For centuries, travellers have been captivated by the mysteries of the East – a fascination that continues to this day. Modern China is of particular interest, not only because of the 5000 years of dynastic and Confucian history, but also because of the current economic growth and opportunities that are now available. During much of the 20th century, China isolated itself from the rest of the world until the post-1978 reforms led by Deng Xiaoping, which resulted in the current economic boom; yet, despite these major socio-economical shifts, the world’s most populous nation still retains strong traditional values and customs that date to a bygone era.
China is a nation of magnificent landscapes, fascinating cultures, growing social inequalities, vibrant cities, environmental degradation, media censorship, modern skyscrapers, ancient sites, widespread poverty, renowned cuisine, emerging business opportunities, questionable human-rights, and extreme climates. Although fascinating, these complex and at times conflicting dynamics can be difficult for the outsider to comprehend.
This A-Z guide discusses some of the contemporary facets of this ancient land, which may assist future travellers in understanding China’s overwhelming variety:
A – Acupuncture
Patient receiving acupuncture.
The ancient practice of acupuncture has fascinated and bewildered Western doctors for centuries: Science cannot seem to explain why inserting pins into specific pressure points can help heal and soothe the human body. When visiting China, one of the great attractions is experiencing some of the traditional medicinal procedures that doctors still regularly employ to their patients, which along with acupuncture, includes massaging, cupping (in which heated glass cups are applied to the skin along the back to remove toxins), and scraping (where a deer antler is used to remove the upper-epidermal layers). For some outsiders, these established medical methods are archaic, yet for others, they are an experience in themselves.
B – Bai jiu
Bottle of bai jiu in a typical restaurant.
No meal in an Eastern Chinese restaurant is complete without a glass of the infamous bai jiu, a traditional alcoholic drink made from distilled rice or other grains. Served in small glasses, bai jiu is a taste sensation that will always be remembered, and when consumed, will attract the attention of other Chinese diners, who will often join in with a ceremonial ganbei! (cheers!). The taste is like a cross between paint-thinner and varnish remover, and the quality can vary from the ornate ceramic jars of medicinal bai jiu, which are sometimes valued in the hundreds of dollars, to the cheap green bottles in most restaurants, bought for a few cents. Yet be warned: When in China, it is extremely disrespectful to refuse a toast.
C – Chinglish
The Chinese realize their language is difficult to learn, and so efforts are being made to have English or Latinised versions of Mandarin, known as pinyin, on signs, menus, brochures, and so on; however, some of these translations can vary from the charming, to the curious, the strange, or even the hilarious. Often dubbed as Chinglish, such common translations include: The oxygen nuclei embrace blades that stand tall not to be slashed (Do not stand on the grass) and The cow boils the earth (Beef and potatoes). Some signs, however, can do more than raise an eyebrow: On menus, the letter B in crab can be misplaced with a P to give Fragrant and succulent crap, and then there is the infamous hospital sign to the gynaecology ward: C**t Examination Centre.
D – Delicacies
Starfish, silkworm cocoons and scorpions are among some of the delicacies at Beijing’s Wangfujing Night Market.
The Chinese saying goes, We’ll eat anything with four legs except a table, and anything with wings except a plane, and after examining restaurant menus or local street food stalls, this proverb rings true. This efficient and resourceful method of eating is delighted by local Chinese, and, at times, bemused by visitors. Armed with a pair of chopsticks, restaurant delicacies can include sea cucumbers, silk worm chrysalises, brains, stomach lining, fish head soup, turtles, snakes, and duck blood tofu. In Beijing, many tourists also visit the popular Wangfujing Night Market to sample deep-fried centipedes, scorpions, and starfish. For locals, however, a real treat to eat on long bus and train journeys is a vacuum-sealed packet of whole chicken feet, the claws and bones from which are often spat onto the aisle floor.
E – Environment
Winter mists envelop the jagged quartz and sandstone pinnacles at Zhangjiajie, Hunan province.
