as an autonomous region?  Is Gansu perhaps a runner up?


Which is the most obscure American state to an outsider?  Nebraska?  Idaho?  Somewhere else?  (I say it helps the Dakotas that you have two of them.)  I believe the Clintons put Arkansas on the map, globally speaking that is, thereby removing it from contention for this honor.

1 Aidan March 28, 2016 at 2:03 am

For US states seen from outside, I think I’d have to go with Idaho. Every other state I seem to have met someone from or know something famous about, even Oklahoma.

2 dearieme March 28, 2016 at 5:05 am

Doesn’t Idaho do potatoes. Or is that another one?

3 Jan March 28, 2016 at 6:04 am

Yes, but Ohio has the distinction of being the only state where the top term for job searches was “potato”. Considering Ohio is not even among the top 10 potato producers, this statistic probably says more about Ohioans and their ambitions than anything.

4 JWatts March 28, 2016 at 10:52 am

The top “result” in that article for California was ‘Lion Tamer’ and from New York was ‘Professional Cuddler’. It’s not a serious article, but a piece of click bait.

5 Jan March 28, 2016 at 2:13 pm

If you read it, you see they included those because NY and CA, due to their being so large, were #1 for a ton of jobs, so they took the most interesting ones.

The point is that more people in Ohio looked for potato jobs than people in Idaho did.

6 JMCSF March 30, 2016 at 10:13 am

I was raised in Idaho, but I’m not sure its the most obscure state. One thing not taken into account is population. Idaho is quickly growing and should reach 2 million people soon. There are at least a half dozen states with fewer people.

7 carlolspln March 28, 2016 at 2:04 am


& its not even an island.

8 RustySynapses March 28, 2016 at 11:58 am

+1. Someone at Stanford once asked me “if it was in Connecticut” when I said my parents were living in RI (embarrassing for all concerned – the people, the states, and the university – although she went to a public high school in California, so maybe California should be the most ashamed).

9 RUJellis March 28, 2016 at 2:08 am

Definitely Wyoming. It’s not even on a border and it has a boring rectangle shape. You got lucky Montana.

10 anon March 28, 2016 at 3:18 am

+1. A lot of people would not have even heard the name before, more so than any other state. (Eastern Europe)

11 Lord Action March 28, 2016 at 9:37 am

Jackson Hole and Yellowstone are bigger tourist attractions than anything nearby, right?

12 Josh M March 28, 2016 at 10:25 am

Huge tourist attractions, but how many Americans even could name what state Yellowstone is in? I bet a plurality would guess California.

13 Lord Action March 28, 2016 at 11:02 am

It’s obviously not more prominent than California, but it’s the most prominent of a series of obscure states in that region (which I think of as North of Colorado).

14 Lord Action March 28, 2016 at 11:49 am

FWIW, Delaware gets my vote.

15 mkt42 March 28, 2016 at 1:48 pm

Delaware gets my vote too, or maybe Rhode Island, but as an American my opinion is unreliable and potentially biased. Tyler asked which state is most obscure to an outsider, so we should let the outsiders inform us.

I think these maps of the USA, filled in by Brits, were linked to already in MR. But they give us a hint about which states are most obscure to people in Brtiain.

16 mkt42 March 28, 2016 at 1:50 pm

P.S. Oops, I guess I should emphasize that I don’t know if Lord A is American or not; if not then his post definitely counts as a vote for Delaware.

17 Lord Action March 29, 2016 at 10:18 am

I’m an immigrant. Not sure where that puts me…

18 Marc March 29, 2016 at 10:43 am

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but at least one American (my assumption here) doesn’t seem to know that Yellowstone crosses state boundaries 🙂

19 JonFraz March 28, 2016 at 1:39 pm

Wyoming has Yellowstone, Devil’s Tower and the ski slopes of Jackson Hole, all of which give it some claim to fame.

20 Greg March 28, 2016 at 2:11 am

As a Delawarean, I’ll say Delaware is pretty obscure even to many Americans. Is it the most obscure? I’m not sure. Idaho is a decent answer. Warren Buffett is from Omaha, and (according to wikipedia) five Fortune 500 companies are headquartered in Omaha.

21 Unclemartypants March 28, 2016 at 2:57 am

It’s gotta be Delaware. It’s obscurity is even highlighted by the fact it is between the arguably most important regions: The Northeast and the Mid-Atlantic. Also it is the only Atlantic state with and American-Indian name.

22 Unclemartypants March 28, 2016 at 2:59 am

I forgot about Massachusetts

23 Aaron J March 28, 2016 at 3:37 am

Its up there, but I don’t think it’s the top. University of Delaware has a solid reputation, the Acela corridor runs through the state, and Delaware is widely known as the legal home of most US companies an an epicenter of corporate law generally. Also the first state historically.

24 Cliff March 28, 2016 at 9:59 am

The only one of those things foreigners MIGHT be aware of is the incorporation thing, but probably only business-minded foreigners which is really not many

25 Jan March 28, 2016 at 6:08 am

Michigan is the French bastardization of an Ojibwa word for Big Lake.

26 Jan March 28, 2016 at 6:09 am

*Oops, did not read “Atlantic state”. Yes, there are plenty of non-Atlantic states with Indian names.

