China (中国; Zhōngguó), officially known as the People’s Republic of China (中华人民共和国 Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó) is a huge country in Eastern Asia (about the same size as the United States of America) with the world’s largest population.
With coasts on the East China Sea, Korea Bay, Yellow Sea, and South China Sea, in total it borders 14 nations. It borders Afghanistan, Pakistan (through the disputed territory of Kashmir), India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam to the south; Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to the west; Russia and Mongolia to the north and North Korea to the east. This number of neighbouring states is equalled only by China’s vast neighbour to the north, Russia.
This article only covers mainland China.
“I am not one who was born in the possession of knowledge. I am one who is fond of antiquity, and earnest in seeking it there.” — Confucius
The roughly 5000-year old Chinese civilization has endured through millennia of tumultuous upheaval and revolutions, periods of golden ages and anarchy alike. Through the recent economic boom initiated by the reforms of Deng Xiaoping, China is once again one of the leading nations in the world, buoyed by its large, industrious population and abundant natural resources. The depth and complexity of the Chinese civilization, with its rich heritage, has fascinated Westerners such as Marco Polo and Gottfried Leibniz through the Great Silk Road and more ways of culture exchange in centuries past, and will continue to excite – and bewilder – the traveler today.
The recorded history of Chinese civilization can be traced to the Yellow River valley, said to be the ‘cradle of Chinese civilization’. The Xia Dynasty was the first dynasty to be described in ancient historical chronicles, though to date, no concrete proof of its existence has been found. Nevertheless, archaeological evidence has shown that at the very least, an early bronze age Chinese civilization had developed by the period described.
The Shang Dynasty, China’s first historically confirmed dynasty, and the Zhou Dynasty ruled across the Yellow River basin. The Zhou adopted a decentralized system of government, in which the feudal lords ruled over their respective territories with a high degree of autonomy, even maintaining their own armies, while at the same time paying tribute to the king and recognizing him as the symbolic ruler of China. It was also the longest ruling dynasty in Chinese history, lasting about 800 years. Despite this longevity, during the second half of the Zhou period, China descended into centuries of political turmoil, with the feudal lords of numerous small fiefdoms vying for power during the Spring and Autumn Period, and later stabilized into seven large states in the Warring States period. This tumultuous period gave birth to China’s greatest thinkers including Confucius, Mencius and Laozi, who made substantial contributions to Chinese thought and culture.
China was eventually unified in 221 BC by Qin Shi Huang, the ‘First Emperor’, and the Qin Dynasty instituted a centralized system of government for all of China, and standardized weights and measures, Chinese characters and currency in order to create unity. Until today, the ideal of a unified and strong centralized system is still strong in Chinese thought. However, due to despotic and harsh rule, the Qin dynasty lasted for only 15 years as the Han Dynasty took over in 206BC after a period of revolt. With the invention of paper and extensive trade with the West along the Silk Road, along with relatively benevolent imperial rule, the Han was the first golden age of Chinese civilization. Ethnic Chinese consider themselves to be part of the ‘Han’ race till this day.
The collapse of the Han Dynasty in 220 CE led to a period of political turmoil and war known as the Three Kingdoms Period, which saw China split into the three separate states of Wei, Shu and Wu. Despite lasting for only about 60 years, it is a highly romanticised period of Chinese history. China was then briefly reunified under the Jin Dynasty, before descending into a period of division and anarchy once again. The era of division culminated with the Sui which reunified China in 581. The Sui were famous for major public works projects, such as the engineering feat of the Grand Canal, which linked Beijing in the north to Hangzhou in the south. Certain sections of the canal are still navigable today.
Bankrupted by war and excess government spending, the Sui were supplanted by the Tang Dynasty, ushering in the second golden age of Chinese civilization, marked by a flowering of Chinese poetry, Buddhism and statecraft, and also saw the development of the Imperial Examination system which attempted to select court officials by ability rather than family background. Chinatowns overseas are often known as “Street of the Tang People” (唐人街 Tángrén jiē) in Chinese. The collapse of the Tang Dynasty then saw China divided once again, until it was reunified by the Song Dynasty, this collapse was preceded by the secession and independence of Vietnam in 938 CE. The Song ruled over most of China for over 150 years before being driven south of the Huai river by the Jurchens, were they continued to rule as the Southern Song, and although militarily weak, attained a level of commercial and economic development unmatched until the West’s Industrial Revolution. The Yuan (Mongol) dynasty first defeated the Jurchens, then proceeded to conquer the Song in 1279, and ruled their vast Eurasian empire from modern-day Beijing.
