The Chinese call their country Zhonghua Renmmin Gogheguo, or Zhong Guo for short.
Identification. The Chinese refer to their country as the Middle Kingdom, an indication of how central they have felt themselves to be throughout history. There are cultural and linguistic variations in different regions, but for such a large country the culture is relatively uniform. However, fifty-five minority groups inhabit the more remote regions of the country and have their own unique cultures, languages, and customs.
Location and Geography. China has a land area of 3,691,502 square miles (9,596,960 square kilometers), making it the world's third largest nation. It borders thirteen countries, including Russia and Mongolia to the north, India to the southwest, and Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam to the south. To the east, it borders the Yellow Sea, the South China Sea, and the East China Sea. The climate is extremely diverse, ranging from tropical in the south to subarctic in the north. In the west, the land consists mostly of mountains, high plateaus, and desert. The eastern regions are characterized by plains, deltas, and hills. The highest point is Mount Everest, on the border between Tibet and Nepal, the tallest mountain in the world.
The Yangtze, the longest river in the country, forms the official dividing line between north and south China. The Yangtze sometimes floods badly, as does the Yellow River to the north, which, because of the damage it has caused, is called "China's sorrow."
The country is divided into two regions: Inner China and Outer China. Historically, the two have been very separate. The Great Wall, which was built in the fifteenth century to protect the country against military invasions, marks the division. While the areas of the two regions are roughly equal, 95 percent of the population lives in Inner China.
The country is home to several endangered species, including the giant panda, the golden monkey, several species of tiger, the Yangtze alligator, and the red-crowned crane. While outside organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund have made efforts to save these animals, their preservation is not a top priority for the government.
Demography. China is the most populous nation on earth; in 2000, the estimated population was 1,261,832,482 (over one-fifth of the world's population). Of these people, 92 percent are Han Chinese; the remaining 8 percent are people of Zhuang, Uyhgur, Hui, Yi, Tibetan, Miao, Manchu, Mongol, Buyi, Korean, and other nationalities. Sichuan, in the central region, is the most densely populated province. Many of the minority groups live in Outer China, although the distribution has changed slightly over the years. The government has supported Han migration to minority territories in an effort to spread the population more evenly across the country and to control the minority groups in those areas, which sometimes are perceived as a threat to national stability. The rise in population among the minorities significantly outpaces that of the Han, as the minority groups are exempt from the government's one-child policy.
Linguistic Affiliation. Mandarin Chinese is the official language. It is also called Putonghua and is based on the Beijing dialect. Modern spoken Chinese, which replaced the classical language in the 1920s, is called bai hua. The writing system has not changed for thousands of years and is the same for all the dialects. It is complex and difficult to learn
Chinese is a tonal language: words are differentiated not just by sounds but by whether the intonation is rising or falling. There are a number of dialects, including Yue (spoken in Canton), Wu (Shangai), Minbei (Fuzhou), Minnan (Hokkien-Taiwanese), Xiang, Gan, and Hakka. Many of the dialects are so different that they are mutually unintelligible. Some minority groups have their own languages.
Symbolism. The flag has a red background with a yellow star in the upper left-hand corner and four smaller yellow stars in a crescent formation to its right. The color red symbolizes the revolution. The large star stands for the Communist Party, and the four small stars symbolize the Chinese people; the position of the stars stands for a populace united in support of the state.
The main symbol of the nation is the dragon, a fantastical creature made up of seven animals. It is accorded the power to change size at will and to bring the rain that farmers need. New Year's festivities often include a line of people in a dragon costume. Another patriotic symbol is the Great Wall. Spanning a length of 1,500 miles, it is the only human-made structure visible from the moon. Work began on the wall in the third century B.C.E. and continued during the Ming Dynasty in the fifteenth century. The emperor conscripted criminals and ordinary farmers for the construction; many died while working, and their bodies were buried in the wall. It has become a powerful symbol of both the oppression the Chinese have endured and the heights their civilization has achieved.
History and Ethnic Relations
Emergence of the Nation. Records of civilization in China date back to around 1766 B.C.E. and the Shang Dynasty. The Zhou defeated the Shang in 1059 B.C.E. and went on to rule for nearly one thousand years, longer than any other dynasty.
China was a feudal state until the lord of Qin managed to unite the various lords and became the first emperor in 221 B.C.E. He ruled with an iron fist, demanding that the teachings of Confucius be burned, and conscripting thousands of people to construct canals, roads, and defensive walls, including the beginning of what would become the Great Wall. The Qin Dynasty was short-lived; it lasted only three years, until the death of the emperor. The Han Dynasty, which held sway from 206 B.C.E. until 220 C.E. , saw the introduction of many of elements that would later characterize Chinese society, including the Imperial Examination System, which allowed people to join the civil service on the basis of merit rather than birth. This system remained in effect until the beginning of the twentieth century.
The Han Dynasty was followed by the Period of Disunity, which lasted more than three hundred years. During that time, the country was split into areas ruled by the Mongols and other tribes from the north. It was during this period that Buddhism was introduced in the country. The Sui Dynasty rose to power in 581, connecting the north and the south through the construction of the Grand Canal.
The Tang Dynasty ruled from 618 until 907 and saw a blossoming of poetry and art. It was also a period of expansion, as the nation increased its territory in the west and north. The Five Dynasties period followed, during which the empire once again split. The Song Dynasty (960–1279) was another artistically prolific era. The Song fell to Mongol invasions under the leadership of Kublai Khan, who established the Yuan Dynasty. It was during this time that the capital was established in Beijing.
The Ming took over in 1368 and ruled for nearly three hundred years. During that period, trade continued to expand.
