Given a recorded history dating back to 1500 B.C.E., China is among the world’s oldest civilizations. It is also the most populous nation in the world. Chinese history probably began around 5,000 years ago, and covers several different states and cultures of East Asia that have followed one after the other for the past 4,000 years. The country’s earliest political organization is not known, but Chinese legends claim the region was once ruled by godly beings who taught the earliest people about hunting and agriculture, and gave them the gift of life. From 2205 until the 20th century, China was governed by a succession of dynasties, and its history is one of a series of divisions and unifications with periodic times of peace, war, and dynastic upheaval. The first of these was the Xia Dynasty, said to have remained in power from 2205 until around 1818 B.C.E. There is no archaeological evidence of the Xia Dynasty, although several Neolithic sites have been claimed to be such. The Chou Dynasty (C. 1122–221 B.C.E.) is said to have succeeded the Xia. During this period the practice of Confucianism began, and the principle of a “mandate of heaven” was established, which held that the right to rule was given to the just and denied to the evil and corrupt. This later led to the Taoist view that heaven’s wrath is expressed through natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, and insect plagues. The Chou Dynasty is usually divided into three periods: the Western Chou period (1122–771), the period (722–481), and the Warring States period (481–221). The states of Jin and Jiu emerge as major competitors in the struggle to control an empire in China. A four-tiered class structure emerged: the lesser nobility (including scholars), the peasant farmers, the artisans, and the merchants. This was also the period of the Hundred Schools of Thought, when several schools of political philosophy emerged, including the four main schools: Confucianism, Taoism, Mohism, and Legalism. The Jin emerged victorious at the end of the Warring States period. The Chinese were first united under the Jin Dynasty (238–21). Prince Cheng named himself as the first Jin emperor and unified China under a central bureaucracy. The Jin standardized the writing system and completed the Great Wall that still surrounds China. The Jin Dynasty ended in 207, lasting only 14 years. The Han Dynasty (207 B.C.E.–9 C.E.) that followed, was started by a man of humble origins Han, Kao Zu (or Liu Ping; 256 or 247–195). It engaged heavily in military conflicts. It created three economic regions, which led eventually to the formation of the Three Kingdoms. They ended up competing for control of the country. This period also witnessed the flowering of Buddhism and the fine arts. Stability came to China when it was reunited under the Sui Dynasty (581–618), and it continued under the Tang Dynasty (618–907) . This was probably the most glorious period of Chinese history. Through military victories, China restored its control of the silk routes and became internationalized. Under the Tang emperors Buddhism flourished and split into two distinct schools: the Chan (Zen) and Pure Land (Chinese Buddhist). Under the Song Dynasty (960–1279) that followed, Confucianism experienced a revival, and China enjoyed tremendous urban and commercial growth. It was during this period that the Italian explorer Marco Polo (1254–1324) visited and wrote about China’s incredible prosperity and its wealthy cities. The Yuan Dynasty (1280–1368), founded by Gublai Khan (1215–94), grandson of the famous Mongol ruler Genghis Khan (1162–1227), established a capital at what is now Beijing and militarized the nation’s administration. Subsequently the Buddhist novice Hongwu (1328–98) established the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) with two capitals, one at Beijing, the other at Nanjing. In 1511 the Portuguese became the first European traders to reach China, and by 1557 they had established a trade mission in Macau. It was not until 1760, however, that other European merchants, principally from Britain, gained access to China’s markets. The trade that followed tended to favor China, since the British bought more silk and tea than the Chinese did wool and spices. In 1773 the British decided to try to improve their trading position by selling opium to the Chinese. In 1839 a war erupted over the rampant addiction of the Chinese that resulted from this narcotic trade. The Opium Wars, as they came to be known, continued until 1860, when treaties favoring the British led to the secession of Hong Kong. Subsequently Western nations carved China into “spheres of influence.” With respect to trade the United States proposed an Open Door Policy, and the Chinese agreed. Soon after China was forced to relinquish all of its colonial possessions. Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia were ceded to the French, Burma to the British, and Korea and Taiwan to Japan. The first half of the 20th century was a period of utter chaos in China. Intellectuals searched for a new philosophy to replace Confucianism, while warlords competed for imperial power. In southern China, Sun Yat Sen’s (1866–1925) Guomindang (GMD), or Nationalist Party, established a base and began training a National Revolutionary Army (NRA). At the same time, talks between the Soviets and prominent Chinese Marxists resulted in the formation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1921. Hopes of the CCP aligning with the GMD ended when Sun Yat Sen died in 1925, and Jiang Jie Shi (Chiang Kai-shek) (1887–1975), who favored a capitalist state supported by a military dictatorship, made his political debut in Beijing. There was a split among the Communists, dividing those who focused on urban revolt and those who believed victory lay in uniting the countryside. By 1930 Mao Zedong (also Mao Tse-tung; 1893–1976), who established his forces in the mountains of Jinggang Shan, had marshaled a 40,000-person guerilla army. Although