Chinese Culture — Characteristics and Facts
Chinese Culture is a broad concept due to its large population and long history.
It includes everything the Chinese inherited, produced, created, and applied; therefore, people are culture.
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
Original — 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 having defeated other tribes and established fundamental regimes, they became influential kings and 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 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 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 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
Relationship with Nature — Fight and Conform
Kings in the prehistoric era, such as King Yao, King Shun, and Yu the Great, led people and invented advanced tools, cured diseases, conquered the Huge Flood, and so on.
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 severe circumstances, Taoism, one of the leading philosophical schools, suggests that people learn and conform to 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 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.
Water Landscape Painting "Chongjiang Diezhang Tu" by Zhao Mengfu (1254 — 1322) of the Yuan Dynasty — Taipei Palace Museum
The Doctrine of the Mean — Appropriate and Harmony
According to Confucius, the Doctrine of the Mean is one of the best moral and intellectual levels one can reach.
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 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.
Ritual Jade (Yu Bi) of State Lu During the Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC) — Shandong Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Integrated Philosophy — Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism
Chinese philosophy concerns 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.
In the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), Confucianism became the dominant official ideology, Taoism Religion was formed, and Buddhism was introduced.
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) was an empire that highly worshiped deities; most of the Inscriptions on Bones or Tortoise Shells from this era are about divination.
However, the following Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC) paid more attention to Ancestor Worship and social etiquette 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.
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 local heroes.
Besides ancient gods in Chinese Creation Myths, many mountains, rivers, lakes, seas, and forests have their 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 unique characteristics:
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.
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.
Great Unity and Centralized Authority
Agriculture 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 — 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.
Divine Right of Kings and Replacement of Dynasties
Since kings of the Xia Dynasty (about 2070 BC — 1600 BC) claimed that deities granted their ruling right.
Afterward, the Emperors of China of the following dynasties were believed to be the sons of heaven who were given the right to rule others.
However, it is also believed that the secular world can represent the will of heaven in some ways; for instance, natural disasters were signs of unqualified reign.
Emperor Liu Che officially set this Interaction between Heaven and Mankind theory proposed by Confucianist Dong Zhongshu in 135 BC.
The only permanent thing is changing.
Therefore, rebellion and overthrowing a dynasty frequently happened in the history of China, and everyone could 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 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, 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 scholar 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 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 worked peacefully 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.
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 correctly in these etiquettes.
Music (Yue): Music in ancient China was mainly used for essential 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 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
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. 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 should take 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.
Copper Writing Brush Holder (Bi Jia) of the Song — Zhuji Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Therefore, very few families could keep flourishing longstanding, primarily for just 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, 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, 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.
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 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
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 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 over thousands of years, but they could always regain prosperity from colossal destruction.
War and separation have usually been 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 many 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 had been fighting so bravely and fearlessly, but they still couldn’t live the life that most Chinese people expected: peace and stability and could reap what they sow.
In the darkest era, 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 colossal desperation.
This desperation wasn't only coming from countless military losses but also from the confusion about why China was so lagging behind and whether they could recover independence.
Therefore, the 19th to mid-20th century was the dark area when the Chinese had the lowest level of cultural confidence.
Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism were questioned and criticized; some people even suggested abolishing Han Zi (Chinese Characters) and Latinizing the Chinese language.
Latinized Pinyin for Pronunciation and Chinese Characters for Writing
After the mid-20th century, Chinese people stopped questioning themselves, but many still knew and admitted how much they had lagged.
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 more affluent countries.
Gradually, with the development of the economy, more people realized that the reasons China for having lagged were various, and they were regaining 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 they were as good as others; they were inheriting, living in, and creating Chinese culture.
After having experienced the worst and the best in history and trying to learn about other cultures and advanced sciences, the best path is the most suitable. 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 until 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, some other new types of cultures 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 primarily 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.
Xianxia: About immortal cultivation based on Chinese mythology and Taoism Religion, as well as chivalrous and benevolent virtues.
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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