Chinese Culture

The Chinese Government View | An Outsider’s View

A Brief Introduction to Chinese Culture (Chinese Government View)
People’ Daily View

China is wonderous and awe-inspiring. It has a history of five thousand years. It is the only continuous ancient civilization. Other ancient civilizations have changed, discontinued, withered or perished. Why is it so enduring? Why is it so coherent, often sticking to itself, remaining undivided? Why is it so dynamic, always able to revive, regenerate and revitalise itself? Why is it an immortal phoenix able to rise again on its ashes? These are enduring questions. Nobody can give a complete answer, full stop. They will stimulate intellect, provoke interest, engage investigation.

It is mysterious, even inscrutible. What is Tao and Taoism? What is non-action, non-exertion, non-government in Taoism? What is the Yin-Yang theory? What is the Five-Elements theory? How can a little steel needle relieve pain and cure illnesses? Is Qigong the Chinese Yoga? What is Yi Jing, the Book of changes about? Is it a book of philosophy? A book of divination? A book of science? What is Shan Hai Jing, the Blook of Mountains and Seas about? Is it a giographical book? A travelogue? A history book? A book of mythology? A book of folklore? These are but a few citations of the mysteries and riddles of Chinese culture, the tip of an iceberg.

Chinese culture is rich and profound. It has the richest historical records. Chinese have been most historically-minded. Perhaps, China has more historical records than the whole world put together. This guess will not be far from truth. She has a great deal of historical records from the pre-Christian era, not to mention the matchless twenty-six history books of the imperial dynasties. She is not the home of Buddhism, but she boasts of the richest Buddhist scriptures.

Another area of the profundity of Chinese culture is her pre-industrial revolution science and technology. Before this revolution, China had been the pace-setter not only in history and literature, but also in science and technology. Unfortunately, this area had been all along neglected by the world, including China herself. Fortunately, this has been discovered and proved by the world-famous British scholar Joseph Needham. Thanks to his efforts, this has been universally accepted by the world’s people as a matter of fact.

The richness of Chinese culture also finds expression in its diversity and pluralism. China has always been a country of many ethnic groups. No matter which ethnic group was dominant, be it Hans, Mongols, or Manchus, her various peoples always could live under the same roof, worshipped the same emperor. It is true that there were times of division, but division was transient. There seem to be cycles of division and unification, but unification has oulived division. All these peoples have their own legacies, but they share the same legacy as well. They form the Chinese nation.

The diversity and pluralism of Chinese culture is a tremendous asset. This is very keenly felt now. Increasing value is attached to this national treasure.

Many giant western intellectuals have looked up to Chinese culture. Enlightment fathers drew inspiration from Confucianism. Some contemporary philosophers and psychiatrists have found cures for western ills in Chinese mysticism, Confucian ethics and Taoist non-government.

A View From The Outside

Calligraphy has traditionally been regarded as China’s highest form of visual art – to the point that a person’s character was judged by the elegance of their handwriting! Decorative calligraphy is found all over China, in temples and adorning the walls of caves and the sides of mountains and monuments. The basic tools of calligraphy – brush and ink – are also the tools of Chinese painting, with linework and tone the all-important components.

Despite the ravages of time, war and ideology, there’s still a lot to see architecturally. Traces of the past include the imperial structures of Beijing, the colonial buildings of Shanghai, the occasional rural village and Buddhist, Confucian and Taoist temples. Funerary art was already a feature of Chinese culture in Neolithic times (9000-6000 BC), ranging from ritual vessels and weapons to pottery figures, jade and sacrificial vessels made of bronze. Earthenware production is almost as ancient, with the world’s first proto-porcelain being produced in China in the 6th century AD, reaching its artistic peak under the Song rulers.

China’s language is officially Mandarin, as spoken in Beijing. The Chinese call it Putonghua. About 70% of the population speak Mandarin, but that’s just the tip of the lingusitic iceberg. The country is awash with dialects, and dialects within dialects – and few of them are mutually intelligible. Of the seven major strains, Cantonese is the one most likely to be spoken in your local Chinese takeaway. It’s the lingua franca of Guangdong, southern Guangxi, Hong Kong and (to an extent) Macau.

China’s literary heritage is huge, but unfortunately its untranslatability makes much of it inaccessible to Western readers. Traditionally there are two forms, the classical (largely Confucian) and the vernacular (such as the prose epics of the Ming dynasty). Chinese theatre is also known as opera because of the important role played by music, and has spawned such diverse arts as acrobatics, martial arts and stylised dance. Many western film-lovers are fans of Chinese cinema, with releases enjoying success at film festivals and in art-house cinemas. Recently there has been an emergence of talented `fifth-generation’ post-Cultural Revolution directors, including Zhang Yimou (Red Sorghum), Chen Kaige (Farewell, My Concubine), Wu Ziniu and Tian Zhuangzhuang. Add to them Hong Kong’s East-meets-West action directors John Woo (Hard Boiled) and Ringo Lam (Full Contact) and you have a full-fledged, extremely successful film industry.

Chinese cuisine is justifiably famous, memorably diverse – and generally not for the squeamish. The Chinese themselves like to say they’ll eat anything with four legs except a table. For the most part, however, it’s a case of doing ingenious things with a limited number of basic ingredients. The cuisine can be divided into four regional categories: Beijing/Mandarin and Shandong (with steamed bread and noodles as staples), Cantonese and Chaozhou (lightly cooked meats and vegetables), Shanghainese (the home of `red cooking’ and wuxi spare ribs) and Sichuan (spicy, with lots of chilli). Tea is the most common nonalcoholic beverage on sale, although Coca-Cola (both original and bogus) is making inroads, while beer is by far the most popular alcoholic drink. `Wine’ is a loose term which can cover oxidised and herb-soaked concoctions, rice wine and wine containing lizards, bees or pickled snakes. Another favourite is maotai, a spirit made from sorghum which smells like rubbing alcohol and makes a good substitute for petrol or paint thinner.

Events

Chinese New Year (or Spring Festival) starts on the first day of the old lunar calendar – which usually falls in February. Although officially lasting only three days, many people take a week off. Ear plugs are handy at this time to dull the firecracker assaults, and prices of hotel rooms tend to go through the roof. The Lantern Festival isn’t a public holiday, but it’s big and it’s colourful. It falls on the 15th day of the 1st moon (around mid-Feb to mid-March) and marks the end of the new-year celebrations. The famous lion dances occur throughout this period. Ching Ming (or Tomb Sweep Day) is in April, and sees Chinese families spend the day tending the graves of departed loved ones. Hong Kong hosts one of the liveliest annual Chinese celebrations – the Dragon Boat Festival. Usually held in June, the festival honours the poet Wut Yuan and features races between teams in long ornate canoes. Many Westerners take part in the races, but plenty of practice is needed to get all the paddles working as one.

Special prayers are held at Buddhist and Taoist temples on full-moon and sliver-moon days. Temple and moon-based festivities include Guanyin’s Birthday (late March to late April), Mazu’s Birthday (May or June), Water-Splashing Festival (13-15 April), Ghost Month (late August to late September), Mid-Autumn Moon Festival (October) and the Birthday of Confucius (28 September).