Jiang Jie Shi mounted four campaigns to exterminate the goerillas, each engagement resulted in a Communist victory. In 1931 Japan took advantage of the chaos in China and invaded Manchuria. Jiang Jie Shi did little to resist the Japanese and by 1939 they had overrun most of eastern China. The defeat of the Japanese in World War II left China in the grip of civil war. On October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong declared the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Jiang Jie Shi and his followers fled in defeat to Taiwan, however, the United States continued to recognize him as the legitimate ruler of China. Meanwhile, although the PRC assumed power over a virtually bankrupt nation, an era of great confidence began to emerge. By 1953 inflation was arrested, industrial production had been restored to prewar levels, the redistribution of land was implemented, and China’s first FiveYear Plan was launched. Next Mao initiated the Cultural Revolution (1966–70) and attempted to enhance his personal image. He published a book titled Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung (usually referred to as “The Little Red Book”) and initiated a purge of his opponents. Universities were closed, intellectuals were killed, and temples were ransacked, all in an effort to wipe out China’s capitalist past and solidify the power of the Communists. After Mao’s death in 1976 Chinese politics again saw conflict between moderates Zhou Enlai (1898–1976) and Deng Xiaoping (1904–97), and radicals and Maoists led by Mao’s widow Jiang Qing (1914–91). When Zhou died in 1976 the radicals prevailed. A public uprising against Jiang Quing and her associates led to further repression, and Deng disappeared for a time. However he returned to public life in 1977 and formed a standing committee of the Chinese Communist Party. With Deng in charge China signed the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration (Britain agreed to return Hong Kong, a British colony since 1842, to China) and set out on a course toward economic reconstruction. However in the absence of political reform, general dissatisfaction with the Communist Party, soaring inflation, and increased demands for democracy led to widespread social unrest. This unrest climaxed in the student demonstrations of 1989 that led to the bloody Tiananmen Square massacre. On July 1, 1997, British colonialism in China came to an end when Hong Kong was officially returned to China. Under what Deng Xiaoping labeled “one country, two systems,” Hong Kong embarked on one of the boldest experiments of the 21st century: capitalism under a Communist regime. In the mid-1990s China’s leadership passed to Jiang Zemin (b. 1926). Jiang charted a new course based on economic growth, and his successor Hu Jintao (b. 1942) instituted an even more aggressive program of economic modernization, exemplified in his decision to have China join the World Trade Organization (WTO).
China is located in the eastern part of Asia, on the west coast of the Pacific Ocean. It is the third largest country in the world (after Canada and Russia), with a total land area of nearly 4 million square miles. The distance from east to west measures over 3,231 miles and, from north to south, over 3,417 miles. With a land border of 13,759 miles, China shares borders with 14 countries: Korea in the east; Russia in the northeast and the northwest; Mongolia in the north; India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Bhutan, and Nepal in the west and southwest; and Burma, Laos, and Vietnam in the south. The coastline of China extends more than 8,700 miles. Across the East China Sea to the east and the South China Sea to the southeast, are Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia. More than 5,000 islands are scattered over China’s vast territorial seas, the largest being Taiwan. One territorial sea and three neighboring seas altogether constitute nearly 3 million square miles. China is a mountainous country with two-thirds of its total land area covered by mountains, hills, and plateaus. The highest mountain in the world, Mount Everest (29,035 feet), is located on the border between China and Nepal. China has numerous rivers. The inland river system accounts for 36 percent of the total area in China. The Yangtze, Yellow, Heilongjiang, Pearl, and Huaihe are the major rivers. The Yangtze is the longest river in China and the third longest in the world, with a total length of 6,300 miles and a drainage area of more than one million square miles. It is an arterial waterway connecting such important cities as Shanghai, Nanjing, Wuhan, and Chongquing. The entire landmass of China has approximately 2,800 natural lakes with a total area of more than 49,709 square miles.
Until the 1990s China was insular, and the rest of the world had little concrete knowledge about its economic and industrial condition. Around this time, however, it underwent rapid industrialization and restructured its economy. Thereafter it opened its doors to the world for trade purposes. During the recent past China has accounted for one-third of global economic growth, twice as much as the United States. In 2004 China’s official growth in gross domestic product (GDP) surged to nearly 10 percent. Even this may underestimate the true rate, however, which some economists calculate was as high as 13 percent. China’s skyrocketing growth has helped to boost other economies with its huge hunger for imports, which surged by 40 percent in 2004 alone. While America’s industrial output has shrunk in the recent past, China’s has increased by almost 50 percent. As a result, its demand for commodities has skyrocketed, driving up prices. In the early years of the 21st century China accounted for one-third of the growth in global oil consumption and 90 percent of the growth in world steel demand. Ever since China signed the WTO treaty, its products have been flooding the open markets of neighboring countries, including India.
