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- Countries and Their Cultures
Culture of China
The Chinese call their country Zhonghua Renmmin Gogheguo, or Zhong Guo for
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 customs.
Location and Geography.
China 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 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 government.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
History and Ethnic Relations
Emergence of the Nation.
Records of civilization in China date back to around 1766
and the Shang Dynasty. The Zhou defeated the Shang in 1059
and went on to rule for nearly one thousand years, longer than any other
China was a feudal state until the lord of Qin managed to unite the
various lords and became the first emperor in 221
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
, 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
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
The Ming took over in 1368 and ruled for nearly three hundred years.
During that period, trade continued to expand.
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
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 War II.
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 sanctions.
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
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,
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 China.
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.
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.
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.
Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space
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
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 and Economy
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
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.
Neighborhood houses in Dali reflect traditional Chinese urban
The southern cuisine of Canton and Chaozhou is the lightest of the four.
Seafood, vegetables, roast pork and chicken, and steamed fish are served
with fried rice.
a breakfast or lunch meal consisting of a combination of different
appetizer style delicacies, is popular there.
Cooking reflects the country’s history of famines caused by factors
such as natural disasters and war. The Chinese eat parts and species of
animals that many other cultures do not, including fish heads and
eyeballs, birds’ feet and saliva, and dog and cat meat.
Tea is the most common beverage. The Han drink it unsweetened and black,
Mongolians have it with milk, and Tibetans serve it with yak butter. The
Chinese are fond of sugary soft drinks, both American brands and locally
produced ones. Beer is a common beverage, and there are many local
Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions.
Special occasions and large family gatherings often entail big, elaborate
meals. In the north, dumplings called
are served at the Spring Festival and other special occasions. For the
Moon Festival in midautumn, “moon cakes” are served, baked
pastries filled with ground sesame and lotus seeds or dates. Banquets
originating in the imperial tradition are ceremonial meals common to
important state gatherings and business occasions. They usually are held
at restaurants and consist of ten or more courses. Rice is not served, as
it is considered too cheap and commonplace for such an event.
In 1978, the country began the slow process of shifting from a
Soviet-style economy to a more free market system, and in twenty years
managed to quadruple the gross domestic product (GDP) and become the
second largest economy in the world. However, the decentralization of the
economy has often conflicted with the tight reign exercised by the highly
centralized political system. The economy is burdened with widespread
corruption, bureaucracy, and large state-run businesses that have been
unable to keep pace with economic expansion. Inflation rates, which rose
steeply in the 1980s, fell between 1995 and 1999 as a result of stricter
monetary policies and government control of food prices. While the economy
appears to be improving, the standard of living in rural areas remains
poor, and the government faces problems collecting taxes in provinces that
are becoming increasingly autonomous, such as Shanghai and Guangzhou.
The labor force consists of 700 million people, of whom 50 percent work in
agriculture, 24 percent
in industry, and 26 percent in services. The unemployment rate is roughly
10 percent in the cities and higher in the countryside. A large number of
migrants move between the villages and the cities, barely supporting
themselves with part-time jobs and day labor. The national currency is
named the yuan.
One of the largest economic challenges has been feeding the enormous
population. The government has taken a two-pronged approach, instituting a
series of modernization projects to improve irrigation and transportation
and trying to curb population growth by allowing each family to have only
one child. The one-child law, which does not apply to minority groups, has
faced widespread popular resistance.
Land Tenure and Property.
One of Mao’s priorities was a program of land reform. He turned
over the previous sharecropper-like system and in its place established
collective, government-run farms. Deng did away with many of the
large-scale communes. While safeguarding the system of government-owned
land, he allowed individual farmers to rent land and gave them more
freedom in decision making. This shift saw a large increase in
agricultural productivity; output doubled in the 1980s.
While farmers and other individuals have much more control over their land
than in the past, the majority of it is still owned by the government.
Much commercial activity revolves around agriculture. Products vary from
region to region. The main goods produced for domestic sale are rice,
wheat, soybeans, fruits, and vegetables. From 1958 to 1978, all farms were
run as communes and were required to sell all of their output to the
government at predetermined prices. Today, farmers still must sell a
portion of the yield to the government, but the rest goes on the open
market where supply and demand determine the price. In government stores,
there is no negotiating of prices, but the increasing numbers of privately
owned shops often welcome bargaining.
There is a large black market in foreign goods such as cigarettes,
alcohol, and electronic products. Connections (called
) are of supreme importance in acquiring such goods. It is not uncommon
for products made in state-owned factories for sale by the government to
find their way into private stores.
Hong Kong, with a fully capitalist economy, developed under British rule
into an international financial center. The main commercial activities
there are banking and high-technology product and services.