The Qing Dynasty ruled from 1644 until 1911 and saw the expansion of China into Tibet and Mongolia. Especially in later years, the Qing practiced strict isolationism, which ultimately led to their downfall, as their military technology did not keep pace with that of the Western powers. Foreign traders came to the country by sea, bringing opium with them. The Qing banned opium in 1800, but the foreigners did not heed that decree. In 1839, the Chinese confiscated twenty thousand chests of the drug from the British. The British retaliated, and the four Opium Wars began. The result was a defeat for China and the establishment of Western settlements at numerous seaports. The foreigners took advantage of the Qing's weakened hold on power and divided the nation into "spheres of influence."
Another result of the Opium Wars was the loss of Hong Kong to the British. The 1840 Treaty of Nanjing gave the British rights to that city "in perpetuity." An 1898 agreement also "leased" Kowloon and the nearby New Territories to the British for one hundred years. A group of rebels called the "Righteous and Harmonious Fists," or the Boxers, formed to overthrow both the foreigners and the Qing. The Qing, recognizing their compromised position, united with the Boxers to attack the Western presence in the country. The Boxer Rebellion saw the end of the Qing Dynasty, and in 1912, Sun Yatsen became president of the newly declared Chinese Republic. In reality, power rested in the hands of regional rulers who often resorted to violence. On 4 May 1919, a student protest erupted in Beijing in opposition to continued Western influence. The student agitation gained strength, and the years between 1915 and the 1920s came to be known as the May Fourth Movement, a period that saw a large-scale rejection of Confucianism and a rise in social action, both of which were precursors to the communist revolution.
The politically weakened and disunified state of the country paved the way for two opposing political parties, each of which had a different vision of a modern, united nation. At Beijing University, several young men, including Mao Zedong, founded the Chinese Communist Party. Their opposition, the Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, was led by Chiang Kaishek. The two tried to join forces, with Chiang as the head of the National Revolutionary Army, but dissension led to a civil war.
The Sino-Japanese war began in 1931 when Japan, taking advantage of China's weakened and divided state, invaded the country. An attack on the city of Nanjing (the capital at that time) in 1937 resulted in 300,000 deaths and large-scale destruction of the city. Japan did not withdraw its forces until after World War II.
The Kuomintang, with its military superiority, forced the communists into a retreat to the north that lasted a year and became known as the Long March. Along the way, the communists redistributed land from the rich owners to the peasants, many of whom joined their fight. The Nationalists controlled the cities, but the communists continued to grow in strength and numbers in the countryside; by the late 1940s, the Nationalists were surrounded. Many Kuomintang members abandoned Chiang's army and joined the communists. In April 1949, Nanjing fell to the communists; other cities followed, and Chiang, along with two million of his followers, fled to Taiwan. Mao Zedong, the chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, declared the establishment of the People's Republic of China on 1 October 1949.
Mao began a series of Five Year Plans to improve the economy, beginning with heavy industry. In 1957, as part of those reforms, he initiated a campaign he named the Great Leap Forward, whose goals were to modernize the agricultural system by building dams and irrigation networks and redistributing land into communes. At the same time, industries were established in rural areas. Many of those efforts failed because of poor planning and a severe drought in the northern and central regions of the country. A two-year famine killed thirty million people.
The government launched the so-called One Hundred Flowers campaign in the spring of 1956 with the slogan "Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend." The intent was to encourage creative freedom; the next year, it was extended to include freedom of intellectual expression. Many people interpreted this to mean an increased tolerance of political expression, but the government did not agree, and the result was a large-scale purge of intellectuals and critics of the Communist Party. This was part of what became known as the Cultural Revolution. In an attempt to rehabilitate his popularity, Mao initiated an attack on his enemies in the Communist Party. Those attacks extended beyond the government to include intellectuals, teachers, and scientists, many of whom were sent to work camps in the countryside for "reeducation." Religion was outlawed, and many temples were destroyed. Tens of thousands of young people were enlisted in Mao's Red Guards, who carried out his orders and lived by the words of the Little Red Book of Mao's quotations.
In the early 1970s, toward the end of Mao's regime, Zhou Enlai, an influential politician, worked to restore relations between China and the outside world, from which it had been largely cut off during the Cultural Revolution. In 1972, U.S. President Richard Nixon made a historic trip to China to meet with Mao, beginning a period of improvement in diplomatic relations with the United States.
When Mao died in 1976, the country was in a state of virtual chaos. His successor was Hua Guofeng, a protégé whom the chairman had promoted through the ranks of the party. However, Mao's widow, Jiang Qing, along with three other bureaucrats (Zhang Chunqiao, Wang Hongwen, and Yao Wenyuan), assumed more power in the transitional government. Known as the Gang of Four, they were widely disliked. When the gang publicly announced its opposition to Hua in 1976, Hua had them arrested, a move that was widely approved. The four politicians were imprisoned but did not come to trial until 1980.
In 1977, Deng Xiaoping, a Communist Party member who had been instrumental in the Civil War and the founding of the People's Republic, rose to power and began a program of modernization and moderation of hard-line economic policies. He was faced with the great challenge of updating a decrepit and wasteful government system and responding to demands for increased freedom while maintaining order. Dissatisfaction was widespread, particularly among students, who began calling for an end to government corruption and the establishment of a more democratic government. In 1989, Beijing University students organized demonstrations in Tiananmen Square that lasted for weeks. The People's Liberation Army finally opened fire on the protesters. The June Fourth Massacre (Tiananmen Square Massacre) garnered international attention and sparked worldwide indignation. The United States responded by imposing trade sanctions.
