People of China

The stamping ground of roughly one-fifth of humanity, China is often regarded as being largely homogenous, at least from a remote Western perspective. This is probably because Han Chinese – the majority ethnic type in this energetic and bustling nation – constitute over nine-tenths of the population. But like Chinese cuisine, and of course the nation’s mystifying linguistic Babel, you only have to travel a bit further and turn a few more corners to come face to face with a surprising hodgepodge of ethnicities.


Han Chinese

Han Chinese (汉族; Hànzú) – the predominant clan among China’s 56 recognised ethnic groups – make up the lion’s share of China’s people, 92% of the total figure. When we think of China – from its writing system to its visual arts, calligraphy, history, literature, language and politics – we tend to associate it with Han culture.

Distributed throughout China, the Han Chinese are however predominantly concentrated along the Yellow River, Yangzi River and Pearl River basins. Taking their name from the Han dynasty, the Han Chinese themselves are not markedly homogenous. China was ruled by non-Han Altaic (Turk, Tungusic or Mongolian) invaders for long periods, most demonstrably during the Yuan dynasty (Mongols) and the long Qing dynasty (Manchu), but also under the Jin, the Liao and other eras. This Altaic influence is more evident in northern Chinese with their larger and broader frames and rounder faces, compared to their slighter and thinner southern Han Chinese counterparts, who are physically more similar to the southeast Asian type. Shànghǎi Chinese for example are notably more southern in appearance; with their rounder faces, Běijīng Chinese are quite typically northern Chinese. With mass migration to the cities from rural areas and the increased frequency of marriage between Chinese from different parts of the land, these physical differences are likely to diminish slightly over time.

The Han Chinese display further stark differences in their rich panoply of dialects, which fragments China into a frequently baffling linguistic mosaic, although the promotion of Mandarin has blurred this considerably. The common written form of Chinese using characters (汉字; Hànzi – or ‘characters of the Han’), however, binds all dialects together.

Overseas Chinese frequently refer to people of Chinese blood from China or abroad as Huárén (华人; ‘people of China’. Conversely, foreigners are always called lǎowài ('outsiders' or 'foreigners'); the term is constantly used and does not respect geography – Chinese visitors overseas refer to local people as lǎowài, despite they themselves in context being lǎowài. Very rarely, Westerners may be called yángrén (洋人; ‘people of the ocean’), although down south you might encounter the slurs guǐlǎo (‘foreign devils’) and hēiguǐ ('black devil'; for black people).

The Non-Han Chinese

A glance at the map of China reveals that the core heartland regions of Han China are central fragments of modern-day China’s huge expanse. The colossal regions of Tibet, Qīnghǎi, Xīnjiāng, Inner Mongolia and the three provinces of the northeast (Manchuria – Hēilóngjiāng, Jílín and Liáoníng) are all historically non-Han regions, some areas of which remain essentially non-Han today.

Many of these regions are peopled by some of the remaining 8% of the population: China’s 55 other ethnic minorities, known collectively as shǎoshù mínzú (少数民族; minority nationals). The largest minority groups in China include the Zhuang (壮族; Zhuàng zú), Manchu (满族; Mǎn zú), Miao (苗族; Miáo zú), Uyghur (维吾尔族; Wéiwú'ěr zú), Yi (彝族; Yí zú), Tujia (土家族; Tǔjiā zú), Tibetan (藏族; Zàng zú), Hui (回族; Huízú), Mongolian (蒙古族; Ménggǔ zú), Buyi (布依族; Bùyī zú), Dong (侗族; Dòng zú), Yao (瑶族; Yáo zú), Korean (朝鲜族; Cháoxiǎn zú), Bai (白族; Bái zú), Hani (哈尼族; Hāní zú), Li (黎族; Lí zú), Kazak (哈萨克族; Hāsàkè zú) and Dai (傣族; Dǎi zú). Population sizes differ dramatically, from the sizeable Zhuang in Guǎngxī to small numbers of Menba (门巴族; Ménbā zú) in Tibet. Ethnic labelling can be quite fluid: the roundhouse-building Hakka (客家; Kèjiā) were once regarded as a separate minority, but are today considered Han Chinese. Ethnic groups also tell us a lot about the historic movement of peoples around China: the Bonan minority, found in small numbers in a few counties of Qīnghǎi and Gānsù, are largely Muslim but show marked Tibetan influence and are said to be descended from Mongol troops once stationed in Qīnghǎi during the Yuan dynasty.

China’s minorities tend to cluster along border regions, in the northwest, the west, the southwest, the north and northeast of China, but are also distributed throughout the country. Some groups are found in just one area (such as the Hani in Yúnnán); others, such as the Muslim Hui, live all over China.

Wedged into the southwest corner of China between Tibet, Myanmar (Burma), Vietnam and Laos, fecund Yúnnán province alone is home to more than 20 ethnic groups, making it one of the most ethnically diverse provinces in the country.

Despite Manchu culture once ruling over China during the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), possibly fewer than 50 native speakers of the Manchu language survive today, although the closely related Xibo language is spoken by around 20,000 descendants of Xibo tribes resettled in Xīnjiāng in China’s northwest in the 18th century.

The Chinese Character

Shaped by Confucian principles, the Chinese are thoughtful and discreet, subtle but also pragmatic. Conservative and rather introverted, they favour dark clothing over bright or loud colours while their body language is usually reserved and undemonstrative, yet attentive.

The Chinese can be both delightful and mystifyingly contradictory. One moment they will give their seat to an elderly person on the bus or help someone who is lost, and the next moment they will entirely ignore an old lady who has been knocked over by a motorbike.

Particularly diligent, the Chinese are inured to the kind of hours that may prompt a workers’ insurrection elsewhere. This is partly due to a traditional culture of hard work but is also a response to insufficient social-security safety nets and an anxiety regarding economic and political uncertainties. The Chinese impressively save much of what they earn, emphasising the virtue of prudence. Despite this restraint, however, wastefulness can be breathtaking when ‘face’ is involved: mountains of food are often left on restaurant dining tables, particularly if important guests are present.

Chinese people are deeply generous. Don’t be surprised if a person you have just met on a train invites you for a meal in the dining carriage; they will almost certainly insist on paying, grabbing the bill from the waiter at blinding speed and tenaciously resisting your attempts to help out.

The Chinese are also an exceptionally dignified people. They are proud of their civilisation and history, their written language and their inventions and achievements. This pride rarely comes across as arrogance, however, and can be streaked with a lack of self-assurance. The Chinese may, for example, be very gratified by China’s new-found world status, but may squirm at the mention of food safety or pollution.

The modern Chinese character has been shaped by recent political realities, and while Chinese people have always been reserved and circumspect, in today’s China they can appear even more prudent. Impressive mental gymnastics are performed to detour contentious domestic political issues, which can make the mainland Chinese appear complicated, despite their reputation for being straightforward.

China’s ‘One-Child Policy’

The ‘one-child policy’ (in effect a misnomer) was railroaded into effect in 1979 in a bid to keep China’s population to one billion by the year 2000 (a target it failed to meet); the population is expected to peak at around 1.5 billion in 2028. In a momentous reversal, in 2015 it was announced that the policy would be abolished and in January 2016 the regulation was officially amended to a two-child policy.

The policy was harshly implemented at first but rural revolt led to a softer stance; nonetheless, it generated much bad feeling between local officials and the rural population. All non-Han minorities were exempt from the one-child policy; Han Chinese parents who were both single children could have a second child and this was later expanded to all couples if at least one of them was a single child. Rural families were allowed to have two children if the first child was a girl, but some had upwards of three or four kids. Additional children often resulted in fines, with families having to shoulder the cost of education themselves, without government assistance. Official stated policy opposed forced abortion or sterilisation, but allegations of coercion continued as local officials strived to meet population targets. In 2014 the film director Zhang Yimou was fined US$1.2m for breaking the one-child policy.

Families who abided by the one-child policy often went to horrifying lengths to ensure their child was male, with female infanticide, sex-selective abortion and abandonment becoming commonplace. In parts of China, this resulted in a serious imbalance of the sexes – in 2010, 118 boys were born for every 100 girls. In some provinces the imbalance has been even higher. By 2020, potentially around 35 million Chinese men may be unable to find spouses.

As women could have a second child abroad, this also led to large numbers of mainland women giving birth in Hong Kong (where the child also qualified for Hong Kong citizenship). The Hong Kong government eventually used legislation to curb this phenomenon, dubbed ‘birth tourism’, as government figures revealed that almost half of babies born in the territory in 2010 were born to mainland parents. In 2013, the Hong Kong government prohibited mainland women from visiting Hong Kong to give birth, unless their husband is from the territory.

Another consequence of the one-child policy has been a rapidly ageing population, with over a quarter of the populace predicted to be over the age of 65 by 2050. The 2016 abolition of the one-child policy has sought to adjust these profound imbalances, but some analysts argue it has come too late.

Women in China

Equality & Emancipation

Growing up in a Confucian culture, women in China traditionally encountered great prejudice and acquired a far lowlier social status to men. The most notorious expression of female subservience was foot binding, which became a widespread practice in the Song dynasty. Female resistance to male-dominated society could sometimes produce inventive solutions, however: discouraged from reading and writing, women in Jiāngyǒng county (Húnán) once used their own invented syllabic script (partly based on Chinese) called nǚshū (女书) to write letters to each other (which men found incomprehensible).

Women in today’s China officially share complete equality with men; however, as with other nations that profess sexual equality, the reality is often far different. Chinese women do not enjoy strong political representation and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) remains a largely patriarchal organisation. Iconic political leaders from the early days of the CCP were men and the influential echelons of the party persist as a largely male domain. Only a handful of the great scientists celebrated in a long photographic mural at Shànghǎi’s Science and Technology Museum are women.

The Communist Party after 1949 tried to outlaw old customs and put women on equal footing with men. It abolished arranged marriages and encouraged women to get an education and join the workforce. Women were allowed to keep their maiden name upon marriage and leave their property to their children. In its quest for equality during this period however, the Communist Party seemed to ‘desexualise’ women, fashioning instead a kind of idealised worker/mother/peasant paradigm.

Chinese Women Today

High-profile, successful Chinese women are very much in the public eye, but the relative lack of career opportunities for females in other fields also suggests a continuing bias against women in employment.

Women’s improved social status today has meant that more women are putting off marriage until their late 20s or early 30s, choosing instead to focus on education and career opportunities. This has been enhanced by the rapid rise in house prices, further encouraging women to leave marriage (and having children) till a later age. Premarital sex and cohabitation before marriage are increasingly common in larger cities and lack the stigma they had 10 or 15 years ago.

Some Chinese women are making strong efforts to protect the rights of women in China, receiving international attention in the process. In 2010 the Simone de Beauvoir prize for women’s freedom was awarded to Guo Jianmei, a Chinese lawyer and human rights activist, and film-maker and professor Ai Xiaoming. Guo Jianmei also received the International Women of Courage Award in 2011.

In a sign of growing confidence among the female workforce, a young Běijīng woman won the first ever gender discrimination lawsuit in China in 2014.

Rural Women in China

A strong rural–urban divide exists. Urban women are far more optimistic and freer, while women from rural areas, where traditional beliefs are at their strongest, fight an uphill battle against discrimination. Rural Chinese mores are heavily biased against females, where a marked preference for baby boys still exists. This results in an ever greater shift of Chinese women to the city from rural areas. China’s women are more likely to commit suicide than men (in the West it is the other way around), while the suicide rate for rural Chinese women is around five times the urban rate.

Sidebar: 1

The Naxi created a written language more than 1000 years ago using an extraordinary system of pictographs – the only hieroglyphic language still in use today.

Sidebar: 2

David Eimer’s The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China (Bloomsbury, 2014) is a riveting journey through China's periphery, from the deserts of Xīnjiāng and the mountains of Tibet, to the tropical jungles of Xīshuāngbǎnnà and the frozen wastes of far northern Heīlóngjiāng.

Sidebar: 3

China's population is expected to peak around 2028, but will be overtaken as the world's most populous nation by India in around 2022.

Sidebar: 4

For an idea of local urban salaries, a chef or wait-staff in a Shànghǎi restaurant can expect to earn between ¥2500 and ¥3500 (about US$380 to US$535) per month.

Sidebar: 5

China has almost 90 cities with populations of five to 10 million people and more than 170 cities with between one and five million people.

Sidebar: 6

The colossal Yangzi River Bridge in Nánjīng has surpassed the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge as the most used suicide site in the world.

Sidebar China Demographics

  • Population: 1.37 billion
  • Birth rate: 12.49 births per thousand people
  • People over 65: 10%
  • Urbanisation rate: 3.05%
  • Male to female ratio: 1.17 : 1 (under 15s)
  • Life expectancy: 75.4 years

Religion & Beliefs

Ideas have always possessed an extraordinary potency and vitality in China. The 19th-century Taiping Rebellion fused Christianity with revolutionary principles of social organisation, almost sweeping away the Qing dynasty in the process and leaving 20 million dead. The momentary incandescence of the Boxer Rebellion drew upon a volatile cocktail of martial-arts practices and superstition, blended with xenophobia, while the chaos of the Cultural Revolution further suggests what may happen in China when ideas assume the full supremacy they seek.

Religion Today

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) today remains fearful of ideas and beliefs that challenge its authority. Proselytising is not permitted, religious organisation is regulated and monitored, while organisations such as Falun Gong (a quasi-Buddhist health system) and the Church of Almighty God (a radical Christian group) can be deemed cults and banned outright. Despite constraints, worship and religious practice is generally permitted and China’s spiritual world provides a vivid and colourful backdrop to contemporary Chinese life.

China has always had a pluralistic religious culture, and although statistics in China are a slippery fish, an estimated 400 million Chinese today adhere to a particular faith, in varying degrees of devotion. The CCP made strident efforts after 1949 to supplant religious worship with the secular philosophy of communism but since the abandonment of principles of Marxist-Leninist collectivism, this policy has significantly waned.

Religion in China is enjoying an upswing as people return to faith for spiritual solace at a time of great change, dislocation and uncertainty. The hopeless, poor and destitute may turn to worship as they feel abandoned by communism and the safety nets it once assured. Yet the educated and prosperous are similarly turning to religious belief for a sense of guidance and direction in a land many Chinese suspect has become morally bereft.