27 joe March 28, 2016 at 7:59 am

… and Connecticut

28 Walter McGrain March 28, 2016 at 8:29 am

Mississippi, Alabama, Texas

29 Stephen March 28, 2016 at 3:55 am

Delaware is usually believed to have been named after the state’s founder, Lord de la Warr. I don’t think he was an American Indian.

30 joe March 28, 2016 at 9:20 am

This is true, the Indians were named after the Delaware River which was named after the Englishman.

So not only is Delaware not the only state with an Indian name, it doesn’t even qualify itself!

31 CorvusB March 28, 2016 at 10:59 am

I’m going to second Delaware. All the western states loom large on maps, and are thus more easily remembered. Delaware is tucked into a convoluted corner area. Maryland would fare better due to proximity to Wash DC.
Although, I also think that the Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio quartet would be most likely to be misidentified. Not precisely the same thing, but still.

32 Jan March 28, 2016 at 6:07 am

Seconded. I live pretty close to the state and totally forget about it until the second week of August every year.

33 Steve Sailer March 28, 2016 at 2:12 am

Delaware is particularly hard to place on the map in your mind’s eye. Arkansas isn’t easy, either. Dave Barry’s Only Travel Guide You’ll Ever Need described Arkansas as that state you drive through to get to other states.

34 dearieme March 28, 2016 at 5:06 am

“the Clintons put Arkansas on the map”: and novel uses of cigars.

35 Ronald Brak March 28, 2016 at 2:12 am

Australian here. Indiana is the US state that is the most obscure to me. The sparsely populated western states are familiar from westerns and so loom larger in the imaginations of English speaking foreigners than their populations and exports would suggest. The Southern states tend to be familiar from US Civil War dramas. Massachusetts has an Australian song about it. Connecticut is pretty obscure, as it Vermont, however Rhode Island is saved by being a unit of measurement. But Indiana? Yeah, I’m just blanking on that. I can’t tell you a darn thing about its history, the cities in it, or its economy apart from what I can guess from its position on the map. I think there is a computer game about car racing set in the state. That’s all I got.

36 Adrian Ratnapala March 28, 2016 at 4:14 am

What is the song about Massachusetts?

But actually Massachusetts is pretty famous. Still I would go for the old East. For me its Mayne. The only thing that comes from Maine is Hawkye from MASH, and maybe Murder She Wrote has some Maine connection too.

I’d say Maryland was pretty obscure until The Wire came out. I only knew about it because I’d lived there for a few weeks. And Frederick Douglass comes from there, but I didn’t know about him until recently.

37 So Much For Subtlety March 28, 2016 at 4:46 am

I suspect that Ronald is showing his age:


Or I am. One or the other.

Maryland is famous because of Baltimore – which was the birth place of H. L. Mencken, Billie Holiday and Babe Ruth. Mencken wrote paeans for his home town. Perhaps his best work. Ruth played his first game for the Baltimore Orioles. Holiday fled to New York as soon as she could. Most education people should know something about one of them.

(Although wasn’t Holiday born down South somewhere?)

38 Ronald Brak March 28, 2016 at 10:19 am

Yes, Massachusetts is the song about Massachusetts. (Surely there couldn’t be two songs about the place now, could there?)

I am less likely to forget that Maryland is a state because for some reason it is the name of a piece of chicken. Also, it sounds like an euphemism for sexual orientation, as in, “Oh yes, I’m from Maryland.” The Wire was not popular in Australia with one reviewer saying it needed subtitles, but Maryland has long been famous for its drug trade with its production of tobacco.

I know next to nothing about Delaware, but it is (just) saved from obscurity by the phrase, “Incorporated in Delaware”.

39 jb March 28, 2016 at 1:14 pm

What piece of chicken is called Maryland?


Australia is weird. We just call them leg quarters here in the USA. They are the best part of the chicken, however.

40 JonFraz March 28, 2016 at 1:45 pm

Aldo Harriett Tubman came from Maryland. And the Star Spangled Banner was written there (Ft McHenry is maybe three miles from where I live, though I have yet to visit)

41 JonFraz March 28, 2016 at 1:46 pm

A lot of Stephen King novels are set in Maine.

42 Pshrnk March 28, 2016 at 2:44 pm

Stephen King!

43 Mr. Econotarian March 29, 2016 at 12:16 am

Maryland is where British forces who should have easily taken Baltimore got spooked when their commanding officer Major General Robert Ross was shot dead by snipers at the Battle of North Point, so they turned tail. The result was the American national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner (the naval attack was mainly a feint, but snipers are a bit less poetic than some poor guys getting fired on with bombs and rockets).

Shortly before, the British routed American militia by scaring them with Congreve rockets at the battle of Bladensburg (Maryland), and the British troops walked forward and burnt Washington, D.C. As you can imagine, nothing of value was lost, so Ross went up the Chesapeake to Baltimore to try to do some real damage.

44 dearieme March 28, 2016 at 5:09 am

But Vermont has a song about it. Come to think of it, if you like antediluvian jazz you’ll here the tune “Indiana” more often than strictly necessary.

45 dearieme March 28, 2016 at 5:10 am

Not to forget “Maryland, my Maryland” another old jazz fave.

