Although China’s size and shape has continuously changed over time, there has been an uninterrupted thread of history connecting those from 6000 years ago to the China of today, making it the longest-lasting complex civilization on earth.
Shang dynasty. A society known as the Shang developed in central China around 1766 BC. It was tiny, about 200kms across and used Chinese writing on oracle bones.
Spring and Autumn and Warring States. Around 1050, the Zhou conquered the Shang and along with other states in the next millennium entered long periods of conflict known as the ‘Spring and Autumn’ (792-481 BC) and the ‘Warring States’ (471-221 BC). The Chinese world in the 5th century was both warlike and intellectually fertile with the Confucius (551-479 BC) system of thought and ethics underpinning Chinese culture for the next 2500 years. He advocated an ordered and ethical society obedient towards hierarchies, a far cry from the warfare of the time he lived in.
Qin Dynasty. The Warring States ended decisively in 221 BC when the Qin kingdom conquered other states in the central Chinese region. Qin Shi Huang, a particularly cruel, tyrannical ruler, was the first in a line of rulers that would last until 1912. He built vast public works including walls that eventually evolved into the Great Wall. He also unified the currency, measurements and written language, forming a cohesive state.
Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD). A peasant, Liu Bang (256-195 BC) conquered China and the name Han still refers to ethnic Chinese. Emperor Wu (140-87 BC) institutionalized Confucian norms in government by promoting merit with examinations for entry into the bureaucracy. But estate owners controlled more and more land, another recurring theme throughout Chinese history leading to the collapse and downfall of the Han after an uprising of the Taoists (Yellow Turbans). Han trade along the Silk Road showed China to be fundamentally a Eurasian power in its relations. The great Chinese explorer, Zhang Qian demonstrated the power of trade and alliances with northern India. Chinese influence extended into Korea and Vietnam.
Wei Dynasty (386-594 AD). Between the 3rd and 6th centuries, the non-Chinese, northern and Buddhist Wei dynasty left behind the fine Buddhist art of the caves outside Dunhuang.
Sui Dynasty (581-618). A succession of rival regimes finally reunified under Yang Jian (d 604). His son, Sui Yangdi unified the north and south through construction of the Grand Canal, the most important communication route between north and south until the 19th century. He was assassinated after three unsuccessful incursions into Korea.
Tang Dynasty (618-907). They embraced Central Asian cultures, wore Indian clothes and traded via the Silk Road. The Tang are regarded as the cultural zenith of China with fine poets, sculpture, and a legal code. Under Taizong (r626-49), modern Xian became the world’s most dazzling capital with a foreign quarter, a million people, a market that traded with Persia, and an astonishing wall surrounding 83 sq km of the city. There were 91 Buddhist temples here in 722 and tolerance to all religions. Taizong was succeeded by China’s sole woman emperor, We Zetian (r 690-705) who extended the empire well north of the Great Wall and into the far west to inner Asia. She was followed by Xuanzong who mistakenly appointed generals from minorities from the frontiers, one of whom, An Lushan, started a war lasting from 755-763. Although unsuccessful, the resulting rebellion weakened the Tang’s control of the country permanently. They turned to Confucianism and outlawed Buddhism, which never regained its previous power and prestige. Chaos eventually ensued resulting in the Five Dynsties or Ten Kingdoms period.
Song Dynasty (960-1127). The small northern Song coexisted with the non-Chinese Liao (south of the Great Wall) and Xia (western provinces). In 1126 the Song lost their capital Daifeng to a third non-Chinese people, the Jurchen, and were driven to their southern capital in Hangzhou, yet the period was culturally rich and economically prosperous. They brought in a system of examinations based on Confucian classics for entry into the bureaucracy. The rigid system was heavily biased towards the rich but nationalized authority, and lasted for centuries. Cash crops, handicrafts, sciences and the arts flourished in a China-wide market. Foot binding appeared and became a social norm for centuries.
Mongols. Genghis Khan (1167-1227) took Beijing in 1215, destroying and rebuilding it. His successors seized Hangzhou, the southern Song capital in 1276, and in 1279, the Song dynasty finally ended. Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis, now reigned over all of China as emperor of the Yuan dynasty. The examination system was revived in 1315 and paper money was introduced, but overprinting caused inflation. The Mongols proved less capable at government than warfare and their empire succumbed to rebellion within a century.
Ming Dynasty (1403-1644). Its capital initially was in Nanjing, but by the 15th century, the court had moved back to Beijing. Emperor Yongle (r 1403-24) initiated the ambitious rebuilding of the Forbidden City and devised the layout of Beijing as we see it today. An era of great commercial growth and social change, women became subject to stricter social norms and publishing via woodblock technology produced the novel. In 1405, Yongle launched the first of seven great maritime expeditions with 60 large vessels, 255 smaller ships and 28,000 men. The fourth and fifth expeditions departed in 1413 and 1417 and traveled as far as the present Middle East. Ultimately, this was a dead end and did not establish a trade network and his successors had little interest in continuing. The Great Wall was re-engineered and clad in brick. Foreign ships brought traders and Jesuit missionaries led by the formidable Matteo Ricci who established a presence at court but Confucian society had very different norms. In the 16th century, the Portuguese brought potatoes, cotton, maize and tobacco. The Ming were eventually undermined by internal power struggles, natural disasters including drought and famine and an invasion from the Manchu, a northern nomadic, warlike people.
Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The Manchu named their new dynasty the Qing and enscounced themselves in the Forbidden City. They adapted to an agricultural way of life, and incorporated their Manchurian homeland and that of the Mongols into the empire. Strict separation of the Han and Manchu was enforced. Much of the map of China that we know today derives from the Qing period. A new global market for chilies and sweet potatoes allowed food crops to be grown in more barren regions where wheat and rice had not flourished. The Chinese population expanded from 150 million to 300 million. In the 18th century, China was among the most advanced economies in the world. The Qing failed to expand the size of government to cope with the realities of a larger China.
Opium Wars. Although opium had been banned at the end of the 18th century, local merchants in Guangzhou ensured that trade continued and fortunes were amassed on both sides. In 1823, the British were swapping 7000 chests of opium annually, with about 140 pounds of opium per chest, enough to supply one million addicts – compared to 1000 in 1773. When the British East India Company lost its monopoly on China trade in 1834, imports of the drug increased to 40,000 per year. A Qing official demanded that British traders at Guangzhou hand over 20,000 chests of opium, causing the British to send 4,000 men from the Royal Navy to exact reparations and secure favorable trade arrangements, provoking the First Opium War in retaliation. The British besieged Guangzhou in June 1940 and threatened Nanjing. In 1842, the Treaty of Nanjing concluded the war, abolished the monopoly system of trade, opened five ports to foreign trade, exempted British residents from all Chinese laws and ceded the island of Hong Kong to the British in perpetuity. This set the scope and character of the unequal relationship between China and the West for the next half century.
Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) The Hakka leader, Hong Xiuquan, banned opium and intermingling between the sexes, redistributed property, was intensely anti-Manchu and greatly undermined the Qing dynasty. The Qing eventually reconquered the Taiping capital at Nanjing but 20 million died in the uprising.
The dynasty eventually fell for several reasons. Foreign imperialist incursions nibbled away at China’s coastline – Shanghai, Qingdao, Tianjin, Golang Ye, Shantou, Yantai, Weihai, Ningbo and Beihai. Hong Kong was British and Macao, Portuguese. Attempts to produce armaments and Western-style military technology dealt a fatal blow in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95. A war to control Korea ended with the destruction of the Qing navy and loss of Chinese influence in Korea. Taiwan was ceded to Japan. Reforms based on the Japanese model were advanced in 1898, but were halted by the Dowager Empress. In 1900, in north China, the Boxer Rebellion (named Boxer because of their martial arts skill) was initiated by peasant rebels intent on expelling foreigners and killing any Chinese Christian converts. The dynasty declared support of the Boxers and a multinational foreign army forced itself into China and defeated the uprising. They then demanded huge financial compensation from the Qing. In 1902, the dynasty implemented progressive New Governance reforms.
The Cantonese revolutionary Sun Yatsen and his Revolutionary League attempted to undermine Qing rule unsuccessfully and he gained high prestige with the Chinese middle class. He was respected both in China and Taiwan.
In 1911, most provincial assemblies declared themselves in favor of a republic under Sun Yatsen and on February 12th, 1912, the last Qing emperor, six-year-old Puyi abdicated.
The Republic. (1912-1949). In 1912, China held its first general election with Sun Yatsen’s Kuomintang Party winning. But the Kuomintang was outlawed by Yuan Shikal and Sun fled into exile in Japan. Yuan died in 1916 and the country split into rival regions ruled by militarist warlords. In reality, foreign powers (Britain, France and the USA) still had control domestically and internationally. Shanghai was a wonder of the world with skyscrapers, art deco apartments, neon lights, women and men in outrageous new fashions and a vibrant, commercially minded, take-no-prisoners mentality. Racism kept Europeans separate from Chinese.
96,000 Chinese served on the Western front in 1917 digging trenches and hard manual labor. At the Paris Peace Conference in May 1919, Chinese territories, such as Qingdao, were ceded to Japan resulting in violent student demonstrations (the May Fourth Movement). A new culture attacking Confucianism developed and the inequalities and squalor inspired the formation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Its founding figures came from Peking University. One of them was Mao Zedong, a mere library assistant.
Sun Yatsen and the Kuomintang allied themselves with Soviet Russia and the CCP with a mission to reunite China. Sun died of cancer in 1925 resulting in a succession battle. 13 labor demonstrators were killed by British police in Shanghai on May 30th. In 1926-27, the Kuomintang and CCP formed the Soviet-trained National Revolutionary Army led by Chiang Kaishek (1887-1975) and invaded north. They captured Shanghai in March 1927. Chiang was convinced that the Soviets would eventually gain control and rounded up CCP activists in Shanghai and killed thousands.
Kuomintang Rule. Chiang Kaishek and his Kuomintang party officially came to power in 1928. Marked with corruption, it suppressed political dissent with great ruthlessness, but also kick-started a major industrialization effort, improved transport infrastructure by doubling the length of highways, increased university enrollments and renegotiated the ‘unequal treaties’ with Western powers. For the first time in 90 years, China was able to tax imports freely, an essential part of fiscal stability. The government never really controlled more than a few (very important) provinces in the east and China remained significantly disunited. Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931 provoking an international crisis. The communists re-established themselves in the northwest.
