Chinese Culture — Characteristics and Facts
Chinese Culture is a broad concept, due to its large scale population and long history.
It includes all things that the Chinese have inherited, produced, created, and applied; therefore, people are culture.
Original — Combination of Creation Mythology and History
They were originally leaders of some strong primitive tribes that originated in the Yellow River area around 4000 to 5000 years ago.
After having defeated other tribes and established fundamental regimes, they became influential kings, as well as deified ancestors with supernatural power.
Their land has been called the Middle Kingdom, and their descendant is Chinese people.
Afterward, more ethnic minority cultures were integrated and more territory was included as Descendant of Yan Di and Huang Di (Yan Huang Zi Sun).
Painted Pottery Basin with Human and Fish Patterns of Yangshao Culture (Around 5000 BC — 3000 BC), Believed the Same Time and Place that Flame Emperor and Yellow Emperor had Lived — National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Now, China has 56 ethnic groups and 129 dialects, of which Han is the majority ethnicity, Mandarin is the official spoken language, and Han Zi (Chinese Characters) is the official written language (there are other 28 minority written languages).
Han Zi is named after the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD) in history.
The earliest excavated Chinese Characters are Inscriptions on Bones or Tortoise Shells of the Shang Dynasty (about 1600 BC — 1046 BC).
Afterward, as one of the most original, ancient, and consistent pictographs, Chinese Characters went through several evolutions.
Different Stages of Chinese Characters
Relationship with Nature — Fight and Conform
In other Creation Myths and Legends, people repaired the broken sky, moved mountains, filled seas, shot down suns, invented ways to obtain fire, and cultivated plants.
However, when there are no natural disasters or under severe circumstances, Taoism, one of the leading philosophical schools, suggested people learn and conform the nature, and blend into society.
Yu the Great Lead People Fighting Against the Huge Flood
Water — the Highest Good
Around 2500 years ago, water was considered the highest good by Lao Zi, in his masterpiece Dao De Jing.
The shapeless water can be both soft and powerful and can nurture and destroy everything. It conforms to and tolerates all things on earth, and keeps a low profile.
Therefore, modesty, one of the most important representative characteristics of the water, has been an essential characteristic of Chinese culture.
The Doctrine of the Mean — Appropriate and Harmony
The Doctrine of the Mean, according to Confucius, is one of the best moral and intellectual levels that one can reach.
After one has considered the worst and best scenarios, the most appropriate means would be an excellent choice.
This requires people to think from big, all-around perspectives, deal with negative emotions like impulse or anger, and behave in a moderate way.
By following this, harmony would be able to be obtained: harmony with other people, and among one’s inner emotions.
Therefore, following the Doctrine of the Mean also would lead to the implicit expression of one’s emotions.
Till today, most Chinese people still show their sentiments implicitly, happiness or discontent, love, or hatred.
Integrated Philosophy — Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism
Chinese Philosophy is in respect to morals, relationships, destiny, society, and the universe.
In the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC — 403 BC) and Warring States Period, (403 BC — 221 BC) there were many philosophical schools in China, among which Taoism, Confucianism, Mohism, and Legalism were the four largest ones.
Afterward, these three learned from each other, sometimes got appreciated or suppressed by some monarchs, and finally converged to some degree.
They are still three independent religious or philosophical ideologies now, however, most Chinese obtain some ideas from or are influenced by all of them.
Polytheistic Religion and Belief
Shang Dynasty (1600 BC — 1046 BC) is an empire that highly worshiped deities, most of the Inscriptions on Bones or Tortoise Shells from this era are about divination.
The following Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC), however, paid more attention to Ancestor Worship and social etiquettes, when many atheistic philosophical schools like Taoism and Confucianism were formed.
Gradually, when Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism converged to some extent, the masters and deities of these three schools were respected as honorable gods.
Meantime, some apotheosized influential historical figures were also worshiped as powerful immortals, including kings like Yan Di and Huang Di, prime ministers like Jiang Shang, generals like Li Jing, and some local heroes.
