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Chinese Culture — Characteristics and Facts

Chinese Culture is a broad concept, shaped by its large population and rich history.


It encompasses everything the Chinese have inherited, produced, created, and applied.


Since people are the culture.

Part of the Painting (Qingming Shang He Tu) Along the River During the Qingming Festival of the Song Dynasty
Part of the Painting (Qingming Shang He Tu) Along the River During the Qingming Festival by Artist Zhang Zeduan of the Song Dynasty
Part of the Genre Painting of the Capital City (Bianjing or Kaifeng) of the Song Dynasty by Artist Zhang Zeduan

Along the River During the Qingming Festival (Qingming Shanghe Tu), Genre Painting of Capital City of Song Dynasty, by Artist Zhang Zeduan (1085 — 1145) — Palace Museum

Part of "Shi Ba Xue Shi Tu" the In Regard to Talented and Famous Scholars That Were Serving Tang Tai Zong, Painted by Zhao Ji the Emperor Huizong of Song (1082-1135).

Part of Painting "Eighteen Scholars" Who Served Emperor Tang Taizong (599 — 649), Painted by Emperor Huizong of Song (1082-1135) — Taipei Palace Museum

Origin of Chinese Culture: Combination of Creation Mythology and History


Nowadays, Chinese people consider themselves Descendants of the Flame Emperor (Yan Di) and Yellow Emperor (Huang Di) (Yan Huang Zi Sun). 


They were initially leaders of some strong primitive tribes that originated in the Yellow River area around 4000 to 5000 years ago.

After defeating other tribes and establishing fundamental regimes, they became influential kings and deified ancestors with supernatural power.

Their land has been called the Middle Kingdom, and their descendants are the Chinese people.


Subsequently, more ethnic minority cultures were integrated, and more territory was included as Descendants 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 had Lived

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 the Han is the majority ethnicity. Mandarin is the official spoken language, and Han Zi (Chinese Characters) is the official written language (with 28 other minority written languages). 

Han Zi is named after the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD).


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 underwent several evolutions.

Different Stages of Chinese Characters

Different Stages of Chinese Characters

Relationship with Nature: Fight and Conform

Since the Neolithic period, humans have been exploring and building relationships with nature.

Kings in the prehistoric era, such as King Yao, King Shun, and Yu the Great, led people, invented advanced tools, cured diseases, and conquered the Great Flood, among other achievements.

In various 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, in times without natural disasters or severe circumstances, Taoism, one of the leading philosophical schools, suggests that people should learn, conform to nature, and blend into society.

Yu the Great Leading People Defending the Great Flood

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, nurturing and destroying everything.


It conforms to and tolerates all things on earth while keeping a low profile.

Therefore, modesty, one of the most important representative characteristics of water, has been an essential trait in Chinese culture.

Chinese Landscape Painting "Chongjiang Diezhang Tu" by Zhao Mengfu 1
Chinese Landscape Painting "Chongjiang Diezhang Tu" by Zhao Mengfu 2

Water Landscape Painting "Chongjiang Diezhang Tu" by Zhao Mengfu (1254 — 1322) of the Yuan Dynasty — Taipei Palace Museum

The Doctrine of the Mean: Appropriateness and Harmony

Another important trait of Chinese culture is the Doctrine of the Mean.

According to Confucius, the Doctrine of the Mean represents one of the highest moral and intellectual levels one can attain.

The Doctrine of the Mean Zhong Yong

After considering the worst and best scenarios, the most appropriate means would be an excellent choice. 


This requires people to think from significant, all-around perspectives, deal with negative emotions like impulse or anger, and behave moderately. 


By following this, harmony could be obtained: connection with other people and one’s inner emotions. 

Therefore, adhering to the Doctrine of the Mean also leads to the implicit expression of one’s emotions.

To this day, most Chinese people still express their sentiments implicitly, whether it be happiness or discontent, love or hatred.

Ritual Jade (Yu Bi) of State Lu During the Warring States Period

Ritual Jade (Yu Bi) of State Lu During the Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC) — Shandong Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Integrated Philosophical Ideology: Fusion of Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism

Chinese Philosophy encompasses morals, relationships, destiny, society, and the universe.

During the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC — 403 BC) and Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC), numerous philosophical schools emerged in China.


Among them, Taoism, Confucianism, Mohism, and Legalism were the four largest. 