Chaing Kaishek launched his own ideological counterargument to Communism with the New Life Movement: traditional Confucian values, frugal but clean dress, consume Chinese products rather than luxurious foreign goods and behave in a hygienic manner. But with a massive agricultural and fiscal crisis, these conservative prescriptions lacked popular appeal. Little changed in the rural areas where 80% of the population lived.
The Long March. What remained of the CCP had fled to the countryside, mostly to the impoverished Jiangxi Province. By 1934, they were encircled by the Nationalist troops, and 80,000 members of the CCP commenced its Long March traveling over 6400kms. Only 4,000 made it to Shaanxi province in the northwest, far out of reach of the Kuomintang. Mao Zedong began his rise to power at the conference at Zonyl held in the middle of the march.
The approach of war with Japan saved the CCP. Despite the perception that Chiang Kaishek was unwilling to fight the Japanese, he had been planning resistance. In December 1936, the Chinese leader of Manchuria with the CCP kidnapped Chiang. As a condition of his release, he put aside his differences with the CCP and they joined forces against Japan.
War. The Japanese invasion of China, which began in 1937 was merciless, culminating with the notorious Nanjing Massacre, just one of a series of war crimes committed by the Japanese in its conquest of eastern China. The government had to operate in exile from the far southwestern hinterland of China as the eastern seaboard was lost to Japanese occupation. Chiang, not Mao was the internationally recognized leader of China and he maintained resistance to the end. Under siege by the Japanese in Chongqing in Sichuan province, they were subjected to some of the heaviest bombing of the war from 1938 to 1943. After 1940, supply routes were cut off as the road to Burma was closed by the British and Vichy France closed connections to Vietnam. Although China became an ally after Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec 7 1941, it was always considered a secondary theatre. The Chinese Kuomintang armies kept one million Japanese troops bogged down in China for 8years, making the Allies war in the Pacific much easier. The communists were important as guerilla fighters but did far less fighting than the Kuomintang.
The real winners from WWII, however, were the communists. In their largest stronghold in Yanan, they solidified many of their policies: land reform with redistribution to peasants, lower taxes, a self-sufficient economy, ideological education, and underpinning it all, their military force, the Red Army with 900,000 troops and 1.2 million party members. In 1943, Chiang had negotiated an agreement with the allies that, when the Japanese were defeated, Western imperial privileges in China would end forever.
After WWII. In 1946, the communists and Kuomintang failed to form a coalition government, plunging China into a civil war. Communist organization, morale and ideology all proved key to the communist victory in 1949. On Oct 1, 1949 in Beijing, Mao declared the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.
Chiang Kaishek fled to Taiwan which China had regained from Japan after WWII. He took with him China’s gold reserves and the remains of his air force and navy, and set up the Republic of China (ROC), naming his new capital Taipei.
Mao’s China. Mao desired, above all, to exercise ideological control over the population. In his ‘New China’, every citizen would find a role in the new politics and society. For the first time since the 19th century, China was unified under a strong central government.
Most Westerners, and Western influences were removed. It allied itself with the Soviet Union in the still-emerging Cold War. The 1950s marked the high point of Soviet influence in China but tensions were fuelled by Khrushchev’s condemnation of Stalin (which Mao took as criticism of his own cult of personality). The withdrawal of Soviet technical assistance escalated to border clashes in 1969 and remained frosty until the 1980s.
Convinced that only violent change could produce change, in the first year of the regime, 40% of the land was redistributed and about one million condemned as ‘landlords’ were persecuted and killed. With a view to economic self-sufficiency, Mao instituted the Great Leap Forward to boost the production of steel, coal and electricity. Family structures were broken as communal dining halls were established and people were urged to eat their fill. However it was a horrific failure. Its lack of economic realism caused a massive famine and at least 30 million deaths (may be closer to 45 million). The return to a semi-market economy in 1962 led to his last and most fanatical of the campaigns that marked Mao’s China.
Cultural Revolution (1966-76). The last and most fanatical of Mao’s campaigns, it was based on his concern that post-Leap China was slipping into ‘economism’ – a complacent satisfaction that would blunt people’s revolutionary fervor. He initiated a massive campaign of ideological renewal, by attacking his own party by undermining his own colleagues. In the summer of 1966, large posters appeared in prominent sites demanding that chief party members must be condemned as ‘takers of the capitalist road’. Top leaders suddenly disappeared to be replaced by unknowns such as Mao’s wife and her associates, later dubbed the ‘Gang of Four’. An all pervasive cult of Mao’s personality took over. One million youths, the Red Guard, would flock to hear Mao in Tian’anmen Square. Posters and pictures of Mao were everywhere. Violence from the Red Guards resulted in killing of thousands of teachers, intellectuals and landlords. It was genuinely popular with young people. Police authority effectively disappeared, creative activity stopped and academic research ended. .