The larger industries include iron and steel, coal, machine building,
armaments, textiles and apparel, petroleum, footwear, toys, food
processing, automobiles, and consumer electronics. Metallurgy and machine
building have received top priority in recent years and account for about
one-third of industrial output. In these, as in other industries, the
country has consistently valued quantity in production over quality, and
this is reflected in many of the products. Tourism, which increased during
the 1980s, fell sharply after Tiananmen Square; however, it has picked up
again as the economy has continued to open to Western investors.
China imports machinery and equipment, plastics, chemicals, iron and
steel, and mineral fuels, mainly from Japan, the United States, Taiwan,
and South Korea. Exports include machinery and equipment, textiles and
clothing, footwear, toys and sporting goods, mineral fuels, and chemicals.
These products go primarily to the United States, Hong Kong, Japan, and
Germany. Trade has shifted dramatically over the years. In the 1950s, the
main trading partners were other communist countries; however, the decline
of the Soviet Union as a world power changed that. Most trade today is
conducted with the noncommunist world.
Division of Labor.
Initially, under communism, urban workers were assigned jobs by the
government. Wages were predetermined and did not reward productivity. That
system was modified in 1978 and again in 1986 to allow for wage increases
and firings in relation to productivity. Under Deng Xiaoping, people were
encouraged to develop their entrepreneurial skills as shopkeepers and taxi
drivers and in other small business ventures. Older people often become
caretakers for their young grandchildren. Many continue to engage in
community work and projects.
Classes and Castes.
Confucian philosophy endorses a hierarchical class system. At the top of
the system are scholars, followed by farmers, artisans, and finally
merchants and soldiers. A good deal of social mobility was possible in
that system; it was common practice for a family to save its money to
invest in the education and advancement of the oldest son. When the
communists took control, they overturned this traditional hierarchy,
A view of the Great Wall of China, which is more than 1,500 miles
long and is the only man-made structure visible from the moon.
ideals of a classless society. In fact, the new system still has an elite
and a lower class. Society is divided into two main segments: the
or political leaders, and the peasant masses. According to the philosophy
of the Communist Party, both classes share the same interests and goals
and therefore should function in unison for the common good. In reality,
there is a large and growing gap between the rich and the poor. Weathy
people live in the cities, while the poor tend to be concentrated in the
countryside. However, farmers have begun to migrate to the cities in
search of work in increasing numbers, giving rise to housing and
employment problems and creating a burgeoning class of urban poor people.
Symbols of Social Stratification.
Cars, a rare commodity, are a symbol of high social and economic
standing. Comfortable living accommodations with luxuries such as hot
running water are another. Many government employees who could not
otherwise afford these things get them as perks of the job. As recently as
the 1980s, most people dressed in simple dark-colored clothing. Recently,
more styles have become available, and brand-name or imitation brand-name
American clothes are a marker of prosperity. This style of dress is more
common in the cities but is visible in the countryside among the
Many minority groups maintain their traditional attire. Tibetans dress in
layers of clothes to protect themselves from the harsh weather. The women
wrap their heads in cloth. Uighur women wear long skirts and
bright-colored scarves; the men wear embroidered caps.
China is a communist state. The president is the chief of state and is
elected by the National People’s Congress (NPC) for a five-year
term. However, the president defers to the decisions and leadership of the
NPC. The NPC is responsible for writing laws and policy, delegating
authority, and supervising other parts of the government. The highest
level in the executive branch of the government is the State Council,
which is composed of a premier, a vice premier, councillors, and various
ministers. The State Council handles issues of internal politics, defense,
economy, culture, and education. Its members are appointed and can be
removed by the president’s decree.
The country is divided into twenty-three provinces, five autonomous
regions, and four municipalities. (Taiwan is considered the twenty-third
province.) At the local level, elected deputies serve
in a local people’s congress, a smaller-scale version of the
national body, which is responsible for governing within the region and
reports to the State Council.
Leadership and Political Officials.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is in effect the only political party.
Eight registered small parties are controlled by the CCP. There are no
substantial opposition groups, but there are two—the Falun Gong
sect and the China Democracy Party—that the government sees as
potential threats. The Falun Gong in particular has received international
attention because of the government’s attempts to suppress it. The
organization claims that it is a meditation group based on Buddhist and
Taoist philosophies; the government considers it a cult that threatens
public order and the state. The government has sent hundreds of Falun Gong
members to labor camps and has imprisoned many of its leaders. The group
is legal in Hong Kong.
Social Problems and Control.
The legal system is a complex mixture of tradition and statute. A
rudimentary civil code has been in effect since 1987, and new legal codes
since 1980. The country continues to make efforts to improve its laws in
the civil, administrative, criminal, and commercial areas. The highest
court is the Supreme People’s Court, which supervises lower courts,
hears appeals, and explains national laws.
The crime rate is rising. Pickpocketing and petty theft are the most
common offenses, but there are increasing numbers of incidents of violent
crime. Prostitution and drug use are also growing problems.
Public humiliation is a common punishment for crimes such as petty theft.