46 dearieme March 28, 2016 at 5:13 am

Yeah, the Gansu corridor; I’ve known about that since …. well, since I read one of my Xmas presents.

47 dearieme March 28, 2016 at 5:15 am

Darn it: I’ve placed this comment with about the same accuracy as I could muster for the lesser provinces of China. Or the greater, for that matter.

48 Steve Sailer March 28, 2016 at 5:32 am

Larry Bird

49 Steve Sailer March 28, 2016 at 5:34 am
50 Daniel Weber March 28, 2016 at 10:54 am

Woody Boyd.

51 Pshrnk March 28, 2016 at 2:51 pm

David Letterman.

Jim Davis (who has consistently been explaining why Trump is winning and will win)

52 Roger Sweeny March 29, 2016 at 8:16 pm

No, not Jim Davis, the creator of Garfield; Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert.

53 gamma March 28, 2016 at 7:34 am

Indiana was my first choice too, just because whenever I tried to name the 50 states, it was the one I always forgot. Karma being what it is, I live in Indiana now, either as payback or do I can name all 50 without a glitch.

54 dearieme March 28, 2016 at 10:23 am

Wasn’t it 57 according to O?

55 Richard Gadsden March 28, 2016 at 11:28 am

That was places represented in the Democratic Convention. Of which 50 are states, of course, but the others are DC, Democrats Abroad, and the territories.

They’re known in the rules as states…

56 Mikea. March 28, 2016 at 10:32 am

Have you ever seen the basketball movie “Hoosiers” with Gene Hackman and Dennis Hopper?
That’s Indiana. Farms and basketball.

University of Notre Dame is also in Indiana, but as a foreigner, their American football successes are probably less interesting to you.

Also “Gary, Indiana” from “The Music Man.”

Other than that not a lot going on.

57 Brian Donohue March 28, 2016 at 11:58 am

Breaking Away is a great film.

Also, Vonnegut.

58 Ronald Brak March 28, 2016 at 1:42 pm

Mikea, I’ve never seen Hoosiers. We have basketball in Australia, but it’s no where near as popular as in the US. And American football just looks weird to us with all the helmets and pads, but that’s okay. We don’t expect America to look normal.

I will now actually look up Indiana in Wikipedia and see if the article rings any bells…

Nope… My bells remain unrung. But I see Indiana’s Gibson coal Power Station is even a little larger than Australia’s Loy Yang Power Station. (And there’s no truth to the rumour that we called it Loy Yang so people would mistakenly think its carbon emissions belonged to China.)

And I was already vaguely aware there was an auto race in Indiana, but it’s not something I’m very interested in. In fact the horrible organization of racing here in South Australia has put me off it entirely. We have one million square kilometers of land here and they decide to put the car race in that one tiny area of the state where there are actually people to run over.

59 JonFraz March 28, 2016 at 1:43 pm

The Indy 500 (in Indianapolis. the state capital) is probably the most famous thing about Indiana. Not a lot of history happened there, other than the Battle (and massacre) of Tippacanoe.

60 Jeremey Arnold March 28, 2016 at 1:54 pm

MY TIME TO SHINE! As a Hoosier (that’s what we call ourselves in Indiana) allow me to introduce you to America’s most underrated state. Indiana is most known to other Americans as a place where basketball is a religion and a long lasting passion for cars and auto racing.

The Indianapolis 500 is the world’s longest running 500 mile race and is the largest single day sporting event in the world every year, getting between 250 and 350 thousand visitors to Indianapolis every year.

Our obsession with High School basketball is like what you might have heard about with other states like Texas when it comes to High School Football. We produce the most division 1 basketball athletes per capita compared to every other state in the country. We have two highly successful professional sports franchises in the Indianapolis Colts (NFL) and the Indiana Pacers (NBA).

Indiana is a large manufacturing hub and logistics hub for much of the United States. One of our state’s nicknames is “The Crossroads of America” and it shows as nearly every single portion of the national highway system finds it’s way through Indiana at some point. Indiana also has a large and growing biotechnology and medical device sector.

Elkhart Indiana (in the Northeastern part of the state) is famous for the production of RV’s and Musical Instruments and throughout the entire state we have a large agricultural sector that produces corn, soybeans, wheat, and a dozen other things I’m sure you could imagine.

The people of Indiana do suffer from a bit of a confidence problem sometimes because of our location and seeing places like Chicago, Detroit (in its heyday), and Ohio as places that people considered just more important and in response we developed an unfailing politeness for visitors, its a thing we call “Hoosier Hospitality” and its a very real thing. We have a well known reputation in Indianapolis (the state’s capital city) for being able to host big events and generally leaving guests incredibly impressed. Indianapolis hosts the NCAA final four every 5 years, we have hosted one of the most successful super bowls in the last 20 years with universal acclaim, the Indianapolis 500 brings in hundreds of thousands as I said earlier, and we are well known as being sports obsessed in general.

Indiana is also by most accounts one of the ‘geekiest’ or ‘geek friendly’ states in the country and is host to the world’s largest table top hobby gaming convention in the world (Gen Con) every year and we’re becoming well known for our craft beer (or so I’m told… I don’t drink so this means nothing to me but people in the know tell me this is a big deal).

