Costumes and Traditions in China
Identification. The Chinese refer to their country as the Middle Kingdom, an indication of how central they
have felt themselves to be throughout history. There are cultural and linguistic variations in different
regions, but for such a large country the culture is relatively uniform. However, fifty-five minority groups
inhabit the more remote regions of the country and have their own unique cultures, languages, and
Location and GChina has a land area of 3,691,502 square miles (9,596,960 square kilometers), making it
the world's third largest nation. It borders thirteen countries, including Russia and Mongolia to the north,
India to the southwest, and Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam to the south. To the east, it borders the Yellow
Sea, the South China Sea, and the East China Sea. The climate is extremely diverse, ranging from tropical
in the south to subarctic in the north. In the west, the land consists mostly of mountains, high plateaus, and
desert. The eastern regions are characterized by plains, deltas, and hills. The highest point is Mount
Everest, on the border between Tibet and Nepal, the tallest mountain in the world.
The Yangtze, the longest river in the country, forms the official dividing line between north and south China.
The Yangtze sometimes floods badly, as does the Yellow River to the north, which, because of the damage
it has caused, is called "China's sorrow."
The country is divided into two regions: Inner China and Outer China. Historically, the two have been very
separate. The Great Wall, which was built in the fifteenth century to protect the country against military
invasions, marks the division. While the areas of the two regions are roughly equal, 95 percent of the
population lives in Inner China.
The country is home to several endangered species, including the giant panda, the golden monkey, several
species of tiger, the Yangtze alligator, and the red-crowned crane. While outside organizations such as the
World Wildlife Fund have made efforts to save these animals, their preservation is not a top priority for the
Demography. China is the most populous nation on earth; in 2000, the estimated population was
1,261,832,482 (over one-fifth of the world's population). Of these people, 92 percent are Han Chinese; the
remaining 8 percent are people of Zhuang, Uyhgur, Hui, Yi, Tibetan, Miao, Manchu, Mongol, Buyi, Korean,
and other nationalities. Sichuan, in the central region, is the most densely populated province. Many of the
minority groups live in Outer China, although the distribution has changed slightly over the years. The
government has supported Han migration to minority territories in an effort to spread the population more
evenly across the country and to control the minority groups in those areas, which sometimes are
perceived as a threat to national stability. The rise in population among the minorities significantly outpaces
that of the Han, as the minority groups are exempt from the government's one-child policy.
Linguistic Mandarin Chinese is the official language. It is also called Putonghua and is based on the
Beijing dialect. Modern spoken Chinese, which replaced the classical language in the 1920s, is
called baihua. The writing system has not changed for thousands of years and is the same for all the
dialects. It is complex and difficult to learn
and consists of almost sixty thousand characters, although only about five thousand are used in everyday
life. Unlike other modern languages, which use phonetic alphabets, Chinese is written in pictographs and
ideographs, symbols that represent concepts rather than sounds. The communist government, in an
attempt to increase literacy, developed a simplified writing system. There is also a system, called pinyin, of
writing Chinese words in Roman characters.
Chinese is a tonal language: words are differentiated not just by sounds but by whether the intonation is
rising or falling. There are a number of dialects, including Yue (spoken in Canton), Wu (Shangai), Minbei
(Fuzhou), Minnan (Hokkien-Taiwanese), Xiang, Gan, and Hakka. Many of the dialects are so different that
they are mutually unintelligible. Some minority groups have their own languages.
Symbolism. The flag has a red background with a yellow star in the upper left-hand corner and four
smaller yellow stars in a crescent formation to its right. The color red symbolizes the revolution. The large
star stands for the Communist Party, and the four small stars symbolize the Chinese people; the position of
the stars stands for a populace united in support of the state.
The main symbol of the nation is the dragon, a fantastical creature made up of seven animals. It is
accorded the power to change size at will and to bring the rain that farmers need. New Year's festivities
often include a line of people in a dragon costume. Another patriotic symbol is the Great Wall. Spanning a
length of 1,500 miles, it is the only human-made structure visible from the moon. Work began on the wall in
the third century B.C.E. and continued during the Ming Dynasty in the fifteenth century. The emperor
conscripted criminals and ordinary farmers for the construction; many died while working, and their bodies
were buried in the wall. It has become a powerful symbol of both the oppression the Chinese have endured
and the heights their civilization has achieved.
e Nation. Records of civilization in China date back to around 1766 B.C.E. and the Shang Dynasty. The
Zhou defeated the Shang in 1059 B.C.E. and went on to rule for nearly one thousand years, longer than any
China was a feudal state until the lord of Qin managed to unite the various lords and became the first
emperor in 221 B.C.E. He ruled with an iron fist, demanding that the teachings of Confucius be burned, and
conscripting thousands of people to construct canals, roads, and defensive walls, including the beginning of
what would become the Great Wall. The Qin Dynasty was short-lived; it lasted only three years, until the
death of the emperor. The Han Dynasty, which held sway from 206 B.C.E. until 220 C.E. , saw the
introduction of many of elements that would later characterize Chinese society, including the Imperial
Examination System, which allowed people to join the civil service on the basis of merit rather than birth.