After defeating the Mongols, the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) re-instituted rule by ethnic Han. The Ming period was noted for trade and exploration, with Zheng He’s numerous voyages to Southeast Asia, India and the Arab world. Initial contact with European traders meant China gradually reaped the fruits of the Colombian exchange, with silver pouring in by the galleon through trade with the Portuguese and Spanish. Famous buildings in Beijing, such as the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven, were built in this period. The last dynasty of the Qing (Manchu) dynasty (1644-1911), saw the Chinese empire grow to its current size, incorporating the western regions of Xinjiang and Tibet. The Qing dynasty fell into decay in its final years to become the ‘sick man of Asia’, where it was nibbled apart by Western powers. The Westerners established their own treaty ports in Guangzhou, Shanghai and Tianjin. China lost several territories to foreign powers; Hong Kong and Weihai were ceded to Britain, Taiwan and Liaodong were to Japan, parts of the North East including Dalian and parts of Outer Manchuria to Russia, while Qingdao was ceded to Germany. Shanghai was divided among China and eight different countries. In addition, China lost control of its tributaties, with Korea and the Ryukyu Islands ceded to Japan.
The Republic and WWII
The two thousand-year old imperial system collapsed in 1911, where Sun Yat-Sen (孙中山, Sūn Zhōngshān) founded the Republic of China (中华民国 Zhōnghuá Mínguó). Central rule collapsed in 1916 after Yuan Shih-kai, the second president of the Republic and self-declared emperor, passed away; China descended into anarchy, with various self-serving warlords ruling over different regions of China. In 1919, student protests in Beijing gave birth to the “May Fourth Movement” (五四运动 Wǔ Sì Yùndòng), which espoused various reforms to Chinese society, such as the use of the vernacular in writing, as well as the development of science and democracy. The intellectual ferment of the May Fourth Movement gave birth to the reorganized Kuomintang (KMT) in 1919 and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the French Concession in Shanghai, 1921.
After uniting much of eastern China under KMT rule in 1928, the CCP and the KMT turned on each other, with the CCP fleeing to Yan’an in Shaanxi in the epic Long March. During the period from 1922 to 1937, The eastern provinces of China grew economically under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek and his KMT government, with marked economic expansion, industrialization and urbanization. Shanghai became a truly cosmopolitan city, as one of the world’s busiest ports, and the most prosperous city in East Asia, home to millions of Chinese and 60,000 foreigners from all corners of the globe. However, underlying problems throughout the vast country side, particularly the more inland parts of the country, such as civil unrest, famines and warlord conflict, still remained.
Japan established a puppet state under the name Manchukuo in Manchuria in 1931, and launched a full-scale invasion of China’s heartland in 1937. The Japanese initiated a brutal system of rule in Eastern China, culminating in the Nanjing Massacre of 1937. After fleeing west to Chongqing, the KMT realized the urgency of the situation signed a tenuous agreement with the CCP to form a second united front against the Japanese. With the defeat of Japan in 1945, the KMT and CCP armies maneuvered for positions in north China, setting the stage for the civil war in the years to come. The civil war lasted from 1946 to 1949 and ended with the Kuomintang defeated and sent packing to Taiwan where they hoped to re-establish themselves and recapture the mainland some day.
A Red China
Mao Zedong officially declared the establishment of the People’s Republic of China on 1 Oct 1949. The new Communist government implemented strong measures to restore law and order and revive industrial, agricultural and commercial institutions reeling from more than a decade of war. By 1955, China’s economy had returned to pre-war levels of output as factories, farms, labor unions, civil society and governance were brought under Party control. After an initial period closely hewing to the Soviet model of heavy industrialization and comprehensive central economic planning, China began to experiment with adapting Marxism to a largely agrarian society.