So next time you find yourself wondering about Indiana, just remember this message and if you ever find yourself here, let me know and on behalf of all 6.6 Million of us, I promise to show you all the Hoosier Hospitality you can handle.

61 Thom March 28, 2016 at 3:36 pm

As somebody who made the round-trip between Maryland and Wisconsin probably close to 50 times over a ten year span, I have to say that I always found the Indiana Toll road to be a pleasant break between the miserable highways in Illinois and Ohio.

62 Cabbage March 28, 2016 at 4:20 pm

Indiana’s rest stops are cesspools of misery compared to Ohio’s.

63 prognostication March 28, 2016 at 7:31 pm


64 Steve Sailer March 28, 2016 at 6:20 pm

A lot of famous people, like Cole Porter and Michael Jackson, are _from_ Indiana.

Two time Oscar winner Alexander Payne, an Omaha native, likes to point out all the movie giants from Nebraska: “We have Harold Lloyd, Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, Fred Astaire, Henry Fonda …” The urbane Payne points out that not everybody in Nebraska is a farmer. Payne, for example, grew up around the corner from Warren Buffett.

65 Maximum Liberty March 28, 2016 at 8:06 pm

So, I’ve been to Indiana a few times, and it was nice enough. The people are the soul of decency. As Canada is to reasonableness, Indiana is to decency.

But when the thing that attracts the most foreigners to the state is named after Geneva, Wisconsin, I think we might have a winner.

66 Ronald Brak March 29, 2016 at 2:46 am

Ah, so the Indianapolis 500 is a 500 mile car race. I thought it might have been like a larger version of the Magnificent Seven, except with Indians.

67 Brett March 28, 2016 at 2:16 am

It’s got to be Nebraska. Nebraska is one of the least interesting states in the US: all plains, landlocked, low population among states, not too rich or poor, with a history section on Wikipedia that basically amounts to “they fought the indigenous population for it back in the 19th century”. About the only things I can think of that are special are the unicameral legislature and chimney rock.

68 David Graeme March 28, 2016 at 6:12 am

Ah – but to anyone interested in Stonehenge (which gets well over a million visitors a year), Nebraska is the home, in the western panhandle town of Alliance, of Carhenge. A long, long way from anywhere else, true, but definitely worth the trip (I saw it in 2007). A full-scale, correctly astronomically oriented, reproduction of the monument in Wiltshire, but in old automobiles painted stone-grey. A brilliant piece of public sculpture, and having just revisited Stonehenge this past February, an astonishing evocation of the original.

69 AureliuszKleks March 29, 2016 at 9:09 am

There was film called “Nebraska” nominated to Academy Award maybe two years ago.

70 Prakash March 29, 2016 at 1:30 pm

Penny from the big bang theory is from nebraska. Not sure how many intl viewers remember that, but some might.

71 Igor March 28, 2016 at 2:44 am

As a non-American: definitely not Idaho or Nebraska, they are familiar from movies and have funny names. I’d go with Delaware, Vermont, and probably West Virginia (because there is no East Virginia!).

72 Miguel Madeira March 28, 2016 at 5:28 am

West Virginia has also a famous song.

73 Sbard March 30, 2016 at 12:20 pm

Pretty much every child in China learns “Country Road” as part of their English “education”.

74 ChrisA March 28, 2016 at 2:45 am


Idaho = potatoes, RI = unit of measurement, Wyoming = Cowboys and Sundance, Delaware widely known because of Delaware Corporations , Indianapolis is the home of the Indianapolis 500 and Indy racing, Nebraska is the home of Warren Buffet and Berkshire Hathaway.

75 Clc March 28, 2016 at 3:08 am

Caucases. Every 4 years Iowa is on the globe.

76 Millian March 28, 2016 at 10:07 am

Yeah, if you are well-aware of the US presidential election, which gets a lot of coverage overseas and especially in English-speaking countries, you will have heard of Iowa.

77 Mikea. March 28, 2016 at 10:51 am

Sundance is in Utah?

78 a Fred March 28, 2016 at 2:59 am

No mention of New Hampshire?
Too obscure to even consider?

79 Mark Thorson March 28, 2016 at 11:15 am

I was at lunch once with someone who twice called it “New Hamster”. Corrected her the second time.

80 Doug March 28, 2016 at 5:23 pm

I’d say West Virginia or New Hampshire.

81 Unclemartypants March 28, 2016 at 3:03 am

Chinese provinces are all far too obscure to be distinguished by 99.99% of the the non Asian population. Including myself.

82 Bob from Ohio March 28, 2016 at 10:24 am

It was a trick question. They are all equally obscure.

83 Rex Clevinger March 28, 2016 at 3:24 am

Why do even Americans ask if they need a passport to visit New Mexico?

Another anecdote: I worked on a movie in Las Vegas, New Mexico. The locals told me this story – The bridge over the river there was used in ‘No Country for Old Men’ substituting for the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez border crossing in the movie. Aware of the movie, several tourists would commonly ask that if they crossed that bridge, would they be entering Mexico

84 Baphomet March 28, 2016 at 5:11 am

What is so interesting about that? New Mexico is, after all, adjacent to Mexico.

85 Steve Sailer March 28, 2016 at 6:43 am

There’s a _New_ Mexico?