In 1969, the army finally forced the Red Guards off the streets. The US, trying to make up for the Vietnam War, and China, terrified of the Soviet Union led to Richard Nixon’s visit in 1972 and began the opening up of China to the west. The Cultural Revolution slowly cooled down and in 1973, Deng Xiaoping returned to power as deputy premier. The modernizing faction of the party fought with the Gang of Four who supported the continuing Cultural Revolution.
Reform. Mao died in 1976 at age 83 and the Gang of Four were put on trial for the disasters of the Cultural Revolution. In 1978, Deng Xiaoping (after having been purged twice in the CR) reached supreme leadership of the CCP. He realized that the CR had been damaging economically and introduced the ‘Four Modernizations’ to improve agriculture, industry, science and technology, and national defense. Collective farms were broken down, farmers could sell a proportion of their crops on the free market and everyone was encouraged to develop local enterprises. Four areas on the coast were designated Special Economic Zones as an attraction to foreign investors. The leadership was concerned about materialism and capitalism but the overall trend was towards a free, market – orientated society.
Over the 80s, the middle class developed an appetite for more and students led the fight for more science and democracy. The 1989 Tian’anmen Square incident ended in declaring martial law, hundreds died but more were arrested, imprisoned or forced to flee to the west. China’s politics remained frozen for three years but the economic policies remained progressive. Shanghai’s mayor was appointed general secretary of the party in 1989. Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997 and now in 2014 have seen riots over Beijing demanding to appoint politicians able to run for government.
21st Century China. China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 giving it a seat to decide global norms on economics and finance. From 2002 efforts were made to deal with the growing regional inequality and poverty in rural areas especially in the west. A huge prosperity gap and environmental problems remained. Political reform remained stagnated but economic growth brought prosperity to so many, albeit unevenly. Property prices especially in the richer eastern coastal provinces sky-rocketed. The number of billionaires doubled every few years. The migration of workers to the cities was the greatest the world had ever seen. In 2006, the Three Gorges Dam was completed flooding significant areas but energy was provided for the expanding Chinese economy. Civil unrest in Tibet occurred over Han Chinese control of the province. The economic troubles of 2008-09 was responded to by huge stimulus packages. Property and infrastructure development buffered China from the worst effects of the downturn. The high-speed rail network was massively expanded, the space program set bold new targets and some of the world’s tallest buildings were constructed. The economy remained unbalanced, skewed towards exports and high investment projects. Domestic demand was needed to sustain long-term growth and protect itself from global downturns. Since 2009, ethnic violence in western China between the Uighurs and Han Chinese continues today. China overtook Japan as the second largest economy in 2011.
As a permanent member of the UN Security Council and in its quest for economic and diplomatic influence in Africa and South America, China has a powerful international role. China’s preference for remaining neutral but business-like has been tested with North Korea, Iran and its nuclear ambitions, Syria, the scramble for mineral resources in Africa and energy resources around the globe. Territorial disputes with India, Japan, Philippines and Vietnam cause global concern.
China Today. For decades, the world has been hypnotized by China’s meteoric rise. It is an emergent superpower especially compared to the anemic growth in the West crippled by austerity, unemployment and rescue packages. China leaped ahead of Japan to become the world’s second biggest economy in 2011 with a purchasing power parity GDP topping a whopping US$11.4 trillion. China is hoovering up majority stakes in household Western firms, extracting resources in Africa, and developing a space program. By the end of 2012, China had more high-speed rail lines than the rest of the world combined. In 2010, China overtook the US as the world’s largest energy consumer.
Behind the hype, China still sees itself as a developing nation. China has colossal latent power by virtue of its size and population. Development remains unwieldy and piecemeal as its per capita GDP puts it roughly on the level with East Timor, one of Asia’s poorest nations.
The world sees a rising military superpower. The rapidly growing Chinese military budget topped US$100 billion in 2012 (but still remains dwarfed by the colossal US$740 billion defence spending of the US. In fact, its domestic security budget of US$11 billion exceeds spending in defence, suggesting an obsession with internal, rather than external threats.
Challenges remain. Exports are contracting, overcapacity increases and the prosperity market slides. The economy is levelling out with less vigorous growth. Inequality is the most severe on the planet. Factoring in an undisclosed income the wealthiest 10% of Chinese earn 65 times that of the poorest 10%. The urban middle class is rapidly expanding but most of the wealth belongs to a narrow band of plutocrats. The wealth of President Xi Jinping’s family reportedly runs into hundreds of millions of US dollars, while past Wen Jiabao’s family amassed an astounding US$2.7 billion. The relatives of disgraced Chongqing party chief Bo Zilai – expelled from the Communist Party and from China’s top legislature amid allegations of corruption in 2012 – amassed riches exceeding US$160 million. As wages in China rise, the days of infinite cheap labour may also be ending. More money in the hands of workers’ pockets stimulates domestic demand, however, China must break its dependence on exports and develop a more sustainable economic model. Encouraging the Chinese to spend is tricky, as income earners save much of their earnings to compensate for inefficient social-security safety nets.
Xi Jinping, the party secretary and president, is viewed as a reformer who will grapple with China’s manifest challenges.
