Chinese Culture

The Chinese refer to their country as the Middle Kingdom, which indicates how central they have felt themselves to be throughout history. While there are cultural and linguistic variations in different regions, the culture is relatively uniform for such a large country. There are fifty-five minority groups in the more remote regions of the country, which have their own unique cultures, languages, and customs.

China is divided into Inner China and Outer China, which have been very separate historically. The Great Wall, which was built in the fifteenth century as a protection against military invasions, marks the division. The areas of the two regions are roughly equal, but 95 percent of the population lives in Inner China.

Out of the total population of China, 92 percent are Han Chinese, while the remaining 8 percent are people of other nationalities. Many of the minority groups live in Outer China but the distribution has changed slightly over the years. The government has supported the migration of Han Chinese to minority territories in an attempt to spread the population more evenly across the territory and to control the minority groups sometimes perceived as a threat to national stability.

China's official language is Mandarin Chinese. Modern spoken Chinese, called bai hua, replaced the classical language in the 1920s. The writing system has remained the same for thousands of years and is the same for all dialects. Chinese is written in pictograms and ideographs that are symbols representing concepts rather than sounds. Some of the minority groups have their own languages.

The main symbol of the nation is the dragon, a fantastical creature made up of seven animals. It is believed to have the power to change size at will and to bring the rain that farmers need. Another patriotic symbol is the Great Wall. The vast majority of Chinese people are of Han descent and identify with the dominant national culture. They have a sense of history and tradition that dates back over one thousand years and includes numerous artistic, cultural, and scientific accomplishments.

The cuisine in China can be broken down into four main geographic varieties. In Beijing and Shandong, there are specialties such as Beijing duck served with pancakes and plum sauce, sweet and sour carp, and bird's nest soup. The cuisine in Shanghai uses liberal amounts of oil and is known for seafood and cold meat dishes. In the Sichuan and Hunan provinces, food is particularly spicy, with shrimp with salt and garlic, frogs' legs, and smoked duck among the popular dishes. The cuisine is the lightest in Canton and Chaozhou, where seafood, vegetables, roast pork and chicken, and steamed fish are served with fried rice.

When the communists took control, they overturned the traditional hierarchy endorsed by Confucian philosophy, and professed ideals of a classless society. However, the new system still has an elite and a lower class. Society is divided into two main segments - the ganbu, or political leaders, and the peasant masses. According to the Communist Party's philosophy, both classes share the same interests and goals and should function in unison for the common good.

According to custom, marriages in China are arranged by the couple's parents. The system is less rigid than in the past but young people often use matchmakers. People's approach to marriage is pragmatic and even those choosing their own spouses often take practical considerations into account as much as romantic ones. The legal age for marriage is twenty for women and twenty-two for men. After marriage, a woman traditionally becomes part of her husband's family, with several generations often living together under one roof.

As a communist state, China is officially atheist. Out of the total population, 59 percent have no religious affiliation, 20 percent practice traditional religions, such as Taoism and Confucianism, 12 percent consider themselves atheists, 6 percent are Buddhist, 2 percent are Muslim and 1 percent are Christian.

The government censors the output of all artists. Chinese poetry is not just a linguistic feat but a visual one. Classical poems express balance through both rhyme and tone as well as through the physical layout of the characters on the page. Chinese painters are best known for their depictions of nature. Writing is considered the highest art form, while calligraphy is said to be the deepest expression of a person's character. China has also been known for sculpture and pottery for centuries. Opera is a popular traditional art form and there is also a lively rock music scene.

Chinese Culture: Selected full-text books and articles

Culture and Customs of China By Richard Gunde Greenwood Press, 2002
Handbook of Chinese Popular Culture By Wu Dingbo; Patrick D. Murphy Greenwood Press, 1994
Changing Media, Changing China By Susan L. Shirk Oxford University Press, 2011
Chinese Martial Arts Cinema: The Wuxia Tradition By Stephen Teo Edinburgh University Press, 2009
Chinese Art & Culture By Robert L. Thorp; Richard Ellis Vinograd Harry N. Abrams, 2001
The Columbia History of Chinese Literature By Victor H. Mair Columbia University Press, 2001
In the Red: On Contemporary Chinese Culture By Geremie R. Barmé Columbia University Press, 1999
Cultural Encounters on China's Ethnic Frontiers By Stevan Harrell University of Washington Press, 1995
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