Besides ancient gods in Chinese Creation Myths, many mountains, rivers, lakes, seas, and forests also have their own guardian deities.
Agriculture Culture and Correlative Characteristics
China had been an agricultural country in history, until the year 1957.
Thousands of years of the agricultural economy brought some special characters:
Valuing of Practical and Stability.
Agricultural production consists of a series of periodic, repetitive works; they get what they sow, admire hard work, and long for good weather with proper wind, rain, and sunshine.
Commerce, however, had been highly restrained in history; businessmen and their families stayed in a lower status.
The allocation of resources through the business was way less important than agricultural production in ancient times.
Collectivism and Big Clan.
In ancient times before modern types of equipment were widely applied, agricultural activities need people to work together, which proved way more efficient.
Therefore, collectivism has been highly encouraged and followed.
Preference for boys.
In the ancient era when men were carrying the family name, and working on farmland as main providers, they were the essence of a big family and a strong clan.
This preference for boys now is mostly abolished in big cities, however, in some villages and conservative towns, this is still popular.
Love for Land.
For farmers, the land is their life, family, hope, and everything.
Therefore, they were highly attached to their farmland, which they were dedicated to cultivating and protecting.
Losing or selling land, however, would be considered shameful.
Agriculture Oriented Calendar and Festivals.
Most Traditional Chinese Festivals originated based on agricultural productions.
Great Unity and Centralized Authority
Agriculture Economy means many distributed, relatively independent villages and towns.
However, when big natural disasters happened or exterior enemies invaded, a powerful authority was needed to organize people and resources to protect themselves.
After the first centralized, unified Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC) was established, Great Unity became an important ideology in Chinese culture.
Most people, therefore, considered their country as a bigger home.
A consensus is that sticking together means stronger.
After having seen all the ups and downs in history, and trying everything to survive and thrive, they knew that they are the only ones that can protect themselves.
Therefore, most Chinese have a zeal for a unified, strong country with absolute independence.
Divine Right of Kings and Replacement of Dynasties
Since kings of the Xia Dynasty (about 2070 BC — 1600 BC) claimed that their ruling right was granted by deities.
Afterward, the Emperors of China of the following dynasties were believed as the sons of heaven, who were given the right to rule others.
However, it is also believed the secular world can represent the will of heaven in some ways; for instance, natural disasters were signs of unqualified reign.
The only permanent thing is changing.
Therefore, rebellion and overthrow of a dynasty frequently happened in the history of China, and everyone has the possibility to build an empire in chaotic times.
Lord Tang of Shang replaced the former Xia Dynasty (about 2070 BC — 1600 BC), peasant Chen Sheng and Wu Guang overthrew the Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC), civilian Liu Bang established the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), and poverty Zhu Yuanzhang founded the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644).
Ruins of the Front Hall of the Imperial Weiyang Palace of Han Dynasty, Photo from Shaanxi Cultural Heritage Administration.
Imperial Examination and Highly Respect for Knowledge
Shang Yang’s Reform (356 BC — 350 BC) regulated that civilians could get noble titles through military achievements, while nobles would lose their honorable identity for being incapable.
Afterward, movements among social hierarchies were officially implemented.
In stable eras of unified dynasties, however, talented people also would expect to change their lives.
Therefore, there came the Imperial Examination which was invented in the Sui Dynasty (581 — 619).
Imperial Examination in "Xu Xianqing Huanji Tu", Painted in 1588 by artists Yu Ren and Wu Yue, is now preserved in the Palace Museum.
With further improvement in the following dynasties, this system allowed more and more men involved in the ruling class.
In the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279) and the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644), all of the powerful officials, such as the Prime Minister, were strictly selected from people who got good scores in the Imperial Examination.
When one's talent triumphed over the family origin, power could be obtained through exams, highly respect for the knowledge and the scholar became one of the most essential aspects of Chinese culture. Most people would have their boys educated as long as they could afford it.