Deng died in 1997, marking the end of government by the original founders of the communist state. Jiang Zemin, the mayor of Shanghai, became president. His government has faced a growing but unstable economy and a system beset by official corruption as well as several regions threatening the
In 1997, following a 1984 agreement, the British returned Hong Kong and the New Territories to Chinese control. The handover occurred at midnight on 1 July. Although it had been agreed that Hong Kong would retain the financial and judicial systems installed by the British at least until 2047, an estimated half-million people left the city between 1984 and 1997 in anticipation of the takeover, immigrating to the United States, Canada, and Singapore.
Macao, a Portuguese colony, was given back to China in December 1999 under conditions similar to those in the Hong Kong deal, in which the territory would be permitted to retain much of its economic and governmental sovereignty. Taiwan remains another territory in question. The island broke away from the mainland government in 1949 after the relocation there of Chiang Kaishek and his nationalist allies, who have governed since that time. The Nationalists still maintain their mandate to govern the nation as a whole, and many are opposed to reunification, while the communists claim that Taiwan is a province of China.
Tibet is a contested region that has gained international attention in its quest for independence. China first gained control of the area during the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) and again early in the eighteenth century. While it was part of China through the Qing Dynasty, the government did not attempt to exercise direct control of Tibet again until the communists came to power and invaded the territory in 1950. The Dalai Lama, Tibet's religious and political leader, was forced into exile in 1959. The region became autonomous in 1965 but remains financially dependent on China. The question of its independence is a complex one, and resolution does not appear imminent.
National Identity. The vast majority of Chinese people are of Han descent. They identify with the dominant national culture and have a sense of history and tradition that dates back over one thousand years and includes many artistic, cultural, and scientific accomplishments. When the communists took over in 1949, they worked to create a sense of national identity based on the ideals of equality and hard work.
Some minority groups, such as the Manchu, have assimilated almost entirely. While they maintain their own languages and religions, they identify with the nation as well as with their own groups. Other minority ethnic groups tend to identify more with their individual cultures than with the Han. For example, the Mongolians and Kazakhs of the north and northwest, the Tibetans and the Zhuangs in the southwest, and the inhabitants of Hainan Island to the southeast are all linguistically, culturally, and historically distinct from one another and from the dominant tradition. For some minority groups, the Tibetans and Uigurs of Xinjiang in particular, the issue of independence has been an acrimonious one and has led those groups to identify themselves deliberately in opposition to the central culture and its government.
Ethnic Relations. China is for the most part an extremely homogeneous society composed of a people who share one language, culture, and history. The government recognizes fifty-five minority groups that have their own distinct cultures and traditions. Most of those groups live in Outer China, because the Han have, over the centuries, forced them into those harsh, generally less desirable lands. The Han often consider the minority groups inferior, if not subhuman; until recently, the characters for their names included the symbol for "dog." The minority groups harbor a good deal of resentment toward the Han. Tibet and Xinjiang in particular have repeatedly attempted to separate from the republic. The Tibetans and the Uighurs of Xinjiang have expressed animosity toward the Han Chinese who live in bordering regions, and as a result, China has sent troops to those areas to maintain the peace.
Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space
While the majority of the population is still rural, the cities are growing, as many people migrate in search of work. Forty cities have populations over one million.
The largest city is Shanghai, which is near the center of the country's east coast. Because of its strategic location as a port on the Huangpu River, near the Yangtze, areas of the city were taken over by the British, French, and Americans after the Opium Wars. Although those concessions were returned to China in 1949, Shanghai retains a European feel in some districts. It is a city of skyscrapers and big business, a cultural locus, and a center of both extreme wealth and extreme poverty.
Beijing, the capital, is the second largest urban center. Its history goes back three thousand years, and it has been the capital since the late thirteenth century. Beijing is divided into the Inner City (to the north) and the Outer City (to the south). The Inner City contains the Imperial City, which contains the Forbidden City. This spectacular architectural aggregation of temples, palaces, and man-made lakes, whose construction began in 1406, is where the emperor and his court resided. Although it once was off limits to civilians, today sightseers and tourists can admire its gardens, terraces, and pavilions. Tienanmen Square, the site of several demonstrations and events, as well as the location of Mao's tomb, is at one end of the Forbidden City. Despite the city's size, it is still possible to navigate Beijing without a car, and most people do; bicycles are one of the most common modes of transportation—this cuts down greatly on air pollution.
Other important cities include Tianjin, a northern port and industrial center; Shenyang in the northeast, another industrial city; and Guangzhou, the main southern port city.
Architecture varies with the diverse climate. In the north, people sleep on a platform called a kang. Mongolians live in huts called yurts. In the south, straw houses built on stilts are common. In much of the country, traditional houses are rectangular and have courtyards enclosed by high walls. The roofs are sloped, curving upward at the edges.
Food and Economy
Read more about the Food and Cuisine of China.
Food in Daily Life. Rice is the dietary staple in most of the country. In the north and the west, where the climate is too dry to grow rice, wheat is the staple grain. Here, breakfast usually consists of noodles or wheat bread. In the south, many people start the day with rice porridge, or congee, served with shrimp, vegetables, and pickles. Lunch is similar to breakfast. The evening meal is the day's largest. Every meal includes soup, which is served as the last course.
People cook in a wok, a metal pan with a curved bottom; this style of cooking requires little oil and a short cooking time. Steaming in bamboo baskets lined with cabbage leaves is another cooking method. Meat is expensive and is served sparingly.
The cuisine can be broken down into four main geographic varieties. In Beijing and Shandong, specialties include Beijing duck served with pancakes and plum sauce, sweet and sour carp, and bird's nest soup. Shanghaiese cuisine uses liberal amounts of oil and is known for seafood and cold meat dishes. Food is particularly spicy in the Sichuan and Hunan provinces. Shrimp with salt and garlic, frogs' legs, and smoked duck are popular dishes.
