Read an Excerpt
Culture Smart! China
By Kathy Flower
Bravo LtdCopyright © 2016 Kathy Flower
All rights reserved.
LAND & PEOPLE
"For millennia ... Chinese civilization stretched over an area larger than any European state. Chinese language and culture ... extended to every known terrain: steppes and pine forests in the north, shading into Siberia, tropical jungles and terraced rice farms in the south; from the coast with its canals, ports, and fishing villages, to the stark deserts of Central Asia and the ice capped peaks of the Himalayan frontier."
Henry Kissinger, On China, 2011
TERRAIN AND CLIMATE
China has a total landmass of 3.7 million square miles (9.6 million sq. km), next in size only to Russia and Canada. At its maximum, it measures approximately 3,100 miles (5,000 km) north–south, and 3,230 miles (5,200 km) east–west. Its land border is 14,168 miles (22,800 km) long. Apart from the mainland, there are more than 5,400 islands, some just bare rocks that only appear at low tide. Technically speaking, it encompasses five time zones from the east coast across to the Russian border in the west.
Most rivers flow west to east into the Pacific Ocean. The Yangtze River (Chang Jiang) is the longest at 3,915 miles (6,300 km) — and third longest in the world after the Nile and the Amazon — followed by the Yellow River (Huang He) at 3,395 miles (5,464 km), the birthplace of Chinese civilization. However, in recent years, the Yellow River has been shortened by several hundred miles for months on end, due to having dried up near its delta.
China is a land of extremes, and temperatures vary widely. In northern China, summers are hot and short, winters long and cold. The humidity in the north in summer is unpleasant — around 60–70 percent — and the lack of moisture in the winter, when humidity falls to about 2 percent, is even worse, as are the dust storms caused by sand blowing in from the Gobi Desert.
To the north of the capital, Beijing, lie the vast empty grasslands of the Inner Mongolian Plateau. Mongolia is swept by winds from Siberia and is bitterly cold in winter, sometimes as low as minus 35°C (-31°F), but with fine, sunny days. The northeastern Mongolian town of Harbin is famous for its annual winter display of huge sculptures made of ice blocks, taken from the Songhua River, and lit from inside by colored lanterns; starting around January 5, the festival lasts for about a month, until its sculptures start to melt away with the coming of spring. The south of China is more temperate, and in recent years northerners have started retiring there to enjoy the milder climate.
China is a country of superlatives. The world's highest mountain, Mount Everest (Zhumulangma Feng in Chinese), forms China's western border with Nepal and India. It is part of the Himalayan range of mountains, forty of whose peaks rise to over 22,900 feet (7,000 m). In the northwest is the Tarim Basin, the largest inland basin in the world. To the east of the Tarim Basin is the low-lying Turpan depression, called the "Oasis of Fire," the hottest place in China, with temperatures of up to 120°F (49°C) in summer. Xinjiang, where an ethnic minority called the Uigurs live, is also home to the Taklamakan, the largest desert in China. The oasis towns of the vast empty desert areas were used for two thousand years as stopovers on the Silk Route — from the time of the Romans, caravans of camels would carry silk to the West. Salt from China's largest salt lake, Lop Nur, also went this way. Whoever controlled the oases could tax this traffic, so despite its arid deserts, Xinjiang was an attractive prize.
In the south, vegetation remains green all year-round. The coastal regions are warm and humid, with four distinct seasons. The south and southwest of China have a much more agreeable climate, with lush green vegetation and beautiful wooded mountains wreathed in mists. The southwest is the home of bamboo forests and the panda; also of many plants familiar in the West, such as rhododendrons, some of which were brought over to Europe by nineteenth-century botanists.
Only about 20 percent of the terrain is suitable for agriculture. The majority of the Han population has for centuries lived mainly on the fertile floodplains at the lower reaches of the Yellow River and the Yangtze River. These two rivers deposit silt, which makes the flood plain the richest agricultural area in China. This is where the main cities have grown up, along with key industries. So much of China is uninhabitable that around 90 percent of the people, mainly Han Chinese, are squeezed into about half of the area. The government has tried to resettle people in more sparsely populated areas, such as Tibet and Xinjiang, but the Han do not really want to live there and the locals are not keen to have them.
Nowadays China's ambitions are much more futuristic: they are creating huge new cities, and then filling them with people. There are nearly 600 more cities now than when the Communists took over in 1949. Some have been labelled "ghost towns," because the buildings stand empty, seemingly for years, waiting for the population to arrive; but though building a new city is quite quick, putting in place the infrastructure and services for anything up to 30 million people takes time. The Chinese traditionally take a long-term view of things, and these new cities, for all their eerie emptiness, are part of that vision.