China often makes the headlines for its dilapidated environment. Many Chinese rivers are contaminated, the Yellow Sea is one of the most polluted bodies of water on earth, and the air quality in most major cities is poor. Nevertheless, Chinese engineers are pioneering new green technologies and efforts for recycling are being pushed at the community level. Furthermore, within China, there are some environments that are still in pristine condition, and that are among some of the most spectacular on earth, ranging from the Tibetan Palau and Taklimakan Desert in the west, to the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, the beautiful colored lakes and waterways of Jiuzhaiguo in Sichuan province, the geological formations of Zhangjiajie in Hunan, and the Li River in Guilin, Guangxi province.
F – Family
Chinese family with their only daughter.
The family is one of the most important institutions in China, and yet traditional family values are under threat from modernity, especially in major cities. Implemented in 1978, the one child policy was introduced to help curb the population boom of the Mao era, and in a few decades, it is predicted that the national population will start to level. However, for the Chinese, and especially those in rural communities, each only child is experiencing mounting social pressures to succeed at school and university in order to gain a good job, which can support their family and aging parents and grandparents. This is leading to rising competition at schools and for university places, as well as rising concerns and depression among the younger generation, which could have major social implications for the country’s future.
G – Guanxi
Lavish tableware at a Chinese banquet.
In many communities, knowing the right people in the right places can be highly beneficial for career development; yet in China, who you know often is essential for climbing the social ladder. Although perceived as corrupt, this system of networking, known as guanxi, can infiltrate all aspects of life in Chinese society, and can involve extravagant banquets and gift giving. For the visitor, understanding these approaches can prove useful when meeting local people – especially if looking for employment or business opportunities; however, the most important factor to remember is that trust and respect is held high by the Chinese, and adhering to these qualities can often help visitors integrate into the local culture, and make a trip all the more memorable.
H – Haggling
Meat section at a typical Chinese market.
Markets are a great way to be immersed in the local community, and both urban and rural Chinese markets will never fail to stimulate the senses. From exotic vegetables, aromatic spices and piles of pig intestines spilling over blood-stained wooden chopping blocks, to traders screaming for attention and grabbing passing foreigners, hoping to sell their “Made in China” replica goods. Love it or hate it, in most markets you are almost guaranteed to encounter the art of bargaining, which can – at times – go on for hours. The trick is to aim for 10% of the asking price (an 800 yuan shirt would actually be worth around the 80 yuan figure), and stay firm, smile and persevere – and remember, it is not an offence to say no.
I – Ice
Giant ice sculptures at the Harbin Ice Festival, illuminated at night.
Hot and sweaty during the summer months, by mid-October the Siberian winds howl across Mongolia, causing northern China to descend into frigidity. Located in the Northeast of the country, the Russian-influenced city of Harbin is one of the coldest Chinese cities, which
particularly famed for its winter temperatures that can plunge to below -30oC. Nevertheless, local and international tourists’ wrap-up and venture to this ice city during January for the annual Harbin Ice-Festival – the world’s largest. In Harbin, there are ice sculptures on display along major streets, and the Heilongjiang River is converted into an ice-skating rink, while the festival itself consists of giant ice buildings adorned with slides, ladders and mazes, all fitted with coloured neon lights, illuminating the huge sculptures during the long-cold nights.
J – Jade
Pots of jasmine tea.
From jade and jasmine tea to calligraphy pens, chopsticks and alleged antiques, the range of Chinese souvenirs on offer can marvel even the most ardent tourist. Depending on the buyer, souvenir shopping can be fun or frustrating, considering the necessary haggling and intense vendors. However, China is also the land of fake goods, which can deceive an uneducated eye; and there are many attractive young women who guilt-trip visitors into seeing and then buying paintings, while around Tiananmen Square, women invite men to sample refined teas in high-end tea houses, who are then issued with hefty bills and forced to pay. Before falling for such ploys, use common sense and initiative, and be polite – if you are interested, venture forth, yet it is never rude to say no, regardless of the apparent frowns.
K – Kuai
Chinese yuan, known locally as kuai.
Despite the current global economic climate, China is growing and becoming a major economic power. A trip to the main Eastern cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou will show off some of this wealth in the modern architecture, restaurants, transport links and amenities. However, venture further inland and especially to the rural regions, and the hardships faced my many Chinese are more obvious. According to the UN, roughly a third of the population lives on $2 a day or less, and some 200 to 300 million migrant workers are currently searching for poorly paid labouring work in urban areas. The Chinese currency is the Yuan, although most Chinese nationals use the colloquial term, kuai. As well as watching out for counterfeit notes, other financial advice includes tipping, which is not customary and can be insulting, suggesting that a relationship is based solely on money.