— Montgomery Berns

86 Rex Clevinger March 28, 2016 at 7:54 am

The fact that even Americans aren’t aware that New Mexico is part of the United States seems to suggest it is most obsure

87 Baphomet March 28, 2016 at 2:14 pm

I meant the story about the bridge.

88 Rex Clevinger March 29, 2016 at 3:58 am

Las Vegas, NM is 508 km from the Mexican border. It is in northern New Mexico and much closer to the state of Colorado.

89 Sbard March 30, 2016 at 12:22 pm

The border in No Country for Old Men was supposed to be Del Rio/Acuna, not El Paso/Juarez.

90 Aaron J March 28, 2016 at 3:39 am

I do know most Chinese provinces, but have never heard of Ningxia. So probably a legit guess.

91 RM March 28, 2016 at 3:58 am

Yes to Idaho. But as an American who drives as lot, Idaho is actually very interesting — its got a culture, accent, regional cooking, etc.

The state that I hate driving through the most is Indiana. I often wonder why they bothered to make it. Is there anything distinctive about Indiana?

92 Jan March 28, 2016 at 6:13 am

Basketball, Gary is well-known for being crappy, the Indy 500, Notre Dame.

93 Gary March 28, 2016 at 10:36 am

I’ll see you outside.

94 Mikea. March 28, 2016 at 10:52 am

I feel that way about Oklahoma. Driving diagonally across Oklahoma is like pulling teeth.

95 JonFraz March 28, 2016 at 1:53 pm

Done lots of road trips – and nothing is more of a snooze than the drive, in Canada, from Lloydminster down to Regina in Saskatchwan. It makes Kansas look crowded. Every so often there’s a sign: “Middle-of-no-where-ville, 3 Km”. And when you get there the place consists of three houses, a grain elevator and a fuel tank.
In the US, the drive across west Texas, Dallas to El Paso, is another howling bore. Though the one time I did it the unpleasantness was enhanced by the weather (chilly and drizzly) and my condition (moderately hungover).

96 Maximum Liberty March 28, 2016 at 8:03 pm

In college, I learned to my eternal dismay that the halfway point from Los Angeles, California to Austin, Texas is pretty much El Paso. Google tells you it is 12 hours from LA to El Paso, then 9 to Austin, but it fails to account for the temporal distortion caused by the soul-sucking sameness of the landscape. I know it always took us 18-20 hours, and El Paso was halfway.

97 Jeremey Arnold March 28, 2016 at 1:59 pm

Driving through Indiana doesn’t even take that long… You must not have driven on I-70 west bound through Kansas after you get past Topeka… that… THAT is the worst place to drive through in the whole country possibly… and on behalf of Hoosiers everywhere… yes… we have… stuff… we like our stuff… leave us alone…

98 mkt42 March 28, 2016 at 2:09 pm

Yeah, Indiana’s not exactly a top tourist destination. When I drove through it, I did stop at the Indiana Dunes lakeshore, which can be extra interesting because the lake’s level periodically rises and falls and when I was there the lake was at a high level, causing some houses and streets to be underwater.

If you work in higher education, Indianapolis turns out to be a major location, and there’s a good chance you will end up traveling there at some point. Thankfully the downtown was renovated and re-energized some time ago so it’s not a bad place to travel to. Not great but not bad.

As someone else mentioned, “Breaking Away” is a wonderful movie, with scenes in the abandoned rock quarries used as swimming holes by the locals.

Slim pickings after that. If one is a fan of Indy car auto racing or Note Dame football, there’s that. There’s also basketball and the movie “Hoosiers” but those are elements of local culture and history, they aren’t physical places for a visitor to go see.

Oh wait, there is a place: the small town of Columbus, Indiana. Which I’d never heard of until I read a NY Times article about its truly remarkable set of houses and buildings designed by superstar architects. Saarinen, Pei, etc. as well as public art by Henry Moore, Chihuly, etc. If you have even just a middling interest in architecture, Columbus lives up to its advertising and is definitely worth a visit. It deserves to be better known.

99 Mr. Econotarian March 29, 2016 at 12:20 am

Indiana is a good place to buy fireworks.

100 Adrian Ratnapala March 28, 2016 at 4:05 am

I am pleased that the abbreviations for many of the province names are the names of ancient storied realms, rather than being based phonetically on the modern name.

To what extent are the modern official province names traditional and to what extent are they political inventions made the last century (e.g. “Mumbai” in India is somewhat of an invention of Maratha nationalists). If some of them recent inventions, to what extent is the official name used in ordinary speech?

101 Jørgen March 28, 2016 at 4:17 am

Gansu can’t be the most obscure Chinese province, at least not to Westerners, too important in Eurasian history https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gansu_Corridor .

102 Miguel Madeira March 28, 2016 at 5:35 am

A thing about the US states is that many of the less populated states are the biggest in the map, meaning that neither (the small, overpopulated states and the big, underpopulated states) are particularly obscure.

Probably the more obscure could be the more rural states of New England (small and with low population), like Vermont, Maine or New Hampshire, and even that have some things that rescue them from total obscurity (the stories of Stephan King, the role of NH in the primaries, and now Bernie Sanders).