Massive social experiments such as the Hundred Flowers Campaign (百花运动 bǎihuā yùndòng), the Great Leap Forward (大跃进 dàyuèjìn), intended to collectivize and industrialize China quickly, and the Cultural Revolution (无产阶级文化大革命 wúchǎn jiējí wénhuà dà gémìng), aimed at changing everything by discipline, destruction of the “Four Olds,” and total dedication to Mao Zedong Thought, rocked China from 1957 to 1976. The Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution are generally considered disastrous failures in China. During the Cultural Revolution in particular, China’s cultural heritage, including monuments, temples, historical artifacts, and works of literature sustained catastrophic damage at the hands of Red Guard factions. It was only due to the intervention of Zhou Enlai and the PLA that major sites, such as the Potala Palace, the Mogao Caves, and the Forbidden City escaped destruction during the Cultural Revolution.
Mao Zedong died in 1976, and in 1978, Deng Xiaoping became China’s paramount leader. Deng and his lieutenants gradually introduced market-oriented reforms and decentralized economic decision making. Economic output quadrupled by 2000 and continues to grow by 8-10% per year, but huge problems remain — bouts of serious inflation, regional income inequality, human rights abuses, ethnic unrest, massive pollution, rural poverty and corruption. While the larger cities near the coast like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou have grown to become rich and modern, many of the more inland and rural parts of the country remain poor and underdeveloped. The former General Secretary of the Communist Party, Hu Jintao, has proclaimed a policy for a “Harmonious Society” (和谐社会 héxié shèhuì) which promises to restore balanced economic growth and channel investment and prosperity into China’s central and western provinces, which have been largely left behind in the post-1978 economic boom. The current General Secretary of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, have pursued an ambitious policy of social reform, particularly income redistribution, poverty relief, and environmental improvements. Furthermore, a highly ambitious crackdown on corruption started by the previous administration has only been expanded. Growth in China has finally slowed down in recent years and seems to be leveling off.
China is a single-party socialist state ruled by the Communist Party of China. China has actually only experienced one open nation-wide election, in 1912. The government consists of an executive branch known as the State Council (国务院 Guó Wù Yuàn), as well as a unicameral legislature known as the National People’s Congress (全国人民代表大会 Quánguó Rénmín Dàibiǎo Dàhuì). The nominal Head of State is the President (主席 zhǔxí, lit chairman) which is a largely ceremonial office with limited powers and the Head of Government is the Premier (总理 zǒnglǐ). In practice, while neither one holds absolute power, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China holds the most power, while the Premier of the State Council is the second most powerful person in the country.
The country is administratively divided into 22 provinces, 5 autonomous regions and 4 directly-controlled municipalities. Each of the provincial governments is given power over the internal, often economic, affairs of their provinces. Autonomous regions are given more freedom than regular provinces, one example of which is the right to declare additional official languages in the region besides Mandarin. In addition, there are the Special Administrative Regions (SAR) of Hong Kong and Macau. Both Hong Kong and Macau have separate legal systems and immigration departments from the mainland, and are given the freedom to enact laws separately from the mainland. Their political systems are more open and directly electoral in nature. Taiwan is also claimed by the PRC as a province, though no part of Taiwan is currently under the control of the PRC. Both governments support re-unification in principle and recently signed a trade pact to closer link their economies, essentially removing the danger of war.
People and Habits
China is a very diverse place with large variations in culture, language, customs and economic levels. The economic landscape is particularly diverse. The major cities such as Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai are modern and comparatively wealthy. However, about 50% of Chinese still live in rural areas even though only 10% of China’s land is arable. Hundreds of millions of rural residents still farm with manual labour or draft animals. Some 200 to 300 million former peasants have migrated to townships and cities in search of work. Government estimates for 2005 reported that 90 million people lived on less than ¥924 a year and 26 million were under the official poverty line of ¥668 a year. Generally the southern and eastern coastal regions are more wealthy while inland areas, the far west and north, and the southwest are much much less developed.