In its quest for harmony, Beijing has become less tolerant of dissent. Lawyers, human-rights advocates and democracy activists who attempt to organize resistance to Beijing’s authority routinely face charge of endangering national security. Beijing reacted with venom to Liu Xialbo’s Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 after he had been sentence to 11 years in prison for his democratic agenda in Charter 08, a manifesto initially signed by hundreds of Chinese intellectuals and human-rights activists calling for greater political democratic reforms. Outspoken artist Ai Weiwei has become another sharp thorn in the side of the government. He was arrested in 2011 and charged with tax evasion, a charge the artist claims is politically motivated.
To shore up support and divert criticism abroad, the Communist Party has long fostered nationalism. China’s resurgence is returning it to the prominence it enjoyed for much of its history. It is clear that China considers its moment has arrived and that it must oppose attempts – whether by the West of Japan – to prevent it taking centre stage in the region.
THE PEOPLE OF CHINA
Han Chinese. Of the 56 ethnic groups, the Han Chinese make up 90% of the total. The writing system, visual arts, calligraphy, history, literature, language and politics are all associated with Han culture. However the Han are not markedly homogenous. Rulers were often non-Han – Altaic (Turk, Mongolian in the Yuan Dynasty, Manchus in the Qing dynasty, Jin, and Liao) more evident in the north with larger, broader frames and rounder faces compared to their slighter and thinner southern Han Chinese more similar to the southeast Asia type. With mass migration and increasing intermarriage, these physical differences are likely to diminish. The Han also have a rich supply of dialects but the promotion of Mandarin has blurred this. The common written form of Chinese using characters (Hanzi – or characters of the Han) binds all dialects together.
Non-Han Chinese. Tibet, Qinghai, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and the three provinces of the NE (Manchuria – Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning) are all historically non-Han regions and which remain essentially non-Han today. The 55 minorities tend to cluster along border areas. Some are found in just one area (such as the Hani in Yunnan); others such as the Muslim Jui live all over China. Yunnan province alone is home to more than 20 ethnic groups.
The Chinese Character. Shaped by Confucian principles, the Chinese are thoughtful and discreet, subtle but also pragmatic, Conservative and rather introverted, their body language is usually reserved and undemonstrative, yet attentive. With a traditional culture of hard work, as a response to the absence of a social-security safety net and an anxiety over economic and politics uncertainties, they work long hours with diligence. They save much of what they earn emphasizing prudence. Despite this, wastefulness occurs when ‘face’ is involved. Other characteristics are generosity, dignified, proud of their civilization and history, inventiveness and achievements.
Women. Today, they officially have complete equality but the reality is often quite different. They do not have political representation and the CCP remains male dominated. In 1949, arranged marriages were abolished and education and work outside the home was encouraged. But a bias in employment remains. More women today are putting off marriage until late 20’s and early 30’s, encouraged by high house prices. Premarital sex and cohabitation before marriage are increasingly common especially in large cities. A strong rural-urban divide remains however. Rurally, there is still a strong preference for baby boys. Women are more likely to commit suicide while the rural rate is five times the urban rate.
Communism is a forceful ideology that briefly assumed supreme authority over the minds of China’s citizens. The Taiping Rebellion of the 19th century equated Christianity with revolutionary principles of social organization, almost destroying the Qingd dynasty and leaving 20 million dead in its 20-year spasm. The Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) drew upon superstition and xenophobia and the Cultural Revolution also affected religious thought. The Chinese Communist Party today remains fearful of ideas and beliefs that challenge its authority. Proselytising is not permitted, religious organization is regulated and organizations such as Falun Gong can be banned outright. Despite these constraints, worship and religious practice is generally permitted.
China has always had a pluralistic religious culture, and an estimated 400 million Chinese today adhere to a particular faith. The CCp made strident efforts after 1949 to supplant religious worship with the secular philosophy of communism but since the abandonment of Marxist-Leninist collectivism, this policy has significantly waned.
Religion is enjoying an upswing as the people return to religion for spiritual solace at a time of great changed, dislocation and uncertainty. The hopeless, poor and destitute may turn to religion as they feel abandoned by communism and the safety nets it once assured. Yet the educated and prosperous are similarly turning to religion for a sense of guidance and direction in a country Chinese suspect has become morally bereft.
Religious belief in China has traditionally been marked by tolerance. Although the faiths are quite distinct, some convergence exists between Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism and shrines exist where all faiths are worshipped.
Buddhism. This is the religion most deeply associatedFa with China and Tibet. Although its authority has long ebbed, the faith still exercises a powerful influence over the spiritual persona. They may merely be ‘cultural Buddhists’, with a strong affection for Buddhist civilization.
Chinese towns with any history usually have several Buddhist temples, but the number is well down on pre-1949 figures. Beijing once had hundreds of Buddhist temples, compared to the 20 or so found today.
Some of China’s greatest surviving artistic achievements are Buddhist in inspiration. Buddhist artwork is best seen at the Mogao Caves in Gansu and the carved Buddhist caves at both Longmen and Yungang are spectacular pieces of Buddhist heritage. Most Buddhism in China belongs to the Mahayana school, which holds that since all existence is one, the fate of the individual is linked to the fate of others. Thus Bodhisatttvas – those who have already achieved enlightenment but have chosen to remain on earth – continue to work for the lberatinof all other sentient being. The most popular bodhisattva in China is Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy.