Religious belief in China has traditionally been marked by tolerance. Although the faiths are quite distinct, some convergence exists between Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, and you may discover shrines where all three faiths are worshipped. Guanyin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, finds her equivalent in Tianhou (Mazu), the Taoist goddess and protector of fisher folk, and the two goddesses can seem almost interchangeable. Other symbioses exist: elements of Taoism and Buddhism can be discerned in the thinking of some Chinese Christians, while the Virgin Mary finds a familiar toehold in the Chinese psyche owing to her resemblance, in bearing and sympathetic message, to Guanyin.

Falun Gong

Falun Gong – a practice that merges elements of qìgōng-style regulated breathing and standing exercises with Buddhist teachings, fashioning a quasi-religious creed in the process – literally means ‘Practice of the Dharma Wheel’. Riding a wave of interest in qìgōng systems in the 1990s, Falun Gong claimed as many as 100 million adherents in China by 1999. The technique was banned in the same year after over 10,000 practitioners stood in silent demonstration outside Zhōngnánhǎi in Běijīng, following protests in Tiānjīn when a local magazine published an article critical of Falun Gong. The authorities had been unnerved by the movement’s audacity and organisational depth, construing Falun Gong as a threat to the primacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The movement was branded a cult (xíejìao) and a robust, media-wide propaganda campaign was launched against practitioners, forcing many to undergo ‘re-education’ in prison and labour camps. After the ban, the authorities treated Falun Gong believers harshly and reports surfaced of adherents dying in custody. Falun Gong remains an outlawed movement in China to this day.


Although not an indigenous faith, Buddhism (佛教; Fójiào) is the religion most deeply associated with China and Tibet. Although Buddhism’s authority has long ebbed, the faith still exercises a powerful sway over China's spiritual inclinations. Many Chinese may not be regular temple-goers but they harbour an interest in Buddhism; they may merely be ‘cultural Buddhists’, with a strong affection for Buddhist civilisation.

Chinese towns with any history usually have several Buddhist temples, but the number is well down on pre-1949 figures. The small Héběi town of Zhèngdìng, for example, has four Buddhist temples, but at one time had eight. Běijīng once had hundreds, compared to the 20 or so you can find today.

Some of China’s greatest surviving artistic achievements are Buddhist in inspiration. The largest and most ancient repository of Chinese, Central Asian and Tibetan Buddhist artwork can be found at the Mogao Grottoes in Gānsù, while the carved Buddhist caves at both Lóngmén and Yúngāng are spectacular pieces of religious and creative heritage. To witness Buddhism at its most devout, consider a trip to Tibet.


Founded in ancient India around the 5th century BC, Buddhism teaches that all of life is suffering, and that the cause of this anguish is desire, itself rooted in sensation and attachment. Suffering can only be overcome by following the eightfold path, a set of guidelines for moral behaviour, meditation and wisdom. Those who have freed themselves from suffering and the wheel of rebirth are said to have attained nirvana or enlightenment. The term Buddha generally refers to the historical founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama, but is also sometimes used to denote those who have achieved enlightenment.

Siddhartha Gautama left no writings; the sutras that make up the Buddhist canon were compiled many years after his death.

Buddhism in China

Like other faiths such as Christianity, Nestorianism, Islam and Judaism, Buddhism originally reached China via the Silk Road. The earliest recorded Buddhist temple in China proper dates back to the 1st century AD, but it was not until the 4th century, when a period of warlordism coupled with nomadic invasions plunged the country into disarray, that Buddhism gained mass appeal. Buddhism’s sudden growth during this period is often attributed to its sophisticated ideas concerning the afterlife (such as karma and reincarnation), a dimension unaddressed by either Confucianism or Taoism. At a time when existence was especially precarious, spiritual transcendence was understandably popular.

As Buddhism converged with Taoist philosophy (through terminology used in translation) and popular religion (through practice), it went on to develop into something distinct from the original Indian tradition. The most famous example is the esoteric Chan school (Zen in Japanese), which originated sometime in the 5th or 6th century, and focused on attaining enlightenment through meditation. Chan was novel not only in its unorthodox teaching methods, but also because it made enlightenment possible for laypeople outside the monastic system. It rose to prominence during the Tang and Song dynasties, after which the centre of practice moved to Japan. Other major Buddhist sects in China include Tiantai (based on the teachings of the Lotus Sutra) and Pure Land, a faith-based teaching that requires simple devotion, such as reciting the Amitabha Buddha’s name, in order to gain rebirth in paradise. Today, Pure Land Buddhism is the most common.

Guanyin 观音

The boundlessly compassionate countenance of Guanyin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, can be encountered in temples across China. The goddess (more strictly a Bodhisattva or a Buddha-to-be) goes under a variety of aliases: Guanshiyin (literally ‘Observing the Cries of the World’) is her formal name, but she is also called Guanzizai, Guanyin Dashi and Guanyin Pusa, or, in Sanskrit, Avalokiteshvara. Known as Kannon in Japan, Guanyam in Cantonese and Quan Am in Vietnam, Guanyin shoulders the grief of the world and dispenses mercy and compassion. Christians will note a semblance to the Virgin Mary in the aura surrounding the goddess, which at least partially explains why Christianity has found a slot in the Chinese consciousness.

In Tibetan Buddhism, her earthly presence manifests itself in the Dalai Lama, and her home is the Potala Palace in Lhasa. In China, her abode is the island of Pǔtuóshān in Zhèjiāng province, the first two syllables of which derive from the name of her palace in Lhasa.

In temples throughout China, Guanyin is often found at the very rear of the main hall, facing north (most of the other divinities, apart from Weituo, face south). She typically has her own little shrine and stands on the head of a big fish, holding a lotus in her hand. On other occasions, she has her own hall, often towards the rear of the temple.

The goddess (who in earlier dynasties appeared to be male rather than female) is often surrounded by little effigies of the luóhàn (or arhat; those freed from the cycle of rebirth), who scamper about; the Guānyīn Pavilion outside Dàlǐ is a good example of this. Guanyin also appears in a variety of forms, often with just two arms, but frequently in multiarmed form (as at the Pǔníng Temple in Chéngdé). The 11-faced Guanyin, the fierce and wrathful horse-head Guanyin (a Tibetan Buddhist incarnation), the Songzi Guanyin (literally ‘Offering Son Guanyin’) and the Dripping Water Guanyin are just some of her myriad manifestations. In standing form, she has traditionally been a favourite subject for déhuà (white-glazed porcelain) figures, which are typically very elegant.

Buddhist Schools

Regardless of its various forms, most Buddhism in China belongs to the Mahayana school, which holds that since all existence is one, the fate of the individual is linked to the fate of others. Thus, Bodhisattvas – those who have already achieved enlightenment but have chosen to remain on earth – continue to work for the liberation of all other sentient beings. The most popular Bodhisattva in China is Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy.

Ethnic Tibetans and Mongols within China practise a unique form of Mahayana Buddhism known as Tibetan or Tantric Buddhism (Lǎma Jiào). Tibetan Buddhism, sometimes called Vajrayana or ‘Thunderbolt Vehicle’, has been practised since the early 7th century AD and is influenced by Tibet’s pre-Buddhist Bon religion, which relied on priests or shamans to placate spirits, gods and demons. Generally speaking, it is much more mystical than other forms of Buddhism, relying heavily on mudras (ritual postures), mantras (sacred speech), yantras (sacred art) and esoteric initiation rites. Priests called lamas are believed to be reincarnations of highly evolved beings; the Dalai Lama is the supreme patriarch of Tibetan Buddhism.


A home-grown philosophy-cum-religion, Taoism (道教; Dàojiào) is also perhaps the hardest of all China’s faiths to grasp. Controversial, paradoxical, and – like the Tao itself – impossible to pin down, it is a natural counterpoint to rigid Confucianist order and responsibility.

Taoism predates Buddhism in China and much of its religious culture connects to a distant animism and shamanism, despite the purity of its philosophical school. In its earliest and simplest form, Taoism draws from The Classic of the Way and Its Power (Taote Jing; Dàodé Jìng), penned by the sagacious Laotzu (Laozi; c 580–500 BC), who left his writings with the gatekeeper of a pass as he headed west on the back of an ox. Some Chinese believe his wanderings took him to a distant land in the west where he became Buddha.

The Classic of the Way and Its Power is a work of astonishing insight and sublime beauty. Devoid of a godlike being or deity, Laotzu’s writings instead endeavour to address the unknowable and indescribable principle of the universe, which he calls Dao (道; dào; ‘the Way’). Dao is the way or method by which the universe operates, so it can be understood to be a universal or cosmic principle.

The opening lines of The Classic of the Way and Its Power confess, however, that the treatise may fail in its task: 道可道非常道, 名可名非常名; ‘The way that can be spoken of is not the real way, the name that can be named is not the true name.’ Despite this disclaimer, the 5000-character book, completed in terse classical Chinese, somehow communicates the nebulous power and authority of ‘the Way’. The book remains the seminal text of Taoism, and Taoist purists see little need to look beyond its revelations.

One of Taoism’s most beguiling precepts, wúwéi (inaction) champions the allowing of things to naturally occur without interference. The principle is enthusiastically pursued by students of Taiji Quan, Wuji Quan and other soft martial arts who seek to equal nothingness in their bid to lead an opponent to defeat himself.


The very core of Chinese society for the past two millennia, Confucianism (儒家思想; Rújiā Sīxiǎng) is a humanist philosophy that strives for social harmony and the common good. In China, its influence can be seen in everything from the emphasis on education and respect for elders to the patriarchal role of the government.

Confucianism is based upon the teachings of Confucius (Kongzi), a 6th-century BC philosopher who lived during a period of constant warfare and social upheaval. While Confucianism changed considerably throughout the centuries, some of the principal ideas remained the same – namely an emphasis on five basic hierarchical relationships: father-son, ruler-subject, husband-wife, elder-younger, and friend-friend. Confucius believed that if each individual carried out his or her proper role in society (a son served his father respectfully while a father provided for his son, a subject served his ruler respectfully while a ruler provided for his subject, and so on) social order would be achieved. Confucius’ disciples later gathered his ideas in the form of short aphorisms and conversations, forming the work known as The Analects (Lúnyǔ).

Early Confucian philosophy was further developed by Mencius (Mèngzǐ) and Xunzi, both of whom provided a theoretical and practical foundation for many of Confucius’ moral concepts. In the 2nd century BC, Confucianism became the official ideology of the Han dynasty, thereby gaining mainstream acceptance for the first time. This was of major importance and resulted in the formation of an educated elite that served both the government as bureaucrats and the common people as exemplars of moral action. During the rule of the Tang dynasty an official examination system was created, which, in theory, made the imperial government a true meritocracy. However, this also contributed to an ossification of Confucianism, as the ideology grew increasingly mired in the weight of its own tradition, focusing exclusively on a core set of texts.

Nonetheless, influential figures sporadically reinterpreted the philosophy – in particular Zhu Xi (1130–1200), who brought in elements of Buddhism and Taoism to create Neo Confucianism (Lǐxué or Dàoxué) – and it remained a dominant social force up until the 1911 Revolution toppled the imperial bureaucracy. In the 20th century, modernist writers and intellectuals decried Confucian thought as an obstacle to modernisation and Mao further levelled the sage in his denunciation of ‘the Four Olds’. But feudal faults notwithstanding, Confucius’ social ethics recently resurfaced in government propaganda where they lent authority to the leadership’s emphasis on ‘harmony’ (héxié).


The explosion of interest in Christianity (基督教; Jīdūjiào) in China over recent years is unprecedented except for the wholesale conversions that accompanied the tumultuous rebellion of the pseudo-Christian Taiping in the 19th century.

Christianity first arrived in China with the Nestorians, a sect from ancient Persia that split with the Byzantine Church in 431 AD, who arrived in China via the Silk Road in the 7th century. A celebrated tablet – the Nestorian Tablet – in Xī’ān records their arrival. Much later, in the 16th century, the Jesuits arrived and were popular figures at the imperial court, although they made few converts.

Large numbers of Catholic and Protestant missionaries established themselves in the 19th century, but left after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. One missionary, James Hudson Taylor from Barnsley in England, immersed himself in Chinese culture and is credited with helping to convert 18,000 Chinese Christians and building 600 churches during his 50 years in 19th-century China.

In today’s China, Christianity is a burgeoning faith perhaps uniquely placed to expand due to its industrious work ethic, associations with first-world nations and its emphasis on human rights and charitable work.

Some estimates point to as many as 100 million Christians in China. However, the exact population is hard to calculate as many groups – outside the four official Christian organisations – lead a strict underground existence (in what are called ‘house churches’) out of fear of a political clampdown.

Churches (教堂; jiàotáng) are not hard to find and most towns will have at least one. Cities like Shànghǎi, Běijīng, Dàtóng, Tàiyuán and Qīngdǎo (and many other large towns) have cathedrals, most of them dating to the 19th and early 20th centuries.

In signs of greater official unease at the spread of Christianity, authorities in Wénzhōu – a city in Zhèjiāng province known as 'China's Jerusalem' – demolished churches, threatened others with demolition and removed large crosses from some church spires in 2014. Officials argued they were enforcing building laws but Christian locals saw the moves as a deliberate attempt to undermine their faith.

Běijīng has also recently ratcheted up efforts to suppress fringe Christian groups such as the Church of Almighty God, an anti-Communist Party apocalyptic church which was designated a cult. Over a thousand members of the Church of Almighty God were arrested over a three-month period in 2014.

The Church of Almighty God

An unhealthy by-product of the recent explosion of interest in Christianity in China and the widespread number of unofficial 'house churches' has been the emergence of Christian heresies with large numbers of devoted followers. Chief among these is The Church of Almighty God, which teaches that a Chinese woman named Yang Xiangbin is the second Christ.

After being blacklisted in 2000, Yang Xiangbin and the founder of the cult, Zhao Weishan, fled to the US. It was only when some followers killed a 37-year-old woman in a branch of McDonald's in Shāndōng, after she refused to give them her mobile phone number, that the organisation came to greater public attention.

Directly opposed to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which it terms the Great Red Dragon, the organisation continues to aggressively recruit adherents in China, although its members live a largely underground and secretive existence.

Sharing features with the revolutionary Taiping, who believed that their leader Hong Xiuquan was the Son of God, the Church of Almighty God fuses elements of Christian belief with other faiths that contradict mainstream Christianity. The group also encourages members to turn away from their families and devote themselves to the church; however, it is the church's opposition to the CCP that singled itself out for a nationwide ban.