This system remained in effect until the beginning of the twentieth century.
The Han Dynasty was followed by the Period of Disunity, which lasted more than three hundred years.
During that time, the country was split into areas ruled by the Mongols and other tribes from the north. It
was during this period that Buddhism was introduced in the country. The Sui Dynasty rose to power in 581,
connecting the north and the south through the construction of the Grand Canal.
The Tang Dynasty ruled from 618 until 907 and saw a blossoming of poetry and art. It was also a period of
expansion, as the nation increased its territory in the west and north. The Five Dynasties period followed,
during which the empire once again split. The Song Dynasty (960–1279) was another artistically prolific
era. The Song fell to Mongol invasions under the leadership of Kublai Khan, who established the Yuan
Dynasty. It was during this time that the capital was established in Beijing.
The Ming took over in 1368 and ruled for nearly three hundred years. During that period, trade continued to
The Qing Dynasty ruled from 1644 until 1911 and saw the expansion of China into Tibet and Mongolia.
Especially in later years, the Qing practiced strict isolationism, which ultimately led to their downfall, as their
military technology did not keep pace with that of the Western powers. Foreign traders came to the country
by sea, bringing opium with them. The Qing banned opium in 1800, but the foreigners did not heed that
decree. In 1839, the Chinese confiscated twenty thousand chests of the drug from the British. The British
retaliated, and the four Opium Wars began. The result was a defeat for China and the establishment of
Western settlements at numerous seaports. The foreigners took advantage of the Qing's weakened hold on
power and divided the nation into "spheres of influence."
Another result of the Opium Wars was the loss of Hong Kong to the British. The 1840 Treaty of Nanjing
gave the British rights to that city "in perpetuity." An 1898 agreement also "leased" Kowloon and the nearby
New Territories to the British for one hundred years. A group of rebels called the "Righteous and
Harmonious Fists," or the Boxers, formed to overthrow both the foreigners and the Qing. The Qing,
recognizing their compromised position, united with the Boxers to attack the Western presence in the
country. The Boxer Rebellion saw the end of the Qing Dynasty, and in 1912, Sun Yatsen became president
of the newly declared Chinese Republic. In reality, power rested in the hands of regional rulers who often
resorted to violence. On 4 May 1919, a student protest erupted in Beijing in opposition to continued
Western influence. The student agitation gained strength, and the years between 1915 and the 1920s
came to be known as the May Fourth Movement, a period that saw a large-scale rejection of Confucianism
and a rise in social action, both of which were precursors to the communist revolution.
The politically weakened and disunified state of the country paved the way for two opposing political
parties, each of which had a different vision of a modern, united nation. At Beijing University, several young
men, including Mao Zedong, founded the Chinese Communist Party. Their opposition, the Kuomintang, or
Nationalist Party, was led by Chiang Kaishek. The two tried to join forces, with Chiang as the head of the
National Revolutionary Army, but dissension led to a civil war.
The Sino-Japanese war began in 1931 when Japan, taking advantage of China's weakened and divided
state, invaded the country. An attack on the city of Nanjing (the capital at that time) in 1937 resulted in
300,000 deaths and large-scale destruction of the city. Japan did not withdraw its forces until after World
The Kuomintang, with its military superiority, forced the communists into a retreat to the north that lasted a
year and became known as the Long March. Along the way, the communists redistributed land from the
rich owners to the peasants, many of whom joined their fight. The Nationalists controlled the cities, but the
communists continued to grow in strength and numbers in the countryside; by the late 1940s, the
Nationalists were surrounded. Many Kuomintang members abandoned Chiang's army and joined the
communists. In April 1949, Nanjing fell to the communists; other cities followed, and Chiang, along with two
million of his followers, fled to Taiwan. Mao Zedong, the chairman of the Chinese Communist Party,
declared the establishment of the People's Republic of China on 1 October 1949.
