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Travel to Asia: China - April 2004 Newsletter

 

China’s terrain was populated during the earliest days of the human race. It is recognized as the oldest existing state in the world with the longest recorded history. China’s present stature among the world’s great civilizations ascends from centuries of social and political change. Yet China has managed to retain ancient traditions and beliefs that make up its rich cultural heritage.

China’s geography includes natural borders that have both isolated it from the rest of the world and kept its customs intact. Geography

China’s population of over one billion people is the largest in the world, making up approximately one-fifth of the total world population. Yet China’s large population is not spread evenly throughout the massive country. In fact, the majority of China’s population live in only one-fifth of the country’s land area. This is because much of the country’s geography is not considered “livable” by everyday standards. Two-thirds of China is mountainous, hilly, or high plateau. Because of this, China is sometimes referred to as the Land of Mountains.

In the course of China’s history, mountains have served as protective barriers from invasion as well as from monsoons and dessert winds. The Himalayan mountain range comprises the country’s southern border, housing the largest mountain in the world: Shengmufeng, or Mt. Everest. At 29,028 feet above sea level, the peak of Mt. Everest is shared by China and Nepal. Other mountain ranges of China include the Kunlun, the Tian Shan range, or the Heavenly Mountains, the Hengduan, and the Xingan.

China’s land mass is the third largest in the world after Russia and Canada. It is bordered to the east and south by an 11,200-mile coastline and the Himalayan mountain range, to the west by the Himalaya and Tibetan plateau, and to the north by China’s Great Wall.

More than two-thirds of China’s population live in the country’s agricultural and industrial heartland, found along the country’s plains and lowlands. These lowlands are within reach of China’s great rivers, the Huang He (Yellow River), Chang Jiang (Yangzi River) Zangbo Jiang (Bramaputra) Nu Jiang (Salween) and Lancing (Mekong). Rivers have affected the pulse of China throughout the ages. While their unpredictable shifts and damaging floods have been a historical cause for worry, China’s rivers are also wellsprings of livelihood, allowing for fertile soil that makes China the world’s largest producer of rice, wheat, and yams.

Because China is so large, the weather at any given point of the year varies according to particular areas. While the dessert regions of China, including Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang, may be experiencing a warm winter, another part, such as the Tibet-Qinghai Plateau, may be enduring a cold frost. In general, Northeast China has short, warm summers followed by long, cold winters. In Central China, summers are always hot while rainfall is high. In the southern and eastern parts of China, winters are moderate while summers are hot with high humidity.

The Chinese Culture and People

Chinese civilization began in the early 21st Century BC with the Hsia dynasty, also known as the Xia. Dynasties stemmed from a line of emperors who were considered in their time as direct descendants of heaven. China’s classical political record up through the end of the Qing dynasty in 1912 consists of a sequence of these ruling eras. Each dynasty contributed significant innovations to Chinese scholarship, culture, technology, and self-characterization. For instance, ancestor worship was ritualized during the Shang dynasty between the 16th-11th Centuries BC; weights, measures, currency, and writing were standardized during the Qin dynasty between 221-206 BC; and the stability of the Han dynasty enabled China’s population to grow to 50 million people between 206 BC –220 AD.

Today, 90 percent of the Chinese people are considered descendants of the Han dynasty. This ethnic classification entails an acceptance of Chinese values and is somewhat a cultural concept rather than a biological one. Many racial minorities have been absorbed by the Han throughout the course of Chinese history, and there are over 50 officially recognized minority groups in China today. Non-Han minorities comprise over 70 million Chinese people who possess their own language and social values.

As a whole, the Chinese people descend from age-old belief systems and a profound breadth of art, history, and tradition that includes pragmatic standards of behavior, philosophy, traditional medicine, arts and crafts, architecture, cuisine, cultural arts, and much more. Naturally, the descriptions below are introductions, not summaries, to some of these topics.

Beliefs

Both Daoism (Taoism) and Confucianism originated in China. Each entail ethics and standards of behavior rather than religious systems. For instance, moral honesty is a virtue that is said to stem from the practice of dao. Similarly, Confucianism is based on principles of law and order. Buddhism was imported from India in the First Century AD.

Other philosophical traditions of the Chinese include feng shui and wuxing. Feng shui (wind and water) is a set of traditional or spiritual laws that govern the direction of luck and fortune. It is based on the principle that life’s spirit is divided into the yin and the yang, the female-passive and the male-active elements of life. Colors and numbers are highly representative in Chinese culture, carrying a range of symbolic meanings. The concept of wuxing consists of the five elements that dominate the universe: water, wood, fire, metal, and earth. These properties also play a big role in Chinese astrology, the most ancient system of its kind. (To discover more about these Chinese belief systems, please read our March and August 2003 newsletters on feng shui and Chinese horoscope.)