Promoting itself via a slick website and also known as Eastern Lightning, the church is one of 14 religious groups identified as cults by Chinese authorities. Strongly worded propaganda posters warning Chinese people of the cult can be seen in churches and on notice boards across China.


Islam (伊斯兰教; Yīsīlán Jiào) in China dates to the 7th century, when it was first brought to China by Arab and Persian traders along the Silk Road. Later, during the Mongol Yuan dynasty, maritime trade increased, bringing new waves of merchants to China’s coastal regions, particularly the port cities of Guǎngzhōu and Quánzhōu. The descendants of these groups – now scattered across the country – gradually integrated into Han culture, and are today distinguished primarily by their religion. In Chinese, they are referred to as the Hui.

Other Muslim groups include the Uyghurs, Kazaks, Kyrgyz, Tajiks and Uzbeks, who live principally in the border areas of the northwest. It is estimated that 1.5% to 3% of Chinese today are Muslim.

Communism & Maoism

Ironically (or perhaps intentionally), Mao Zedong, while struggling to uproot feudal superstition and religious belief, sprung to godlike status in China via a personality cult. By weakening the power of deities, Mao found himself substituting those very gods his political power had diminished. In the China of today, Mao retains a semideified aura.

Communism sits awkwardly with the economic trajectory of China over the past 30 years. Once a philosophy forged in the white-hot crucible of civil war, revolution and the patriotic fervour to create a nation free from foreign interference, communism had largely run its credible course by the 1960s. By the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, the political philosophy had repeatedly brought the nation to catastrophe, with the Hundred Flowers Movement, the Great Leap Forward and the disastrous violence of the Cultural Revolution.

Communism remains the official guiding principle of the CCP. However, young communist aspirants are far less likely to be ideologues than pragmatists seeking to advance within the party structure. In real terms, many argue that communism has become an adjunct to the survival of the CCP.

Chinese Communism owes something to Confucianism. Confucius’ philosophy embraces the affairs of man and human society and the relationship between rulers and the ruled, rather than the supernatural world. Establishing a rigid framework for human conduct, the culture of Confucianism was easily requisitioned by communists seeking to establish authority over society.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, Běijīng became aware of the dangers of popular power and sought to maintain the coherence and strength of the state. This has meant that the CCP still seeks to impose itself firmly on the consciousness of Chinese people through patriotic education, propaganda, censorship, nationalism and the building of a strong nation.

Communism also holds considerable nostalgic value for elderly Chinese who bemoan the erosion of values in modern-day China and pine for the days when they felt more secure and society was more egalitarian. Chairman Mao’s portrait still hangs in abundance across China, from drum towers in Guǎngxī province to restaurants in Běijīng, testament to a generation of Chinese who still revere the communist leader.

Until his spectacular fall from power in 2012, Chinese politician and Chóngqìng party chief Bo Xilai launched popular Maoist-style ‘red culture’ campaigns in Chóngqìng, which included the singing of revolutionary songs and the mass-texting of quotes from Mao’s Little Red Book. President Xi Jinping has also faced accusations of attempting to build a personality cult, allowing himself to be nicknamed Xi Dada (Big Daddy Xi), a kind of perennially good, sympathetic and paternal figurehead for the nation, with his citizens' best interests always at heart.


In today’s China, ‘-isms’ (主义; zhǔyì or ‘doctrines’) are often frowned upon. Any zhǔyì may suggest a personal focus that the CCP would prefer people channel into hard work instead. ‘Intellectualism’ is considered suspect as it may ask difficult questions. ‘Idealism’ is deemed nonpragmatic and potentially destructive, as Maoism showed.

China’s one-party state has reduced thinking across the spectrum via propaganda and censorship, dumbing down an educational system that emphasises patriotic education. This in turn, however, helped spawn another ‘-ism’: nationalism.

Nationalism is not restricted to Chinese youth but it is this generation – with no experience of the Cultural Revolution’s terrifying excesses – which most closely identifies with its message. The fènqīng (angry youth) have been swept along with China’s rise; while they are no lovers of the CCP, they yearn for a stronger China that can stand up to ‘foreign interference’ and dictate its own terms.

The CCP actively encourages strong patriotism, but is nervous about its transformation into aggressive nationalism and the potential for disturbance. Much nationalism in the PRC has little to do with the CCP but everything to do with China; while the CCP has struggled at length to identify itself with China’s civilisation and core values, it has been only partially successful. With China’s tendency to get quickly swept along by passions, nationalism is an often unseen but quite potent force, most visibly flaring up into the periodic anti-Japanese demonstrations that can convulse large towns and cities.


A small percentage of China’s population is animist, a primordial religious belief akin to shamanism. Animists see the world as a living being, with rocks, trees, mountains and people all containing spirits that need to live in harmony. If this harmony is disrupted, restoration of this balance is attempted by a shaman who is empowered to mediate between the human and spirit world. Animism is most widely believed by minority groups and exists in a multitude of forms, some of which have been influenced by Buddhism and other religions.

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Anyone interested in Tibetan Buddhism will find Inner Mongolia easier to reach than Tibet; the province is home to many important and historic Lamaseries, including Dà Zhào in Hohhot, Wǔdāng Lamasery and Guǎngzōng Sì.

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Beyond Tibet, China has four sacred Buddhist mountains, each one the home of a specific Bodhisattva. The two most famous mountains are Wǔtái Shān and Éméi Shān, respectively ruled over by Wenshu and Puxiang.

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China’s oldest surviving Buddhist temple is the White Horse Temple in Luòyáng; other more ancient Buddhist temples may well have existed but have since vanished.

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One of China's most historic mosques is the Great Mosque in Tóngxīn in Níngxià, which dates to the Ming dynasty and survived the destruction of the Cultural Revolution.

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Confucius Institutes around the world aim to promote Chinese language and culture internationally, while simultaneously developing its economic and cultural influences abroad.

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Believing he was the son of God and brother of Jesus Christ, Hakka rebel Hong Xiuquan led the bloody and tumultuous pseudo-Christian Taiping Rebellion against the Qing dynasty from 1856 to 1864.

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An inspiring read, God is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China (2011) by Liao Yiwu, himself not a Christian, relates his encounters with Christians in contemporary China, set against a background of persecution and surging growth for the faith.

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Kāifēng in Hénán province is home to the largest community of Jews in China. The religious beliefs and customs of Judaism (犹太教; Yóutài Jiào) have died out, yet the descendants of the original Jews still consider themselves Jewish.

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During the Cultural Revolution, many Christian churches around China served as warehouses or factories, a utilitarian function that actually helped preserve many of them. They were gradually rehabilitated in the 1980s.

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Author of Titus Groan and Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake was born in Lúshān in 1911, the son of Ernest Cromwell Peake, a missionary doctor from the London Missionary Society.

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Mainland China has some astonishing historic churches, including the impressive Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Tàiyuán, St Joseph's Church in Běijīng, Dàtóng Cathedral, and St Ignatius Cathedral in Shànghǎi.

Arts & Architecture

China is custodian of one of the world’s richest cultural and artistic legacies. Until the 20th century, China’s arts were deeply conservative and resistant to change but revolutions in technique and content over the last century fashioned a dramatic transformation. Despite this evolution, China’s arts – whatever the period – embrace a common aesthetic that embodies the very soul and lifeblood of the nation.

Best Art Museums and Galleries

Shànghǎi Museum An outstanding collection of traditional Chinese art and antiquities.

Poly Art Museum Inspiring displays of traditional bronzes and Buddhist statues.

Rockbund Art Museum Forward-thinking museum of contemporary art, just off the Bund.

Hong Kong Museum of Art First-rate display of antiquities, paintings, calligraphy and contemporary Hong Kong art.

M50 Contemporary art in a converted Shànghǎi industrial zone.

798 Art District Běijīng’s premier art zone, housed in a former electronics factory.

Propaganda Poster Art Centre Shànghǎi treasure trove of propaganda art from the communist golden age.

AFA (Art for All Society) Nonprofit gallery promoting the best in contemporary Macau art.

ShanghART Impressive warehouse-sized Shànghǎi gallery dedicated to contemporary Chinese artists.

China Sculpture Museum Set within the restored walls of Dàtóng, this cavernous museum has a huge collection of contemporary pieces.


In reflection of the Chinese character, Chinese aesthetics have traditionally been marked by restraint and understatement, a preference for oblique references over direct explanation, vagueness in place of specificity and an avoidance of the obvious in place of a fondness for the veiled and subtle. Traditional Chinese aesthetics sought to cultivate a more reserved artistic impulse, principles that compellingly find their way into virtually every Chinese art form, from painting to sculpture, ceramics, calligraphy, film, poetry, literature and beyond.

As one of the central strands of the world’s oldest civilisation, China’s aesthetic traditions are tightly woven into Chinese cultural identity. For millennia, Chinese aesthetics were highly traditionalist and, despite coming under the influence of occupiers from the Mongols to the Europeans, defiantly conservative. It was not until the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911 and the appearance of the New Culture Movement that China’s great artistic traditions began to rapidly transform. In literature the stranglehold of classical Chinese loosened to allow breathing space for báihuà (colloquial Chinese) and a progressive new aesthetic started to flower, ultimately leading to revolutions in all of the arts, from poetry to painting, theatre and music.

It is hard to square China’s great aesthetic traditions with the devastation inflicted upon them since 1949. Confucius advocated the edifying role of music and poetry in shaping human lives, but 5th-century philosopher Mozi was less enamoured with them, seeing music and other arts as extravagant and wasteful. The communists took this a stage further, enlisting the arts as props in their propaganda campaigns, and permitting the vandalism and destruction of much traditional architecture and heritage. Many of China’s traditional skills (such as martial arts lineages) and crafts either died out or went into decline during the Cultural Revolution. Many of the arts have yet to recover fully from this deterioration, even though opening up and reform prompted a vast influx of foreign artistic concepts.


Although calligraphy (书法; shūfǎ) has a place among most languages that employ alphabets, the art of calligraphy in China is taken to unusual heights of intricacy and beauty in a language that is alphabet-free and essentially composed of images.

To fully appreciate how perfectly suited written Chinese is for calligraphy, it is vital to grasp how written Chinese works. A word in English represents a sound alone; a written character in Chinese combines both sound and a picture. Indeed, the sound element of a Chinese character – when present – is often auxiliary to the illustration of a visual image, even if that image is abstract.

Furthermore, although some Chinese characters were simplified in the 1950s as part of a literacy drive, most characters have remained unchanged for thousands of years. As characters are essentially images, they inadequately reflect changes in spoken Chinese over time. A phonetic written language such as English can alter over the centuries to reflect changes in the sound of the language (so the written language changes). Being pictographic, Chinese cannot easily do this, so while the spoken language has transformed over the centuries, the written language has remained more static. Indeed, any changes to traditional written Chinese characters would result in changes to the pronunciation of how they are read.

This helps explain why Chinese calligraphy is the trickiest of China’s arts to comprehend for Western visitors, unless they have a sound understanding of written Chinese. The beauty of a Chinese character may be partially appreciated by a Western audience, but for a full understanding it is also essential to understand the meaning of the character (or characters).

There are five main calligraphic scripts – seal script, clerical script, semicursive script, cursive script and standard script – each of which reflects the style of writing of a specific era. Seal script, the oldest and most complex, was the official writing system during the Qin dynasty and has been employed ever since in the carving of the seals and name chops (stamps carved from stone) that are used to stamp documents. Expert calligraphers have a preference for using full-form characters (fántǐzì) rather than their simplified variants (jiǎntǐzì).


Traditional Painting

Unlike Chinese calligraphy, no ‘insider’ knowledge is required for a full appreciation of traditional Chinese painting. Despite its symbolism, obscure references and occasionally abstruse philosophical allusions, Chinese painting is highly accessible. For this reason, traditional Chinese paintings – especially landscapes – have long been treasured in the West for their beauty.

As described in Xie He’s 6th-century-AD treatise, the Six Principles of Painting, the chief aim of Chinese painting is to capture the innate essence or spirit (qì) of a subject and endow it with vitality. The brush line, varying in thickness and tone, was the second principle (referred to as the ‘bone method’) and is the defining technique of Chinese painting. Traditionally, it was imagined that brushwork quality could reveal the artist’s moral character. As a general rule, painters were less concerned with achieving outward resemblance (that was the third principle) than with conveying intrinsic qualities.

Early painters dwelled on the human figure and moral teachings, while also conjuring up scenes from everyday life. By the time of the Tang dynasty, a new genre, known as landscape painting, had begun to flower. Reaching full bloom during the Song and Yuan dynasties, landscape painting meditated on the surrounding environment. Towering mountains, ethereal mists, open spaces, trees and rivers, and light and dark were all exquisitely presented in ink washes on silk. Landscape paintings attempted to capture the metaphysical and the absolute, drawing the viewer into a particular realm where the philosophies of Taoism and Buddhism found expression. Humanity is typically a small and almost insignificant subtext to the performance. The dreamlike painting sought to draw the viewer in rather than impose itself on them.

On a technical level, the success of landscapes depended on the artists’ skill in capturing light and atmosphere. Blank, open spaces devoid of colour create light-filled voids, contrasting with the darkness of mountain folds and forests, filling the painting with and vaporous vitality. Specific emotions are not aroused but instead nebulous sensations permeate. Painting and classical poetry often went hand in hand, best exemplified by the work of Tang-dynasty poet/artist Wang Wei (699–759).

Modern Art


After 1949, classical Chinese techniques were abandoned and foreign artistic techniques imported wholesale. Washes on silk were replaced with oil on canvas and China’s traditional obsession with the mysterious and ineffable made way for concrete attention to detail and realism.

By 1970 Chinese artists had aspired to master the skills of socialist realism, a vibrant communist-endorsed style that drew from European neoclassical art, the lifelike canvases of Jacques-Louis David and the output of Soviet Union painters. The style had virtually nothing to do with traditional Chinese painting techniques. Saturated with political symbolism and propaganda, the blunt artistic style was manufactured on an industrial scale (and frequently on industrial themes).

The entire trajectory of Chinese painting – which had evolved in glacial increments over the centuries – had been redirected virtually overnight. Vaporous landscapes were substituted with hard-edged panoramas. Traditional Taoist and Buddhist philosophy was overturned and humans became the master of nature and often the most dominant theme. Dreamy vistas were out; smoke stacks, red tractors and muscled peasants were in.