Falun Gong. This is a practice that merges elements of regulated breathing and standing exercises with Buddhist teachings, fashioning a quasi-religious creed in the process. It claimed as many as 100 million adherents in China by 1999, but was banned in the same year after 10,000 practitioners stood in silent protest in Beijing, following protests in Tianjin when a local magazine published an article critical of Falun Gong. The authorities had been unnerved by the movement’s audacity and organizational depth, construing Falun gong as athreat to the primacy of the CCP. The movement was branded a cult and a robust, media-wide propaganda campaign was launched against practitioners, forcing many to undergo ‘re-education’ in prison and labour camps. After the ban, the authorities treated Falun Gong believers harshly.
Taoism. A home-grown philosophy-cum-religion, it is also the hardest of all China’s faiths to grasp. It is a natural counterpoint to rigid Confucianist order and responsibility. Taoism predates Buddhism in China connecting to a distant animism and shamanism. Devoid of a god-like being or deity, it addresses the unknowable and indescribable principle of the universe called Dao, or ‘the Way’. This is the way or method by which the universe operates, so it can be understood to be a universal or cosmic principle. One of Taoism’s most beguiling precepts, inaction champions the allowing of things to naturally occur without interference.
Confucianism. At the very core of Chinese society for the past two millennia, it is a humanist philosophy that strives for social harmony and the common good. Its influence can be seen in everything from the emphasis on education and respect for elders to the patriarchal role of the government. Based on the teachings of Confucius, a 6th-century-BC philosopher who lived during a period of constant warfare and social upheaval. Despite change over time, the principal ideas emphasis five basic hierarchical relationships: father-son, ruler-subject, husband-wife, elder-younger and friend-friend, If each individual carries out his proper role in society, social order would be achieved. In the 2nd century BC, it became the official ideology of the Ha dynasty, thereby gaining mainstream acceptance for the first time. This resulted in the formation of an educated elite that served as government bureaucrats and the common people as exemplars of moral action. In the Tang dynasty an official examination system was created making government a meritocracy. But it grew mired in the weight of its own tradition, focusing exclusively on a core set of texts. In the 20th century, intellectuals decried Confucian thought as an obstacle to modernization. Confucius’ social ethics have resurfaced in government propaganda where they lend authority to the leadership’s emphasis on harmony.
Christianity. It first arrived in China with the Nestorians, a sect from ancient Persia that split with the Byzantine Church in 431 AD and arrived via the Silk Road in the 7th century. In the 16th century, the Jesuits arrived were popular figures athe imperial court, although they made few converts. Catholic and Protestant missionaries established themselves in the 19th century (James Hudson Taylor immersed himself in Chinese culture and converted 18,000 Chinese Christians building 600 churches), but left after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Today it is a burgeoning faith due to its industrious work ethic and emphasis on human rights and charitable work. Some estimate there are 100 million Christians in China but many groups are underground (‘house churches’) out of fear of political clampdown.
Islam. It was first brought to China in the 7th century by Arab and Persian traders along the Silk Road. In the Yuan dynasty, maritime trade brought merchants to coastal cities and their descendants scattered across the country and are now referred to as the Hui. Other Muslim groups are the Uighurs, Kazaks, Kyrgyz, Tajiks and Uzbeks who live primarily in the border areas of the northwest. It is estimated that 1.5-3% of Chinese today are Muslim.
Communism and Maoism. Mao Zedung, who tried to uproot feudal superstition and religious belief, sprung to god-like status in China via a personality cult. Still today, he retains a semi-deified aura.
Communism. Once forged in civil war, revolution and patriotic fervor to create a nation free from foreign interference, had largely run its credible course by the 1960s. It repeatedly brought the nation to catastrophe with the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. It remains the official guiding principle of the CCP but are far less likely to be ideologues than pragmatists seeking to advance within the party structure. Chinese Communism owes something to Confucianism – the affairs of man and human society and the relationship between rulers and the ruled.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the CCP became aware of the dangers of popular power and sought to maintain the coherence and strength of the state using patriotic education, propaganda, censorship, nationalism and the building of a strong nation. Elderly Chinese yearn for the days when they felt more secure and society was more egalitarian. Mao is still revered.
Animism. 3% still practice this primordial religious belief akin to shamanism. Animists see the world as a living being, with rocks, trees, mountains and people all containing spirits that need to live in harmony. If this harmony is disrupted, restoration of this balance is attempted by a shaman empowered to mediate between the human and spirit world. It is most widely believed in minority groups and exists in multiple forms.
Language. China has 8 major dialect groups not counting the many ethnic minority languages. The official language is the one spoken in Beijing and is referred to as Mandarin. With the exception of the West and Southwest, where Cantonese is more common, most of the population speaks Mandarin.
Writing Chinese is complex as 90% are compounds of a ‘meaning’ element and a ‘sound’ element. In 1958, the Chinese adopted Pinyin, as system of writing their language using the Roman alphabet. Pinyin is often used on shop fronts, street signs and advertising billboards. Don’t expect Chinese people to be able to use Pinyin. A phrase book can be invaluable.
Mandarin has a large number of words with the same spelling but different meanings. What distinguishes them is their tonal quality – the raising and lowering of pitch on certain syllables. Mandarin has four tones – high, rising, falling-rising and falling. Tones are indicated in Pinyin by accent marks on vowels.