The cultural landscape is unsurprisingly very diverse given the sheer size of the country. China has 56 officially recognized ethnic groups; the largest by far is the Han which comprise over 90% of the population. The other 55 groups enjoy affirmative action for university admission and exemption from the one-child policy. The Han, however, are far from homogeneous and speak a wide variety of mutually unintelligible local “dialects”; which most linguists actually classify as different languages using more or less the same set of Chinese characters. Many of the minority ethnic groups have their own languages as well. Contrary to popular belief, there is no single unified Han Chinese culture, and while they share certain common elements such as Confucian and Taoist beliefs, the regional variations in culture among the Han ethnic group are actually very diverse. Many customs and deities are specific to individual regions and even villages. Celebrations for the lunar new year and other national festivals vary drastically from region to region. Specific customs related to the celebration of important occasions such as weddings, funerals and births also vary widely. In general contemporary urban Chinese society is rather secular and traditional culture is more of an underlying current in every day life. Among ethnic minorities, the Zhuang, Manchu, Hui and Miao are the largest in size. Other notable ethnic minorities include: Koreans, Tibetans, Mongols, Uighurs, Kirghiz and even Russians. In fact, China is home to the largest Korean population outside Korea and is also home to more ethnic Mongols than the Republic of Mongolia itself. Many minorities have been assimilated to various degrees with the loss of language and customs or a fusing with Han traditions. An exception to this trend is the current situation of the Tibetans and Uighurs in China who remain fiercely defensive of their cultures.
Some behaviours that are quite normal in China may be somewhat jarring and vulgar for foreigners:
No spitting please
Spitting: in the street, shops, supermarkets, hotel lobbies, hallways, restaurants, on buses and even in hospitals. Traditional Chinese medical thought believes it is unhealthy to swallow phlegm. Spitting has declined considerably in more developed urban areas like Beijing and Shanghai since the SARS epidemic of 2002. However, in other areas the habit persists to varying degrees, from moderate to ever-present.
Smoking: almost anywhere, including areas with “no smoking signs” including health clubs, football pitches and even hospitals. Few restaurants have no smoking areas although Beijing now forbids smoking in most restaurants. Enforcement of smoking bans can vary but with the exception of Hong Kong, they most likely will not be. Lower class establishments often do not even have ashtrays. Western restaurants seem to be the only ones who consistently enforce the ban. Masks would be good idea for long distance bus trips. It is perfectly common for someone to smoke in a lift, restroom, in a massage parlor, even in the hospital. If your country of origin has banned smoking in most public places, then this aspect of China may be shocking.
Anyone who does not look Chinese will find that calls of “hello” or “laowai” are common: lǎowài (老外) literally means “old outsider”, a colloquial term for “foreigner”; the more formal term is wàiguórén (外国人). Calls of “laowai” are ubiquitous outside of the big cities (and even there, occasionally); these calls will come from just about anyone, of any age, and are even more likely from the very young and can occur many times in any given day. Dark skin discrimination is quite a common issue to deal with in China.
Staring: This is common through most of the country. The staring usually originates out of sheer curiosity, almost never out of hostility. Don’t be surprised if someone comes right up to you and just looks as if they are watching the TV, no harm done!
Drinking: It is quite common for older members to toast younger members when eating. It is considered extremely disrespectful to turn down the toast, even in good faith.
Loud conversations, noise, discussions or public arguments: These are very common. Many mainland Chinese speak very loudly in public (including in the early mornings) and it may be one of the first things you notice upon arrival. Loud speech usually does not mean that the speaker is angry or engaged in an argument (although obviously it can). Full-blown fights involving physical violence are not very common, but they do occur. If you witness such an event, leave the vicinity and do not get involved. Foreigners are almost never targets in China and you will either be treated with respect or just ignored provided you don’t act recklessly. The majority of violence or disrespect directed towards foreigners comes in the form of passive aggressive comments or in being grossly overcharged for pretty much everything. Noise means life, and China is rooted in a community based culture, so you may want to bring earplugs for long bus or train rides!
Pushing, shoving and/or jumping queues: This often occurs anywhere where there are queues, (or lack thereof) particularly at train stations. Again, often there simply are no queues at all. Therefore, queue jumping is a major problem in China. Best bet is to pick a line that looks like its moving or just wait for everyone to get on or off the bus or train first but you may be left behind! Keep in mind that the concept of personal space more or less does not exist in China. It is perfectly common and acceptable behaviour for someone to come in very close contact with you or to bump into you and say nothing. Don’t get mad as they will be surprised and most likely won’t even understand why you are offended!