103 Matthew Moore March 28, 2016 at 5:56 am

Just looked at a map. ‘Maryland’ was a surprise, did not know that was a state. I had heard of every other.

104 Mikea. March 28, 2016 at 10:55 am

Maryland has the best state flag and is home to Baltimore perhaps best known as the murder and drug-infested hellhole as portrayed in the HBO original series “The Wire”

105 Millian March 28, 2016 at 11:05 am

I feel it’s worth drawing a distinction here. We’ve heard of Chicago, Detroit, and maybe Baltimore if we watch recent American TV drama. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we know they are in states called Illinois, Michigan, and Maryland.

106 Melmoth March 28, 2016 at 7:24 am

I vote Qinghai as the most obscure province. Everyone has heard of Tibet but no-one knows Qinghai. I get somewhat tired of trying to explain it as ‘Tibet, but not Tibet as China defines it’. I’ve heard it referred to also as China’s gulag. Overall though I’m a big fan of dusty god forsaken western Chinese provinces.

107 Mondfledermaus March 28, 2016 at 10:44 am

Can’t be that obscure

Of the top of mind I can recall a couple Awesome songs regarding Lake Qinghai



108 Ouzani March 28, 2016 at 7:28 am

For non-americans, it is definitely not Nebraska or another Mid-western state. Every English school book has a section about Nebraska because of “how boring it is”. Delaware is also known to those Europeans who have studied business or law…

Before Bill Clinton it was definitely Arkansas… Now I am not too sure.
Its between those states: Vermont (before Bernie), Maine, New Hampshire, Idaho.

109 8 March 28, 2016 at 7:33 am

Without that spelling of Shaanxi, there would be two provinces named Shanxi. At least a few foreign publishers would neglect to add the tone marker and even with it, foreigners wouldn’t know how to pronounce it. It also doesn’t help that the terra cotta warriors are in Xi’an, which has to be written that way to clearly signify it is two separate words, and not Xian, which is a separate word.

Ningxia is obscure. Qinghai is also obscure and doesn’t bring to mind a minority group. Hainan is pretty obscure and doesn’t fit the Western conception of China. If you asked Chinese they would of course say foreigners think Taiwan is the most obscure Chinese province.

110 Hoosier March 28, 2016 at 7:56 am

I’d put Iowa on the list for most obscure if it wasn’t for the presidential caucuses. At least Nebraska has a western vibe to it and a great college football team. Iowa is just corn.

I suppose Indiana is similar but it’s got a fairly popular movie named after it and sports fans at least know it for basketball.

Illinois would be the same as Iowa if it weren’t for Chicago.

111 Mikea. March 28, 2016 at 10:56 am

Nebraska hasn’t had a great football team in 20 years.

112 Hoosier March 29, 2016 at 8:12 am

Sure, but they’re still living off the glory days. And when Nebraska was good they dominated. The only sport Iowa ever won any championships in was wrestling.

113 Christine March 28, 2016 at 8:32 am

I’m surprised so many mention Vermont. It’s on the Monopoly board!

114 Miguel Madeira March 28, 2016 at 8:52 am

Not for the international audience.

115 JonFraz March 28, 2016 at 2:01 pm

Well right now, it’s going to get its share of mention due to Bernie Sanders. Otherwise all it really is known for are some ski resorts.

116 Andrew Clough March 28, 2016 at 8:33 am

It can’t be that obscure. When I saw the post title on twitter I thought, “Well, Shaanxi is just like Shanxi but with an extra a and that’s sort of weird” but that’s the sort of thing that makes you remember a province and I could only name around 2/5 of China’s provinces. If we’re going for obscure I’d do Heilongjiang since that hasn’t been part of China for a lot of China’s history and doesn’t feature in any current conflicts.

117 kb March 28, 2016 at 8:45 am

As a west coast native, I would say everything to the east of the Mississippi is obscure or at least obfuscated (I could say boring–but there is New York)

118 Lach March 28, 2016 at 8:55 am

My vote would be for either Ningxia because it’s small and obscure or Qinghai 青海 because it’s really big, but still obscure’ and a “proper” Province 省. (Qinghai’s the big internal province to the west of Ningxia).

119 Scott Sumner March 28, 2016 at 9:03 am

I immediately thought of Ningxia, so that’s a good choice. Since westerners know so little about China, the more interesting question is which province name, not including independent cities like Beijing and Shanghai, is most recognizable in the West. Maybe Tibet. But Tibet is not the actual Chinese name (which is Xizang), so that doesn’t count. Guangdong is big in the international business world, but that’s a small world. Sichuan is pretty well known because of the cuisine.

Taiwan it might be even more well known, but many westerners don’t know that it’s technically part of China (according to both the Mainland and Taiwanese constitutions.)

Ningxia would also be obscure to Chinese people, which makes it an especially good choice.

120 IVV March 28, 2016 at 9:18 am

Are we sure it isn’t something like Heilongjiang? I’d imagine many westerners looking at the map and asking, “Where’s Manchuria?”

121 Millian March 28, 2016 at 10:04 am

As an outsider to the US, we probably know the ones that are physically large and prominent from the settler/Wild West culture of the 19th century, like Nebraska and Idaho. Actually, I guess the most obscure ones are small north- and mid-Atlantic states. Maine, also Rhode Island. I’d guess most of us would struggle to colour in Maryland on a map.