HAN CHINESE AND MINORITY NATIONALITIES
Ninety-two percent of the population of China are of the Han race, or what the West calls Chinese. Minority nationalities generally live in the northwestern and southwestern extremities of the country. Fifty-five minority nationalities are officially recognized, totalling just over 100 million people. They have their own customs, languages, dress, and religions. Many in the northwest, near the borders with Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, and Russia, follow Islam. Tibetans, Mongolians, Lobas, Moinbas, Tus, and Yugurs are Lamaists. The Dai, Blang, and Deang people are Buddhists, while many of the Miao, Yao, and Yi people are Christian. Official attitudes toward them are a complex mixture of tolerance and control.
Mandarin is promoted as the official language and all minority peoples learn it. The government has also helped to create written languages for ten minority nationalities, including the Zhuang, Bouyei, Miao, Dong, Hani, and Li, which prior to 1949 had only spoken languages. The minority nationalities have a geopolitical importance far beyond their numbers because of the strategic territories they occupy along China's sparsely populated and porous frontiers; partly due to this, they were exempted from the One Child policy (see page 35).
A BRIEF HISTORY
The fertile floodplains of the Yellow River were the cradle of Chinese civilization. Thousands of years ago the Chinese were already weaving silk, carving jade, casting bronze, growing wheat, millet, and rice, and recording events in a written language. The crossbow, used in Europe in the Middle Ages, was invented in China some fifteen centuries earlier. A thousand years before the Industrial Revolution in Britain, China already had coke ovens and steel blast furnaces. Chinese art, science, architecture, language, literature, and philosophy continue to be studied and admired around the world.
The Chinese will tell you, with pride, of their five thousand years of history, but in fact it goes back even further. Archaeologists have found evidence of Neolithic sites dating from before 5000 BCE. The earliest-known dynasty was the Xia, which ruled about 1994–1523 BCE. By the time of the Shang (or Yin) dynasty, which flourished in the Yellow River valley in 1523–1027BCE, a sophisticated culture had developed, with advanced bronze-manufacturing, a written language, and the first Chinese calendar.
The Zhou and the Mandate of Heaven
The last Shang ruler was a tyrant who was overthrown by the founders of the Zhou (or Chou) dynasty (1027–255 BCE). This period saw the introduction of money, iron, written laws, and the ethical philosophy of Confucianism, and gave birth to the idea of the "Mandate of Heaven" (Ti'en Ming), in which Heaven gives wise rulers a mandate to rule, but takes it away from corrupt ones. The Emperor became known as the "Son of Heaven," a concept that still had potency right up until Mao Zedong's death in 1976. Later, the "Mandate of Heaven" incorporated the Daoist belief that Heaven sends natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods to show its disapproval of bad rulers.
During the Zhou period the Chinese people's sense of their unique identity and cultural superiority developed. The name Zhong Guo, or "Middle Kingdom," was coined to describe the central importance of China: anyone outside it was considered to be a barbarian. Zhong Guo is still the name used by the Chinese today to refer to modern China; foreigners are referred to as waiguoren, or "outside country people."
The Warring States Period (c. 500–221 BCE)
Civil war followed the Zhou dynasty's reign, and the Zhou empire broke up into small kingdoms. The philosopher Confucius declared that the Zhou empire had been a golden age, and for centuries afterward the Chinese looked back on it as an idealized time. Eventually, the Qin (pronounced "Chin") dynasty defeated its rivals and united the warring feudal states into a single empire.
The Qin Dynasty (221–207 BCE)
The Qin introduced centralized government, standard weights and measures, writing systems, and money, and built a network of roads that joined the capital (near modern-day Xi'an) to the distant outposts of the empire. The first Qin Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, used thousands of slaves to continue the building of the Great Wall of China, designed to keep out the "Mongol hordes." Much of the original Great Wall has collapsed now, its stones carted off to build houses for the locals — whose ancestors helped to build the original wall. The parts that are still standing have been heavily restored and are visited by millions every year.
Qin Shi Huang was buried in Chang'an (today Xi'an). With him were buried the now world-famous terracotta army of around 8,000 life size-soldiers, 130 chariots, and 670 horses, who stand guard over him; using clay figures brought to an end the barbaric tradition of burying real people alive to escort the Emperor's body into the next world.
The Han Dynasty (206 BCE–9 CE and 25–220 CE)
The Han dynasty saw the Chinese empire expand into central Asia, and the growth of centralized rule. The position of the Emperor changed from that of sole and absolute ruler to one in which power was delegated to a highly developed civil service. A complicated examination system, based on the candidates' knowledge of Confucianism, was set up to select people to work as bureaucrats; it lasted more or less unchanged for two thousand years. Ever since, the Chinese people have referred to themselves as the Han; Hanyu is the Chinese language, and Hanzi is the name for Chinese characters.
The Sui Dynasty (581–618)
External rebellions and internal feuding eventually destroyed the Han and the empire split into three competing kingdoms, resulting in the eventual victory of the Wei over the Chou and Wu. Confucianism was superseded by Buddhism, introduced from India, and by Daoism; and "barbarian" (known in the West as the Hun) invasions started in the north. The Sui dynasty then reunified China, halted the march of the Huns, and strengthened the Great Wall.