It has been said that every third person in the world is Chinese. In fact despite its stringent birth-control measures, China boasts the largest population in the world. Chinese society is still quite conservative, with deep-rooted traditions and a strong gender bias in this male-dominated country. The Chinese typically observe elaborate customs, rites, and rituals and are very conscious of symbols of social status, often regardless of wealth. Chinese are famous for their exquisitely beautiful calligraphy, painting styles, and a variety of ethnic handicrafts. The Chinese calendar has no names for the months; rather, they are identified numerically in the order of their occurrence. The Chinese calendar is lunar-based, with the start of the lunar year determined by the cycles of the Moon. As a result, the beginning of the year can fall anywhere between late January and the middle of February. The calendar is also cyclical. Each year in the 12-year cycle is named for an animal, such as the rooster, tiger, rabbit, and snake. The Chinese believe that people born in a particular year will possess the traits of the animal that rules that year.
Chinese cuisine is renowned throughout the world not only for its delicious taste and beautiful presentation, but also for its sheer variety and abundance. Food and cooking are considered integral parts of the nation’s culture. Chinese chefs strive for harmony of sight, smell, taste, and texture, so that each dish is unique. The flavors must not overpower, yet must be strong enough to be tasted by the diners. In hot dishes a strong aroma stimulates the diner’s appetite. Fragrances from fresh ginger root, garlic, or chili pepper are blended with wine, aniseed, cinnamon, peppercorn, or sesame oil. Soy sauce, sugar, vinegar, and other seasonings are used discreetly. BIRTH
The major responsibility for a pregnant woman’s care is assumed by her mother-in-law, not her husband. In Chinese culture ancient customs, beliefs, and traditions play an important role in protecting the pregnant woman and her baby from complications. The Chinese fear evil influences as well as the natural phenomena of miscarriage, stillbirth, and birth defects. Many customs relate to the behavior and environs of the pregnant woman. Chinese women are taught to avoid using foul language and torturing, striking, or killing animals during pregnancy. Arguments and disputes are also to be avoided, because they may harm the fetus. It is considered bad luck to name an unborn baby since this implies eagerness on the part of the parents for a child of a particular sex. A pregnant woman is encouraged to continue working since this is supposed to make both labor and delivery easier. However tradition prohibits working with glue or other adhesives because they are thought to cause birth complications. Likewise hammering nails is believed to cause deformity in the fetus. The production of a male heir is of paramount importance in Chinese culture. Male offspring are essential for ancestor worship and the continuation of the family lineage. Girls have traditionally been considered as only “temporary” family members, while male offspring “belong” to the family their entire lives. The Chinese often consult a holy man or shaman if a male offspring is not born after several attempts. According to prevalent Chinese superstitions a couple should eat certain types of food for the seven days leading up to conception to get the child of their choice: tofu, mushrooms, carrots, and lettuce for a boy; pickles, meat, and fish for a girl.