Prisons often put inmates to work in farming or manufacturing. The death
penalty is assigned not only for violent crimes but also for acts such as
bribery and corruption. The government has been known to deal harshly with
political dissidents. Many participants in the 1989 Tiananmen Square
protests were imprisoned, and the government continues to punish severely
any displays of opposition. The country has been cited numerous times for
human rights violations.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) includes the Ground Forces, the
Navy (both marines and naval aviation), the Air Force, and the Second
Artillery Corps (strategic missile force). The People’s Armed
Police, consisting of internal security troops, is supposedly subordinate
to the Ministry of Public Security but is included in the “armed
forces” and in times of war acts as an adjunct to the PLA. The
government quotes a figure of over $12 billion (1.2 percent of the GDP)
for military expenses, but many Western analysts place the amount several
times higher. Service in the PLA is voluntary and highly selective. Both
women and men can serve, and the army conscientiously upholds communist
ideals of equality; there are no ranks in the army.
As of 1998, there were 2.8 million people in the armed forces: 1,830,000
in the army, 420,000 in the air force, and 230,000 in the navy. That year,
however, the government introduced a plan to cut the armed forces by half
Social Welfare and Change Programs
State-run corporations or groups of factories often provide housing, child
care, education, medical care, and other services for their employees.
These organizations are called
or work units. They also provide compensation for injury and disability,
old age, and survivors’ pensions. Many of the government’s
social welfare initiatives are concentrated in the cities where housing,
education, and food are subsidized; in the countryside, the burden of
social welfare often falls to companies, organizations, and individual
families. The government supplies emergency relief in the case of natural
disasters, including floods and crop failures. The government offers
financial incentives to families that comply with its one-child policy,
giving them preference in housing, health care, and other social services.
Nongovernmental Organizations and Other Associations
China is a member of a number of international associations, including the
United Nations, UNESCO, and the World Health Organization. It has applied
for membership in the World Trade Organization. There are a number of
foreign health, development, and human rights organizations active in
China, including the Red Cross, the World Health Organization, the U.S.
Peace Corps, Amnesty International, and others.
Gender Roles and Statuses
Division of Labor by Gender.
Before the twentieth century, women were confined to the domestic realm,
while men dominated all other aspects of society. The only exception was
agriculture, where women’s work had a somewhat wider definition.
Western influence began to infiltrate the country in
A merchant rents books from a sidewalk rack on a street in Tunxi.
the nineteenth century, when missionaries started schools for girls.
Opportunities increased further as the country began to modernize, and
under communism, women were encouraged to work outside the home. Today
women work in medicine, education, business, sports, the arts and
sciences, and other fields. While men still dominate the upper levels of
business and government and tend to have better paying jobs, women have
made considerable progress.
The Relative Status of Women and Men.
Confucian values place women as strictly subordinate to men, and this was
reflected in traditional society. Women had no rights and were treated as
possessions, first of their father’s and later of their
husband’s. The practice of foot binding was symbolic of the
strictures women faced in all aspects of life. From the age of seven,
girls had their feet wrapped tightly, stunting their growth and virtually
crippling them in the name of beauty. This practice was not outlawed until
1901. The procedure was inflicted mainly on upper-class and middle-class
women, as peasant women needed full use of their feet to work in the
The rejection of many traditional values early in the twentieth century
resulted in increasing equality and freedom for women. The Western
presence in the nineteenth century also had an influence. Raising the
status of women was a priority in the founding of the modern state. Women
played an important role in the Long March and the communist struggle
against the Kuomintang, and under Mao they were given legal equality to
men in the home and the workplace as well as in laws governing marriage,
divorce, and inheritance. Despite these legal measures, women still face
significant obstacles, including spousal abuse and the practice of selling
women and young girls as brides.
Marriage,Family, and Kinship
According to custom, marriages are arranged by the couple’s
parents. While this system is less rigid than it once was, it is still
common for young people to use matchmakers. People take a pragmatic
approach to marriage, and even those who chose their own spouses often
take practical considerations as much as romantic ones into account.
Weddings are usually large, expensive affairs paid for by the
groom’s family. For those who can afford it, Western-style weddings
are popular, with the bride in a white gown and the groom in a suit and
The legal age for marriage is twenty for women and twenty-two for men. A
marriage law enacted
by the communists in 1949 gave women the right to choose their husbands
and file for divorce. While it is difficult to obtain a divorce, rates are
It is common for several generations to live together under one roof.
After marriage, a woman traditionally leaves her parents’ home and
becomes part of her husband’s family. The husband’s mother
runs the household and sometimes treats a new daughter-in-law harshly.
Although today practical reasons compel most children to leave the
parents’ home, the oldest son often stays, as it is his duty to
care for his aging parents. Even today, many young adults continue to live
with their parents after marriage, partly because of a housing shortage in
The estate generally passes to the oldest son, although, especially in
the case of wealthy and powerful men, most of their personal possession
traditionally were buried with them. The remaining property went to the
oldest son. Since the communists came to power in 1949, women have been
able to inherit property.