Accommodation. There is an impressive selection.
For budget places ($8-12 for a dorm room), use hostelworld.com, easily the best of the hostel booking sites. These prices are not negotiable and breakfast is rarely provided. Temples and monasteries, especially on China’s sacred mountains, may also provide cheap accommodation.
Another great choice when you get tired of dorm rooms is the many very reasonable business hotels with rates in the 150-200¥ range. Hotels for most of the year offer discounts ranging from 10-60% and bargaining is possible. Prices reach their maximum during the National Holiday Weeks in the first week of May and October. International credit cards are usually only accepted in the mid-range and above hotels. All require your passport and most need a deposit. Check out is invariably at noon. Apparently a number of hotels in China refuse to accept foreigners. C-trip can be useful to book hotels. I traveled in October to December and just turned up and always got a room.
Discounts. Seniors over 70 are often free and 60-70 year olds often get discounts at many attractions. Sometimes though, these age discounts only apply to Chinese residents. Always bring your passport to show proof of age. Student identity cards also may get a half-price discount.
Electricity. All 220 volt with North American style 2-prong plugs or a three-prong plug with 2 angled prongs and a vertical prong.
Internet. Wi-fi access is generally good. Internet cafes require ID and sometimes foreigners are excluded. Train stations areas often have internet cafes near them. The best option is a wi-fi enabled phone or laptop or use the hotel computers. Youth hostels almost always have wi-fi but speeds may be slow. Many websites are inaccessible in China due to censorship: Gmail, Google, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter are inaccessible unless a VPN network is purchased. You can sometimes log on but those sites are still nonfunctional. I used ExpressVPN and was able to signup when in China. The cost was $12.95/month and gave me access to all the above. If you have a Gmail account, a VPN is a necessity.
Legal Matters. Anyone under the age of 18 is considered a minor. The minimum age for driving a car is 18. There is no minimum age for the consumption of alcohol or cigarettes. Laws against use of illegal drugs are harsh with death for trafficking hard drugs like heroin.
The Chinese criminal justice system does not always ensure a fair trial. Defendants are not presumed innocent until proven guilty. China conducts more judicial executions than the rest of the world put together – up to 10,000 per year. If arrested, most foreign citizens have the right to contact their embassy.
Money. The unit of currency is the reniminbi (RMB), or people’s money. The basic unit of the RMB is the yuan – ¥. The highest denomination is the 100¥ bill. Coins come in denominations of 1¥ and 5 pao (1/2 ¥) which also has a paper bill. Hong Kong and Macao each have their own currency but both can be used in the other. You can’t spend Macao pataca anywhere else.
ATMs. The Bank of China and ICBC (Industrial & Commercial Bank of China) and some other banks accept foreign debit cards and credit cards. All ATMs accepting foreign cards have dual language capability. To have money wired from abroad, use Western Union or Moneygram.
Credit cards are useful in hotels and for online booking of trains, hostels and flights. Some shops may add a surcharge for using a credit card to offset the commission charged by credit companies.
Moneychangers. Wait till you reach China to exchange money to get a better exchange rate. Exchange rates are standardized so there is little need to shop around for the best deal. Australian, Canadian, US, UK, Hong Kong, Japanese and the euro can be changed in China. US dollars are the easiest to exchange.
Tipping. Almost no one in China (including Hong Kong and Macao) asks for tips. Many mid-range and top end eateries include their own (often large) service charges. Cheap restaurants and taxis do not expect a tip.
Travelers Cheques. With the common presence of ATMs, they are not as useful as they once were. They can’t be used in budget hotels and restaurants.
Passports. You must have your passport on your person at all times. It is required to purchase train tickets and to use internet cafes.
Post. The international postal service is generally efficient. Domestic mail is swift. If sending parcels abroad, bring them to the post office unpacked for inspection. Most post offices supply boxes, padded envelopes and brown wrapping paper for a charge. Your own packaging material will probably be refused.
Public Holidays. The two big weeks are: May 1 – International Labour Day and most get at least a 3-day holiday and October 1 – National Day, the biggest, when everyone has a 1-week holiday. It is not practical to be in China in either of these two weeks. Hotels rates are at their maximum and generally unavailable and train and plane tickets virtually impossible to obtain. Most of the other national holidays are nominal and do not result in leave.
Crime. Travelers are more often the victims of petty crime such as theft, than serious crime. Foreigners are natural targets for pickpockets and thieves. High-risk areas are train and bus stations and metro lines (I was pickpocketed in the Beijing Metro). Long-distance buses (especially sleeper buses) are risky.
If something is stolen, report it immediately to the nearest Foreign Affairs Branch of the Public Security bureau. A loss report is crucial to claim compensation from travel insurance. It may take several hours to days to organize it. You should always carry copies of passports, charge and debit cards.
Scams. Con artists are everywhere. Beware of well dressed girls especially in Shanghai and Beijing asking single men to photograph them and then dragging them to expensive cafes leaving them with monstrous bills. With taxis, insist on using the meter. Avoid pedicabs and motorized three wheelers whenever possible as agreed prices become greatly exaggerated when arriving at the destination. Don’t change money or buy tickets on the black market. Reconcile restaurant bills to ensure there are no extra charges.