Propaganda Art

Another art form that found a fertile environment during the Mao era was the propaganda poster. Mass-produced from the 1950s onwards and replicated in their thousands through tourist markets across China today, the colourful Chinese propaganda poster was a further instrument of social control in a nation where aesthetics had become subservient to communist orthodoxy.

With a prolific range of themes from chubby, well-fed Chinese babies to the Korean War, the virtues of physical education, the suppression of counter-revolutionary activity and paeans to the achievements of the Great Leap Forward or China as an earthly paradise, propaganda posters were ubiquitous. The golden age of poster production ran through to the 1980s, only declining during Deng Xiaoping’s tenure and the opening up of China to the West.

The success of visual propaganda lay in its appeal to a large body of illiterate or semiliterate peasants. The idealism, revolutionary romanticism and vivid colouring of Chinese propaganda art brought hope and vibrancy to a time that was actually often colourless and drab, while adding certainty to an era of great hardship and struggle.


It was only with the death of Mao Zedong in September 1976 that the shadow of the Cultural Revolution – when Chinese aesthetics were conditioned by the threat of violence – began its retreat and the individual artistic temperament was allowed to thrive afresh.

Painters such as Luo Zhongli employed the realist techniques gleaned from China’s art academies to depict the harsh realities etched in the faces of contemporary peasants. Others escaped the suffocating confines of socialist realism to navigate new horizons. A voracious appetite for Western art brought with it fresh concepts and ideas, while the ambiguity of precise meaning in the fine arts offered a degree of protection from state censors.

One group of artists, the Stars, found retrospective inspiration in Picasso and German Expressionism. The ephemeral group had a lasting impact on the development of Chinese art in the 1980s and 1990s, paving the way for the New Wave movement that emerged in 1985. New Wave artists were greatly influenced by Western art, especially the iconoclastic Marcel Duchamp. In true nihilist style, the New Wave artist Huang Yongping destroyed his works at exhibitions, in an effort to escape from the notion of ‘art’. Political realities became instant subject matter as performance artists wrapped themselves in plastic or tape to symbolise the repressive realities of modern-day China.

Beyond Tian'anmen

The Tiān’ānmén Square protests in 1989 fostered a deep-seated cynicism that permeated artworks with loss, loneliness and social isolation. An exodus of artists to the West commenced. This period also coincided with an upsurge in the art market as investors increasingly turned to artworks and money began to slosh about.

Much post-1989 Chinese art dwelled obsessively on contemporary socioeconomic realities, with consumer culture, materialism, urbanisation and social change a repetitive focus. More universal themes became apparent, however, as the art scene matured. Meanwhile, many artists who left China in the 1990s have returned, setting up private studios and galleries. Government censorship remains, but artists are branching out into other areas and moving away from overtly political content and China-specific concerns.

Cynical realists Fang Lijun and Yue Minjun fashioned grotesque portraits that conveyed hollowness and mock joviality, tinged with despair. Born in the late 1950s, Wang Guangyi took pop art as a template for his ironic pieces, fused with propaganda art techniques from the Cultural Revolution.

Born just before the Cultural Revolution in 1964 and heavily influenced by German expressionism, Zeng Fanzhi explored the notions of alienation and isolation – themes commonly explored by Chinese artists during this period – in his Mask series from the 1990s. Introspection is a hallmark of Zeng’s oeuvre. In 2008 Christie’s in Hong Kong sold Zeng Fanzhi’s painting Mask Series 1996 No. 6 (featuring masked members of China’s communist youth organisation, the Young Pioneers) for US$9.7 million, which is the highest price yet paid for a modern Chinese artwork.

Also born in the early 1960s, Zhang Dali is another artist who gave expression to social change and the gulf between rich and poor, especially the circumstances of the immigrant worker underclass in Běijīng.

Contemporary Directions

Most artists of note and aspiration gravitate to Běijīng (or Shànghǎi perhaps) to work. Today's China provides a huge wellspring of subject matter for artists, tempered by the reality of political censorship and the constraints of taboo. Themes that can seem tame in the West may assume a special power in China, so works can rely upon their context for potency and effect.

Ai Weiwei, who enjoys great international fame partly due to his disobedient stand, best exemplifies the dangerous overlap between artistic self-expression, dissent and conflict with the authorities. Arrested in 2011 and charged with tax evasion, Ai Weiwei gained further publicity for his temporary Sunflower Seeds exhibition at the Tate Modern in London.

Working collaboratively as Birdhead, Shànghǎi analogue photographers Ji Weiyu and Song Tao record the social dynamics and architectural habitat of their home city in thoughtful compositions. Běijīng-born Ma Qiusha works in video, photography, painting and installations on themes of a deeply personal nature. In her video work From No.4 Pingyuanli to No.4 Tianqiaobeili, the artist removes a bloody razor blade from her mouth after narrating her experiences as a young artist in China. Born in 1982, Ran Huang works largely in film but across a spectrum of media, conveying themes of absurdity, the irrational and conceptual. Shànghǎi artist Shi Zhiying explores ideas of a more traditional hue in her sublime oil-paint depictions on large canvases of landscapes and religious and cultural objects. Also from Shànghǎi, Xu Zhen works with provocative images to unsettle and challenge the viewer. Xu's Fearless (2012), a large mixed-media work on canvas, is a powerful maelstrom of symbolism and the fragments of cultural identity. Xīnjiāng-born Zhao Zhao – once an assistant to Ai Weiwei – communicates provocative sentiments in his work, exploring ideas of freedom and themes of a nonconformist nature.


China’s very first vessels – dating back more than 8000 years – were simple handcrafted earthenware pottery, primarily used for religious purposes. The invention of the pottery wheel during the late Neolithic period, however, led to a dramatic technological and artistic leap.

Over the centuries, Chinese potters perfected their craft, introducing many new and exciting styles and techniques. The spellbinding artwork of the Terracotta Warriors in Xī’ān reveals a highly developed level of technical skill achieved by Qin-dynasty craftsmen. Periods of artistic evolution, during the cosmopolitan Tang dynasty, for example, prompted further stylistic advances. The Tang dynasty ‘three-colour ware’ is a much-admired type of ceramic from this period, noted for its vivid yellow, green and white glaze. Demand for lovely blue-green celadons grew in countries as distant as Egypt and Persia.

The Yuan dynasty saw the first development of China’s standout ‘blue and white’ (qīnghuā) porcelain. Cobalt-blue paint from Persia was applied as an underglaze directly to white porcelain with a brush, the vessel then covered with another transparent glaze and fired. This technique was perfected during the Ming dynasty and such ceramics became hugely popular all over the world, eventually acquiring the name ‘China-ware’, whether produced in China or not.

Although many kilns were established in China, the most famous was at Jǐngdézhèn in Jiāngxī province, where royal porcelain was fired.

During the Qing dynasty, porcelain techniques were further refined and developed, showing superb craftsmanship and ingenuity. British and European consumers dominated the export market, displaying an insatiable appetite for Chinese vases and bowls decorated with flowers and landscapes. Stunning monochromatic ware is another hallmark of the Qing, especially the ox-blood vases, imperial yellow bowls and enamel-decorated porcelain. The Qing is also notable for its elaborate and highly decorative wares.

Jǐngdézhèn remains an excellent place to visit ceramic workshops and purchase various types of ceramic wares, from Mao statues to traditional glazed urns. The Shànghǎi Museum has a premier collection of porcelain, while several independent retailers in Běijīng, Shànghǎi and Hong Kong also sell more modish and creative pieces. Spin, in particular, sells a highly creative selection of contemporary ceramic designs.

In recent years wealthy Chinese collectors have embarked on a lavish spending spree, buying back China's ceramic heritage in the international auction markets, with staggering prices paid for pieces.


The earliest sculpture in China dates to the Zhou and Shang dynasties, when small clay and wooden figures were commonly placed in tombs to protect the dead and guide them on their way to heaven.

With the arrival of Buddhism, sculpture turned towards spiritual figures and themes, with sculptors frequently enrolled in huge carving projects for the worship of Sakyamuni. Influences also arrived along the Silk Road from abroad, bringing styles from as far afield as Greece and Persia, via India. The magnificent Buddhist caves at Yúngāng in Shānxī province, for example, date back to the 5th century and betray a noticeable Indian influence.

Chisellers also began work on the Lóngmén Grottoes in Hénán province at the end of the 5th century. The earliest effigies are similar in style to those at Yúngāng, revealing further Indian influences and an other-worldliness in their facial expressions. Later cave sculptures at Lóngmén were completed during the Tang dynasty and display a more Chinese style.

The most superlative examples are at the Mògāo Grottoes at Dūnhuáng in Gānsù province, where well-preserved Indian and Central Asian–style sculptures, particularly of the Tang dynasty, carry overtly Chinese characteristics – many statues feature long, fluid bodies and have warmer, more refined facial features.

The Shànghǎi Museum has a splendid collection of Buddhist sculpture, as does Capital Museum and the Poly Art Museum, both in Běijīng.

Beyond China’s grottoes, other mesmerising Chinese sculpture hides away in temples across China. The colossal statue of Guanyin in Pǔníng Temple in Chéngdé is a staggering sight, carved from five different types of wood and towering over 22m in height. Shuānglín Temple outside Píngyáo in Shānxī province is famed for its astonishing collection of painted statues from the Song and Yuan dynasties.


Jade (玉; ) has been revered in China since Neolithic times. Because of its hardness and strength, the stone was first used for making tools, but later appeared on ornaments and vessels for its decorative value. During the Qin and Han dynasties, it was believed that jade was empowered with magical and life-giving properties and the dead were buried with jadeware. Opulent jade suits, meant to prevent decomposition, have been excavated from Han tombs, while Taoist alchemists consumed elixirs of powdered jade in their quest for immortality.

Jade's value lies not just in its scarcity, but also depends on its colour, hardness and the skill with which it is carved. The pure white form is the most highly valued, but the stone varies greatly in translucency and colour, including many different hues of green, orange, brown and yellow.

China's most famous jade comes from Hotan in Xīnjiāng province. Watch out for fake jade, some of which can be very deceptive. Both jadeite and nephrite have a very high density, so it feels slightly heavier in your hand than it looks. Jade also feels cold and smooth, and should scratch glass and sometimes metal too. If in doubt, seek the advice of a jade expert.

Bronze Vessels

Bronze is an alloy whose principle elements are copper, tin and lead. Apocryphal tradition ascribes the first casting of bronze to the legendary Xia dynasty some 5000 years ago.

Shang dynasty ritual bronzes are marvellous specimens, often fabulously patterned with tāotiè, a kind of fierce, mythical animal design. Many Zhou dynasty vessels bear inscriptions describing wars, ceremonial events and the appointment of officials. Although now they wear a deep, dark green patina, originally they would have been burnished a bright gold colour, so their appearance and aesthetic effect would have been markedly different from what we see today.

The Shànghǎi Museum has an excellent collection of early bronze vessels and ritual objects.


Classical Novels

Until the early 20th century, classical literature (古文; gǔwén) had been the principal form of writing in China for thousands of years. A breed of purely literary writing, classical Chinese employed a stripped-down form of written Chinese that did not reflect the way people actually spoke or thought. Its grammar differed from the syntax of spoken Chinese and it employed numerous obscure Chinese characters.

Classical Chinese maintained divisions between educated and uneducated Chinese, putting literature beyond the reach of the common person and fashioning a cliquey lingua franca for Confucian officials, scholars and the erudite elite.

Classical novels evolved from the popular folk tales and dramas that entertained the lower classes. During the Ming dynasty they were penned in a semivernacular (or ‘vulgar’) language, and are often irreverently funny and full of action-packed fights.

Probably the best-known novel outside China is Journey to the West (Xīyóu Jì) – more commonly known as Monkey. Written in the 16th century, it follows the misadventures of a cowardly Buddhist monk (Tripitaka; a stand-in for the real-life pilgrim Xuan Zang) and his companions – a rebellious monkey, lecherous pig-man and exiled monster-immortal – on a pilgrimage to India.

The 14th-century novel The Water Margin/Outlaws of the Marsh/All Men are Brothers (Shuǐhǔ Zhuàn) is, on the surface, an excellent tale of honourable bandits and corrupt officials along the lines of Robin Hood. On a deeper level, though, it is a reminder to Confucian officials of their right to rebel when faced with a morally suspect government (at least one emperor officially banned it).

Written by Cao Xueqin and one of the most famous tales in Chinese literature, the Dream of the Red Mansions (Hónglóu Mèng) is an elaborate 18th-century novel penned in a vernacular, semiclassical form of Chinese. Also known as The Story of the Stone, the lavish tale relates the decline of an aristocratic family, affording a captivating overview of the mores and manners of upperclass Qing society.

Classical Poetry

The earliest collection of Chinese poetry is the Book of Songs (Shījīng), which includes over 300 poems dating back to the 6th century BC, gathered together by royal musicians who lived in the many feudal states clustered along the banks of the Yellow River during the Zhou dynasty. Centred on themes of love, marriage, war, agriculture, hunting and sacrifice, the poems were originally meant to be sung.

China's greatest early poet is Qu Yuan, who lived during the Warring States period (475–221 BC) and is known for his romantic, lyrical poetry.

The Tang dynasty is considered to be the golden age of Chinese poetry, when two of China's greatest poets – Li Bai and Du Fu – lived and created some of the most beautiful and moving poems in classical Chinese. The most famous of these poems are gathered into an anthology called 300 Tang Poems. During the Song dynasty, a lyric form of poetry called emerged, expressing feelings of passion and desire. Su Shi (Su Dongpo) is the most famous poet from this period.

Modern Literature

Early-20th-Century Writing

Classical Chinese maintained its authority over literary minds until the early 20th century, when it came under the influence of the West.

Torch-bearing author Lu Xun wrote his short story Diary of a Madman in 1918. It was revolutionary stuff. Apart from the opening paragraph which is composed in classical Chinese, Lu’s seminal and shocking fable is cast entirely in colloquial Chinese.

For Lu Xun to write his short story in colloquial Chinese was explosive: readers were finally able to read language as it was spoken. Diary of a Madman is a haunting and unsettling work and from this moment on, mainstream Chinese literature would be written as it was thought and spoken: Chinese writing had been instantly revolutionised.