Extended family is extremely important, and the wealthy and well educated
often hire genealogists to research their family trees. Family members,
even distant relations, are valued above outsiders. The passing on of the
family name is of great importance. If the oldest son in a family has no
son of his own, he often is expected to adopt the son of his next youngest
brother. If no sons are born in the clan, a sister’s son may be
adopted to carry on the name.
Traditionally, male babies were valued much more highly than female
offspring. Girls were looked at as a liability and in times of economic
hardship often were sold into lives of servitude or prostitution. While
this has changed somewhat, those attitudes have again become prevalent
with the government’s one-child policy. When families are allowed
to have only one child, they want to ensure that it is a boy; for this
reason, rates of female infanticide and abandonment have risen. While
babies are highly valued, it is considered bad luck to praise them aloud.
It is common to offer backward compliments, remarking on a child’s
A baby usually is not washed for the first three days after birth. On the
third day, he or she is bathed, and friends and relatives come to view the
new addition to the family. When a male child turns one month old, the
parents throw a First Moon party. The boy’s head is shaved, and the
hair is wrapped in a red cloth, which, after a hundred days, is thrown in
the river. This is thought to protect the child.
Women usually are granted maternity leave between two months and one year,
but rural women tend to go back to work earlier.
Child Rearing and Education.
From a very young age, children are assigned responsibilities in both the
family and the community. In the countryside, this means farm chores; in
the city, it consists of housework or even sweeping the street.
Schoolchildren are responsible for keeping the classroom clean and
Under communism, when women were encouraged to take jobs outside the home,
child care facilities became prevalent. Grandparents also play a
significant role in raising children, especially when the mother works
outside the home.
Education is mandatory for nine years. Ninety-six percent of children
attend kindergarten and elementary school, and about two-thirds continue
on to secondary school, which lasts for three years. In high school,
students pursue either technical training or a general education. Those
who receive a general education can take the extremely difficult
qualifying exams to enter a university. The educational system stresses
obedience and rote learning over creativity. Both traditional Confucians
and the Communist Party view education as a method for inculcating values
in the young. Under Mao, the educational system suffered from propaganda
and the devaluation of intellectual pursuits. Because of the size of the
population, classrooms and teachers are in short supply.
The country has made great progress in increasing the literacy of the
general population. When the communists came to power, only 15 percent of
the population could read and write. Today, thanks to mandatory schooling
for children and adult education programs, the rate is over 75 percent.
Higher education is not accessible to many. Admission to the universities
is extremely competitive; only 2 percent of the population attends
college. In addition to the rigorous entrance examination, students are
required to demonstrate their loyalty to the Communist Party. During the
summers, university students perform manual labor. The curriculum
A mother and her children in a farming commune in Canton. Only
ethnic minority families are allowed to have more than one child.
and technology. It is considered a great honor to undertake advanced
study, and a university degree virtually guarantees a comfortable position
after graduation. The most prestigious universities are in Beijing and
Qinghua, but there are more than a hundred others scattered throughout the
country. There are technical and vocational schools that train students in
agriculture, medicine, mining, and education.
Deference and obedience to elders is considered extremely important. There
is a hierarchy that places older people above younger and men above women;
this is reflected in social interaction.
Chinese people are nonconfrontational. Saving face is of primary
importance; appearing to be in the right or attempting to please someone
is more important than honesty. It is considered rude to refuse a request
even if one is unable to fulfill it. The fear of losing face is a concern
that governs social interactions both large and insignificant; failure to
perform a duty brings shame not just on the individual, but on the family
and community as well. Individuality is often subsumed in the group
identity. There is little privacy in the home or family, and housing
shortages and cramped living quarters often exaggerate this situation.
People touch often, and same-sex hand holding is common. However, physical
contact between men and women in public is limited. Smiling is not
necessarily a sign of happiness; it can be a display of worry or
Visiting is an important part of social life. Guests often drop in
unannounced and are invited to join the family for a meal. It is customary
to bring a small gift when visiting.
As a communist state, the country is officially atheist. Fifty-nine
percent of the population has no religious affiliation. Twenty percent of
the people practice traditional religions (Taoism and Confucianism), 12
percent consider themselves atheists, 6 percent are Buddhist, 2 percent
are Muslim, and 1 percent are Christian. The teachings of Confucius are
laid out in
It is a philosophy that stresses responsibility to community and
obedience and deference to elders.
Taoism, founded by Lao Tse Tsu, is more mystical and less pragmatic than
which translates as “the way,” focuses on
ideals of balance and order and often uses nature as a metaphor. It also
includes elements of animism. Taoism, unlike Confucianism, rejects rank
and class. Taoists shun aggression, competition, and ambition.