Nowadays, students with good scores are respected by their classmates, and people still invest as much money as they can afford for children to get the best education. High schools, colleges, and Civil servants still use strict exams to select people.
Test Paper of Champian of Imperial Exam In The Year 1598 — Qingzhou Museum (Photo by Dongmiying)
Education is one of the most important, sometimes the only way, for people to obtain knowledge.
Since the Xia Dynasty (about 2070 BC — 1600 BC), only nobles had the right to learn in national schools; civilians just worked in peaceful times and fought in wars.
Until Confucius (551 BC — 479 BC) established the first private school in the history of China, education finally came into the civilian world.
Nowadays, Compulsory Education in China is 9 years (6 years in elementary plus 3 years in middle school) and is free in public schools. Some provinces extend it to 12 or 15 years, and the nationwide extension is still under discussion.
Content of Education
Since the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC), the Six Arts (Chinese name Liu Yi) were the main courses in noble schools.
Etiquette (Li): Detailed explanation of National Etiquette, Auspicious Rite, Grief Ceremony, Military and Award Ceremony, as well as how to dress up, talk, greet and behave properly in these etiquettes.
Music (Yue): Music in ancient China was mainly used for important worship ceremonies. It usually includes poems (as the lyric), music, and dance. Centuries later, music was welcomed more as a means to entertain.
Archery (She): One of the most important skills in defending one’s kingdom in wars, requires strength, patience, power, and excellent judgment.
Equestrianism (Yu): Riding horses and driving heavy chariots were both necessary skills for noblemen, who should be able to serve kings in peaceful eras and fight in wars.
Calligraphy (Shu): Includes writing good-looking Chinese characters, reading important books, and writing excellent essays and poems.
Nowadays during 9 years of compulsory education, Chinese, Math, English, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Politics, History, Geology, and Computer are the main courses in public schools.
Six Arts in Ancient Chinese Education
Transient Powerful Clan
Since the Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC), the Feudatory States and Feudal Lords were all abolished, and the hereditary political power was officially ended. Officials were directly assigned by the central government.
After the Imperial Examination had been widely implemented, intelligent people kept being selected and promoted, which made sure that the political power won't be controlled by a clan for a long time.
Besides, a series of policies were applied to guarantee this flowability, such as forbidding officers to serve in their hometown or near regions, the powerful prime minister should take his entire family back to his hometown after he retired, etc.
If their descendants wanted to get involved in politics, they need to study hard and take the Imperial Examination by themselves.
Copper Writing Brush Holder (Bi Jia) of the Song — Zhuji Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Therefore, very few families could keep flourishing longstanding, mostly just decades. For emperors that could be inherited and obtained centralized power, no dynasty lasted over 300 years.
Compared to the thousands of years of the long history of China, those powerful clans were mostly quite fugacious.
In that case, many people still dedicated their lives to studying, trying to achieve good scores in the Imperial Examination to get involved in politics, even though they knew that they probably won’t leave any political legacy to their kids, nor earn much money (as long as they didn’t embezzle).
However, they would gain respect, realize political ambition, and those very excellent ones could leave their names in Historical Books.
A good reputation in historical records is one of the most honorable achievements that a person could obtain in Chinese culture.
Passion for Historical Recording
In Xia Dynasty (about 2070 BC — 1600 BC), Official Historians were set in government to record important events.
Inscriptions on Bones or Tortoise Shells of the Shang Dynasty (about 1600 BC — 1046 BC), the earliest excavated Chinese Characters, were mostly in regard to recording important national activities and divinations. Gradually, the king’s speeches and commands were included as well.
Centuries later, Confucius edited and wrote the earliest existing historical books, after which more grand historical masterpieces were published.
Unearthed Bronze Ritual Water Container (Qiang Pan) with 284 Characters Carved Inside, Recorded History of First Seven Kings of the Zhou Dynasty — Baoji Museum
Emperors’ Living Note
Since Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 BC), some official historians were established to record the emperor’s daily lives in detail, including where did he go, whom he talked to, what he said, whom he slept with, etc.