Other notable contemporaries of Lu Xun include Ba Jin (Family; 1931), Mao Dun (Midnight; 1933), Běijīng author Lao She (Rickshaw Boy/Camel Xiangzi; 1936) and the modernist playwright Cao Yu (Thunderstorm). Lu Xun and Ba Jin also translated a great deal of foreign literature into Chinese.

Contemporary Writing

A growing number of contemporary voices have been translated into English, but far more exist in Chinese only. The provocative Nobel Prize–winning Mo Yan (Life and Death are Wearing Me Out; 2008), Yu Hua (To Live; 1992) and Su Tong (Rice; 1995) have written momentous historical novels set in the 20th century; all are excellent, though their raw, harrowing subject matter is not for the faint of heart.

Zhu Wen mocks the get-rich movement in his brilliantly funny short stories, published in English as I Love Dollars and Other Stories of China (2007). It’s a vivid and comic portrayal of the absurdities of everyday China.

‘Hooligan author’ Wang Shuo (Please Don’t Call Me Human; 2000) is one of China’s best-selling authors with his political satires and convincing depictions of urban slackers. Alai (Red Poppies; 2002), an ethnic Tibetan, made waves by writing in Chinese about early 20th-century Tibetan Sìchuān – whatever your politics, it’s both insightful and a page-turner. Refused entry into China, exiled author Ma Jian writes more politically critical work; his 2001 novel Red Dust was a Kerouacian tale of wandering China as a spiritual pollutant in the 1980s. Banned in China, his 2008 novel Beijing Coma is set against the Tiān’ānmén demonstrations of 1989, and their aftermath. China’s most renowned dissident writer, Gao Xingjian, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000 for his novel Soul Mountain, an account of his travels along the Yangzi after being misdiagnosed with lung cancer. All of his work has been banned in the People's Republic of China (PRC) since 1989.

Controversial blogger Han Han ( catapulted himself into the literary spotlight with his novel Triple Door, a searing critique of China’s education system. His successful 2010 road-trip novel 1988: I Want to Talk with the World only served to grow his already massive fan base and establish him as spokesman of a generation.

Candy (2003) by Mian Mian is a hip take on modern Shànghǎi life, penned by a former heroin addict musing on complicated sexual affairs, suicide and drug addiction in Shēnzhèn and Shànghǎi. It's applauded for its urban underground tone, but sensational more for its framing of post-adolescent themes in contemporary China. Years of Red Dust: Stories of Shanghai (2010) by Qiu Xiaolong contains 23 short stories in the context of momentous historic events affecting the city and the inhabitants of Red Dust Lane.

In his novel Banished, poet, essayist, short-story writer and blogger Han Dong reaches to his own experiences during the Cultural Revolution for inspiration. Winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2010, Bi Feiyu’s Three Sisters is a poignant tale of rural China during the political chaos of the early 1970s. In Northern Girls, Sheng Keyi illuminates the prejudices and bigotries of modern Chinese society in her story of a Chinese girl arriving as an immigrant worker in Shēnzhèn. The Fat Years (2009) by Chan Koonchung is a science-fiction novel set in a near-future totalitarian China where the month of February 2011 has gone missing from official records.

For a taste of contemporary Chinese short-story writing with both English and Chinese, buy a copy of Short Stories in Chinese: New Penguin Parallel Text (2012). The Picador Book of Contemporary Chinese Fiction (2006) brings together a range of different contemporary voices and themes into one accessible book.


Early Cinema

The moving image in the Middle Kingdom dates to 1896, when Spaniard Galen Bocca unveiled a film projector and blew the socks off wide-eyed crowds in a Shànghǎi teahouse. Shànghǎi’s cosmopolitan verve and exotic looks would make it the capital of China’s film industry, but China’s very first movie – Conquering Jun Mountain (an excerpt from a piece of Běijīng opera) – was actually filmed in Běijīng in 1905.

Shànghǎi opened its first cinema in 1908. In those days, cinema owners would cannily run the film for a few minutes, stop it and collect money from the audience before allowing the film to continue. The golden age of Shànghǎi film-making came in the 1930s when the city had over 140 film companies. Its apogee arrived in 1937 with the release of Street Angel, a powerful drama about two sisters who flee the Japanese in northeast China and end up as prostitutes in Shànghǎi; and Crossroads, a clever comedy about four unemployed graduates. Japanese control of China eventually brought the industry to a standstill and sent many film-makers packing.

Communist Decline

China’s film industry was stymied after the Communist Revolution, which sent film-makers scurrying to Hong Kong and Taiwan, where they played key roles in building up the local film industries that flourished there. Cinematic production in China was co-opted to glorify communism and generate patriotic propaganda. The days of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) were particularly dark. Between 1966 and 1972, just eight movies were made on the mainland, as the film industry was effectively shut down.


It wasn’t until two years after the death of Mao Zedong, in September 1978, that China’s premier film school – the Běijīng Film Academy – reopened. Its first intake of students included Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige and Tian Zhuangzhuang, who are considered masterminds of the celebrated ‘Fifth Generation’.

The cinematic output of the Fifth Generation signalled an escape from the dour, colourless and proletarian Mao era, and a second glittering golden age of Chinese film-making arrived in the 1980s and 1990s with their lush and lavish tragedies. A bleak but beautifully shot tale of a Chinese Communist Party cadre who travels to a remote village in Shaanxi province to collect folk songs, Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth aroused little interest in China but proved a sensation when released in the West in 1985.

It was followed by Zhang’s Red Sorghum, which introduced Gong Li and Jiang Wen to the world. Gong became the poster girl of Chinese cinema in the 1990s and the first international movie star to emerge from the mainland. Jiang, the Marlon Brando of Chinese film, has proved both a durable leading man and an innovative, controversial director of award-winning films such as In the Heat of the Sun and Devils on the Doorstep.

Rich, seminal works such as Farewell My Concubine (1993; Chen Kaige) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991; Zhang Yimou) were garlanded with praise, receiving standing ovations and winning major film awards. Their directors were the darlings of Cannes; Western cinema-goers were entranced. Many Chinese cinema-goers also admired their artistry, but some saw Fifth Generation output as pandering to the Western market.

In 1993 Tian Zhuangzhuang made the brilliant The Blue Kite. A heartbreaking account of the life of one Běijīng family during the Cultural Revolution, it so enraged the censors that Tian was banned from making films for a decade.

Each generation charts its own course and the ensuing Sixth Generation – graduating from the Běijīng Film Academy post–Tiān’ānmén Square protests – was no different.

Sixth Generation film directors eschewed the luxurious beauty of their forebears, and sought to capture the angst and grit of modern urban Chinese life. Their independent, low-budget works put an entirely different and more cynical spin on mainland Chinese film-making, but their darker subject matter and harsh film style (frequently in black and white) left many Western viewers cold.

Independent film-making found an influential precedent with Zhang Yuan’s 1990 debut Mama. Zhang is also acclaimed for his candid and gritty documentary-style Beijing Bastards (1993).

Meanwhile, The Days, directed by Wang Xiaoshui, follows a couple drifting apart in the wake of the Tiān’ānmén Square protests. Wang also directed the excellent Beijing Bicycle (2001), inspired by De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves.

Contemporary Film

A graduate of the Běijīng Film Academy and associated with the Sixth Generation, Jia Zhangke has emerged as the most acclaimed of China’s new film-makers, adhering to a realist, and some say minimalist, style. His meditative and compassionate look at the social impact of the construction of the Three Gorges Dam on local people, Still Life (2006), scooped the Golden Lion at the 2006 Venice Film Festival. His other films include the celebrated 24 City (2008), A Touch of Sin (2013) and the ambitious drama Mountains May Depart (2015), his eighth feature film.

Similarly educated at the Běijīng Film Academy, controversial Sixth Generation director Lou Ye has a prolific and notable portfolio of sensual and atmospheric films. The tragic, noirish experience of Suzhou River (2000) is perhaps his best-known work, but Summer Palace (2006), Spring Fever (2009) and the violent Mystery (2012) have maintained his reputation as an enfant terrible of China's censorship-laden film industry. His most recent film was Blind Massage (2014).

Born in Shànghǎi in 1958, and leaving China for Hong Kong in the early 1960s, the director Wong Kar-wai is particularly notable for seductively filmed classics such as Chungking Mansions (1994), In the Mood for Love (2000), 2046 (2004) and My Blueberry Nights (2007). His vivid and exhilarating films often dwell on the themes of romantic yearning and erotic longing, slow-burning in an atmosphere of gentle restraint.

Historical wuxia (martial arts) cinema is enduringly popular in China and typified much film-making in the noughties, with larger-than-life films like Hero (2002; Zhang Yimou), House of Flying Daggers (2004; Zhang Yimou) and The Banquet (2006; Feng Xiaogang) leading the way. Epic historical war dramas such as Red Cliff (2008 and 2009; John Woo) and The Warlords (2007; Peter Chan) belong to a similar genre.

The highest-grossing Chinese-made film of all time is the recent rom-com fantasy The Mermaid (2016).

Traditional Music

Musical instruments have been unearthed from tombs dating to the Shang dynasty, while Chinese folk songs can be traced back at least this far.

Unlike in the West, traditional Chinese music has long valued tone over melody and uses a pentatonic scale; music in China is also considered to have cosmological significance with musical harmony finding a parallel in dynastic harmony.

Traditional Chinese musical instruments include the two-stringed fiddle (èrhú), four-stringed lute (pípa), four-stringed banjo (yuèqín), two-stringed viola (húqín), horizontal flute (dízi), piccolo flute (bāngdí), vertical flute (dòngxiāo) and zither (gǔzhēng). A lot of emphasis is put on percussion.

China's ethnic minorities have preserved their own folk song traditions. A trip to Lìjiāng gives you the opportunity to appreciate the local Naxi Orchestra.

Chinese Opera

Contemporary Chinese opera, of which the most famous is Běijīng opera (京剧; Jīngjù), has a continuous history of some 900 years. Evolving from a convergence of comic and ballad traditions in the Northern Song period, Chinese opera brought together a disparate range of forms: acrobatics, martial arts, poetic arias and stylised dance.

Operas were usually performed by travelling troupes who had a low social status in traditional Chinese society. Chinese law forbade mixed-sex performances, forcing actors to act out roles of the opposite sex. Opera troupes were frequently associated with homosexuality in the public imagination, contributing further to their lowly social status.

Formerly, opera was performed mostly on open-air stages in markets, streets, teahouses or temple courtyards. The shrill singing and loud percussion were designed to be heard over the public throng, hence their piercing qualities

Opera performances usually take place on a bare stage, with the actors taking on stylised stock characters who are instantly recognisable to the audience. Most stories are derived from classical literature and Chinese mythology, and tell of disasters, natural calamities, intrigues or rebellions.

As well as Běijīng opera, other famous Chinese operatic traditions include Cantonese opera, Kunqu (from the Jiāngnán region), Min opera (from Fújiàn) and Shànghǎi opera.


Traditional Architecture

Four principal styles governed traditional Chinese architecture: imperial, religious, residential and recreational. The imperial style was naturally the most grandiose, overseeing the design of buildings employed by successive dynastic rulers; the religious style was employed for the construction of temples, monasteries and pagodas; while the residential and recreational styles took care of the design of houses and private gardens.

Whatever the style, Chinese buildings traditionally followed a similar basic ground plan, consisting of a symmetrical layout oriented around a central axis – ideally running north–south to conform with basic feng shui (风水; fēngshuǐ) dictates and to maximise sunshine – with an enclosed courtyard (院; yuàn) flanked by buildings on all sides.

In many aspects, imperial palaces are glorified courtyard homes (south-facing, a sequence of courtyards, side halls and perhaps a garden at the rear) completed on a different scale. Apart from the size, the main dissimilarity would be guard towers on the walls and possibly a moat, imperial yellow roof tiles, ornate dragon carvings (signifying the emperor), the repetitive use of the number nine and the presence of temples.

Religious Architecture

Chinese Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian temples tend to follow a strict, schematic pattern. All temples are laid out on a north–south axis in a series of halls, with the main door of each hall facing south.

With their sequence of halls and buildings interspersed with breezy open-air courtyards, Chinese temples are very different from Christian churches. The roofless courtyards allow the weather to permeate within the temple and permits (气; spirit) to circulate, dispersing stale air and allowing incense to be burned.

Buddhist Temples

Once you have cracked the logic of Buddhist temples, you will see how most temples conform to a basic pattern. The first hall and portal to the temple is generally the Hall of Heavenly Kings (天王殿; Tiānwáng Diàn), where a sedentary, central statue of the tubby Bodhisattva Maitreya is flanked by the stern and often ferocious Four Heavenly Kings. Behind is the first courtyard, where the Drum Tower (鼓楼; Gǔlóu) and Bell Tower (钟楼; Zhōnglóu) may rise to the east and west, and smoking braziers may be positioned.

The main hall is often the Great Treasure Hall (大雄宝殿; Dàxióngbǎo Diàn) sheltering glittering statues of the past, present and future Buddhas, seated in a row. This is the main focal point for worshippers at the temple. On the east and west interior wall of the hall are often 18 luóhàn (arhat – a Buddhist who has achieved enlightenment) in two lines, either as statues or paintings. In some temples, they gather in a throng of 500, housed in a separate hall, usually called the Luohan Hall (罗汉殿; Luóhàn Diàn). A statue of Guanyin (the Goddess of Mercy) frequently stands at the rear of the main hall, facing north, atop a fish’s head or a rocky outcrop. The goddess may also have her own hall and occasionally presents herself with a huge fan of arms, in her ‘Thousand Arm’ incarnation – the awesome effigy of Guanyin in the Mahayana Hall at Pǔníng Temple in Chéngdé is the supreme example.

The rear hall may be where the sutras (Buddhist scriptures) were once stored, in which case it will be called the Sutra Storing Building. A pagoda may rise above the main halls or may be the only surviving fragment of an otherwise destroyed temple. Conceived to house the remains of Buddha and later other Buddhist relics, sutras, religious artefacts and documents, a pagoda (塔; tǎ) may rise above the temple.

Many Buddhist temples also have a vegetarian restaurant in one of the halls that has been converted for use as a canteen, which may be open to the public, serving meat-free, affordable food.