Mao began a series of Five Year Plans to improve the economy, beginning with heavy industry. In 1957, as
part of those reforms, he initiated a campaign he named the Great Leap Forward, whose goals were to
modernize the agricultural system by building dams and irrigation networks and redistributing land into
communes. At the same time, industries were established in rural areas. Many of those efforts failed
because of poor planning and a severe drought in the northern and central regions of the country. A two-
year famine killed thirty million people.
The government launched the so-called One Hundred Flowers campaign in the spring of 1956 with the
slogan "Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend." The intent was to
encourage creative freedom; the next year, it was extended to include freedom of intellectual expression.
Many people interpreted this to mean an increased tolerance of political expression, but the government did
not agree, and the result was a large-scale purge of intellectuals and critics of the Communist Party. This
was part of what became known as the Cultural Revolution. In an attempt to rehabilitate his popularity, Mao
initiated an attack on his enemies in the Communist Party. Those attacks extended beyond the government
to include intellectuals, teachers, and scientists, many of whom were sent to work camps in the countryside
for "reeducation." Religion was outlawed, and many temples were destroyed. Tens of thousands of young
people were enlisted in Mao's Red Guards, who carried out his orders and lived by the words of the Little
Red Book of Mao's quotations.
In the early 1970s, toward the end of Mao's regime, Zhou Enlai, an influential politician, worked to restore
relations between China and the outside world, from which it had been largely cut off during the Cultural
Revolution. In 1972, U.S. President Richard Nixon made a historic trip to China to meet with Mao,
beginning a period of improvement in diplomatic relations with the United States.
When Mao died in 1976, the country was in a state of virtual chaos. His successor was Hua Guofeng, a
protégé whom the chairman had promoted through the ranks of the party. However, Mao's widow, Jiang
Qing, along with three other bureaucrats (Zhang Chunqiao, Wang Hongwen, and Yao Wenyuan), assumed
more power in the transitional government. Known as the Gang of Four, they were widely disliked. When
the gang publicly announced its opposition to Hua in 1976, Hua had them arrested, a move that was widely
approved. The four politicians were imprisoned but did not come to trial until 1980.
In 1977, Deng Xiaoping, a Communist Party member who had been instrumental in the Civil War and the
founding of the People's Republic, rose to power and began a program of modernization and moderation of
hard-line economic policies. He was faced with the great challenge of updating a decrepit and wasteful
government system and responding to demands for increased freedom while maintaining order.
Dissatisfaction was widespread, particularly among students, who began calling for an end to government
corruption and the establishment of a more democratic government. In 1989, Beijing University students
organized demonstrations in Tiananmen Square that lasted for weeks. The People's Liberation Army finally
opened fire on the protesters. The June Fourth Massacre (Tiananmen Square Massacre) garnered
international attention and sparked worldwide indignation. The United States responded by imposing trade
Deng died in 1997, marking the end of government by the original founders of the communist state. Jiang
Zemin, the mayor of Shanghai, became president. His government has faced a growing but unstable
economy and a system beset by official corruption as well as several regions threatening the
A man stands in front of a family planning billboard in Beijing. Due to China's huge population, most
families are allowed to have only one child.
unity of the country as a whole. There is a boundary dispute with India, as well as boundary, maritime, and
ownership disputes with Russia, Vietnam, North Korea, and several other nations.
In 1997, following a 1984 agreement, the British returned Hong Kong and the New Territories to Chinese
control. The handover occurred at midnight on 1 July. Although it had been agreed that Hong Kong would
retain the financial and judicial systems installed by the British at least until 2047, an estimated half-million
people left the city between 1984 and 1997 in anticipation of the takeover, immigrating to the United States,
Canada, and Singapore.
Macao, a Portuguese colony, was given back to China in December 1999 under conditions similar to those
in the Hong Kong deal, in which the territory would be permitted to retain much of its economic and
governmental sovereignty. Taiwan remains another territory in question. The island broke away from the
mainland government in 1949 after the relocation there of Chiang Kaishek and his nationalist allies, who
have governed since that time. The Nationalists still maintain their mandate to govern the nation as a
whole, and many are opposed to reunification, while the communists claim that Taiwan is a province of
Tibet is a contested region that has gained international attention in its quest for independence. China first
gained control of the area during the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) and again early in the eighteenth century.
While it was part of China through the Qing Dynasty, the government did not attempt to exercise direct
control of Tibet again until the communists came to power and invaded the territory in 1950. The Dalai
Lama, Tibet's religious and political leader, was forced into exile in 1959. The region became autonomous
in 1965 but remains financially dependent on China. The question of its independence is a complex one,
and resolution does not appear imminent.