Those detailed Living Notes (Qi Ju Zhu) would be used to write national history but were not allowed to be read by the emperor nor released to the public.
Emperors' Living Note of the Han Dynasty
Other historians were responsible to record important national events objectively; their diligent works made sure all the history was well documented and remembered.
Those royals and talented people who left their names in these historical records, together with large numbers of commoners that had lived and fought in this land, consisted of Chinese culture and history.
Before the 19th century, Chinese people had great confidence in their culture. They had experienced many ups and downs in thousands of years of history, but they always could regain prosperity out of huge destruction.
War and separation have been usually just temporary, while peace and unity would always arrive in the end.
From 1840 to 1945, most developed countries invaded China, colonized many places, and snatched a great number of benefits. From the Chinese people’s perspective, those western countries were advanced in all aspects: weapons, technology, system, culture, etc.
Chinese people living in that period wondered why they kept losing. They were trying to figure out why they have been fighting so bravely and fearlessly, but they still couldn’t live the life that most Chinese people expected: peace, stability, and could reap what they sow.
In the darkest era when the Japanese invaded and implemented large-scale massacres and a series of colonial policies. Most Chinese people tried to stay alive and fight bravely, but also suffered from huge desperation.
This desperation isn't only coming from countless military losses, it was also from the confusion about why China was so lagged behind and whether they were able to recover independence.
Therefore, the 19th to mid-20th century was the dark area when the Chinese had the lowest level of cultural confidence.
Latinized Pinyin for Pronunciation and Chinese Characters for Writing
After the mid-20th century, Chinese people stopped questioning themselves, but many of them still knew and admit how much they had lagged behind.
Therefore, around 1950 to 1980, it was normal for some very well-educated Chinese people to work as blue collars in western countries, trying to live a better life in a richer country.
Gradually, with the development of the economy, more people realized that the reasons China for having lagged behind were various, and they are able to regain prosperity on their own hands.
Their culture, despite many defects, is the essence that has supported them in going through those dark times, and flourishing in stable eras.
They realized that they are as good as others; they are inheriting, living in, and creating Chinese culture.
After having experienced the worst and the best in history, trying to learn about other cultures and advanced sciences, the most suitable path is the best path. Thousands of years later, the Doctrine of the Mean is still followed in modern China.
Part of Painting "Thousands Miles of Mountains and Rivers" (Qian Li Jiang Shan Tu), by Artist Wang Ximeng (1096 — 1119) — The Palace Museum
Chinese Youngsters and New Culture
Young people in China today are born and grow up in an era when their country is stable and not poor. Most of them don’t need to worry about food and clothes and could be educated at least till middle school.
They learn foreign languages, maybe also study or travel abroad, celebrate foreign festivals, and watch the exotic film; in the meanwhile, they still read history, recite ancient poems and articles, admire brave heroes, enjoy Chinese food, follow certain traditions, love their country, most importantly, have formed some types of New Culture.
New Modern Culture in China
Besides traditional literature forms like poems, novels, opera (Xi Qu) and drama, Chinese Crosstalk (Xiang Sheng), music, modern TV series, and films, there are some other new types of cultures that are popular in China.
In recent years, the Literacy Rate in China surpassed 95%, and over 829 million people have access to the internet.
This allows more people to post their works online, such as novels, photos, videos, etc., which formed the new Internet Pop Culture.
Web Novels are mostly long, serial novels that everyone can post online. Famous types include:
Wuxia: About the adventurous story of chivalrous heroes with excellent martial art skills, who pursue justice and protect others.
Xiu Xian Novel in Modern Pop Chinese Culture
Besides Internet Novels, such as Short Videos on social media like TikTok and Online Games like Arena of Valorv, are popular among young people too.
Retired, older people, many of them enjoy Group Singing and Square Dancing (Guang Chang Wu) in parks or local squares, a good way for them to socialize and exercise.
Other subcultures that are introduced from abroad are trendy among youngsters, such as Meme/Sticker Culture, ACG Culture, Barrage Culture, and more.
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