In the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), Confucianism became the dominant official ideology, Taoism Religion was formed, and Buddhism was introduced.

Subsequently, these three traditions learned from each other, at times receiving appreciation or suppression from monarchs, and eventually converged to some degree. 

While they remain three independent religious or philosophical ideologies today, most Chinese individuals incorporate ideas from or are influenced by, all of them.

Convergence Temple of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism in North Mount Heng

Convergence Temple of Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism in North Mount Heng

Polytheistic Religions and Beliefs in Chinese Culture

The Shang Dynasty (1600 BC — 1046 BC) was an empire that highly worshipped deities, and the majority of inscriptions on bones or tortoise shells from this era were related to divination.

However, during the following Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC), there was a shift towards ancestor worship and social etiquette, particularly as atheistic philosophical schools like Taoism and Confucianism emerged.

Gradually, as Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism converged to some extent, the masters and deities of these three schools came to be respected as honorable gods.

In addition to this, influential historical figures were apotheosized and worshipped as powerful immortals, including kings like Yan Di and Huang Di, prime ministers like Jiang Shang, generals like Li Jing, and local heroes.


Besides ancient gods in Chinese Creation Myths, many mountains, rivers, lakes, seas, and forests have their Guardian Deities.

Chinese Gods, Goddesses, Deities, and Immortals

Gods, Goddesses, Deities, and Immortals in "Eighty-Seven Celestials" by Wu Daozi (about 680 — 758). 

Agricultural Culture and Correlative Characteristics


China remained primarily an agricultural country until the year 1957.


Over thousands of years, this agricultural legacy bestowed upon Chinese Culture a set of distinctive characteristics.

Unearthed Food (Dumplings and Desserts) and Utensils from the Tang Dynasty

Unearthed Food (Dumplings and Desserts) and Utensils of Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) — National Museum of China (Photo by Kanjianji)

  • Valuing of Practical and Stability.


Agricultural production consists of periodic, repetitive work; 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; business people and their families stayed in a lower status.


The allocation of resources through the business was way less critical than agricultural production in ancient times. 


  • Collectivism and Big Clan.


In ancient times before modern types of equipment were widely applied, agricultural activities needed people to work together, which proved way more efficient. 


Therefore, collectivism has been highly encouraged and followed. 

Farmland in Middle and Lower Reaches of Yangtze River Area

Farmland in Middle and Lower Reaches Area of Yangtze River, Photo by Sun Gongfu.

  • Preference for boys.


In the ancient era, when men carried the family name and worked on farmland as primary 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.


In the Chinese Calendar, 24 Solar Terms are an accurate guide for agricultural activities in the Middle Kingdom area.


Most Traditional Chinese Festivals originated based on agricultural productions.

24 Solar Terms in Chinese Calendar

24 Solar Terms in Chinese Calendar

Great Unity and Centralized Authority


Agricultural Economy means many distributed, relatively independent villages and towns.


However, when big natural disasters 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 essential ideology in Chinese culture. 

Emperor Qin Shi Huang's Certificate (Hu Fu) to Deploy Forces Garrisoned in Yangling

Emperor Qin Shi Huang's Certificate (Hu Fu) to Deploy Forces Garrisoned in Yangling — National Museum of China

Most people, therefore, considered their country as a bigger home.


A consensus is that sticking together means being stronger.


After seeing all the ups and downs in history and trying everything to survive and thrive, they knew they were the only ones who could protect themselves.  


Therefore, most Chinese have a zeal for a unified, strong country with absolute independence. 

Unearthed Brocade Barcer of the Han Dynasty

Brocade Barcer of Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD) —  Xinjiang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Divine Right of Kings and Replacement of Dynasties


Throughout imperial history, the Divine Right of Kings has been a significant concept in Chinese culture.

The kings of the Xia Dynasty (about 2070 BC — 1600 BC) claimed that deities granted them the right to rule.

Subsequently, the Emperors of China from the following dynasties were believed to be the sons of heaven, bestowed with the divine right to rule over others.

Ancient Building on Mount Tai

Mount Tai in Shandong, where remarkable emperors hold the Feng Shan ceremony to demonstrate their bestowed right from heaven.

However, it is also believed that the secular world can represent the will of heaven in some ways; for instance, natural disasters were considered signs of unqualified reign.