General disregard of city, provincial and/or national rules, regulations and laws. This includes (among many other things) dangerous and negligent driving, (see Driving in China) that includes excessive speeding, not using head lights at night, lack of use of turn signals, and driving on the wrong side of the street, jaywalking, and smoking in non-smoking areas or defiance of smoking bans.
Sanitation: Many Chinese do not cover their mouths when they sneeze. Also, it is not uncommon for small children (2-4 years old) to eliminate their waste in public (in bushes, on public sidewalks, even in train stations).
Some long-time foreign residents say such behaviours are getting worse; others say the opposite. The cause is usually attributed to the influx of millions of migrants from the countryside who are unfamiliar with big city life. Some department stores place attendants at the foot of each escalator to keep folks from stopping to have a look-see as soon as they get off – when the escalator behind them is fully packed.
On the whole, however, the Chinese love a good laugh and because there are so many ethnic groups and outsiders from other regions, they are used to different ways of doing things and are quite okay with that (in tier one and tier two cities at least). Indeed the Chinese often make conversation with strangers by discussing differences in accent or dialect. They are very used to sign language and quick to see a non-verbal joke or pun wherever they can spot one. Note that a laugh doesn’t necessarily mean scorn, just amusement. The Chinese like a “collective good laugh” often at times or circumstances that westerners might consider rude. Finally, the Chinese love and adore children, allow them a great deal of freedom, and heap attention upon them. If you have children, bring them!
In general, 3, 6, 8, and 9 are lucky numbers for most of the Chinese. “Three” means “high above shine the three stars” while the three stars include gods of fortune, prosperity and longevity. “Six” represents smoothness or success. Many young people choose the dates with “six” as their wedding days, such as the 6th, 16th and 26th. “Eight” sounds so close to the word for wealth that many people believe eight is a number that is linked to prosperity. So it is no surprise that the opening ceremony for the Olympics started at 8:08:08 on 08/08/2008. “Nine” is also regarded as a lucky number with the meaning of everlasting.
“Four” is a taboo for most Chinese because the pronunciation in Mandarin is close to “death”. Some hotels will have their floor numbers go straight from three to five much like some American hotels have their floor numbers go from twelve to fourteen, skipping the “unlucky” number 13.
Climate and Terrain
Given the country’s size the climate is extremely diverse, from tropical regions in the south to subarctic in the north. Hainan Island is roughly at the same latitude as Jamaica, while Harbin, one of the largest cities in the north, is at roughly the latitude of Montreal and has the climate to match. North China has four distinct seasons with intensely hot summers and bitterly cold winters. Southern China tends to be milder and wetter. The further north and west you travel, the drier the climate. Once you leave eastern China and enter the majestic Tibetan highlands or the vast steppes and deserts of Gansu and Xinjiang, distances are vast and the land is very harsh.
Back in the days of the planned economy, the rules stated that buildings in areas north of the Yangtze River got heat in the winter, but anything south of it did not — this meant unheated buildings in places like Shanghai and Nanjing, which routinely see temperatures below freezing in winter. The rule has long since been relaxed, but the effects are still visible. In general, Chinese use less heating, less building insulation, and wear more warm clothing than Westerners in comparable climates. In a schools or apartments and office buildings, even if the rooms are heated, the corridors are not. Double glazing is quite rare. Students wear winter jackets in class, along with their teachers and long underwear is very common. Air conditioning is increasingly common but is similarly not used in corridors and is often used with the windows and doors open.
There is a wide range of terrain to be found in China with many inland mountain ranges, high plateaus, and deserts in center and the far west. Plains, deltas, and hills dominate the east. The Pearl River Delta region around Guangzhou and Hong Kong and the Yangtze delta around Shanghai are major global economic powerhouses, as is the North China plain around Beijing and the Yellow River. On the border between Tibet, (the Tibet Autonomous Region) and the nation of Nepal lies Mount Everest, at 8,850 m, the highest point on earth. The Turpan depression, in northwest China’s Xinjiang is the lowest point in the country, at 154 m below sea level. This is also the second lowest point on land in the world after the Dead Sea.
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