National Identity. The vast majority of Chinese people are of Han descent. They identify with the dominant
national culture and have a sense of history and tradition that dates back over one thousand years and
includes many artistic, cultural, and scientific accomplishments. When the communists took over in 1949,
they worked to create a sense of national identity based on the ideals of equality and hard work.
Some minority groups, such as the Manchu, have assimilated almost entirely. While they maintain their
own languages and religions, they identify with the nation as well as with their own groups. Other minority
ethnic groups tend to identify more with their individual cultures than with the Han. For example, the
Mongolians and Kazakhs of the north and northwest, the Tibetans and the Zhuangs in the southwest, and
the inhabitants of Hainan Island to the southeast are all linguistically, culturally, and historically distinct from
one another and from the dominant tradition. For some minority groups, the Tibetans and Uigurs of Xinjiang
in particular, the issue of independence has been an acrimonious one and has led those groups to identify
themselves deliberately in opposition to the central culture and its government.
Ethnic Relations. China is for the most part an extremely homogeneous society composed of a people
who share one language, culture, and history. The government recognizes fifty-five minority groups that
have their own distinct cultures and traditions. Most of those groups live in Outer China, because the Han
have, over the centuries, forced them into those harsh, generally less desirable lands. The Han often
consider the minority groups inferior, if not subhuman; until recently, the characters for their names
included the symbol for "dog." The minority groups harbor a good deal of resentment toward the Han. Tibet
and Xinjiang in particular have repeatedly attempted to separate from the republic. The Tibetans and the
Uighurs of Xinjiang have expressed animosity toward the Han Chinese who live in bordering regions, and
as a result, China has sent troops to those areas to maintain the peace.
While the majority of the population is still rural, the cities are growing, as many people migrate in search of
work. Forty cities have populations over one million.
The largest city is Shanghai, which is near the center of the country's east coast. Because of its strategic
location as a port on the Huangpu River, near the Yangtze, areas of the city were taken over by the British,
French, and Americans after the Opium Wars. Although those concessions were returned to China in 1949,
Shanghai retains a European feel in some districts. It is a city of skyscrapers and big business, a cultural
locus, and a center of both extreme wealth and extreme poverty.
Beijing, the capital, is the second largest urban center. Its history goes back three thousand years, and it
has been the capital since the late thirteenth century. Beijing is divided into the Inner City (to the north) and
the Outer City (to the south). The Inner City contains the Imperial City, which contains the Forbidden City.
This spectacular architectural aggregation of temples, palaces, and man-made lakes, whose construction
began in 1406, is where the emperor and his court resided. Although it once was off limits to civilians, today
sightseers and tourists can admire its gardens, terraces, and pavilions. Tienanmen Square, the site of
several demonstrations and events, as well as the location of Mao's tomb, is at one end of the Forbidden
City. Despite the city's size, it is still possible to navigate Beijing without a car, and most people do; bicycles
are one of the most common modes of transportation—this cuts down greatly on air pollution.
Other important cities include Tianjin, a northern port and industrial center; Shenyang in the northeast,
another industrial city; and Guangzhou, the main southern port city.
Architecture varies with the diverse climate. In the north, people sleep on a platform called
a kang. Mongolians live in huts called yurts. In the south, straw houses built on stilts are common. In much
of the country, traditional houses are rectangular and have courtyards enclosed by high walls. The roofs
are sloped, curving upward at the edges.
Food in Daily Life. Rice is the dietary staple in most of the country. In the north and the west, where the
climate is too dry to grow rice, wheat is the staple grain. Here, breakfast usually consists of noodles or
wheat bread. In the south, many people start the day with rice porridge, or congee, served with shrimp,
vegetables, and pickles. Lunch is similar to breakfast. The evening meal is the day's largest. Every meal
includes soup, which is served as the last course.
People cook in a wok, a metal pan with a curved bottom; this style of cooking requires little oil and a short
cooking time. Steaming in bamboo baskets lined with cabbage leaves is another cooking method. Meat is
expensive and is served sparingly.
The cuisine can be broken down into four main geographic varieties. In Beijing and Shandong, specialties
include Beijing duck served with pancakes and plum sauce, sweet and sour carp, and bird's nest soup.
Shanghaiese cuisine uses liberal amounts of oil and is known for seafood and cold meat dishes. Food is
particularly spicy in the Sichuan and Hunan provinces. Shrimp with salt and garlic, frogs' legs, and smoked
duck are popular dishes.