Emperor Liu Che officially set this Interaction between Heaven and Mankind theory proposed by Confucianist Dong Zhongshu in 134 BC.


The only permanent thing is changing. 

Therefore, rebellion and the overthrow of dynasties frequently occurred throughout China's history, allowing anyone to establish an empire in chaotic times. 


Lord Tang of Shang replaced the former Xia Dynasty (about 2070 BC — 1600 BC), peasants 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 the impoverished Zhu Yuanzhang founded the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644). 

Ruins of the Front Hall of the Weiyang Palace

Ruins of the Front Hall of the Imperial Weiyang Palace of Han Dynasty, Photo from Shaanxi Cultural Heritage Administration.

Imperial Examination and High 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 titles 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, the Imperial Examination 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

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 men to be involved in the ruling class.


In the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279) and the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644), 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 family origin, power could be obtained through exams.


The high respect for knowledge and scholars became one of the 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 the Champian of Imperial Exam In The Year 1598

Test Paper of Champian of Imperial Exam In The Year 1598 — Qingzhou Museum (Photo by Dongmiying)

Education System Throughout the History of China


Education is one of the most important, sometimes the only way, for people to obtain knowledge. 


From the Xia Dynasty (about 2070 BC — 1600 BC), only nobles had the right to learn in national schools; civilians 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.


Afterward, official and private schools coexisted, while many scholars built their academic institutions to teach and communicate, such as Dong Zhongshu, Zhu Xi, and Wang Yangming.


Nowadays, Compulsory Education in China is nine years (6 years in elementary plus three 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. 

White Deer Grotto Academy in Mount Lu, Firstly Built in 940, Great Philosopher Zhu Xi Reconstructed and Taught there.

White Deer Grotto Academy in Mount Lu, Firstly Built in 940. 

Content of Education in Chinese Culture

From the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC), the Six Arts (known as Liu Yi in Chinese) 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 correctly in these etiquettes. 


  • Music (Yue): Music in ancient China was mainly used for essential worship ceremonies. It usually includes poems (as the lyrics), music, and dance. Centuries later, music was welcomed more as a means to entertain.  


  • Archery (She): One of the essential skills in defending one’s kingdom in wars requires strength, patience, power, and excellent judgment. 


  • Equestrianism (Yu): Riding horses and driving heavy chariots were 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. 


  • Mathematics (Shu): Besides math skills, Yin Yang and Five Elements were also required to learn how ancient Chinese interpreted the universe. 


Therefore, many famous civil officers in history, besides excellent scores in the Imperial Examination, could also command the army in wars, such as Yan Zhenqing, Yu Qian, and Sun Chengzong


Nowadays, during nine 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

Six Arts in Ancient Chinese Education

Transient Powerful Clans and Frequent Shifting of Authority

Starting from the Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC), both Feudatory States and Feudal Lords were abolished, marking the official end of hereditary political power.


The central government directly assigned officials.

After the Imperial Examination had been widely implemented, intelligent people were selected and promoted, ensuring that a clan couldn't control political power for a long time. 


Besides, policies were applied to guarantee this flowability, such as forbidding officers to serve in their hometown or nearby regions, the powerful prime minister taking his entire family back to his hometown after he retired, etc.


If their descendants wanted to get involved in politics, they needed to study hard and take the Imperial Examination themselves. 

Unearthed Copper Writing Brush Holder (Bi Jia) of the Song Dynasty

Copper Writing Brush Holder (Bi Jia) of the Song — Zhuji Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Therefore, very few families could sustain long-term prosperity, often thriving for just a few decades.


For emperors that could be inherited and obtain centralized power, no dynasty lasted over 300 years.


Those powerful clans were fugacious primarily compared to the thousands of years of China's long history. 


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 wouldn't leave any political legacy to their kids nor earn much money (as long as they didn't embezzle).


However, they would gain respect and 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 Chinese culture, another noteworthy characteristic is the profound passion for historical recording that spans millennia.

In the 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, mainly regarding 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.

Bronze Water Container (Qiang Pan) with 284 Characters Carved Inside, Recorded History of First Seven Kings of the Zhou Dynasty

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


Starting from the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 BC), some official historians were established to record the emperor’s daily lives in detail, including where he went, whom he talked to, what he said, whom he slept with, etc.