Cooking reflects the country's history of famines caused by factors such as natural disasters and war. The Chinese eat parts and species of animals that many other cultures do not, including fish heads and eyeballs, birds' feet and saliva, and dog and cat meat.
Tea is the most common beverage. The Han drink it unsweetened and black, Mongolians have it with milk, and Tibetans serve it with yak butter. The Chinese are fond of sugary soft drinks, both American brands and locally produced ones. Beer is a common beverage, and there are many local breweries.
Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. Special occasions and large family gatherings often entail big, elaborate meals. In the north, dumplings called jiaozi are served at the Spring Festival and other special occasions. For the Moon Festival in midautumn, "moon cakes" are served, baked pastries filled with ground sesame and lotus seeds or dates. Banquets originating in the imperial tradition are ceremonial meals common to important state gatherings and business occasions. They usually are held at restaurants and consist of ten or more courses. Rice is not served, as it is considered too cheap and commonplace for such an event.
Basic Economy. In 1978, the country began the slow process of shifting from a Soviet-style economy to a more free market system, and in twenty years managed to quadruple the gross domestic product (GDP) and become the second largest economy in the world. However, the decentralization of the economy has often conflicted with the tight reign exercised by the highly centralized political system. The economy is burdened with widespread corruption, bureaucracy, and large state-run businesses that have been unable to keep pace with economic expansion. Inflation rates, which rose steeply in the 1980s, fell between 1995 and 1999 as a result of stricter monetary policies and government control of food prices. While the economy appears to be improving, the standard of living in rural areas remains poor, and the government faces problems collecting taxes in provinces that are becoming increasingly autonomous, such as Shanghai and Guangzhou.
The labor force consists of 700 million people, of whom 50 percent work in agriculture, 24 percent in industry, and 26 percent in services. The unemployment rate is roughly 10 percent in the cities and higher in the countryside. A large number of migrants move between the villages and the cities, barely supporting themselves with part-time jobs and day labor. The national currency is named the yuan.
One of the largest economic challenges has been feeding the enormous population. The government has taken a two-pronged approach, instituting a series of modernization projects to improve irrigation and transportation and trying to curb population growth by allowing each family to have only one child. The one-child law, which does not apply to minority groups, has faced widespread popular resistance.
Land Tenure and Property. One of Mao's priorities was a program of land reform. He turned over the previous sharecropper-like system and in its place established collective, government-run farms. Deng did away with many of the large-scale communes. While safeguarding the system of government-owned land, he allowed individual farmers to rent land and gave them more freedom in decision making. This shift saw a large increase in agricultural productivity; output doubled in the 1980s.
While farmers and other individuals have much more control over their land than in the past, the majority of it is still owned by the government.
Commercial Activities. Much commercial activity revolves around agriculture. Products vary from region to region. The main goods produced for domestic sale are rice, wheat, soybeans, fruits, and vegetables. From 1958 to 1978, all farms were run as communes and were required to sell all of their output to the government at predetermined prices. Today, farmers still must sell a portion of the yield to the government, but the rest goes on the open market where supply and demand determine the price. In government stores, there is no negotiating of prices, but the increasing numbers of privately owned shops often welcome bargaining.
There is a large black market in foreign goods such as cigarettes, alcohol, and electronic products. Connections (called guanxi ) are of supreme importance in acquiring such goods. It is not uncommon for products made in state-owned factories for sale by the government to find their way into private stores.
Hong Kong, with a fully capitalist economy, developed under British rule into an international financial center. The main commercial activities there are banking and high-technology product and services.
Major Industries. The larger industries include iron and steel, coal, machine building, armaments, textiles and apparel, petroleum, footwear, toys, food processing, automobiles, and consumer electronics. Metallurgy and machine building have received top priority in recent years and account for about one-third of industrial output. In these, as in other industries, the country has consistently valued quantity in production over quality, and this is reflected in many of the products. Tourism, which increased during the 1980s, fell sharply after Tiananmen Square; however, it has picked up again as the economy has continued to open to Western investors.
Trade. China imports machinery and equipment, plastics, chemicals, iron and steel, and mineral fuels, mainly from Japan, the United States, Taiwan, and South Korea. Exports include machinery and equipment, textiles and clothing, footwear, toys and sporting goods, mineral fuels, and chemicals. These products go primarily to the United States, Hong Kong, Japan, and Germany. Trade has shifted dramatically over the years. In the 1950s, the main trading partners were other communist countries; however, the decline of the Soviet Union as a world power changed that. Most trade today is conducted with the noncommunist world.
Division of Labor. Initially, under communism, urban workers were assigned jobs by the government. Wages were predetermined and did not reward productivity. That system was modified in 1978 and again in 1986 to allow for wage increases and firings in relation to productivity. Under Deng Xiaoping, people were encouraged to develop their entrepreneurial skills as shopkeepers and taxi drivers and in other small business ventures. Older people often become caretakers for their young grandchildren. Many continue to engage in community work and projects.
Classes and Castes. Confucian philosophy endorses a hierarchical class system. At the top of the system are scholars, followed by farmers, artisans, and finally merchants and soldiers. A good deal of social mobility was possible in that system; it was common practice for a family to save its money to invest in the education and advancement of the oldest son. When the communists took control, they overturned this traditional hierarchy, professing the
Symbols of Social Stratification. Cars, a rare commodity, are a symbol of high social and economic standing. Comfortable living accommodations with luxuries such as hot running water are another. Many government employees who could not otherwise afford these things get them as perks of the job. As recently as the 1980s, most people dressed in simple dark-colored clothing. Recently, more styles have become available, and brand-name or imitation brand-name American clothes are a marker of prosperity. This style of dress is more common in the cities but is visible in the countryside among the better-off farmers.