Buddhism, which came to the country from India, is similar to Taoism in
its rejection of striving and material goods. The goal of Buddhism is
nirvana, a transcendence of the confines of mind and body. Confucianism,
Taoism, and Buddhism are not mutually exclusive, and many people practice
elements of all three in addition to worshiping various gods and
goddesses, each of which is responsible for a different profession or
other aspect of life. Luck is of supreme importance in popular belief, and
there are many ways of bringing good fortune and avoiding badluck. A type
of geomancy called
involves manipulating one’s surroundings in a propitious way.
These techniques are used to determine everything from the placement of
furniture in a room to the construction of skyscrapers.
Many of the minority groups have their own religions. Some, such as the
Dais in Yunnan and the Zhuangs in the southwest, practice animism. The
Uighurs, Kazakhs, and Huis are Muslim. Tibetans follow their own unique
form of Buddhism, called Tantric or Lamaistic Buddhism, which incorporates
many traditions of the indigenous religion called
including prayer flags and prayer wheels and a mystical element.
Despite the numerous Catholic and Protestant missionaries who arrived in
the country beginning in the nineteenth century, Christianity has managed
to gain few converts. Christians are mostly concentrated in big cities
such as Beijing and Shanghai.
Confucianism and Taoism do not have central religious figures. In
Buddhism, there are monks who devote their lives to prayer and meditation.
Worship is usually not communal; the only group services are performed at
The central figure in Tibetan Buddhism is the Dalai Lama, a name that
translates as “Ocean of Wisdom.” When one Dalai Lama dies,
it is believed that he is then reincarnated, and it is the duty of the
monks to search out his spirit in a newborn child. Today the position has
political as well as religious significance. The current Dalai Lama lives
in exile in India and pursues the cause of Tibetan independence.
Rituals and Holy Places.
Taoist temples are dominated by the roof, usually yellow or green, which
is adorned with images of gods and dragons. The interior usually consists
of a courtyard, a main hall with an altar where offerings are placed, and
sometimes small shrines to various deities. Buddhist temples incorporate
pagodas, a design which came from India around the first century
(the time when the religion made its way to China). These temples also
display statues of the Buddha, sometimes enormous sculptures in gold,
jade, or stone.
Worship generally takes the form of individual prayer or meditation. One
form of spiritual practice that is very popular is physical exercise.
There are three main traditions.
a self-defense technique known in the West as
(or kung fu), combines aspects of boxing and weapon fighting. Shadow
(or tai chi chuan), is a series of slow, graceful gestures combined with
deep breathing. The exercises imitate the movements of animals, including
the tiger, panther, snake, and crane.
is a breathing technique that is intended to strengthen the body by
or life energy. These exercises are practiced by people of all ages and
walks of life; large groups often gather in parks or other public spaces
to perform the exercises together.
Buddhist and Taoist temples hold special prayer gatherings to mark the
full moon and the new moon.
The largest festival of the year is the celebration of the new year or
Spring Festival, whose date varies, falling between mid-January and
mid-February. People clean their houses thoroughly to symbolize a new
start, and children are given money in red envelopes for good luck.
Activities include fireworks and parades with dancers dressed as lions and
dragons. It is a time to honor one’s ancestors.
The birthday of Guanyin, the goddess of mercy, falls between late March
and late April and is observed by visiting Taoist temples. The birthday of
Mazu, the goddess of the sea (also known as Tianhou), is celebrated
similarly. It falls in May or June. The Water-Splashing Festival is
observed in Yunnan Province in mid-April. It involves symbolic bathing and
water splashing that are supposed to wash away bad luck. The Zhuangs mark
the end of the plowing season in the spring with a cattle-soul festival,
which includes a sacrificial ceremony and offerings of food to the cattle.
Moon Festival, or Mid-Autumn Festival, in September or October is
celebrated with fireworks, paper lanterns, and moon gazing. The birthday
of Confucius (28 September) is a time to make pilgrimages to his
birthplace in Shandong Province.
A group of people practice tai chi along the main thoroughfare in
Shanghai. The popular form of exercise emphasizes slow, graceful
Death and the Afterlife.
Funerals are traditionally large and elaborate. The higher the social
standing of the deceased, the more possessions and people were buried with
him or her to ensure entry into the next world. Traditionally, this
included horses, carriages, wives, and slaves. Chinese mourners dress in
white and wrap their heads in white cloths.
Ancestor worship is an important part of the religion, and it is common
Buddhist practice to have a small altar in the house dedicated to deceased
family members. Tomb-Sweeping Day, or
on 5 April, is dedicated to visiting the burial place of one’s
ancestors and paying one’s respects. Food is often placed on graves
as an offering. Ghost Month (late August to late September) is a time when
the spirits of the dead are thought to return to earth. It is not a
propitious time for new beginnings, and anyone who dies during this period
is not buried until the next month.