The Tang Dynasty (618–906)
The Sui were soon replaced by the Tang. This was a golden age for China. The Tang capital was in modern day Xi'an. Then called Chang'an, it was one of the world's greatest cities, rivaling Rome and Constantinople, with a population of one million and a society with many modern features such as commerce, tax collection, civil administration, tolerance of different religions, and a thriving culture. The Tang era is famous for its poetry and ceramics. The Tang continued the creation of canals linking different parts of the empire, and built inns for traveling officials, merchants, and pilgrims to break their journeys. There was more contact with foreigners than at any other time until the late twentieth century. The Tang empire disintegrated into the "Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms," amid war and economic decline.
The Song Dynasty (960–1279)
Under the Song, China was unified again and order restored. This was a period of calm and creativity. However the frontiers were neglected and Mongol incursions began. Despite the Middle Kingdom's attempts to seal itself off from the outside world, foreigners continued to find their way in, as invaders, ambassadors, or merchants. The most famous traveler of all, Venetian merchant and explorer Marco Polo, visited China from 1275 to 1292. On his return to Venice he wrote the first eyewitness account of China, describing its wealthy cities, paper money, methods of salt production, and the burning of coal to create heat. His book inspired others such as Christopher Columbus to want to travel to China and a version of it has been in print ever since.
Some Chinese "Firsts"
The Chinese are proud of their "Four Great Inventions": papermaking, the compass, gunpowder, and printing. Engraved woodblock printing on paper and silk was invented in the seventh century; the world's oldest surviving printed book is a Chinese Buddhist text printed in 868 CE. Another Chinese first was the invention of moveable type in the eleventh century.
The Yuan Dynasty (1260–1368)
By the time of Marco Polo's arrival in China, the Mongols had poured across the Gobi Desert on their horses, undeterred by the Great Wall. They made Beijing their capital and Kublai Khan became the first emperor of the foreign Yuan dynasty — the first non-native emperor to conquer all of China. The Yuan were ruthless but efficient rulers; they improved the roads leading into China and Russia, promoted trade, and even set up a famine relief system.
The Ming Dynasty (1368–1644)
The Yuan were driven out, to be replaced by the first emperor of the native Han Chinese Ming dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang, a man of poor peasant stock. Famine, natural disasters, hyperinflation, and corruption brought Ming rule to an end, hastened by an earthquake in 1556 that is thought to have killed 830,000 people. This sign that the emperor had lost the Mandate of Heaven strengthened his enemies; echoes of this belief were heard when the Tangshan earthquake of July 1976 killed about 240,000 people, just three months before Mao died.
The First Europeans Arrive
In 1516, two hundred and forty-one years after Marco Polo, Portuguese ships arrived off the coast of China. Portugal in the sixteenth century was a great trading nation with imperial ambitions, and the Portuguese were allowed to set up a trading post in Macau, to be followed by the British, Dutch, and Spanish. In 1582 an Italian Jesuit priest named Matteo Ricci arrived in Macau, learned Chinese, and then settled in Zhaoqing at the invitation of the governor, who had heard of Ricci's knowledge of mathematics and cartography. Ricci made the first European-style world map in Chinese; he also compiled a Portuguese–Chinese dictionary. Six copies of the original map on rice paper, made in 1602, still survive and there is a plaque commemorating Ricci in Zhaoqing.
The Qing Dynasty (1644–1912)
The Ming were succeeded by another non-Chinese dynasty, the Qing, nomads from Manchuria who, like all the other foreign rulers, soon assimilated into Chinese culture. The Qing government kept the Europeans as far away as possible, making them stay in Canton (now Guangzhou). But this did not prevent the start of a trade that was to become a byword for Western imperialism: the sale by the British of Indian-grown opium to the Chinese.
Opium had been used for centuries for pain relief, as an antidepressant, and to kill hunger pains. People were well aware of the risk of addiction, but nonetheless opium remained legal in Europe and the USA as late as the 1920s.
The Opium Wars
In exchange for selling opium the British were at last getting all the Chinese tea, silk, and porcelain they craved. But the numbers of addicts were growing rapidly and the Chinese Emperor tried to ban the trade in 1800; his decree was ignored. The trade continued unchecked until 1839, when the Chinese seized and burned 20,000 chests of opium. So began the first of the notorious Opium Wars (1839–42), with the British attacking Canton, forcing China to cede Hong Kong and to open five ports to European trade. There were to be more of these wars in the nineteenth century, fought by the British with support from the Russians, French, and Americans — and understandably influencing the Chinese view of Westerners as "foreign devils" for the next hundred years.
Excerpted from Culture Smart! China by Kathy Flower. Copyright © 2016 Kathy Flower. Excerpted by permission of Bravo Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.