Many minority groups maintain their traditional attire. Tibetans dress in layers of clothes to protect themselves from the harsh weather. The women wrap their heads in cloth. Uighur women wear long skirts and bright-colored scarves; the men wear embroidered caps.
Government. China is a communist state. The president is the chief of state and is elected by the National People's Congress (NPC) for a five-year term. However, the president defers to the decisions and leadership of the NPC. The NPC is responsible for writing laws and policy, delegating authority, and supervising other parts of the government. The highest level in the executive branch of the government is the State Council, which is composed of a premier, a vice premier, councillors, and various ministers. The State Council handles issues of internal politics, defense, economy, culture, and education. Its members are appointed and can be removed by the president's decree.
The country is divided into twenty-three provinces, five autonomous regions, and four municipalities. (Taiwan is considered the twenty-third province.) At the local level, elected deputies serve in a local people's congress, a smaller-scale version of the national body, which is responsible for governing within the region and reports to the State Council.
Leadership and Political Officials. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is in effect the only political party. Eight registered small parties are controlled by the CCP. There are no substantial opposition groups, but there are two—the Falun Gong sect and the China Democracy Party—that the government sees as potential threats. The Falun Gong in particular has received international attention because of the government's attempts to suppress it. The organization claims that it is a meditation group based on Buddhist and Taoist philosophies; the government considers it a cult that threatens public order and the state. The government has sent hundreds of Falun Gong members to labor camps and has imprisoned many of its leaders. The group is legal in Hong Kong.
Social Problems and Control. The legal system is a complex mixture of tradition and statute. A rudimentary civil code has been in effect since 1987, and new legal codes since 1980. The country continues to make efforts to improve its laws in the civil, administrative, criminal, and commercial areas. The highest court is the Supreme People's Court, which supervises lower courts, hears appeals, and explains national laws.
The crime rate is rising. Pickpocketing and petty theft are the most common offenses, but there are increasing numbers of incidents of violent crime. Prostitution and drug use are also growing problems.
Public humiliation is a common punishment for crimes such as petty theft. Prisons often put inmates to work in farming or manufacturing. The death penalty is assigned not only for violent crimes but also for acts such as bribery and corruption. The government has been known to deal harshly with political dissidents. Many participants in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests were imprisoned, and the government continues to punish severely any displays of opposition. The country has been cited numerous times for human rights violations.
Military Activity. The People's Liberation Army (PLA) includes the Ground Forces, the Navy (both marines and naval aviation), the Air Force, and the Second Artillery Corps (strategic missile force). The People's Armed Police, consisting of internal security troops, is supposedly subordinate to the Ministry of Public Security but is included in the "armed forces" and in times of war acts as an adjunct to the PLA. The government quotes a figure of over $12 billion (1.2 percent of the GDP) for military expenses, but many Western analysts place the amount several times higher. Service in the PLA is voluntary and highly selective. Both women and men can serve, and the army conscientiously upholds communist ideals of equality; there are no ranks in the army.
As of 1998, there were 2.8 million people in the armed forces: 1,830,000 in the army, 420,000 in the air force, and 230,000 in the navy. That year, however, the government introduced a plan to cut the armed forces by half a million.
Social Welfare and Change Programs
State-run corporations or groups of factories often provide housing, child care, education, medical care, and other services for their employees. These organizations are called danwei, or work units. They also provide compensation for injury and disability, old age, and survivors' pensions. Many of the government's social welfare initiatives are concentrated in the cities where housing, education, and food are subsidized; in the countryside, the burden of social welfare often falls to companies, organizations, and individual families. The government supplies emergency relief in the case of natural disasters, including floods and crop failures. The government offers financial incentives to families that comply with its one-child policy, giving them preference in housing, health care, and other social services.
Nongovernmental Organizations and Other Associations
China is a member of a number of international associations, including the United Nations, UNESCO, and the World Health Organization. It has applied for membership in the World Trade Organization. There are a number of foreign health, development, and human rights organizations active in China, including the Red Cross, the World Health Organization, the U.S. Peace Corps, Amnesty International, and others.
Gender Roles and Statuses
Division of Labor by Gender. Before the twentieth century, women were confined to the domestic realm, while men dominated all other aspects of society. The only exception was agriculture, where women's work had a somewhat wider definition. Western influence began to infiltrate the country in
The Relative Status of Women and Men. Confucian values place women as strictly subordinate to men, and this was reflected in traditional society. Women had no rights and were treated as possessions, first of their father's and later of their husband's. The practice of foot binding was symbolic of the strictures women faced in all aspects of life. From the age of seven, girls had their feet wrapped tightly, stunting their growth and virtually crippling them in the name of beauty. This practice was not outlawed until 1901. The procedure was inflicted mainly on upper-class and middle-class women, as peasant women needed full use of their feet to work in the fields.
The rejection of many traditional values early in the twentieth century resulted in increasing equality and freedom for women. The Western presence in the nineteenth century also had an influence. Raising the status of women was a priority in the founding of the modern state. Women played an important role in the Long March and the communist struggle against the Kuomintang, and under Mao they were given legal equality to men in the home and the workplace as well as in laws governing marriage, divorce, and inheritance. Despite these legal measures, women still face significant obstacles, including spousal abuse and the practice of selling women and young girls as brides.