122 Millian March 28, 2016 at 10:19 am

Least obscure to an outsider by far: New York, then California. Then Texas and Florida. Thus ends the baseline knowledge of a European of moderate education and life experience.

Then the Deep South states have the Civil War and Civil Rights; the others have Elvis, horseracing and bourbon, and that one song about country roads. The Western states have Western movies and Mormons, and we know one state is named after Washington. In New England, Massachusetts and New Hampshire are well-known for their politics. New Jersey has Bruce. In the mid-west we hear about Iowa every four years but we don’t know much about Minnesota or Wisconsin. A lot more non-Americans will have heard of Detroit than those who will know it is in Michigan, and to some extent Chicago / Illinois is similar.

123 brad March 28, 2016 at 10:42 am

Delaware is a famous state of incorporation. I know that’s a thin reed, but it is something. Similarly with Oklahoma and the musical. New Hampshire and Iowa get in the news every four years in the Presidential race.

In what context would a foreigner have ever heard of West Virginia or New Mexico?

124 Joël March 28, 2016 at 10:51 am

New Mexico is the state where Breaking bad takes place. Many foreigners have seen this shows. It has also as the same name as a big country that everyone knows, and this is enough to make it well-known because kids are told “don’t make confusion between New Mexico, a state in the US”, and Mexico, a country south of it.

125 Millian March 28, 2016 at 11:08 am

Country Roads

126 Joël March 28, 2016 at 10:48 am

Not Idaho, as the name is known because of the movie “my own private Idaho”.

Maine, which was proposed above, is well-known in many ways, for example because many world-wide best-selles by Stephen King or by John Irving take place there. It has also an interesting history, and the same name as a river in France, which contributes a little bit, al least in francophone countries, to its notoriety. A similar thing plays in favor of Georgia, which is quasi-homonym of the country of origin of Stalin, and is made better known by that, if only for the sake of avoiding confusion.

Nebraska is probably the most obscure. Oklahoma is a good contender to.

127 Millian March 28, 2016 at 11:11 am

We outsiders may have heard of The Shining, but we largely don’t know that Stephen King books are set in Maine.

I think there is a clash of paradigms here between States that are famous, and States that are home to famous things. Detroit – Motown, Eminem, maybe techno – we know about this stuff. We don’t necessarily know that Detroit is in a state called Michigan. But I guarantee you that Mississippi would be in the top-ten well-known states, and that many respondents could not tell you what exactly Mississippi is famous for, apart from being named after a big river.

128 JonFraz March 28, 2016 at 2:05 pm

King’s first blockbuster, “Carrie” was set there. And a number of others after that, but “The Shining” takes place in Colorado.

129 Ronald Brak March 28, 2016 at 8:11 pm

There’s a state called Michigan? I think we have a new winner for state most obscure to foreigners.

130 JonFraz March 28, 2016 at 2:04 pm

Georgia probably is known because of Gone With The Wind and Sherman’s March.

131 JonFraz March 28, 2016 at 2:07 pm

Is “Georgia” the country called that in languages other than English? I know it’s “Gruzia” in Russian. And something like “Kartveli” in its own language.

132 Phil March 28, 2016 at 11:00 am

Ningxia is becoming increasingly known for wine so that might disqualify it. I’ve read a few FT articles over the years about the Ningxia wine industry.

133 Former Kansan March 28, 2016 at 11:07 am

The most obscure state is Kansas. In fact it’s claim to fame is obscurity, summarized in the quote from the Wizard of Oz: “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” This is to say, “We have left nowhere and are now somewhere.” Kansas is a metaphor for being a place where nothing happens, where nothing is created or destroyed, where nothing is dangerous. Obscurity means the absence of danger or novelty.

134 Excursive March 28, 2016 at 5:40 pm

Is the movie itself enough to disqualify Kansas?

Anyway, I think Delaware. Being a state in which to incorporate is too thin.

Oklahoma…the musical, Will Rodgers, The Grapes of Wrath.

135 Scott March 28, 2016 at 7:51 pm

That may have been true when that line was written. No longer.

136 Matt Schiavenza March 28, 2016 at 12:02 pm

The most obscure Chinese province, I say, is Anhui. It’s not a coastal province, but it isn’t really central either. It doesn’t have a famous cuisine, like Hunan or Sichuan. Or, like Hunan, a famous native son (Chairman Mao). Jiangxi is likewise obscure, but it played a central role in modern Chinese history as the origin of the Long March and the original base of the Communists. Ningxia and Gansu’s desert landscapes actually make them popular tourist destinations among Chinese people. Not so Anhui. It isn’t rich, like Guangdong, or poor, like Guizhou. It doesn’t have dramatic scenery, like Guangxi. It’s just kind of there.

137 mkt42 March 28, 2016 at 2:19 pm

It’s a good argument, but I’ve actually heard of Anhui and recognize it as the name of a Chinese province. Whereas I’d never heard of Ningxia (or probably I have, but forgot). Actually there are others whose names I’d forgotten: Gansu, Heilongjiang (though I certain do recognize the name of the city Harbin), Qinghai, Liaoning, etc.