Transport. There are 600 traffic deaths per day in China. Buses may not have seat belts or they are stuffed between seats and unobtainable. When crossing the road, always check 360° as cars frequently turn on red lights and pay little respect to crosswalks or green walk signs. Silent electric bicycles and scooters are common.
Telephone. Mobile phones are the first choice for calls. SIM cards cost 60-100¥ – numbers with eights are more expensive than numbers with four. Charge with a credit charging card from China Mobile outlets and some newspaper stands. Buying mobile phones in China is generally cheap and a good option. Skype makes calls very cheap. Area codes for all destinations appear in the relevant chapters of Lonely Planet. IP cards are also very cheap but may be only usable locally, and not necessarily nationally or internationally.
Visas. Except for citizens of Japan, Singapore, Brunei and San Marino, everyone requires a visa. Passports need to be valid for at least 6 months and have at least one blank page.
Application requirements change over time but are presently rigorous. It is required to provide 1. An onward flight. 2. Dates of all entry and exit for multiple entry visas. 3. A list of all accommodation. If traveling for very long and an independent traveler, this is onerous – I had a general itinerary and simply supplied unbooked accommodation obtained from my travel guide. My first few nights were booked though. 4. A visa application form. 5. One passport photo.
I used a Visa Application Center in Vancouver (for significant fees) as my visa application was mailed. Hong Kong is a good place to apply. Consulates vary in their ability to provide visas for longer than 30 days. UK residents seemed unable to get ones for longer than 30 days, but I had no difficulty getting a double entry for 60 days in Canada. US and UK passport holders pay considerably more for their visas.
Hong Kong and Macao. Most visitors can enter and stay for 90 days without a visa. If you visit Hong Kong or Macao from China, you need a double entry visa to return to China.
Transportation: Getting Around.
Air. China’s domestic air network is extensive and growing. Many airports have been added and air safety and quality have improved considerably. Shuttle buses or rail connections exist between airports and the local cities in most places.
There are many airlines supplying domestic flights. C-trip.com is useful to sort out all the airlines. Flying from Hong Kong or Macao is considered an international flight and it is often much cheaper to travel overland into Shenzhen, Zhohai or Guangzhou and fly from there.
Bus. Long-distance buses are extensive and reach places you cannot reach by train. Sleeper buses cost nearly double the price of normal bus service. Bunks can be short. All cities and most towns have one or more long-distance bus stations generally located in relation to the direction the bus heads in. Most bus stations have a left-luggage counter. Depending on dates and locations, it may be necessary to book at least a few days ahead, though usually tickets can be bought at the bus station just before travel.
Car. Hiring a car is complicated outside of Beijing and Shanghai. Both have very crowded roads so travel by bus or train is usually much better. International Driving Permits are generally not accepted in China.
Bicycle. China is very bike friendly with separate lanes for bicycles everywhere. It is not an unreasonable way to travel around the country and is very good in cities.
Buses have extensive networks and are excellent to get around town. Fares are very cheap at 1-2¥. But it can be challenging as most routes are in Chinese without Pinyin and most drivers an unfriendly lot. I have had great luck using buses locally and a smile and sense of humor goes a long way. You can often find some passenger who will help. Lonely Planet has good local bus information. Most destinations are written in Chinese and this is invaluable.
Metro. Where they exist, they are a dream. Cars have good signage always with English names. Look for maps in metro stations.
Taxis are cheap and generally easy to find but many drivers will not pick up foreigners. English skills tend to be minimal. Have your destination written out for you by your hotel or hostel.
Train. Trains are the best way to travel long distances in China in reasonable speed and comfort. Prices are reasonable. High-speed rail is at the heart of China’s rapid modernization.
Chinese train numbers are usually prefixed by a letter designating the category of train. High-speed trains are C, D, and G trains. Less fast trains are the overnight Z class, while further down the pecking order are T and K class trains.
Trains are generally highly punctual and train stations are often conveniently close to the center of town. Sleeper trains can save the cost of accommodation. Linen is clean and changed for each journey. Staff rarely speaks English. On sleeper trains, the paper ticket is exchanged for a plastic card so that the conductor knows when you need to disembark. Don’t leave it to the very last moment to board as queues can be long.
Ticket types. It is often possible to upgrade your ticket on the train. C-trip.com is a very friendly web site to book train travel. A confirmation email gives the booking number. Take it to the station and you will be issued a ticket with ease. Tickets obtained at the station can only be paid for with cash and a passport is required. The automatic ticket machines usually don’t accept foreign passports.
Soft sleepers have four air-conditioned bunks in a closed compartment. There is a small table and stowing space for bags. Tickets often sell out so book as early as possible.
Hard sleepers have six bunks in three tiers often in a doorless compartment. The upper bunks have limited headroom and the lower bunks become sitting space for others in the car. These can be the hardest tickets to get.
Soft seat. Available in high-speed trains (D, C, and G class)
Hard seat. Have padded seats but tend to be noisy, crowded and are hard on your sanity especially for long-haul trips. Make sure your ticket has an assigned seat or you will be standing.
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