Traditional Medicine

Recent scientific studies are only beginning to unfold the healing properties of China’s approach to medicine. Today, both in China and the rest of the world, traditional Chinese medicine is used primarily as a supplement to Western medicine. Both yin-yang and the concept of holism are integral to the understanding of Chinese traditional medicine, which is encompassed by a unique combination of pharmaceutical products, acupuncture, exercise, and diet.

Arts and Crafts

Though there are strong ties between painting and calligraphy in China, calligraphy is held in higher esteem and is in itself a venerated form of expression. It entails a mastery of written Chinese, a skill held by esteemed scholars. The written word is considered a carrier of culture in China, and links calligraphy to the art of poetry as well as painting. Most painters have extensive training in calligraphy, and most calligraphers have extensive training in painting. Both art forms often appear together and each use the same brushes, made with bamboo and various kinds of animal hair. Other traditional Chinese arts and crafts include ivory carvings, jade carvings, lacquerware, porcelain creations, and silk embroidery. (Begin your own collection of Chinese crafts by searching through our categories, which include a dynamic selection of porcelain tea sets, jade jewelry and carvings, silk treasures, and much more. Or, begin your own journey into creating Chinese style artwork with one of our high-quality calligraphy sets available in the Stationary. If you would like to learn more about Chinese arts and crafts, we conveniently offer newsletters on jade and the art of beautiful writing, accessible through our newsletter archive.)

Architecture

Chinese architecture is based on principles of balance, order, and authority. The architectural planning of the Imperial Palace, for example, symbolizes the emperor’s position as one connected to heaven. The palace is located at the exact center of the capital and consists of raised levels, with the city extending forth around it. Tile roofs, stone floors, and wooden posts, along with marble terraces and large halls are classical architectural features. Walls, which create protection, privacy, and containment, are important parts of Chinese landscaping. Symbolic figures are often integrated into the design of buildings to evoke protection and good luck. (Please refer to the Art and Architecture section of our Books category for more information on Chinese architecture.)

Cuisine

Chinese food is enjoyed all over the world. Common seasons used are soy sauce, ginger, garlic, vinegar, sesame oil, soybean paste, and scallions. These seasonings flavor a host of other ingredients, usually cooked by stir frying, deep frying, steaming, or braising. While rice is a staple food found with every meal, noodles, dumplings, breads, and soybean curd are also common. Poultry and pork are the most common meats, and seafood dishes are considered a luxury. Regional differences in food preparation divide Chinese cuisine into four different categories: Cantonese, Szechuan, Huaiyang, and Northern. (We offer a variety of Chinese cookbooks in our Books section, various newsletters on dim sum, tea, moon cakes, and Chinese celebrations in our newsletter archives, essential cooking ingredients in our Grocery section, and must-have cooking utensils such as cutting boards, woks, cooking spoons, and much more in our Cookware and Grocery Category.)

Cultural Arts

Chinese cultural arts are often to be found in the written word, where the famous writings of Confucius and other Chinese philosophers are compiled, as well as a wellspring of songs, poetry, and fiction. China has also produced an internationally recognized cinema and its film collaboration with Hong Kong is the third largest in the world. A treasure of independent productions stem from China in addition to the popular martial arts and fast action films. Three hundred different styles of Chinese opera focus on historical stories and folklore and each require years of training to master. The operas utilize traditional mask-line make-up, colloquial language, elaborate props and symbols, and long flowing costumes.

We hope you have enjoyed the first segment of our Travel to Asia series. We’ve no doubt left you with a curiosity to learn more about China. The good news is that next month’s newsletter will continue the exciting journey as we take a closer look at China’s dynamic cities and rural towns. Now that you know more about the geography and culture of this historic nation, find out more about the different regions within China and the sights, sounds, and tastes they have to offer. From Hong Kong to a Beijing opera, Mrs. Lin’s Kitchen will give you a complementary panorama of these fascinating discoveries.

  OUR 2004 NEWSLETTERS

Holiday Shopping Guide for Men

Holiday Shopping Guide for Women

Flowers in the Sky – Cherry and Plum Blossoms in Asian Culture

Travel to Asia: Southeast Asia II

Travel to Asia: Southeast Asia I

Travel to Asia: Korea

Travel to Asia: Taiwan

Travel to Asia: Japan

Travel to Asia: China, Part II

Travel to Asia: China

1,000 Cranes in Asian Culture and Art

Chinese New Year

Cookware for Your Asian-Style Kitchen


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May We Suggest:

Chinese Zodiac Carved Jade Pendant (7516)

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Rectangular Calligraphy Set w/ Imprint Note Book (5300)

Set of Three Fine Chinese Calligraphy Brushes (5328)

Green Bamboo Textured Tea Set For Two (T1890)

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