The rapid progress made by China over the recent years, partially reflects the rich and varied culture that she possesses. Spirituality and mythology feature prominently in Chinese culture and it would not be totally wrong to say that perhaps religion has a profound influence on China's culture and traditions.
Culture Difference in China
In China, it is quite common to see ladies walking down the street holding hands, or guys walking along with their arms over each other's shoulders. There is nothing weird going on, it is simply the culturally correct way to show friendliness and affection.
One of the largest countries in the world, China was known as the Middle Country in ancient times. To give you an idea of its vastness, China spans over five geographical time zones, even though they follow only one time (Beijing Time).
With such a vast country and varied geography, it is not surprising that the Chinese way of life differs from area to area, and the traditions and customs of people seem mysterious and complex to some Westerners. This may be in part due to the fact that China has been inhabited by many different ethnic groups.
Yet, if we glance through the history of China, we see that the Han Chinese have always been the predominant ethnic group.
Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism are considered to be the three pillars of Chinese society and there is constant debate over which of these philosophies managed to influence the Chinese society the most.
Society and Family Life
The institution of family is the most basic unit that can help any society to attain heights otherwise difficult to soar. The Chinese realized this fact long ago and, therefore, have always considered familial bonds as sacred, honoring these ties optimally.
Father - Head of the Family
With the passage of time, however, Chinese family values have undergone a sea change. Even then there are some aspects of the Chinese culture that are still the same. For instance, the father is still considered as the major provider and protector of the family.
When it comes to marriage, we find that the Chinese follow many ritualistic practices which include elaborate wedding celebrations.
A unique phenomenon of most Chinese families is the one-child policy that has been enforced by law throughout the country. This policy was enforced as a means to control the rapidly growing population during the mid-1960s.
There are exceptions though, families in the rural areas are allowed to have more than one child, especially if their first born is not a boy.
Art and Language
Innovation and Creativity
Historically, the Chinese are known to have been innovative and creative people. They are known to be the pioneers in many fields, and many of today's things that we take for granted were first invented or created by the Chinese.
Arts and Music
Prime examples of their creativity and inventiveness are paper, the printing technology, gun powder, and the compass.
They also exercised their creative muscles in various forms of artistic practices ranging from pottery to literature and painting to music. The Chinese have managed to preserve their traditions that have attracted worldwide attention in today's times.
Another unique element of Chinese culture is its language. It is the oldest form of written language to be in use even today, and has undergone only minor modifications through the centuries. The writing system used by the Chinese is extremely unique as it is based on symbols that have no phonetic value.
According to Ethnologue, China has 292 living languages and 1 extinct language. The official language in mainland China is Mandarin (also known as Standard Chinese or Potunghua).
Festivals and Customs
Overall, the Chinese culture is a mix of various ethnic groups. One will find exclusive provincial and ethnic customs and traditions being followed during the major festivals. Some of the most popular festivals are as follows.
The Chinese New Year
Like Christmas in the West, it is the most important festival for the Chinese and is celebrated roughly a month after (sometime in February) the start of the Gregorian calendar. Also known as the Spring Festival, it marks the beginning of two weeks of festivities and celebrations.
Even though some customs associated with the new year since ancient times are still followed today, others have weakened.
People completely clean the indoors and outdoors of their homes and decorate the windows and doors with red paper cutouts with couplets including auspicious words like 'fu' meaning blessing or good fortune, happiness, wealth and longevity written on them.
All family members eat dinner together and the meal is more luxurious than usual. Burning fireworks was once the most typical custom of the Spring Festival and the spluttering sound was thought to drive away evil spirits.
The Lantern Festival falls on the 15th day of the 1st lunar month, usually in February or March in the Gregorian calendar. This festival celebrates the beginning of spring, and the culmination of the Spring Festival. Huge lanterns of different shapes are hung on streets, homes, and fairs.
People eat yuanxiao or rice dumplings on this day. During the day, performances and dances such as a dragon lantern dance, a lion dance, a land boat dance, a yangge dance, walking on stilts, and beating drums while dancing are enjoyed by the young and the old.
The Qingming (Pure Brightness) Festival, falling on April 4-6 each year, marks the changing of seasons in China. After the festival, the rainfall and temperature increase, which indicate the right time for spring plowing and sowing. It is a day of sacrifice and a festival of commemoration.