Medicine and Health Care
Traditional medicine is still widely practiced. It is an ancient,
intricate system that places an emphasis on the whole body rather than
specific ailments. All natural elements, including human beings, are
thought to be made up of
(the female force) and
(the male force). These opposing forces are part of the body’s
Health problems are considered a manifestation of an imbalance of
that disrupts a person’s qi. Remedies to right the imbalance
include snake gallbladder, powdered deer antlers, and rhinoceros horn, as
well as hundreds of different combinations of herbs. Another method of
treatment is acupuncture, which involves the insertion of thin needles
into the body to regulate and redirect the flow of qi. Massage techniques
are also used, and doctors avoid cutting into the body.
Western medical facilities are much more accessible in the cities than in
the countryside. Even those who have access to Western medicine often use
a combination of the two systems, but the government, which runs all the
major health facilities, places a priority on Western medical practices.
Health conditions have improved significantly since 1949. Life expectancy
has risen, and many diseases, including plague, smallpox, cholera, and
typhus, have been eliminated. Smoking is a growing health concern,
particularly since American cigarette companies have begun large-scale
marketing campaigns. HIV and AIDS are increasingly a problem, particularly
in Yunnan province, which borders Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar. It is
by prostitution, a rise in intravenous drug use, and lack of education.
New Year’s Day on 1 January is observed in addition to the
traditional Chinese New Year. Other holidays include International Working
Women’s Day on 8 March, International Labor Day on 1 May, Youth Day
on 4 May, Dragon Boat Festival in May or June, Children’s Day on 1
June, Founding of the Communist Party of China Day on 1 July, Founding of
the People’s Liberation Army Day on 1 August (celebrated with music
and dance performances by military units), Teacher’s Day on 10
September, and National Day on 1 and 2 October.
The Arts and Humanities
Support for the Arts.
The government censors the output of all artists; it is forbidden to
produce work that criticizes the Communist Party or its ideals. There is a
long tradition of imperial patronage of the arts that continues today in
the form of state-funded literary guilds that pay writers for their work.
While providing support to writers, this system also suppresses their
creative freedom. As the economy has become more open, however, the
government has decreased its support, and artists are becoming more
dependent on selling their work.
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. The oldest known anthology
The Book of Songs,
was put together in 600
One of the first individual poets, whose work is still read today, is Qu
Yuan, best known for his piece called
A more popular and less elitist literary tradition developed during the
Ming Dynasty with the dissemination of prose epics. The most famous of
these are work
The Water Margin
The Dream of the Red Chamber.
Western influence in the nineteenth century led to a literature based more
on the vernacular. The first writer to emerge in this new movement was Lu
Xun, whose best known work is
The Rickshaw Boy,
which details the life of rickshaw drivers in Beijing. During the
communist revolution, literature was seen as a tool for promoting
state-sponsored ideology. While the years after the Cultural Revolution
saw some opening in terms of what was permissible, freedom of expression
is still curtailed. Contemporary writers include Zhang Xianliang, whose
work is known for its controversially sexual subject matter, and Lao Gui,
Blood Red Dusk
examines the events of the Cultural Revolution.
Painters are best known for their depictions of nature. Landscapes strive
to achieve a balance between yin, the passive female force, represented by
water, and yang, the male element, represented by rocks and mountains.
These paintings often have writing on them, sometimes by the artist and
sometimes by a scholar from a later era. The inscription can be a poem, a
dedication, or a commentary on the work. Communist politicians also took
to this practice, and many paintings bear the writing of Chairman Mao.
Writing is considered the highest art form, and calligraphy is said to be
the deepest expression of a person’s character.
China has been known for sculpture and pottery since before the earliest
dynasties. The art of pottery reached its pinnacle during the Song
Dynasty, when porcelain was developed.
Bronze vessels have been used for thousands of years as religious
artifacts. They were engraved with inscriptions, and often buried with the
dead. Jade was believed to have magical powers that could ward off evil
spirits. Sculptures made of that material were placed in tombs, and
sometimes corpses were buried in suits made of jade.
Embroidery is practiced by women who decorate clothes, shoes, and bed
linens with colorful, elaborate designs of animals and flowers.
Unlike the Western scale, which has eight tones, the Chinese has five.
There is no harmony in traditional music; all the singers or instruments
follow the melodic line. Traditional instruments include a two-stringed
), a three-stringed flute (
), a vertical flute (
), a horizontal flute (
), and ceremonial gongs (
Opera is a popular traditional art form. There are at least three hundred
different forms of opera from different geographic areas. The performances
are elaborate and highly stylized, involving acrobatic movements and
intricate makeup and costumes. Actors play one of four types of roles: the
leading male (usually a scholar or official), the leading female (usually
played by a man), the painted-face roles (warriors, heroes, demons,
adventurers, and other characters), and the clown. The subject matter is
usually historical, and the language is archaic. Opera is not an
entertainment only for the
Bicycles are one of the most common modes of transportation in
China’s crowded cities.
elite; it is often performed in the marketplace for a few pennies a
There is a lively rock music scene. The most famous performers are Cui
Jian and Lui Huan.