Battle of the Buddhas

China’s largest ancient Buddha gazes out over the confluence of the waters of the Dàdù River and the Mín River at Lèshān in Sìchuān. When the even bigger Buddha at Bamyan in Afghanistan was demolished by the Taliban, the Lèshān Buddha enjoyed instantaneous promotion to the top spot as the world’s largest. The Buddha in the Great Buddha Temple at Zhāngyè in Gānsù province may not take it lying down, though: he is China’s largest ‘housed reclining Buddha’. Chinese children once climbed inside him to scamper about within his cavernous tummy.

Lounging around in second place is the reclining Buddha in the Mògāo Grottoes, China’s second largest. The vast (and modern) reclining Buddha at Lèshān is a whopping 170m long and the world’s largest ‘alfresco’ reclining Buddha. Bristling with limbs, the Thousand Arm Guanyin statue in the Pǔníng Temple’s Mahayana Hall in Chéngdé also stands up to be counted: she’s the largest wooden statue in China (and possibly the world). Not to be outdone, Hong Kong fights for its niche with the Tian Tan Buddha Statue, the world’s ‘largest outdoor seated bronze Buddha statue’.

Taoist Temples

Taoist shrines are not as plentiful and are generally more nether-worldly than Buddhist shrines, although the basic layout echoes Buddhist temples. They are decorated with a distinct set of motifs, including the bāguà (八卦; eight trigrams) formations, reflected in eight-sided pavilions and halls, and the Taiji yin/yang (yīn/yáng) diagram. Effigies of Laotzu, the Jade Emperor and other characters popularly associated with Taoist myth, such as the Eight Immortals, Guandi and the God of Wealth, are customary.

Taoist door gods, similar to those in Buddhist temples, often guard temple entrances; the main hall is usually called the Hall of the Three Clear Ones (三清殿; Sānqīng Diàn), devoted to a triumvirate of Taoist deities. Pagodas are generally absent.

Taoist monks (and nuns) are easily distinguished from their shaven-headed Buddhist confrères by their long hair, twisted into topknots, straight trousers and squarish jackets.

Confucian Temples

Unless they have vanished or been destroyed, Confucian temples can be found in the old town district of ancient settlements throughout China and are typically very quiet havens of peace and far less visited than Buddhist or Taoist temples. The largest Confucian temple in China is at Qūfù in Shāndōng, Confucius’ birthplace.

Confucian temples are called either Kǒng Miào (孔庙) or Wén Miào (文庙) in Chinese and bristle with stelae celebrating local scholars, some supported on the backs of bìxì (mythical tortoiselike dragons). A statue of Kongzi (Confucius) usually resides in the main hall (大成殿; Dàchéng Diàn), overseeing rows of dusty musical instruments and flanked by disciples and philosophers.

A mythical animal, the qílín, is commonly seen at Confucian temples. The qílín was a chimera that only appeared on earth in times of harmony.

Modern Architecture

Architecturally speaking, anything goes in today’s China. You only have to look at the Pǔdōng skyline to discover a melange of competing designs, some dramatic, inspiring and novel, others rash. The display represents a nation brimming over with confidence, zeal and money.

If modern architecture in China is regarded as anything post-1949, then China has ridden a roller-coaster ride of styles and fashions. In Běijīng, stand between the Great Hall of the People (1959) and the National Centre for the Performing Arts (2008) and weigh up how far China travelled in 50 years. Interestingly, neither building has clear Chinese motifs. The same applies to the form of Běijīng’s CCTV Building, where a continuous loop through horizontal and vertical planes required some audacious engineering.

The coastal areas are an architect’s dreamland – no design is too outrageous, zoning laws have been scrapped, and the labour force is large and inexpensive. Planning permission can be simple to arrange – often all it requires is sufficient guānxī (connections). Even the once cash-strapped interior provinces are getting in on the act. Opened in Chéngdū in 2013, the staggeringly large New Century Global Center is the world's largest free-standing building: big enough to swallow up 20 Sydney Opera Houses!

Many of the top names in international architecture – IM Pei, Rem Koolhaas, Norman Foster, Kengo Kuma, Jean-Marie Charpentier, Herzog & de Meuron – have all designed at least one building in China in the past decade. Other impressive examples of modern architecture include the National Stadium (aka the ‘Bird’s Nest’), the National Aquatics Center (aka the ‘Water Cube’) and Běijīng South train station, all in Běijīng; and the art deco–esque Jīnmào Tower, the towering Shànghǎi World Financial Center, Tomorrow Square and the Shànghǎi Tower in Shànghǎi. In Guǎngzhōu, the Zaha Hadid–designed Guǎngzhōu Opera House is an astonishing contemporary creation, both inside and out. In Hong Kong, the glittering 2 International Finance Center on Hong Kong Island and the International Commerce Center in Kowloon are each prodigious examples of modern skyscraper architecture.

For something rather different, Jīnhuá Architecture Park, a project of artist Ai Weiwei, is an abandoned, overgrown, mouldering yet thought-provoking collection of modern memorial pavilions (designed by such names as Herzog & de Meuron), slowly returning to nature. They can be found in Jīnhuá, Zhèjiāng province.

Art Deco in Shanghai

Fans of art deco must visit Shànghǎi. The reign of art deco is one of the city’s architectural high-water marks and the city boasts more art deco buildings than any other city, from the drawing boards of the French firm Leonard, Veysseyre and Kruze, and others.

Largely emptied of foreigners in 1949, Shànghǎi mostly kept its historic villas and buildings intact, including its fabulous art deco monuments, which constitutes one of the largest collections in the world. The Peace Hotel, Bank of China building, Cathay Theatre, Green House, Paramount Ballroom, Broadway Mansions, Liza Building, Savoy Apartments, Picardie Apartments and Majestic Theatre are all art deco gems. For a comprehensive low-down on the style, hunt down a copy of Shanghai Art Deco by Deke Erh and Tess Johnston; also check out the Shanghai Art Deco website (

Traditional Garden Design

Mainly found in the canal-carved eastern provinces of Jiāngsū and Zhèjiāng, classical Chinese gardens can be an acquired taste – there are generally no lawns, precious few long and ranging views, and misshapen, grey rocks and architectural features jostle for space. Yet a stroll in Shànghǎi's Yùyuán Gardens, Nánjīng's Zhān Garden and the gardens of Sūzhōu is a walk through many different facets of Chinese civilisation, and this is what makes them unique. Architecture, philosophy, art and literature all converge, and a background in some basics of Chinese culture helps to fully appreciate garden design. Chinese gardens also constitute some of the most traditional architectural features of towns such as Sūzhōu and Shànghǎi.

The Chinese for ‘landscape’ is shānshuǐ (山水), literally ‘mountain-water’. Mountains and rivers constitute a large part of China’s geography, and are fundamental to Chinese life, philosophy, religion and art. So the central part of any garden landscape is a pond surrounded by rock formations. This also reflects the influence of Taoist thought. Contrary to geometrically designed formal European gardens, where humans saw themselves as masters, Chinese gardens seek to create a microcosm of the natural world through an asymmetrical layout of streams, hills, plants and pavilions (they symbolise humanity’s place in the universe – never in the centre, just a part of the whole).

Plants are chosen as much for their symbolic meaning as their beauty (the pine for longevity, the peony for nobility) while the use of undulating ‘dragon walls’ brings good fortune. The names of gardens and halls are often literary allusions to ideals expressed in classical poetry. Painting, too, goes hand in hand with gardening, its aesthetics reproduced in gardens through the use of carefully placed windows and doors that frame a particular view. The central precept of feng shui (fēngshuǐ; literally ‘wind water’) is also paramount, so rockeries and ponds are deliberately arranged to maximise positive (energy).

Finally, it’s worth remembering that gardens in China have always been lived in. Generally part of a residence, they weren’t so much contemplative (as in Japan) as they were a backdrop for everyday life: family gatherings, late-night drinking parties, discussions of philosophy, art and politics – it’s the people who spent their leisure hours there that ultimately gave the gardens their unique spirit.

Sidebar: 1

Xīnjiāng-born Wang Shu, architect of the distinctive Níngbō Museum, won the coveted Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2012.

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The most abstract calligraphic form is grass or cursive script (cǎoshū), a highly fluid style of penmanship which even Chinese people have difficulty reading.

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The five fundamental brushstrokes necessary to master calligraphy can be found in the character 永, which means eternal or forever.

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Discovered by amateur astronomer William Kwong Yu Yeung in 2001, the main belt asteroid '83598 Aiweiwei' was named after Chinese artist Ai Weiwei in 2001.

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In 2010 a Qing dynasty Chinese vase sold for £53.1 million after being discovered in the attic of a house in northwest London and put up for auction.

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The I Ching (Yìjīng; Book of Changes) is the oldest Chinese text and is used for divination. It is comprised of 64 hexagrams, composed of broken and continuous lines, that represent a balance of opposites (yin and yang), the inevitability of change and the evolution of events.

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Published by the Chinese University of Hong Kong Research Centre for Translation, Renditions ( is an excellent journal of Chinese literature in English translation, covering works from classical Chinese to modern writing.

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Wolf Totem (2009) by Jiang Rong is an astonishing look at life on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution and the impact of modern culture on an ancient way of life.

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The Book and the Sword by Jin Yong/Louis Cha (2004) is China’s most celebrated martial-arts novelist’s first book. The martial-arts genre (wǔxiá xiǎoshuō) is a direct descendant of the classical novel.

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The 2010 remake of The Karate Kid, starring Jackie Chan, is set in Běijīng and authentically conveys the city despite having nothing to do with karate.

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In 2011 an ink and brush painting by artist Qi Baishi (1864–1957) sold for ¥425 million (US$65 million) at auction.

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Major art festivals include Běijīng’s 798 International Art Festival, China International Gallery Exposition and Běijīng Biennale, the Shànghǎi Biennale, Guǎngzhōu Triennial and Hong Kong’s one-day Clockenflap festival.

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For a taste of Kazakh folk music from northwest Xinjiang province, listen to Eagle by Mamer, an intriguing collection of songs described as ‘Chinagrass’ by their composer.

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A dark and Gothic image in the West, the bat is commonly used in Chinese porcelain, wood designs, textiles and artwork as it is considered a good luck omen.

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Chinese individuals and companies are also purchasing non-Chinese art masterpieces. In 2015 Claude Monet’s Bassin aux nymphéas, les rosiers sold for $20.4m at auction to the Dalian Wanda Group.

China’s Landscapes

The world’s third-largest country – on a par size-wise with the USA – China swallows up an immense 9.5 million sq km, only surpassed in area by Russia and Canada. So whatever floats your boat – verdant bamboo forests, sapphire Himalayan lakes, towering sand dunes, sublime mountain gorges, huge glaciers or sandy beaches – China's landscapes offer a simply jaw-dropping diversity.

The Land

Straddling natural environments as diverse as subarctic tundra in the north and tropical rainforests in the south, this massive land embraces the world’s highest mountain range and one of its hottest deserts in the west, to the steamy, typhoon-lashed coastline of the South China Sea. Fragmenting this epic landscape is a colossal web of waterways, including one of the world’s mightiest rivers – the Yangzi (长江; Cháng Jiāng).


China has a largely mountainous and hilly topography, commencing in precipitous fashion in the vast and sparsely populated Qīnghǎi–Tibetan plateau in the west and levelling out gradually towards the fertile, well-watered, populous and wealthy provinces of eastern China.

This mountainous disposition sculpts so many of China’s scenic highlights: from the glittering Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces of Guǎngxī to the incomparable stature of Mt Everest, the stunning beauty of Jiǔzhàigōu National Park in Sìchuān, the ethereal peaks of misty Huángshān in Ānhuī, the vertiginous inclines of Huá Shān in Shaanxi (Shǎnxī), the sublime karst geology of Yángshuò in Guǎngxī and the volcanic drama of Heaven Lake in Jílín.

Averaging 4500m above sea level, the Qīnghǎi–Tibetan region’s highest peaks thrust up into the Himalayan mountain range along its southern rim. The Himalayas, on average about 6000m above sea level, include 40 peaks rising dizzyingly to 7000m or more. Also known as the planet’s ‘third pole’, this is where the world’s highest peak, Mt Everest – called Zhūmùlǎngmǎfēng by the Chinese – thrusts up jaggedly from the Tibet–Nepal border.

This vast high-altitude region (Tibet alone constitutes one-eighth of China’s landmass) is home to an astonishing 37,000 glaciers, the third-largest mass of ice on the planet after the Arctic and Antarctic. This enormous body of frozen water ensures that the Qīnghǎi–Tibetan region is the source of many of China’s largest rivers, including the Yellow (Huáng Hé), Mekong (Láncāng Jiāng) and Salween (Nù Jiāng) Rivers and, of course, the mighty Yangzi, all of whose headwaters are fed by snowmelt from here. Global warming, however, is inevitably eating into this glacial volume, although experts argue over how quickly they are melting.

This mountain geology further corrugates the rest of China, continuously rippling the land into spectacular mountain ranges. There’s the breathtaking 2500km-long Kunlun range, the mighty Karakoram mountains on the border with Pakistan, the Tiān Shān range in Xīnjiāng, the Tanggula range on the Qīnghǎi–Tibetan plateau, the Qinling mountains and the Greater Khingan range (Daxingan Ling) in the northeast.


China contains head-spinningly huge – and growing – desert regions that occupy almost one-fifth of the country’s landmass, largely in its mighty northwest. These are inhospitably sandy and rocky expanses where summers are staggeringly hot and winters bone-numbingly cold, but as destinations, the visuals can be sublime. North towards Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan from the plateaus of Tibet and Qīnghǎi is Xīnjiāng’s Tarim Basin, the largest inland basin in the world. This is the location of the mercilessly thirsty Taklamakan Desert – China’s largest desert and the world’s second-largest mass of sand after the Sahara Desert. Many visitors to Xīnjiāng will experience this huge expanse during their travels or can arrange camel-trekking tours and expeditions through its vast sand dunes. China’s biggest shifting salt lake, Lop Nur (the site of China’s nuclear bomb tests) is also here.

The Silk Road into China steered its epic course through this entire region, ferrying caravans of camels laden with merchandise, languages, philosophies, customs and peoples from the far-flung lands of the Middle East. The harsh environment shares many topographical features in common with the neighbouring nations of Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, and is almost the exact opposite of China’s lush and well-watered southern provinces. But despite the scorching aridity of China’s northwestern desert regions, their mountains (the mighty Tiān Shān, Altai, Pamir and Kunlun ranges) contain vast supplies of water, largely in the form of snow and ice.