Both the majority Han Chinese and minority ethnic groups offer sacrifices to their ancestors and sweep the tombs of their deceased. Also, only cold food is served and no cooking is carried out on this day.
The Qingming Festival is a time when people go for Spring outings as the sun shines brightly. Kite flying is also a popular activity not only during the day but also at night by tying small lanterns to kites or kite threads.
Dragon Boat Festival
Having a history of more than 2,000 years, the Dragon Boat Festival is held on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month which equates to sometime in June, according to the Gregorian calendar. This festival is held in memory of the legendary sacrifice of Qu Yuan, China's greatest poet.
During his period, Qu Yuan was determined to build a strong and prosperous China against its enemies and he lived by those principles till his last breath. Frustrated by his unsuccessful attempts to build a mighty nation, he committed suicide by drowning himself in the Mi Lou river.
It is believed that on the day of his death, people rushed in dragon boats to search for his remains. Even today, this ritual is practiced in the form of a boat race.
Dragon boat racing is held all over the country and is an indispensable part of the festival. Since 1980, the race was listed into the state sports competition and a national dragon boat racing championship is held with the victorious team wining the 'Qu Yuan Cup'.
Food and Cuisine
Mention the word Chinese and the first thought that comes to many minds is food. It won't be an exaggeration to say that Chinese food is probably the most popular food around the world. Confucius once said: "Eating is the utmost important thing in life."
The Chinese believe in this saying even today and take their food very seriously. Cooking Chinese food requires more time and effort and is considered a very sophisticated art. Many travelers or visitors to China consider Chinese cuisines as one of the best.
A typical Chinese meal would consist of two general components:
Main food: A starch or carbohydrate source, typically noodles, rice (predominant in southern parts), or buns (predominant in northern parts), and
Accompanying dishes: Fish, meat, vegetables, or other items.
Chinese culture. Food is directly picked up (except fish, crabs, and some other items) from the serving bowl and eaten, and prepared accordingly in bite-sized pieces.
Due to diversity in climate, ethnicity, and sub-cultures, there are eight main families of dishes, namely, Hui (Anhui), Yue (Cantonese), Min (Fujian), Xiang (Hunan), Yang (Jiangsu), Lu (Shandong), Chuan (Szechuan), Zhe (Zhejiang).
Today, there are mainly four main styles of food in China, namely, the Beijing Style, the Shanghai Style, the Sichuan/Szechuan Style, and the Cantonese Style. The Cantonese style is the most popular style found in overseas restaurants.
The Chinese tea culture is also highly evolved and revolves around serving tea at special occasions. Serving tea is considered to be a ritualistic practice on a number of special occasions and is taken as a sign of honoring your guests.
Customs and Taboos
Like all cultures around the world, the Chinese too have their unique customs and taboos. It would be too vast to cover all, but here are some of them.
The traditional Chinese way of greeting people is by bowing. The degree of bowing depends on the nature and proximity of the relation with that person. It is seen that the current generation prefers to simply nod their head.
Though not commonly everywhere, handshakes seem to be common among the urbane Chinese.
In China, eating the complete portion of food on the plate is interpreted as showing disrespect towards the host serving you.
Unlike the Japanese, the Chinese are not generous with gifts, yet gifts are usually given during festivals, birthdays, weddings as a courteous gesture.
For a foreigner visiting China, here are certain taboos to keep in mind:
Chinese believe good things happen in pairs, hence avoid odd number of gifts or presents, especially during birthdays and weddings.
No gifts in black and white, both depicting sorrow and poverty.
The Chinese don't sweep or remove trash in the direction of the front door, especially during Chinese New Year, the reason being the belief that good fortune is swept away out of the front door.
Shopkeepers don't read books at work because the word book in Chinese, 'shu', means loss.
Never offer a Chinese friend an umbrella, in Chinese it signifies parting ways or a split.
Young children are not offered chicken feet as food, for fear of being prone to fight like roosters.
Don't touch. Unlike Westerners, the Chinese do not prefer being touched by strangers.
Though not entirely different from its ancient culture, today's China is adapting and accepting certain traditions and customs from the West. If you are visiting this land for the first time, the aforementioned content can act like a rough guide to a beautiful and exotic land.
China is a vast country of 1.34 billion people consisting of 50 ethnic groups. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that its customs and traditions vary just like its geography. Nevertheless, it is thriving and ever-evolving. In today's day and age of globalization, its uniqueness has added to the growing influence and presence of China in the world.