Chinese film gained international acclaim in the 1980s and 1990s. The
films of the director Zhang Yimou deal with social issues, including
women’s lives in the precommunist period and the ramifications of
the Cultural Revolution. His films, which include
Raise the Red Lantern
have often been subject to disapproval or censorship from the government.
The director Xie Fei is beginning to win recognition accolades for his
social commentary films, which include
The Year of Bad Luck.
The State of the Physical and Social Sciences
The Chinese have long been known for their scientific accomplishments;
many discoveries and inventions credited to Western scientists were first
made in China. Among those inventions are the seismoscope (an instrument
used to detect earthquakes), first created in 132
, the mechanical clock (1088), and the compass (eleventh century). A
Chinese alchemist discovered gunpowder by accident in the eleventh
century. Before its use in firearms was developed, its use was in
fireworks. Paper was invented in China in the first century
, woodblock printing in the eighth century
, and movable type in the eleventh century.
Despite its contributions to technological development, Chinese science is
no longer in the forefront. The country began to fall behind during the
nineteenth century, and as the infrastructure and economy weakened, it
could no longer keep up with the Western powers. Today, schools stress
science and technology in an effort to catch up with other countries. The
government prefers to concentrate its efforts on practical projects rather
than in basic research, a policy that does not always please scientists
and has made progress uneven. In the 1980s and 1990s, China developed its
technology in satellites and nuclear weaponry as well as creating a
supercomputer and a hybrid form of high-yield rice.
The social sciences, like the arts, have faced censorship from the
communist government, and the educational system gives science and
technology priority over the social sciences.
Both Beijing and Shanghai have numerous museums dedicated to national
history and archaeology. There are also a number of archaeological museums
in the provinces. The main libraries are in
Beijing and Shanghai, and Beijing is home to the Historical Archives.
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Perry, Elizabeth J., and Mark Selden.
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Im doing a project and need to know.
Also, there are numerous ranks in the military for both enlisted and commissioned officers. This article claims there are none.
THANKS TO TE PEOPLE THAT WRITE IT.
Ex: the clothing activities and traditions what makes them unique and people know there a gang
Ms.Mahlum will be so proud of me and my partner!!!
Helped a lot. Covers lots of topics.
I’m hotel management student and I want information about any 5 countries which located in East & soutEast asia.
Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic:
By Tony Chen|
I had just consumed a pitcher of beer along with too many Chinese-German sausages at the Tsingtao Beer Museum, when I received the email from an editor asking if I had some thoughts about gluttony in China. I immediately felt guilty. After all, earlier that day, at lunch, I had splurged on an extravagant $35 seafood buffet in the Qingdao Le Meridien that cost about the same as an average Chinese laborer’s daily wage.
In my defense, lunch was a work meal—I operate an international freight-forwarding firm in Los Angeles and was meeting longtime partners for the first time. Dinner was more of a dare by a Tsingtao Beer Museum employee who enjoyed goading one of the few visitors to Qingdao, a seaport city, in its tourist off-season.
The idea of gluttony in Chinese culture is an extremely muddled issue. I know this from my frequent trips all over China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan for the last 20 years. These trips have all involved serious eating and drinking of one kind or another, and have made me interested in the stories behind the meals and beverages I’ve enjoyed.
There is no direct translation for “gluttony” in Chinese, not in the colloquial sense. There is certainly no religious law proclaiming gluttony a sin, and there are no Chinese TV shows devoted to ingesting superhuman quantities of food (see Adam Richman’s Man vs. Food ). After all, a good Confucian would not be so crass as to demonstrate such a wanton attitude toward food.
But, there are certainly examples of extravagant consumption of food in China. Among the massive cook-outs and eat-ins are attempts to set world records for the most people eating breakfast in bed , the largest serving of fried rice , the largest piece of tofu , and the biggest stuffed bun .
From what I’ve seen in China, it’s not really about eating for the sole purpose of bodily pleasure. At a recent dinner I had, a group of Sichuan foodies mocked the idea of American gluttony and proclaimed themselves merely lovers of mei shi, “beautiful food.” More often than not, laying out an extraordinary amount of food demonstrates pride, relationship-building, and mian zi—face, the social concept of prestige.
If gluttony ever existed in China, it was reserved for the emperor and the royal court, much as it was in countries across Europe. History books describe extravagant imperial meals that were fit only for the emperor—and maybe a few of his concubines. The most famous imperial feast was “ Manchu Han Imperial Feast ,” a three-day banquet in 1713, thrown by the fourth emperor of the Qing Dynasty. It was the emperor’s 66th birthday and he had just conquered one of his greatest rivals and brought about national unity. To celebrate, there were 108 dishes from six distinct regions of China, including not only beef, pork, mutton, and venison, but also the creative use of ape lip, pork brain, and leopard fetus. To this day, some Beijing restaurants still serve mock “imperial” feasts.
