Chinese culture is one of the world’s oldest cultures, dating thousands of years old. The area in which the culture is dominant covers a large geographical region in eastern Asia with customs and traditions varying greatly between provinces, cities, and even towns as well. Important components of Chinese culture includes ceramics, architecture, music, literature, martial arts, cuisine, visual arts, philosophy and religion.
There are 56 officially recognized ethnic groups in China. In terms of numbers however, Han Chinese is by far the largest group. Throughout history, many groups have merged into neighboring ethnicities or disappeared. At the same time, many within the Han identity have maintained distinct linguistic and regional cultural traditions. The term Zhonghua Minzu has been used to describe the notion of Chinese nationalism in general. Much of the traditional identity within the community has to do with distinguishing the family name.
Traditional Chinese Culture covers large geographical territories, where each region is usually divided into distinct sub-cultures. Each region is often represented by three ancestral items. For example, Guangdong is represented by chenpi, aged ginger and hay. Others include ancient cities like Lin’an (Hangzhou), which include tea leaf, bamboo shoot trunk, and hickory nut. Such distinctions give rise to the old Chinese proverb: “十里不同風,百里不同俗/十里不同风,百里不同俗” (Shí lǐ bù tóng fēng, bǎi lǐ bù tóng sú), literally “the praxis vary within ten li, customs vary within a hundred li.””
Since the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors period, some form of Chinese monarch has been the main ruler above all. Different periods of history have different names for the various positions within society. Conceptually each imperial or feudal period is similar, with the government and military officials ranking high in the hierarchy, and the rest of the population under regular Chinese law. From the late Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BCE) onwards, traditional Chinese society was organized into a hierarchic system of socio-economic classes known as the four occupations.
Most social values are derived from Confucianism and Taoism. The subject of which school was the most influential is always debated as many concepts such as Neo-Confucianism, Buddhism and many others have come about. Reincarnation and other rebirth concept is a reminder of the connection between real-life and the after-life. In Chinese business culture, the concept of guanxi, indicating the primacy of relations over rules, has been well documented.
Confucianism was the official philosophy throughout most of Imperial China’s history, and mastery of Confucian texts was the primary criterion for entry into the imperial bureaucracy. A number of more authoritarian strains of thought have also been influential, such as Legalism.
The ancient written standard was Classical Chinese. It was used for thousands of years, but was mostly used by scholars and intellectuals which forms the “top” class of the society called “shi da fu (士大夫）”. It is difficult but possible for ordinary people to become the “top” class by passing written exams. Calligraphy later became commercialized, and works by famous artists became prized possessions. Chinese literature has a long past; the earliest classic work in Chinese, the I Ching or “Book of Changes” dates to around 1000 BC. A flourishing of philosophy during the Warring States period produced such noteworthy works as Confucius’s Analects and Laozi’s Tao Te Ching. Dynastic histories were often written, beginning with Sima Qian’s seminal Records of the Grand Historian, which was written from 109 BC to 91 BC.
Religion and spirituality
Chinese religion was originally oriented to worshipping the supreme god Shang Di during the Xia and Shang dynasties, with the king and diviners acting as priests and using oracle bones. The Zhou dynasty oriented it to worshipping the broader concept of heaven. A large part of Chinese culture is based on the notion that a spiritual world exists. Countless methods of divination have helped answer questions, even serving as an alternate to medicine. Folklores have helped fill the gap for things that cannot be explained. There is often a blurred line between myth, religion and unexplained phenomenon.
The Zhou dynasty is often regarded as the touchstone of Chinese cultural development. Concepts covered within the Chinese classic texts present a wide range of subjects including poetry, astrology, astronomy, calendar, constellations and many others. Some of the most important early texts include the I Ching and the Shujing within the Four Books and Five Classics. Many Chinese concepts such as Yin and Yang, Qi, Four Pillars of Destiny in relation to heaven and earth were theorized in the pre-imperial periods.
Music and Dancing Style
Music and dance were closely associated in the very early periods of China. The music of China dates back to the dawn of Chinese civilization with documents and artifacts providing evidence of a well-developed musical culture as early as the Zhou Dynasty (1122 BCE – 256 BCE). The earliest music of the Zhou Dynasty recorded in ancient Chinese texts includes the ritual music called yayue and each piece may be associated with a dance. Some of the oldest written music dates back to Confucius’s time. The first major well-documented flowering of Chinese music was for the qin during the Tang Dynasty, although the instrument is known to have played a major part before the Han Dynasty.
Different forms of art have swayed under the influence of great philosophers, teachers, religious figures and even political figures. Chinese art encompasses all facets of fine art, folk art and performance art. Porcelain pottery was one of the first forms of art in the Palaeolithic period. Early Chinese music and poetry was influenced by the Book of Songs, and the Chinese poet and statesman Qu Yuan.
China is one of the main birth places of Eastern martial arts. Chinese martial arts are collectively given the name Kung Fu (gong) “achievement” or “merit”, and (fu) “man”, thus “human achievement”) or (previously and in some modern contexts) Wushu (“martial arts” or “military arts”). China also includes the home to the well-respected Shaolin Monastery and Wudang Mountains. The first generation of art started more for the purpose of survival and warfare than art. Over time, some art forms have branched off, while others have retained a distinct Chinese flavor. Regardless, China has produced some of the most renowned martial artists including Wong Fei Hung and many others. The arts have also co-existed with a variety of weapons including the more standard 18 arms. Legendary and controversial moves like Dim Mak are also praised and talked about within the culture.
Different social classes in different eras boast different fashion trends, the color yellow or red was usually reserved for the emperor during China’s Imperial era. China’s fashion history covers hundreds of years with some of the most colorful and diverse arrangements. During the Qing Dynasty, China’s last imperial dynasty, a dramatic shift of clothing occurred, examples of which include the cheongsam (or qipao in Mandarin). The clothing of the era before the Qing Dynasty is referred to as Hanfu or traditional Han Chinese clothing. Many symbols such as phoenix have been used for decorative as well as economic purposes.
Chinese architecture, examples for which can be found from more than 2,000 years ago, is almost as old as Chinese civilization and has long been an important hallmark of Chinese culture. There are certain features common to Chinese architecture, regardless of specific regions, different provinces or use. The most important is its emphasis on width, such as the wide halls of the Forbidden City serve as an example. In contrast, Western architecture tends to emphasize height (though exceptions such as pagodas in Eastern architecture also focus on height).
The overwhelmingly large variety of Chinese cuisine comes mainly from the practice of dynastic period, when emperors would host banquets with over 100 dishes per meal. A countless number of imperial kitchen staff and concubines were involved in the food preparation process. Over time, many dishes became part of the everyday-citizen culture. Some of the highest quality restaurants with recipes close to the dynastic periods include Fangshan restaurant in Beihai Park Beijing and the Oriole Pavilion. Arguably all branches of Hong Kong eastern style are in some ways rooted from the original dynastic cuisines.
A number of games and pastimes are popular within Chinese culture. The most common game is Mah Jong. The same pieces are used for other styled games such as Shanghai Solitaire. Others include pai gow, pai gow poker and other bone domino games. Weiqi and xiangqi are also popular. Ethnic games like Chinese yo-yo are also part of the culture.
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