Marriage,Family, and Kinship
Marriage. According to custom, marriages are arranged by the couple's parents. While this system is less rigid than it once was, it is still common for young people to use matchmakers. People take a pragmatic approach to marriage, and even those who chose their own spouses often take practical considerations as much as romantic ones into account.
Weddings are usually large, expensive affairs paid for by the groom's family. For those who can afford it, Western-style weddings are popular, with the bride in a white gown and the groom in a suit and tie.
The legal age for marriage is twenty for women and twenty-two for men. A marriage law enacted by the communists in 1949 gave women the right to choose their husbands and file for divorce. While it is difficult to obtain a divorce, rates are rising.
Domestic Unit. It is common for several generations to live together under one roof. After marriage, a woman traditionally leaves her parents' home and becomes part of her husband's family. The husband's mother runs the household and sometimes treats a new daughter-in-law harshly. Although today practical reasons compel most children to leave the parents' home, the oldest son often stays, as it is his duty to care for his aging parents. Even today, many young adults continue to live with their parents after marriage, partly because of a housing shortage in the cities.
Inheritance. The estate generally passes to the oldest son, although, especially in the case of wealthy and powerful men, most of their personal possession traditionally were buried with them. The remaining property went to the oldest son. Since the communists came to power in 1949, women have been able to inherit property.
Kin Groups. Extended family is extremely important, and the wealthy and well educated often hire genealogists to research their family trees. Family members, even distant relations, are valued above outsiders. The passing on of the family name is of great importance. If the oldest son in a family has no son of his own, he often is expected to adopt the son of his next youngest brother. If no sons are born in the clan, a sister's son may be adopted to carry on the name.
Infant Care. Traditionally, male babies were valued much more highly than female offspring. Girls were looked at as a liability and in times of economic hardship often were sold into lives of servitude or prostitution. While this has changed somewhat, those attitudes have again become prevalent with the government's one-child policy. When families are allowed to have only one child, they want to ensure that it is a boy; for this reason, rates of female infanticide and abandonment have risen. While babies are highly valued, it is considered bad luck to praise them aloud. It is common to offer backward compliments, remarking on a child's ugliness.
A baby usually is not washed for the first three days after birth. On the third day, he or she is bathed, and friends and relatives come to view the new addition to the family. When a male child turns one month old, the parents throw a First Moon party. The boy's head is shaved, and the hair is wrapped in a red cloth, which, after a hundred days, is thrown in the river. This is thought to protect the child.
Women usually are granted maternity leave between two months and one year, but rural women tend to go back to work earlier.
Child Rearing and Education. From a very young age, children are assigned responsibilities in both the family and the community. In the countryside, this means farm chores; in the city, it consists of housework or even sweeping the street. Schoolchildren are responsible for keeping the classroom clean and orderly.
Under communism, when women were encouraged to take jobs outside the home, child care facilities became prevalent. Grandparents also play a significant role in raising children, especially when the mother works outside the home.
Education is mandatory for nine years. Ninety-six percent of children attend kindergarten and elementary school, and about two-thirds continue on to secondary school, which lasts for three years. In high school, students pursue either technical training or a general education. Those who receive a general education can take the extremely difficult qualifying exams to enter a university. The educational system stresses obedience and rote learning over creativity. Both traditional Confucians and the Communist Party view education as a method for inculcating values in the young. Under Mao, the educational system suffered from propaganda and the devaluation of intellectual pursuits. Because of the size of the population, classrooms and teachers are in short supply.
The country has made great progress in increasing the literacy of the general population. When the communists came to power, only 15 percent of the population could read and write. Today, thanks to mandatory schooling for children and adult education programs, the rate is over 75 percent.
Higher Education. Higher education is not accessible to many. Admission to the universities is extremely competitive; only 2 percent of the population attends college. In addition to the rigorous entrance examination, students are required to demonstrate their loyalty to the Communist Party. During the summers, university students perform manual labor. The curriculum emphasizes science
Deference and obedience to elders is considered extremely important. There is a hierarchy that places older people above younger and men above women; this is reflected in social interaction.
Chinese people are nonconfrontational. Saving face is of primary importance; appearing to be in the right or attempting to please someone is more important than honesty. It is considered rude to refuse a request even if one is unable to fulfill it. The fear of losing face is a concern that governs social interactions both large and insignificant; failure to perform a duty brings shame not just on the individual, but on the family and community as well. Individuality is often subsumed in the group identity. There is little privacy in the home or family, and housing shortages and cramped living quarters often exaggerate this situation.
People touch often, and same-sex hand holding is common. However, physical contact between men and women in public is limited. Smiling is not necessarily a sign of happiness; it can be a display of worry or embarrassment.
Visiting is an important part of social life. Guests often drop in unannounced and are invited to join the family for a meal. It is customary to bring a small gift when visiting.
Relgious Beliefs. As a communist state, the country is officially atheist. Fifty-nine percent of the population has no religious affiliation. Twenty percent of the people practice traditional religions (Taoism and Confucianism), 12 percent consider themselves atheists, 6 percent are Buddhist, 2 percent are Muslim, and 1 percent are Christian. The teachings of Confucius are laid out in The Analects. It is a philosophy that stresses responsibility to community and obedience and deference to elders.
Taoism, founded by Lao Tse Tsu, is more mystical and less pragmatic than Confucianism. The tao, which translates as "the way," focuses on ideals of balance and order and often uses nature as a metaphor. It also includes elements of animism. Taoism, unlike Confucianism, rejects rank and class. Taoists shun aggression, competition, and ambition.
