China (中国; Zhōngguó), officially known as the People’s Republic of China (中华人民共和国 Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó) is a huge country in Eastern Asia (about the same size as the United States of America) with the world’s largest population.
With coasts on the East China Sea, Korea Bay, Yellow Sea, and South China Sea, in total it borders 14 nations. It borders Afghanistan, Pakistan (through the disputed territory of Kashmir), India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam to the south; Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to the west; Russia and Mongolia to the north and North Korea to the east. This number of neighbouring states is equalled only by China’s vast neighbour to the north, Russia.
People and Habits
China is a very diverse place with large variations in culture, language, customs and economic levels. The economic landscape is particularly diverse. The major cities such as Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai are modern and comparatively wealthy. However, about 50% of Chinese still live in rural areas even though only 10% of China’s land is arable. Hundreds of millions of rural residents still farm with manual labour or draft animals. Some 200 to 300 million former peasants have migrated to townships and cities in search of work. Government estimates for 2005 reported that 90 million people lived on less than ¥924 a year and 26 million were under the official poverty line of ¥668 a year. Generally the southern and eastern coastal regions are more wealthy while inland areas, the far west and north, and the southwest are much much less developed.
The cultural landscape is unsurprisingly very diverse given the sheer size of the country. China has 56 officially recognized ethnic groups; the largest by far is the Han which comprise over 90% of the population. The other 55 groups enjoy affirmative action for university admission and exemption from the one-child policy. The Han, however, are far from homogeneous and speak a wide variety of mutually unintelligible local “dialects”; which most linguists actually classify as different languages using more or less the same set of Chinese characters. Many of the minority ethnic groups have their own languages as well. Contrary to popular belief, there is no single unified Han Chinese culture, and while they share certain common elements such as Confucian and Taoist beliefs, the regional variations in culture among the Han ethnic group are actually very diverse. Many customs and deities are specific to individual regions and even villages. Celebrations for the lunar new year and other national festivals vary drastically from region to region. Specific customs related to the celebration of important occasions such as weddings, funerals and births also vary widely. In general contemporary urban Chinese society is rather secular and traditional culture is more of an underlying current in every day life. Among ethnic minorities, the Zhuang, Manchu, Hui and Miao are the largest in size. Other notable ethnic minorities include: Koreans, Tibetans, Mongols, Uighurs, Kirghiz and even Russians. In fact, China is home to the largest Korean population outside Korea and is also home to more ethnic Mongols than the Republic of Mongolia itself. Many minorities have been assimilated to various degrees with the loss of language and customs or a fusing with Han traditions. An exception to this trend is the current situation of the Tibetans and Uighurs in China who remain fiercely defensive of their cultures.
Some behaviours that are quite normal in China may be somewhat jarring and vulgar for foreigners:
No spitting please
Spitting: in the street, shops, supermarkets, hotel lobbies, hallways, restaurants, on buses and even in hospitals. Traditional Chinese medical thought believes it is unhealthy to swallow phlegm. Spitting has declined considerably in more developed urban areas like Beijing and Shanghai since the SARS epidemic of 2002. However, in other areas the habit persists to varying degrees, from moderate to ever-present.
Smoking: almost anywhere, including areas with “no smoking signs” including health clubs, football pitches and even hospitals. Few restaurants have no smoking areas although Beijing now forbids smoking in most restaurants. Enforcement of smoking bans can vary but with the exception of Hong Kong, they most likely will not be. Lower class establishments often do not even have ashtrays. Western restaurants seem to be the only ones who consistently enforce the ban. Masks would be good idea for long distance bus trips. It is perfectly common for someone to smoke in a lift, restroom, in a massage parlor, even in the hospital. If your country of origin has banned smoking in most public places, then this aspect of China may be shocking.
Anyone who does not look Chinese will find that calls of “hello” or “laowai” are common: lǎowài (老外) literally means “old outsider”, a colloquial term for “foreigner”; the more formal term is wàiguórén (外国人). Calls of “laowai” are ubiquitous outside of the big cities (and even there, occasionally); these calls will come from just about anyone, of any age, and are even more likely from the very young and can occur many times in any given day. Dark skin discrimination is quite a common issue to deal with in China.
Staring: This is common through most of the country. The staring usually originates out of sheer curiosity, almost never out of hostility. Don’t be surprised if someone comes right up to you and just looks as if they are watching the TV, no harm done!
Drinking: It is quite common for older members to toast younger members when eating. It is considered extremely disrespectful to turn down the toast, even in good faith.
Loud conversations, noise, discussions or public arguments: These are very common. Many mainland Chinese speak very loudly in public (including in the early mornings) and it may be one of the first things you notice upon arrival. Loud speech usually does not mean that the speaker is angry or engaged in an argument (although obviously it can). Full-blown fights involving physical violence are not very common, but they do occur. If you witness such an event, leave the vicinity and do not get involved. Foreigners are almost never targets in China and you will be treated with great respect provided you don’t act recklessly. Noise means life, and China is rooted in a community based culture, so you may want to bring earplugs for long bus or train rides!