Because China is a patriarchal society in which the perpetuation of the family is paramount, marriage is an important institution, and there are many intricate customs associated with it. Chinese men tend to marry quite late, since they need to save enough money for the wedding. It can be very expensive, especially in the case of socially prominent families. Failure to provide a lavish wedding is likely to lower the status of the family, bring criticism from relatives, and cause shame for all concerned. This relates to two important components of Chinese culture: to display wealth and prosperity conspicuously and to avoid embarrassment. In Chinese culture a marriage is not simply a love match between two people, but an establishment of a relationship between two families as well. If the parents are not happy with the lineage and status of the other family, the wedding will not take place. However arranged marriages, in which the match is made by the parents or relatives of the bride and groom, are now rare and viewed as old-fashioned. Marriage today is usually based on the young people’s own choices. However once the couple has decided to marry, the arrangements are taken over by the parents (or older relatives), reverting to tradition. The first stage of the wedding involves information gathering on the part of the groom’s family, who seeks to learn more about the reputation and lineage of the bride’s family, as well as the character of the bride. Before the families meet, the groom’s family will make discreet inquiries among friends and acquaintances. When a meeting (only between the elders of the two families) does occur, the bride’s family tries to learn as much as possible about the status and wealth of the groom’s family, as well as ensure that their daughter is not likely to be maltreated. If both families are satisfied with the match, the groom’s parents will send an elderly female representative to negotiate the marriage. The representative is expected to discuss the size of the bride’s dowry, a suitable date, and other details of the wedding. It is considered inappropriate, however, for the groom’s representative to try to bargain; her job is to ask the bride’s name and date of birth in order to give this information to an astrologer who will set the wedding date. If a death occurs in either family the wedding is usually postponed for a stipulated period of time, since it is not considered appropriate to hold a wedding during a period of mourning. A postponement may also occur if the wedding arrangements cannot be completed within a specified period or the couple wishes to wait. In these instances an engagement prior to marriage may be acceptable if the bride’s parents’ consent to it. Chinese engagements are not a binding commitment but merely an indication of intent. The engagement is usually a simple affair with an exchange of rings (worn on the third finger of the left hand), and the engagement is for an unspecified time period. A few days before the wedding, the bride receives gifts from her friends and relatives, articles that will be useful to her in the traditional role of wife and homemaker. The bride’s wedding dress combines the colors red, yellow, and white, which are considered auspicious. Black, blue, and gray may not be worn by either the bride or groom since these colors signify grief and bring bad luck to the marriage. On the wedding day the groom visits the bride’s house. An elderly woman (sam boh) is appointed to ensure that all customs are observed and to guide the couple through the ceremony. While the groom is at the bride’s home a small reception is held at his house for relatives, friends, and neighbors. As a part of the wedding rites, the groom’s house will be brilliantly decorated in red. (The bride’s family may hold a similar banquet for their own relatives the day before the wedding. The groom attends this party with some of his own relatives in order to become acquainted with the bride’s wider social circle). At the start of the wedding ceremony the couple bows three times at the ancestral altar to pay homage to the ancestors and also to seek their blessings. Next the bride’s parents serve tea and present the couple with a red packet (ang bow). Tea is then served by the newlyweds to the elder siblings and other senior relatives of the bride. The couple bows while serving the tea as a sign of respect and gratitude. The wedding banquet is not an obligatory part of the ceremony; its inclusion depends largely on the traditions of the bride’s family and its financial status. It is often held on the wedding night and is the climax of the event. Traditionally wedding banquets were held in the home or compound, but they often take place in restaurants and hotels subject to the mutual convenience of both parties. Guests at the wedding banquet will customarily bring a red packet (for the couple) and sign a guestbook. They will also formally introduce themselves to the members of both families. Alcoholic drinks— uncommon in Chinese culture—are considered compulsory at this event, and the wedding couple often drinks a toast at every table. The wedding ends with the signing of the marriage register, which makes the marriage legal. The couple will then depart for the groom’s house. In case a death has occurred in either neighborhood, an alternative route must be found to avoid passing a coffin or hearse since they are considered bad omens and portend calamity in conjugal life. When the bride has crossed the threshold of the groom’s house, she becomes part of the groom’s family. Here the ancestor worship and tea serving ceremonies are repeated. After the ceremonies the bride is taken to the bridal chamber by her bridesmaids, where she retires for the night with her new spouse. Traditionally the room contains a potty and a baby bath as it is thought that these will hasten conception. In the Chinese family system the wife lives with the husband’s family and is deemed the “property” of her husband’s family and no longer part of her own. Traditionally Chinese couples with the same surname are not supposed to marry. Cousins are not allowed to marry, because the Chinese fear such a union will produce deformed children. Even if the bride and groom have no known relatives in common, it is believed that if they share the same name, they stem from the same ancestral lineage and so should not marry.
In China, there are several different funeral traditions. In one of these funeral rites extend over a 49- day period, of which the first 7 days are the most important. Prayers are said every 7 days for 49 days if the family can afford it; if the family is too poor, then the period may be shortened to between 3 and 7 days. When a Chinese father dies his eldest son becomes the head of the family. If the eldest son passes away his second brother does not assume leadership of the family. Leadership passes to the eldest son of the eldest son, or the grandson of the father. He must assume the responsibilities and duties to the ancestors on behalf of the family. The head of the family should be present for at least the first and preferably the second, prayer ceremony. The head of the family should also be present for the burial or the cremation. In the second tradition the prayer ceremonies take place at 10-day intervals. There are four of these ceremonies before the final burial or cremation. At the end of 100 days one additional prayer ceremony may be held, but it is not as necessary or important as the first four. Most Chinese Buddhists believe that there is an intermediate period between death and rebirth. In Sanskrit it is called Antarabhava; in Tibetan it is called the Bardo. This interim period is important, because it influences the form the rebirth will take. If the family provides the appropriate prayers and memorial services, it ensures the deceased a good rebirth. Usually, it is the responsibility of the deceased’s daughters to bear the funeral expenses.