Buddhism, which came to the country from India, is similar to Taoism in its rejection of striving and material goods. The goal of Buddhism is nirvana, a transcendence of the confines of mind and body. Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism are not mutually exclusive, and many people practice elements of all three in addition to worshiping various gods and goddesses, each of which is responsible for a different profession or other aspect of life. Luck is of supreme importance in popular belief, and there are many ways of bringing good fortune and avoiding badluck. A type of geomancy called fengshui involves manipulating one's surroundings in a propitious way. These techniques are used to determine everything from the placement of furniture in a room to the construction of skyscrapers.
Many of the minority groups have their own religions. Some, such as the Dais in Yunnan and the Zhuangs in the southwest, practice animism. The Uighurs, Kazakhs, and Huis are Muslim. Tibetans follow their own unique form of Buddhism, called Tantric or Lamaistic Buddhism, which incorporates many traditions of the indigenous religion called bon, including prayer flags and prayer wheels and a mystical element.
Despite the numerous Catholic and Protestant missionaries who arrived in the country beginning in the nineteenth century, Christianity has managed to gain few converts. Christians are mostly concentrated in big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.
Religious Practitioners. Confucianism and Taoism do not have central religious figures. In Buddhism, there are monks who devote their lives to prayer and meditation. Worship is usually not communal; the only group services are performed at funerals.
The central figure in Tibetan Buddhism is the Dalai Lama, a name that translates as "Ocean of Wisdom." When one Dalai Lama dies, it is believed that he is then reincarnated, and it is the duty of the monks to search out his spirit in a newborn child. Today the position has political as well as religious significance. The current Dalai Lama lives in exile in India and pursues the cause of Tibetan independence.
Rituals and Holy Places. Taoist temples are dominated by the roof, usually yellow or green, which is adorned with images of gods and dragons. The interior usually consists of a courtyard, a main hall with an altar where offerings are placed, and sometimes small shrines to various deities. Buddhist temples incorporate pagodas, a design which came from India around the first century C.E. (the time when the religion made its way to China). These temples also display statues of the Buddha, sometimes enormous sculptures in gold, jade, or stone.
Worship generally takes the form of individual prayer or meditation. One form of spiritual practice that is very popular is physical exercise. There are three main traditions. Wushu, a self-defense technique known in the West as gong fu (or kung fu), combines aspects of boxing and weapon fighting. Shadow boxing, called taijiquan (or tai chi chuan), is a series of slow, graceful gestures combined with deep breathing. The exercises imitate the movements of animals, including the tiger, panther, snake, and crane. Qidong is a breathing technique that is intended to strengthen the body by controlling the qi, or life energy. These exercises are practiced by people of all ages and walks of life; large groups often gather in parks or other public spaces to perform the exercises together.
Buddhist and Taoist temples hold special prayer gatherings to mark the full moon and the new moon.
The largest festival of the year is the celebration of the new year or Spring Festival, whose date varies, falling between mid-January and mid-February. People clean their houses thoroughly to symbolize a new start, and children are given money in red envelopes for good luck. Activities include fireworks and parades with dancers dressed as lions and dragons. It is a time to honor one's ancestors.
The birthday of Guanyin, the goddess of mercy, falls between late March and late April and is observed by visiting Taoist temples. The birthday of Mazu, the goddess of the sea (also known as Tianhou), is celebrated similarly. It falls in May or June. The Water-Splashing Festival is observed in Yunnan Province in mid-April. It involves symbolic bathing and water splashing that are supposed to wash away bad luck. The Zhuangs mark the end of the plowing season in the spring with a cattle-soul festival, which includes a sacrificial ceremony and offerings of food to the cattle. Moon Festival, or Mid-Autumn Festival, in September or October is celebrated with fireworks, paper lanterns, and moon gazing. The birthday of Confucius (28 September) is a time to make pilgrimages to his birthplace in Shandong Province.
Death and the Afterlife. Funerals are traditionally large and elaborate. The higher the social standing of the deceased, the more possessions and people were buried with him or her to ensure entry into the next world. Traditionally, this included horses, carriages, wives, and slaves. Chinese mourners dress in white and wrap their heads in white cloths.
Ancestor worship is an important part of the religion, and it is common Buddhist practice to have a small altar in the house dedicated to deceased family members. Tomb-Sweeping Day, or Qingming, on 5 April, is dedicated to visiting the burial place of one's ancestors and paying one's respects. Food is often placed on graves as an offering. Ghost Month (late August to late September) is a time when the spirits of the dead are thought to return to earth. It is not a propitious time for new beginnings, and anyone who dies during this period is not buried until the next month.
Medicine and Health Care
Traditional medicine is still widely practiced. It is an ancient, intricate system that places an emphasis on the whole body rather than specific ailments. All natural elements, including human beings, are thought to be made up of yin (the female force) and yang (the male force). These opposing forces are part of the body's qi. Health problems are considered a manifestation of an imbalance of yin and yang, that disrupts a person's qi. Remedies to right the imbalance include snake gallbladder, powdered deer antlers, and rhinoceros horn, as well as hundreds of different combinations of herbs. Another method of treatment is acupuncture, which involves the insertion of thin needles into the body to regulate and redirect the flow of qi. Massage techniques are also used, and doctors avoid cutting into the body.
Western medical facilities are much more accessible in the cities than in the countryside. Even those who have access to Western medicine often use a combination of the two systems, but the government, which runs all the major health facilities, places a priority on Western medical practices.
Health conditions have improved significantly since 1949. Life expectancy has risen, and many diseases, including plague, smallpox, cholera, and typhus, have been eliminated. Smoking is a growing health concern, particularly since American cigarette companies have begun large-scale marketing campaigns. HIV and AIDS are increasingly a problem, particularly in Yunnan province, which borders Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar. It is exacerbated by prostitution, a rise in intravenous drug use, and lack of education.