Northeast of the Tarim Basin is Ürümqi, the world’s furthest city from the sea. The Tarim Basin is bordered to the north by the lofty Tiān Shān range – home to the glittering mountain lake of Tiān Chí – and to the west by the mighty Pamirs, which border Pakistan. Also in Xīnjiāng is China’s hot spot, the Turpan Basin. Known as the ‘Oasis of Fire’ and 'China's Death Valley', it gets into the record books as China’s lowest-lying region and the world’s second-deepest depression after the Dead Sea in Israel.

China’s most famous desert is, of course, the Gobi, although most of it lies outside the country’s borders. In little-visited Western Inner Mongolia, the awesome Badain Jaran Desert offers travellers spectacular journeys among remote desert lakes and colossal, stationary sand dunes over 460m in height; further west lie the famous grasslands and steppes of Inner Mongolia.

Rivers & Plains

At about 5460km long and the second-longest river in China, the Yellow River (黄河;Huáng Hé) is touted as the birthplace of Chinese civilisation and has been fundamental in the development of Chinese society. The mythical architect of China’s rivers, the Great Yu, apocryphally noted ‘Whoever controls the Yellow River controls China’. From its source in Qīnghǎi, the river runs through North China, meandering past or near many famous towns, including Lánzhōu, Yínchuān, Bāotóu, Hánchéng, Jìnchéng, Lùoyáng, Zhèngzhōu, Kāifēng and Jǐ'nán in Shāndōng, before exiting China north of Dōngyíng (although the watercourse often runs dry nowadays before it reaches the sea).

The Yangzi (the ‘Long River’) is one of the longest rivers in the world (and China's longest). Its watershed of almost 2 million sq km – 20% of China’s landmass – supports 400 million people. Dropping from its source high on the Tibetan plateau, it runs for 6300km to the sea, of which the last few hundred kilometres is across virtually flat alluvial plains. In the course of its sweeping journey, the river (and its tributaries) fashions many of China's scenic spectacles, including Tiger Leaping Gorge and the Three Gorges, and cuts through a string of huge and historic cities, including Chóngqìng, Wǔhàn and Nánjīng, before surging into the East China Sea north of Shànghǎi. As a transport route, the river is limited, but the Three Gorges cruise is China's most celebrated river journey. The waterborne journey along the Lí River between Guìlín and Yángshuò in Guǎngxī is China's other major riverine experience.

South–North Water Diversion Project

Water is the lifeblood of economic and agricultural growth, but as China only has around 7% of the world’s water resources (with almost 20% of its population), the liquid is an increasingly precious resource.

A region of low rainfall, northern China faces a worsening water crisis. Farmers are draining aquifers that have taken thousands of years to accumulate, while industry in China uses three to 10 times more water per unit of production than developed nations. Meanwhile, water usage in large cities such as Běijīng and Tiānjīn continues to climb as migrants flood in from rural areas.

To combat the water crisis, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) embarked on the construction of the US$81 billion South–North Water Diversion Project, a vast network of pumping stations, canals and aqueducts (as well as a tunnel under the Yellow River) lashing north and south via three routes. The ambition is to divert 3.8 million Olympic swimming pools' worth of water yearly from the Yangzi River to the parched regions of China's north. The first stage began operating in 2013 and water began flowing along the second stage at the end of 2014. Calculations, however, suggest that by 2020 only 5% of Běijīng's water requirements will be met by the diverted water.

There are also concerns that pollution in the Yangzi River waters will become progressively concentrated as water is extracted, while Yangzi cities such as Nánjīng and Wǔhàn are increasingly uneasy that they will be left with a water shortfall. Alarm has also arisen at the pollution in channels – including the Grand Canal, which links Hángzhōu with north China – earmarked to take the diverted waters. There are worries that these polluted reaches are almost untreatable, making elements of the project unviable. In 2016, it was revealed that lakes along the Yangzi River were drying up, with a 40% drop of water inflows into Dòngtíng Lake being reported.

Critics also argue that the project, which will involve the mass relocation of hundreds of thousands of people, will not address the fundamental issue of China’s water woes – the absence of policies for the sustainable use of water as a precious resource. Pricing is also a central issue. In regions where water is an increasingly scarce resource, the liquid is still very cheap, which encourages further wastefulness.

The government has recently begun encouraging China's citizens to eat potatoes rather than rice and wheat, which are both more water-intensive crops.

Fields & Agriculture

China’s hills and mountains may surround travellers with a dramatic backdrop, but they are a massive agricultural headache for farmers. Small plots of land are eked out in patchworks of land squashed between hillsides or rescued from mountain cliffs and ravines, in the demanding effort to feed 20% of the world’s population with just 10% of its arable land.

As only 15% of China’s land can be cultivated, hillside gradients and inclines are valiantly levelled off, wherever possible, into bands of productive terraced fields. Stunning examples of rice terraces – beautiful in the right light – can be admired at the Yuányáng Rice Terraces in Yúnnán and the Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces in Guǎngxī.


China’s vast size, diverse topography and climatic disparities support an astonishing range of habitats for animal life. The Tibetan plateau alone is the habitat of over 500 species of birds, while half of the animal species in the northern hemisphere exist in China.

It is unlikely you will see many of these creatures in their natural habitat unless you are a specialist, or have a lot of time, patience, persistence, determination and luck. If you go looking for large animals in the wild on the off chance, your chances of glimpsing one are virtually nil. But there are plenty of pristine reserves within relatively easy reach of travellers’ destinations such as Chéngdū and Xī’ān and even if you don't get the chance to see animals, the scenery is terrific. Try Yàdīng Nature Reserve in Sìchuān, Mèngdá Nature Reserve in Qīnghǎi, Sānchàhé Nature Reserve in Yúnnán, Fànjìngshān in Guìzhōu, Shénnóngjià in Húběi, Wǔzhǐshān in Hǎinán, Kanas Lake Nature Reserve in Xīnjiāng and Chángbái Shān, China's largest nature reserve, in Jílín.


China’s towering mountain ranges form natural refuges for wildlife, many of which are now protected in parks and reserves that have escaped the depredations of loggers and dam-builders. The barren high plains of the Tibetan plateau are home to several large animals, such as the chiru (Tibetan antelope), Tibetan wild ass, wild sheep and goats, and wolves. In theory, many of these animals are protected but in practice poaching and hunting still threaten their survival.

The beautiful and retiring snow leopard, which normally inhabits the highest parts of the most remote mountain ranges, sports a luxuriant coat of fur against the cold. It preys on mammals as large as mountain goats, but is unfortunately persecuted for allegedly killing livestock.

The Himalayan foothills of western Sìchuān support the greatest diversity of mammals in China. Aside from giant pandas, other mammals found in this region include the panda’s small cousin – the raccoon-like red panda – as well as Asiatic black bears and leopards. Among the grazers are golden takin, a large goatlike antelope with a yellowish coat and a reputation for being cantankerous, argali sheep and various deer species, including the diminutive mouse deer.

The sparsely populated northeastern provinces abutting Siberia are inhabited by reindeer, moose, bears, sables and Manchurian tigers.

Overall, China is unusually well endowed with big and small cats. The world’s largest tiger, the Manchurian tiger (dōngběihǔ) – also known as the Siberian tiger – only numbers a few hundred in the wild, its remote habitat being one of its principal saviours. Three species of leopard can be found, including the beautiful clouded leopard of tropical rainforests, plus several species of small cat, such as the Asiatic golden cat and a rare endemic species, the Chinese mountain cat.

Rainforests are famous for their diversity of wildlife, and the tropical south of Yúnnán province, particularly the area around Xīshuāngbǎnnà, is one of the richest in China. These forests support Indo-Chinese tigers and herds of Asiatic elephants.

The wild mammals you are most likely to see are several species of monkey. The large and precocious Père David’s macaque is common at Éméi Shān in Sìchuān, where bands often intimidate people into handing over their picnics; macaques can also be seen on Hǎinán’s Monkey Island. Several other monkey species are rare and endangered, including the beautiful golden monkey of Fànjìngshān and the snub-nosed monkey of the Yúnnán rainforests. But by far the most endangered is the Hǎinán gibbon, numbering just a few dozen individuals on Hǎinán Island thanks to massive forest clearance.

The giant panda (xióngmāo – literally ‘bear cat’) is western Sìchuān’s most famous denizen, but the animal’s solitary nature makes it elusive for observation in the wild, and even today, after decades of intensive research and total protection in dedicated reserves, sightings are rare. A notoriously fickle breeder (the female is only on heat for a handful of days each spring), there are approximately 1600 pandas in the Chinese wilds according to World Wildlife Fund. Interestingly, the panda has the digestive tract of a carnivore (like other bears), but has become accustomed to exclusively eating bamboo shoots and leaves. However, the panda’s digestive tract is unable to efficiently break down plant matter so the mammal needs to consume huge amounts to compensate and spends much of its time eating, clearing one area of bamboo before moving on to another region. The easiest way to see pandas outside of zoos is at the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base, just outside Chéngdū or at the Yǎ’ān Bìfēngxiá Panda Base, also in Sìchuān.


Most of the wildlife you’ll see in China will be birds, and with more than 1300 species recorded, including about 100 endemic or near-endemic species, China offers some fantastic birdwatching opportunities. Spring is usually the best time, when deciduous foliage buds, migrants return from their wintering grounds and nesting gets into full swing. BirdLife International (, the worldwide bird conservation organisation, recognises 14 Endemic Bird Areas (EBAs) in China, either wholly within the country or shared with neighbouring countries.

Although the range of birds is huge, China is a centre of endemicity for several species and these are usually the ones that visiting birders will seek out. Most famous are the pheasant family, of which China boasts 62 species, including many endemic or near-endemic species.

Other families well represented in China include the laughing thrushes, with 36 species; parrotbills, which are almost confined to China and its near neighbours; and many members of the jay family. The crested ibis is a pinkish bird that feeds on invertebrates in the rice paddies, and was once found from central China to Japan.

Among China’s more famous large birds are cranes, and nine of the world’s 14 species have been recorded here. In Jiāngxī province, on the lower Yangzi, a vast series of shallow lakes and lagoons was formed by stranded overflow from Yangzi flooding. The largest of these is Póyáng Lake, although it is only a few metres deep and drains during winter. Vast numbers of waterfowl and other birds inhabit these swamps year-round, including ducks, geese, herons and egrets. Although it is difficult to reach and infrastructure for birdwatchers is practically nonexistent, birders are increasingly drawn to the area in winter, when many of the lakes dry up and attract flocks of up to five crane species, including the endangered, pure white Siberian crane.

Recommended destinations include Zhālóng Nature Reserve, one of several vast wetlands in Hēilóngjiāng province. Visit in summer to see breeding storks, cranes and flocks of wildfowl before they fly south for the winter. Běidàihé, on the coast of the Bohai Sea, is well known for migratory birds. Other breeding grounds and wetlands include Qīnghǎi Hú in Qīnghǎi, Cǎohǎi Lake in Guìzhōu, Jiǔzhàigōu in Sìchuān and Mai Po Marsh in Hong Kong. For the last, the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society ( organises regular outings and publishes a newsletter in English.

Most birdwatchers and bird tours head straight for Sìchuān, which offers superb birding at sites such as Wòlóng. Here, several spectacular pheasants, including golden, blood and kalij pheasants, live on the steep forested hillsides surrounding the main road. As the road climbs up, higher-altitude species such as eared pheasants and the spectacular Chinese monal may be seen. Alpine meadows host smaller birds, and the rocky scree slopes at the pass hold partridges, the beautiful grandala and the mighty lammergeier (bearded vulture), with a 2m wingspan.

Parts of China are now well-established on the itineraries of global ecotour companies. Bird Tour Asia ( has popular tours to Sìchuān, Tibet, Qīnghǎi, eastern China and southeast China, and also provides custom tours.


China is home to more than 32,000 species of seed plant and 2500 species of forest tree, plus an extraordinary plant diversity that includes some famous ‘living fossils’ – a diversity so great that Jílín province in the semifrigid north and Hǎinán province in the tropical south share few plant species.

Apart from rice, the plant probably most often associated with China and Chinese culture is bamboo, of which China boasts some 300 species. Bamboos grow in many parts of China, but bamboo forests were once so extensive that they enabled the evolution of the giant panda, which eats virtually nothing else, and a suite of small mammals, birds and insects that live in bamboo thickets. Most of these useful species are found in the subtropical areas south of the Yangzi, and the best surviving thickets are in southwestern provinces such as Sìchuān.

Many plants commonly cultivated in Western gardens today originated in China, among them the ginkgo tree, a famous ‘living fossil’ whose unmistakable imprint has been found in 270-million-year-old rocks.

Deciduous forests cover mid-altitudes in the mountains, and are characterised by oaks, hemlocks and aspens, with a leafy understorey that springs to life after the winter snows have melted. Among the more famous blooms of the understorey are rhododendrons and azaleas, and many species of each grow naturally in China’s mountain ranges. Best viewed in spring, some species flower right through summer; one of the best places to see them is at Sìchuān’s Wòlóng Nature Reserve.

A growing number of international wildlife travel outfits arrange botanical expeditions to China, including UK-based Naturetrek (, which arranges tours to Yúnnán, Sìchuān and the Tibetan plateau.

Endangered Species

Almost every large mammal you can think of in China has crept onto the endangered species list, as well as many of the so-called ‘lower’ animals and plants. The snow leopard, Indo-Chinese tiger, chiru antelope, crested ibis, Asiatic elephant, red-crowned crane and black-crowned crane are all endangered.

Deforestation, pollution, hunting, trapping for fur, body parts, medicine, food delicacies and sport are all culprits. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) records legal trade in live reptiles and parrots, and high numbers of reptile and wildcat skins. The number of such products collected or sold unofficially is anyone’s guess.

Despite the threats, a number of rare animal species cling to survival in the wild. Notable among them are the Chinese alligator in Ānhuī, the giant salamander in the fast-running waters of the Yangzi and Yellow Rivers, the Yangzi River dolphin in the lower and middle reaches of the river (although there have been no sightings since 2002), and the pink dolphin of the Hong Kong islands of Sha Chau and Lung Kwu Chau. The giant panda is confined to the fauna-rich valleys and ranges of Sìchuān.