Pushing, shoving and/or jumping queues: This often occurs anywhere where there are queues, (or lack thereof) particularly at train stations. Again, often there simply are no queues at all. Therefore, queue jumping is a major problem in China. Best bet is to pick a line that looks like its moving or just wait for everyone to get on or off the bus or train first but you may be left behind! Keep in mind that the concept of personal space more or less does not exist in China. It is perfectly common and acceptable behaviour for someone to come in very close contact with you or to bump into you and say nothing. Don’t get mad as they will be surprised and most likely won’t even understand why you are offended!
General disregard of city, provincial and/or national rules, regulations and laws. This includes (among many other things) dangerous and negligent driving, (see Driving in China) that includes excessive speeding, not using head lights at night, lack of use of turn signals, and driving on the wrong side of the street, jaywalking, and smoking in non-smoking areas or defiance of smoking bans.
Sanitation: Many Chinese do not cover their mouths when they sneeze. Also, it is not uncommon for small children (2-4 years old) to eliminate their waste in public.
Some long-time foreign residents say such behaviours are getting worse; others say the opposite. The cause is usually attributed to the influx of millions of migrants from the countryside who are unfamiliar with big city life. Some department stores place attendants at the foot of each escalator to keep folks from stopping to have a look-see as soon as they get off – when the escalator behind them is fully packed.
On the whole, however, the Chinese love a good laugh. Because there are so many ethnic groups and outsiders from other regions, they are used to different ways of doing things and are quite okay with that. Indeed the Chinese often make conversation with strangers by discussing differences in accent or dialect. They are very used to sign language and quick to see a non-verbal joke or pun wherever they can spot one. Note that a laugh doesn’t necessarily mean scorn, just amusement. The Chinese like a “collective good laugh” often at times or circumstances that westerners might consider rude. Finally, the Chinese love and adore children, allow them a great deal of freedom, and heap attention upon them. If you have children, bring them!
In general, 3, 6, 8, and 9 are lucky numbers for most of the Chinese. “Three” means “high above shine the three stars” while the three stars include gods of fortune, prosperity and longevity. “Six” represents smoothness or success. Many young people choose the dates with “six” as their wedding days, such as the 6th, 16th and 26th. “Eight” sounds so close to the word for wealth that many people believe eight is a number that is linked to prosperity. So it is no surprise that the opening ceremony for the Olympics started at 8:08:08 on 08/08/2008. “Nine” is also regarded as a lucky number with the meaning of everlasting.
“Four” is a taboo for most Chinese because the pronunciation in Mandarin is close to “death”. Some hotels will have their floor numbers go straight from three to five much like some American hotels have their floor numbers go from twelve to fourteen, skipping the “unlucky” number 13.
Climate and Terrain
Given the country’s size the climate is extremely diverse, from tropical regions in the south to subarctic in the north. Hainan Island is roughly at the same latitude as Jamaica, while Harbin, one of the largest cities in the north, is at roughly the latitude of Montreal and has the climate to match. North China has four distinct seasons with intensely hot summers and bitterly cold winters. Southern China tends to be milder and wetter. The further north and west you travel, the drier the climate. Once you leave eastern China and enter the majestic Tibetan highlands or the vast steppes and deserts of Gansu and Xinjiang, distances are vast and the land is very harsh.
Back in the days of the planned economy, the rules stated that buildings in areas north of the Yangtze River got heat in the winter, but anything south of it did not — this meant unheated buildings in places like Shanghai and Nanjing, which routinely see temperatures below freezing in winter. The rule has long since been relaxed, but the effects are still visible. In general, Chinese use less heating, less building insulation, and wear more warm clothing than Westerners in comparable climates. In a schools or apartments and office buildings, even if the rooms are heated, the corridors are not. Double glazing is quite rare. Students wear winter jackets in class, along with their teachers and long underwear is very common. Air conditioning is increasingly common but is similarly not used in corridors and is often used with the windows and doors open.
There is a wide range of terrain to be found in China with many inland mountain ranges, high plateaus, and deserts in center and the far west. Plains, deltas, and hills dominate the east. The Pearl River Delta region around Guangzhou and Hong Kong and the Yangtze delta around Shanghai are major global economic powerhouses, as is the North China plain around Beijing and the Yellow River. On the border between Tibet, (the Tibet Autonomous Region) and the nation of Nepal lies Mount Everest, at 8,850 m, the highest point on earth. The Turpan depression, in northwest China’s Xinjiang is the lowest point in the country, at 154 m below sea level. This is also the second lowest point on land in the world after the Dead Sea.