New Year's Day on 1 January is observed in addition to the traditional Chinese New Year. Other holidays include International Working Women's Day on 8 March, International Labor Day on 1 May, Youth Day on 4 May, Dragon Boat Festival in May or June, Children's Day on 1 June, Founding of the Communist Party of China Day on 1 July, Founding of the People's Liberation Army Day on 1 August (celebrated with music and dance performances by military units), Teacher's Day on 10 September, and National Day on 1 and 2 October.
The Arts and Humanities
Support for the Arts. The government censors the output of all artists; it is forbidden to produce work that criticizes the Communist Party or its ideals. There is a long tradition of imperial patronage of the arts that continues today in the form of state-funded literary guilds that pay writers for their work. While providing support to writers, this system also suppresses their creative freedom. As the economy has become more open, however, the government has decreased its support, and artists are becoming more dependent on selling their work.
Literature. Chinese poetry is not just a linguistic feat but a visual one. Classical poems express balance through both rhyme and tone as well as through the physical layout of the characters on the page. The oldest known anthology of poetry, The Book of Songs, was put together in 600 B.C.E. One of the first individual poets, whose work is still read today, is Qu Yuan, best known for his piece called Li Sao, or The Lament.
A more popular and less elitist literary tradition developed during the Ming Dynasty with the dissemination of prose epics. The most famous of these are work The Water Margin and The Dream of the Red Chamber.
Western influence in the nineteenth century led to a literature based more on the vernacular. The first writer to emerge in this new movement was Lu Xun, whose best known work is The Rickshaw Boy, which details the life of rickshaw drivers in Beijing. During the communist revolution, literature was seen as a tool for promoting state-sponsored ideology. While the years after the Cultural Revolution saw some opening in terms of what was permissible, freedom of expression is still curtailed. Contemporary writers include Zhang Xianliang, whose work is known for its controversially sexual subject matter, and Lao Gui, whose Blood Red Dusk examines the events of the Cultural Revolution.
Graphic Arts. Painters are best known for their depictions of nature. Landscapes strive to achieve a balance between yin, the passive female force, represented by water, and yang, the male element, represented by rocks and mountains. These paintings often have writing on them, sometimes by the artist and sometimes by a scholar from a later era. The inscription can be a poem, a dedication, or a commentary on the work. Communist politicians also took to this practice, and many paintings bear the writing of Chairman Mao.
Writing is considered the highest art form, and calligraphy is said to be the deepest expression of a person's character.
China has been known for sculpture and pottery since before the earliest dynasties. The art of pottery reached its pinnacle during the Song Dynasty, when porcelain was developed.
Bronze vessels have been used for thousands of years as religious artifacts. They were engraved with inscriptions, and often buried with the dead. Jade was believed to have magical powers that could ward off evil spirits. Sculptures made of that material were placed in tombs, and sometimes corpses were buried in suits made of jade.
Embroidery is practiced by women who decorate clothes, shoes, and bed linens with colorful, elaborate designs of animals and flowers.
Performance Arts. Unlike the Western scale, which has eight tones, the Chinese has five. There is no harmony in traditional music; all the singers or instruments follow the melodic line. Traditional instruments include a two-stringed fiddle ( erhu ), a three-stringed flute ( sanxuan ), a vertical flute ( dongxiao ), a horizontal flute ( dizi ), and ceremonial gongs ( daluo ).
Opera is a popular traditional art form. There are at least three hundred different forms of opera from different geographic areas. The performances are elaborate and highly stylized, involving acrobatic movements and intricate makeup and costumes. Actors play one of four types of roles: the leading male (usually a scholar or official), the leading female (usually played by a man), the painted-face roles (warriors, heroes, demons, adventurers, and other characters), and the clown. The subject matter is usually historical, and the language is archaic. Opera is not an entertainment only for the
There is a lively rock music scene. The most famous performers are Cui Jian and Lui Huan.
Chinese film gained international acclaim in the 1980s and 1990s. The films of the director Zhang Yimou deal with social issues, including women's lives in the precommunist period and the ramifications of the Cultural Revolution. His films, which include Raise the Red Lantern and To Live, have often been subject to disapproval or censorship from the government. The director Xie Fei is beginning to win recognition accolades for his social commentary films, which include Our Fields and The Year of Bad Luck.
The State of the Physical and Social Sciences
The Chinese have long been known for their scientific accomplishments; many discoveries and inventions credited to Western scientists were first made in China. Among those inventions are the seismoscope (an instrument used to detect earthquakes), first created in 132 C.E. , the mechanical clock (1088), and the compass (eleventh century). A Chinese alchemist discovered gunpowder by accident in the eleventh century. Before its use in firearms was developed, its use was in fireworks. Paper was invented in China in the first century B.C.E. , woodblock printing in the eighth century C.E. , and movable type in the eleventh century.
Despite its contributions to technological development, Chinese science is no longer in the forefront. The country began to fall behind during the nineteenth century, and as the infrastructure and economy weakened, it could no longer keep up with the Western powers. Today, schools stress science and technology in an effort to catch up with other countries. The government prefers to concentrate its efforts on practical projects rather than in basic research, a policy that does not always please scientists and has made progress uneven. In the 1980s and 1990s, China developed its technology in satellites and nuclear weaponry as well as creating a supercomputer and a hybrid form of high-yield rice.
The social sciences, like the arts, have faced censorship from the communist government, and the educational system gives science and technology priority over the social sciences.
Both Beijing and Shanghai have numerous museums dedicated to national history and archaeology. There are also a number of archaeological museums in the provinces. The main libraries are in Beijing and Shanghai, and Beijing is home to the Historical Archives.
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—E LEANOR S TANFORD