The Chinese commoner’s diet, however, stayed pretty bad for a long time. After the Qing dynasty was overthrown by the nationalist Kuo Ming Tang democratic party in 1912, the government threw immense resources at combating Westerners, Japanese, and fractionists—but not at feeding people. Things definitely got worse when the Communists booted the nationalists off to Taiwan after World War II. Despite benign sounding name, Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward campaign caused severe famine and millions of deaths from 1958 to 1961. No one ate well except Chairman Mao, and perhaps his many mistresses and “nurses.” During the Cultural Revolution, which lasted 20 years, the elite and intelligentsia fled—and, of course, so did their chefs.
So, why do Americans think of the Chinese as heartless eaters of all things?
Blame it on President Nixon, who dined at the Great Hall of the People in 1972, an event broadcast live on the major U.S. networks for three hours straight. The Great Hall was not normally used for dining, but the Chinese Communists rolled out the red carpet in an effort to persuade the American TV audience that their country was not impoverished. President Nixon and Prime Minister Zhou Enlai dined on shark’s fin soup, black mushrooms with mustard greens, spongy bamboo shoots in egg-white consommé, and fish fillets in pickle wine sauce. Americans were smitten. Chinese cuisine, and all those dozens of plates appearing simultaneously on a giant round table, became associated with gluttony, never mind that this was a special display of showmanship.
When, in the ’80s, Deng Xiao Ping decided it was cool to get rich or die tryin’ while still being Communist, a huge wave of poor people became rich, and the middle class blossomed. With money came the desire for nose-to-tail pork and the explosion of a foodie culture, especially after Jiang Zemin’s 1993 push to turn China into a severely regulated capitalist country.
We’re not talking about an American-style obsession with food, driven by Yelp and Guy Fieri . We’re talking about a population even larger than that of the U.S. that suddenly had enough income to buy meat. In the last decade, billions of dollars in chicken feet and pork hocks have been imported from the United States to China to meet the growing demand.
I saw a kind of arms race develop in the realm of business meals. By the ’00s, a 12-course meal of steamed fish, poached crab with roe, giant prawns with chili and scallions, braised abalone, giant pork hocks, more local fishes done up every which way, and a mountain of fried rice was no longer enough to demonstrate sincerity and interest. Real brown-nosing required four-hour banquets on a Tuesday dotted with interminable toasts of Johnny Walker, Hennessy and baijiu (a Molotov cocktail of a grain liquor usually distilled from sorghum), then a few hours at a karaoke club, then even more liquor. During this time, and in these contexts, American business types were doing serious trades and investments in China; they caught a glimpse of these Chinese schmoozing meals and were shocked.
Still, to me, this wasn’t gluttony. This extravagance was about lubricating relationships. Supersize portions don’t exist in Chinese McDonald’s. Buffets are uncommon. Obesity, though said to be steadily rising in the last three decades amongst higher income Chinese, is not commonplace.
In fact, the arrival President Xi Jinping in 2013 has curtailed excess in the name of cracking down on corruption. Lavish banqueting was but one symptom of the Communist graft and extravagances that were going on, which also involved parties with prostitutes, multiple wives, and expensive cars. Government crackdowns on extracurricular spending have taken a toll; even Moutai, the most famous of the baijiu in China, has complained of a drop in sales.
A Central Party edict might be capable of wiping out over-the-top Communist cadre-sponsored banquets, but it can’t wipe out desire from the population. (Nor can it eliminate the fact that having dinner with a business partner is the best way to build camaraderie. Not everyone can play golf, but everyone can gush over abalone.) Technology has changed China, as it has the rest of the planet—and helped to advance the idea that culinary delicacies are within anyone’s reach regardless of income, and that everyone’s dinner is worth sharing on social media.
Major metropolitan areas across China are scrambling to fill storefronts left empty by e-commerce giants. People used to go shopping at the massively constructed malls, but now everything is available on Taibao—the equivalent of Amazon. More often than not, restaurants are moving in. Merchants who formerly trafficked in shoes now sell street snacks from every province. Shoppers are now eaters. Cities prop up dying retail corridors by converting them into colorful “old streets” evocative of street markets filled with nothing but eateries. And in up-and-coming cities like Tianjin—most recently in the news because it was the site of warehouse explosions —entrepreneurs are catering to all strata of society. I passed a street stand that served up food at $1.50 a plate, with bottomless rice, to taxi drivers, who may only eat one meal a day. The restaurant industry is booming so big that Chinese chains like Meizhou Dongpo and Little Sheep are opening up in American cities.
Still, this is not actually gluttony. It is simply 1.37 billion Chinese coming to terms with their starved past and even hungrier future.
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