Those detailed Living Notes (Qi Ju Zhu) would be used to write the national history but were not allowed to be read by the emperor nor released to the public. 

Emperors' Living Note of the Han Dynasty

Emperors' Living Note of the Han Dynasty

Other historians were responsible for objectively recording important national events; their diligent works ensured that 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 who had lived and fought in this land, consisted of Chinese culture and history.


Read Brief Introduction to Chinese History

The Great Wall of China, Photo from Official Site of Jinshanling Great Wall.

The Great Wall of China, Photo from Official Site of Jinshanling.

Cultural Confidence


Before the 19th century, Chinese people held great confidence in their culture.


Despite experiencing numerous ups and downs over thousands of years, they consistently demonstrated resilience, rebuilding prosperity even in the face of colossal destruction.


War and separation have typically been temporary, with peace and unity ultimately prevailing.


From 1840 to 1945, most developed countries invaded China, colonized many places, and snatched many benefits. From the Chinese people’s perspective, those Western countries were advanced in all aspects: weapons, technology, systems, culture, and more.


Chinese people living in that period wondered why they kept losing. They tried to figure out why they had been fighting so bravely and fearlessly, but still couldn’t live the life that most Chinese people expected: peace and stability and could reap what they sow. 

Second World War in China

In the darkest era, the Japanese invaded and implemented large-scale massacres along with a series of colonial policies. While most Chinese people tried to stay alive and fought bravely, they also endured colossal desperation.

This desperation stemmed not only from countless military losses but also from confusion about why China lagged so far behind and whether they could recover independence.

Therefore, the 19th to mid-20th century was a dark period when the Chinese had the lowest level of cultural confidence.


Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism were questioned and criticized.

Some even suggested abolishing Han Zi (Chinese Characters) and Latinizing the Chinese language

Latinized Pinyin for Pronunciation and Chinese Characters for Writing

Latinized Pinyin for Pronunciation and Chinese Characters for Writing

After the mid-20th century, Chinese people stopped questioning themselves, but many still acknowledged how much they had lagged.

Therefore, from around 1950 to 1980, it was normal for some highly educated Chinese individuals to work as blue-collar workers in Western countries, seeking a better life in more affluent nations.

Gradually, with economic development, more people started to realize that the reasons for China's lagging are diverse, and they are regaining prosperity with their own hands.

Their culture, despite its many defects, is the essence that has supported them in navigating through those dark times and flourishing in stable eras.

They realized that they were as good as others. They have been inheriting, living in, and creating Chinese culture.


After experiencing the best and worst moments in history and seeking to learn from other cultures and advanced sciences, the most suitable path is the best path.


Thousands of years later, the Doctrine of the Mean continues to be followed in modern China.

Part of Painting Thousands Miles of Mountains and Rivers (Qian Li Jiang Shan Tu), by Artist Wang Ximeng of the Song Dynasty

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 prosperous.


Most of them don't need to worry about basic necessities and can receive education at least till middle school.

They learn foreign languages, may study or travel abroad, celebrate foreign festivals, and watch exotic films.


Meanwhile, they inherit and embrace their own culture by reading history, reciting ancient poems and articles, admiring brave heroes, enjoying Chinese food, following certain traditions, and expressing their love for their country.


Most importantly, they have formed some types of New Culture.

New Modern Culture in China


In addition to traditional literary forms like poems, novels, opera (Xi Qu), and drama, Chinese Crosstalk (Xiang Sheng), music, modern TV series, and films, several other new types of cultures are gaining popularity in China.

In recent years, the Literacy Rate in China surpassed 95%, and over 829 million people have access to the internet. 

This has enabled more people to post their works online, including novels, photos, videos, etc., giving rise to the new Internet Pop Culture.


Web Novels are primarily long, serial novels that everyone can post online. Famous types include:


  • Wuxia: About the adventurous story of chivalrous heroes with excellent martial arts skills who pursue justice and protect others.


Xiu Xian Novel in Modern Pop Chinese Culture

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 also popular among young people. 


Many retired, older people enjoy Group Singing and Square Dancing (Guang Chang Wu) in parks or local squares, an excellent way to socialize and exercise.  


Other subcultures introduced from abroad are trendy among youngsters, such as Meme/Sticker Culture,  ACG Culture, Barrage Culture, and more. 

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