138 Paul Minard March 28, 2016 at 12:28 pm

For most Chinese, the whole ring along the western border is obscure. Yunnan is a bit famous for tourism, but Tibet, Xinjiang, Gansu, etc. might as well be the moon for most people.

139 stubydoo March 28, 2016 at 7:11 pm

West Virginia. The geographical features that are mentioned in that John Denver song aren’t even in the state, yet the West Virginia State Legislator still went and declared it the official state song. Such a great message to send to potential visitors.

140 Ohioan March 28, 2016 at 7:49 pm

As an Ohioan, when I lived in Canada, the Canadians regularly confused Ohio, Iowa and Idaho. Short names, lots of vowels.

In contrast, when I lived in Germany, most Germans immediately recognized Ohio as Cleveland’s state.

141 dux.ie March 28, 2016 at 8:37 pm

Re: Shandong 山東

“Belonging to the state of Lu in the Spring and Autumn Period, Shandong is known by the single-character shorthand 魯 Lu.”

Wrong. Shandong is the former Qi state https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qi_%28state%29 which was awarded to the commander in chief (Jiang Ziya https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jiang_Ziya) of the Zhou army which overthrown the Shang dynasty. Jiang ZIya was from the Jiang people who allied and intermarried with the Ji people to form the Zhou dynasty.

The state of Lu can be seen from the map to be different https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lu_%28state%29 . Lu state was awarded to a clan member of the Ji people.

142 Dan King March 28, 2016 at 10:55 pm

My wife, when she first came to this country, thought Chicago was in Chicago, for the same reason that New York is in New York. She’d never heard of Illinois.

143 Ronald Brak March 28, 2016 at 11:06 pm

I can state that, as a foreigner, Chicago definitely sucks up all of Illinois rep and as a result we are hardly aware that Illinois exists. In fact, my impression is that Illinois consists entirely of Chicago + corn. (And this is after having been there.)

144 berliner2 March 29, 2016 at 4:49 am

I nominate Delaware. It goes by so quickly on the Acela to D.C., you don’t notice, unless you already know it’s there.

145 Brad March 29, 2016 at 10:49 am

Ningxia should be better known, Hui food is delicious.

146 Andao March 29, 2016 at 12:15 pm

I’m gonna say Washington. For many foreigners I’ve spoken with, they don’t realize Washington DC and Washington state are different, and located at completely opposite ends of the country. Sure, everyone knows Seattle, but the two Washingtons are confusing.

Otherwise I definitely pick Maine. You don’t drive through it to get anywhere, ever, and I’ve never personally met a Maine-ite. I guess they have lobsters, but how many foreigners know that?

For China, I also pick Ningxia. Gansu has famous cuisine from Lanzhou that all Chinese would be familiar with, at least.

147 Nigel March 29, 2016 at 7:05 pm

(Didn’t Fred Astaire come from Nebraska ?)

Got to be Wyoming, surely ?
Google ‘Wyoming in popular culture’, and you get virtually nothing compared to its competition.
It’s almost empty, with the area of a mid sized European country and the population of a mid sized town… and is bordered almost entirely by runners-up for most obscure state, so even if you tried to leave, you’d still be in the middle of nowhere.
And it’s a one of only three states for US land based nuclear missiles – which gives some idea of the value the government puts on it.

148 Peter Akuleyev March 30, 2016 at 2:53 am

The most obscure state is Algonquit. No one here has even mentioned it, and even most Americans don’t know where it is.

149 Patrick March 30, 2016 at 11:56 am

The answer is Nebraska. Don’t come here…nothing to see here. Stay where you are at….that is just fine with us.

150 Daniel Barkalow March 30, 2016 at 6:03 pm

Kentucky, based on the fact that (a) it’s not well known, but (b) nobody’s even suggested it as an obscure state. The only things I can think of to attract attention are the Kentucky Derby (center of a sport even more internationally obscure than NASCAR) and Kentucky Fried Chicken, which could just as easily be named after a person (like McDonald’s) or based on a combination of obscure words (like Pepsi).

151 mkt42 March 30, 2016 at 6:14 pm

A good observation, although potentially people outside the US might think of Fort Knox and the gold therein, and/or bourbon whisky.

152 P A March 30, 2016 at 11:52 pm

Non-American here: Why is nobody pointing out Wisconsin? You almost never hear about it outside the US.

Here are my top 10 in no particular order: Maine, Rhode Island, Vermont, Delaware, West Virginia, Idaho, Iowa, Nebraska, Arkansas, Wisconsin.

Why not the Dakotas? Because Fargo and Mount Rushmore.

Why not Wyoming and Montana? Because Westerns.

Kentucky??? No way. KFC and Wild Turkey are pretty well-known.

153 Matt M April 1, 2016 at 11:21 am

North Dakota has been in the news a lot for fracking. I’d agree on Iowa.

154 Steve March 30, 2016 at 11:55 pm

We have a summer class on urban economics that I TAed for. The professor made a question about Nevada and asked how the invention of AC would impact demand for housing there. All the students were like “what is Nevada?”

No one else mentioned it, which contributes to the fact that its an unknown. I know people have heard of Vegas but wouldn’t associate it with the state.

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