Intensive monoculture farmland cultivation, the reclaiming of wetlands, river damming, industrial and rural waste, and desertification are reducing unprotected forest areas and making the survival of many of these species increasingly precarious. Although there are laws against killing or capturing rare wildlife, their struggle for survival is further complicated as many remain on the most-wanted lists for traditional Chinese medicine and dinner delicacies.

The Environment

China may be vast, but with two-thirds of the land mountain, desert or uncultivable, the remaining third is overwhelmed by the people of the world’s most populous nation. For the first time in its history, China’s city dwellers outnumbered rural residents in 2011, with an urbanisation rate set to increase to 65% by 2050. The speed of development – and the sheer volume of poured concrete – is staggering. During the next 15 years, China is expected to build urban areas equal in size to 10 New York Cities and a staggering one billion Chinese could be urban residents by 2030.

Beyond urban areas, deforestation and overgrazing have accelerated the desertification of vast areas of China, particularly in the western provinces. Deserts now cover almost one-fifth of the country and China’s dustbowl is the world’s largest, swallowing up 200 sq km of arable land every month. Over 400 million Chinese people are affected by China's encroaching deserts while each spring sees vast dust storms sweeping across north China, scouring cities such as Běijīng and Xī'ān, turning the skies red and depositing several hundred thousand tonnes of (sometimes toxic) grit on urban conurbations, bringing traffic to a standstill and pushing face masks to their limits.

Top Books on China’s Environment

  • When a Billion Chinese Jump (2010) Jonathan Watts’ sober and engaging study of China’s environmental issues.
  • China's Environmental Challenges (2012) Judith Shapiro's excellent primer for understanding China's manifold environmental problems.
  • The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future (2010; 2nd edition) Elizabeth Economy’s frightening look at the unhappy marriage between breakneck economic production and environmental degradation.
  • The China Price: The True Cost of Chinese Competitive Advantage (2008) Alexandra Harney’s telling glimpse behind the figures of China’s economic rise.
  • China’s Water Crisis (2004) Ma Jun rolls up his sleeves to fathom China’s water woes.

A Greener China?

China is painfully aware of its accelerated desertification, growing water shortages, shrinking glaciers, acidic rain, contaminated rivers, caustic urban air and polluted soil. The government is keenly committed, on a policy level, to the development of greener and cleaner energy sources. China’s leaders are also seeking to devise a more sustainable and less wasteful economic model for the nation’s future development.

There is evidence of ambitious and bold thinking: in 2010 China announced it would pour billions into developing electric and hybrid vehicles (although the goal of 30% of car sales going to electric vehicles seemed wildly optimistic); Běijīng committed itself to overtaking Europe in renewable energy investment by 2020; wind farm construction (in Gānsù, for example) continues apace; and China leads the world in the production of solar cells. Coal use is also declining: in 2015, China imported 30% less and consumed 3.7% less coal, aiming to shut 1000 mines in 2016. Some analysts say China has already surpassed 'peak coal', but two-thirds of China's power still comes from the fossil fuel.

Public protests – sometimes violent – against polluting industries have proliferated in recent years across China and have scored a number of notable victories, including the 2012 demonstrations in Shífāng (Sìchuān), which led to the cancellation of a planned US$1.6 billion copper smelting facility. A 2013 survey in China revealed that 78% of people would demonstrate if polluting industries were constructed near their homes. Much of the agitation is the result of health concerns as cancer is now the leading cause of death in China, with 7500 deaths per day as a result of the disease (lung cancer being the most prevalent form).

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Over 1.2 million tonnes of transparent plastic sheeting is used annually by China's farmers to reduce water loss from evaporation, but much of the plastic is later ploughed into the earth, polluting the soil and decreasing crop yields.

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China Dialogue ( is a resourceful dual-language website that seeks to promote debate on China’s immense environmental challenges.

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The World Health Organization estimates that air pollution causes more than 1.4 million fatalities per year in China, while around 300 million rural Chinese do not have access to safe drinking water.

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The dawn redwood (Metasequoia), a towering (growing up to 60m) and elegant fine-needled deciduous Chinese tree, dates to the Jurassic era. Once considered long extinct, a single example was discovered in 1941 in a Sìchuān village, followed three years later by the discovery of further trees.

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Chángqīng Nature Reserve in Shaanxi province is well worth a visit for its relatively unspoilt montane forest and the chance to see giant pandas in the wild. Find out more at

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China has earmarked a staggering US$140 billion for an ambitious program of wind farms; ranging from Xīnjiāng province to Jiāngsū province in the east, the huge wind farms are due for completion in 2020.

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One of the aims of the Three Gorges Dam is to help prevent flooding on the Yangzi River. The river has caused hundreds of catastrophic floods, including the disastrous inundation of 1931, in which an estimated 145,000 died.

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In 2010, six of China’s dānxiá (eroded reddish sandstone rock), karst-like geological formations, were included in Unesco’s World Heritage List. The list includes Chìshuǐ in Gùizhōu province. The rocks can also be seen outside Zhāngyè in Gānsù.

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In 2010 China overtook the USA as the world’s largest energy consumer, four years before China's GDP overtook the US economy (when calculated using purchasing power parity, 'PPP', rather than nominal GDP).

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China’s Bayan Obo Mining District in Inner Mongolia produces roughly half of the world’s rare earth metals, elements essential for the production of mobile phones, high-definition TVs, computers, wind turbines and other products.

Martial Arts of China

Unlike Western fighting arts – Savate, kickboxing etc Chinese martial arts are deeply impregnated with religious and philosophical values. And, some might add, a morsel or two of magic. Many eminent exponents of gōngfū (功夫) – better known in the West as kungfu – were devout monks or religious recluses who drew inspiration from Buddhism and Taoism and sought a mystical communion with the natural world. These were not leisurely pursuits but were closely entangled with the meaning and purpose of life.

Styles & Schools

China lays claim to a bewildering range of martial arts styles, from the flamboyant and showy, inspired by the movements of animals (some legendary) or insects (such as Praying Mantis Boxing) to schools more empirically built upon the science of human movement (eg Wing Chun). On the outer fringes lie the esoteric arts, abounding with metaphysical feats, arcane practices and closely guarded techniques.

Many fighting styles were once secretively handed down for generations within families and it is only relatively recently that outsiders have been accepted as students. Some schools, especially the more obscure styles, have been driven to extinction partly due to their exclusivity and clandestine traditions.

Some styles also found themselves divided into competing factions, each laying claim to the original teachings and techniques. Such styles may exist in a state of schism, while other styles have become part of the mainstream; the southern Chinese martial art of Wing Chun in particular has become globally recognised, largely due to its associations with Bruce Lee.

Unlike Korean and Japanese arts such as taekwondo or karate-do, there is frequently no international regulatory body that oversees the syllabus, tournaments or grading requirements for China’s individual martial arts. Consequently, students of China’s myriad martial arts may be rather unsure of what level they have attained. It is often down to the individual teacher to decide what to teach students, and how quickly.

Courses, Books & films

Often misinterpreted, gōngfū (kungfu) teaches an approach to life that stresses patience, endurance, magnanimity and humility. Courses can be found in abundance across China, from Běijīng, Hong Kong, Shànghǎi, Wǔdāng Shān in Húběi to the Shàolín Temple in Hénán.

John F Gilbey’s The Way of a Warrior is a tongue-in-cheek, expertly written and riveting account of the Oriental fighting arts and their mysteries. Meditations on Violence: A Comparison of Martial Arts Training & Real World Violence by Sgt Rory Miller is a graphic, illuminating and down-to-earth book on violence and its consequences.

For metaphysical pointers, soft-school adherents can dip into Laotzu’s terse but inspiring The Classic of the Way and Its Power. For spectacular (if implausible) Wing Chun moves and mayhem, watch Ip Man (2008), starring the indefatigable Donnie Yen.

Hard School

Although there is considerable blurring between the two camps, Chinese martial arts are often distinguished between hard and soft schools. Typically aligned with Buddhism, the hard or ‘external’ (外家; wàijiā) school tends to be more vigorous, athletic and concerned with the development of power. Many of these styles are related to Shàolín Boxing and the Shàolín Temple in Hénán province.

Shàolín Boxing is forever associated with Bodhidharma, an ascetic Indian Buddhist monk who visited the Shàolín Temple and added a series of breathing and physical exercises to the Shàolín monks' sedentary meditations. The Shàolín monks' legendary endeavours and fearsome physical skills became known throughout China and beyond. Famous external schools include Báiméi Quán (White Eyebrow Boxing) and Cháng Quán (Long Boxing).

Soft School

Usually inspired by Taoism, the soft or ‘internal’ Chinese school (内家; nèijiā) develops pliancy and softness as a weapon against hard force. Taichi (Tàijí Quán) is the best known soft school, famed for its slow and lithe movements and an emphasis on cultivating (energy). Attacks are met with yielding movements that smother the attacking force and lead the aggressor off balance. The road to taichi mastery is a long and difficult one, involving a re-education of physical movement and suppression of one’s instinct to tense up when threatened. Other soft schools include the circular moves of Bāguà Zhǎng and the linear boxing patterns of Xíngyì Quán, based on five basic punches – each linked to one of the five elements of Chinese philosophy – and the movements of 12 animals.


Most students of Chinese martial arts – hard or soft – learn forms (套路; tàolu), a series of movements linked together into a pattern, which embody the principal punches and kicks of the style. In essence, forms are unwritten compendiums of the style, to ensure passage from one generation to the next. The number and complexity of forms varies from style to style: taichi may only have one form, although it may be very lengthy (the long form of the Yang style takes around 20 minutes to perform). Five Ancestors Boxing has dozens of forms, while Wing Chun only has three empty-hand forms.


Closely linked to both the hard and especially the soft martial-arts schools is the practice of qìgōng, a technique for cultivating and circulating (energy) around the body. can be developed for use in fighting to protect the body, as a source of power or for curative and health-giving purposes.

can be developed in a number of ways – by standing still in fixed postures or with gentle exercises, meditation and measured breathing techniques. Taichi itself is a moving form of qìgōng cultivation while at the harder end of the spectrum a host of qìgōng exercises aim to make specific parts of the body impervious to attack.

Bagua Zhang

One of the more esoteric and obscure of the soft Taoist martial arts, Bāguà Zhǎng (八卦掌; Eight Trigram Boxing, also known as Pa-kua) is also one of the most intriguing. The Bāguà Zhǎng student wheels around in a circle, rapidly changing direction and speed, occasionally thrusting out a palm strike.

Bāguà Zhǎng draws its inspiration from the trigrams (an arrangement of three broken and unbroken lines) of the classic Book of Changes (Yìjīng or I Ching), the ancient oracle used for divination. The trigrams are typically arranged in circular form and it is this pattern that is traced out by the Bāguà Zhǎng exponent. Training commences by just walking the circle so the student gradually becomes infused with its patterns and rhythms.

A hallmark of the style is the exclusive use of the palm, not the fist, as the principal weapon. This may seem curious and perhaps even ineffectual, but in fact the palm can transmit a lot of power – consider a thrusting palm strike to the chin, for example. The palm is also better protected than the fist as it is cushioned by muscle. The fist also has to transfer its power through a multitude of bones that need to be correctly aligned to avoid damage while the palm sits at the end of the wrist. Imagine hitting a brick wall as hard as you can with your palm (and then picture doing it with your fist!).

The student must become proficient in the subterfuge, evasion, speed and unpredictability that are hallmarks of Bāguà Zhǎng. Force is generally not met with force, but deflected by the circular movements cultivated in students through their meditations upon the circle. Circular forms – arcing, twisting, twining and spinning – are the mainstay of all movements, radiating from the waist.

Despite being dated by historians to the 19th century, Bāguà Zhǎng is quite probably a very ancient art. Beneath the Taoist overlay, the movements and patterns of the art suggest a possibly animistic or shamanistic origin, which gives the art its timeless rhythms.

Wing Chun

Conceived by a Buddhist nun from the Shàolín Temple called Ng Mui, who taught her skills to a young girl called Wing Chun (詠春), this is a fast and dynamic system of fighting that promises quick results for novices. Wing Chun (Yǒng Chūn) was the style that taught Bruce Lee how to move and, although he ultimately moved away from it to develop his own style, Wing Chun had an enormous influence on the Hong Kong fighter and actor.

Wing Chun emphasises speed over strength and evasion, rapid strikes and low kicks are its hallmark techniques. Forms are simple and direct, dispensing with the pretty flourishes that clutter other styles.

The art can perhaps best be described as scientific. There are none of the animal forms that make other styles so exciting and mysterious. Instead, Wing Chun is built around its centre line theory, which draws an imaginary line down the human body and centres all attacks and blocks along that line. The line runs through the sensitive regions: eyes, nose, mouth, throat, heart, solar plexus and groin and any blow on these points is debilitating and dangerous.

The three empty hand forms – which look bizarre to non-initiates – train arm and leg movements that both attack and defend this line. None of the blocks stray beyond the width of the shoulders, as this is the limit of possible attacks, and punches follow the same theory. Punches are delivered with great speed in a straight line, along the shortest distance between puncher and punched. All of this gives Wing Chun its distinctive simplicity.

A two-person training routine called chi sau (sticky hands) teaches the student how to be soft and relaxed in response to attacks, as pliancy generates more speed. Weapons in the Wing Chun arsenal include the lethal twin Wing Chun butterfly knives and an extremely long pole, which requires considerable strength to handle with skill.

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Several Chinese styles of gōngfū (kungfu) include drunken sets, where the student mimics the supple movements of an inebriate.

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Iron Shirt (tiěshān) is an external gōngfū (kungfu) qìgōng training exercise that circulates and concentrates the (energy) in certain areas to protect the body from impacts during a fight.

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Praying Mantis master Fan Yook Tung once killed two stampeding bulls with an iron-palm technique.

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Zhang Sanfeng, the founder of taichi, was supposedly able to walk more than 1000 li (around 560km) a day; others say he lived for more than 200 years!

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The linear movements and five punches of the internal Chinese martial art Body-Mind Boxing (Xíngyì Quán) possibly evolved from spear-fighting techniques.

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Fújiàn White Crane is a southern Chinese fighting style invented by a woman called Fang Qiniang who based the art's forms and strategy of attack and defence on careful observatoin of the bird's movements.