L – Laughter
The fun never stops with this challenging card game.
We all love a good joke and the Chinese are no exceptions, who usually join in with group laughter, even if they do not understand what is actually being said. Indeed, many Chinese people laugh at almost everything, often as a way to avoid embarrassment, awkward situations and losing face, which can sometimes come across as rude or unsympathetic to outsiders. This is especially the case when visitors try practicing words or phrases in Chinese, which when pronounced incorrectly can be greeted with loud and hearty laughs. However, these incidents are not to make fun of the inaccuracy or the speaker; rather they are a way of appreciating and admiring the efforts and encouraging further attempts.
M – Mahjong
The Chinese enjoy playing games and on any mid-summer afternoon most city side streets are hives of activity, with men playing card games and Chinese versions of chess, while women sit at tables, sip tea and play the tile-based game of mahjong. As the evening approaches, more urban residents gather on street corners and in local parks and squares to practice table tennis, ballroom dancing or taekwondo, often in quite large numbers. Even at major tourist sites, such as the Temple of Heaven or Summer Palace in Beijing, local Chinese citizens can be found singing traditional songs, playing musical instruments, dancing, flying kites, and playing various games in the surrounding parklands and gardens.
N – New Year
Exploding firecrackers during Spring Festival.
For many, New Year’s Eve involves drinking and dancing the night away, reflecting on the previous year, and welcoming in the next twelve months. Yet for the Chinese, celebrating their New Year involves making their neighbourhood sound like a war zone. Usually occurring in late January or February, Chinese New Year or Spring Festival is a nationwide firework extravaganza, where wooden street stalls sell almost every type of firework imaginable for enthusiastic fathers to ignite. The noise is overwhelming, the excitement is difficult to contain, and simply walking down the street can suddenly become an event in itself, especially when local children unravel a line of firecrackers right around your feet – a highlight, albeit potentially dangerous, for many visitors.
O – Opera
A local erhu ensemble.
Think traditional Chinese music and Beijing Opera will probably come to mind; despite this, many visitors often struggle to appreciate this historical art-form. Nevertheless, there are many other musical forms from across the country, which range from the lute-like pipas and throat singing on the Inner Mongolian grasslands and the double-stringed erhu in the north of the nation, to the Naxi orchestras of Yunnan in the south. Contemporary music can also be heard in Beijing and Shanghai, where there are small underground music scenes developing in select clubs, and daily music festivals are quite common during the summer months. However, for most visitors, the sounds of modern Chinese and Korean pop and RnB songs are the most commonly heard musical genera, which often drown out middle-tier restaurants and are usually favoured tunes at the hugely popular Karaoke clubs.
P – People
Local Chinese enjoying an urban park.
With a fifth of the world’s population, the registered 1.4 billion people that comprise the People’s Republic of China vary greatly across what is often viewed as a homogenised society. Even so, there are certain characteristics that are common to many Chinese, including pushing, shouting, smoking, spitting almost everywhere, shouting laowai (old-outsider) to foreigners, and encroaching on personal space. The Chinese are proud of their nation, its history and culture, and are keen to hear outsider views on their country; yet this pride can sometimes lead to xenophobia and racism. Furthermore, the throngs of newly affluent Chinese visiting tourist sites can be overwhelming. Yet the people are also one of the main reasons for visiting China, especially if invited into a local restaurant or private home – a highlight on any trip.
Q – Qi
Tortoise shells, snakes, fungi and other traditional ingredients used in Chinese medicine.
To visit a pharmacy abroad is often a necessary procedure. Yet in China, pharmacies are often a surprise. As well as tablets and lotions, traditional Chinese pharmacies also contain dried herbs and exotic plants, including the treasured ginseng roots from the Korean border, which can be worth tens of thousands of dollars. Another curious ingredient is the cordyceps fungus, which consumes the caterpillars of certain moth species that inhabit the grasslands of Tibet and Qinghai; apparently these structures can cure many ailments, from jaundice to impotence. For conservationists, these pharmacies can come as a shock, for many endangered animals, including sea horses and rare mammalian parts, are also used. Chinese medicines have been developed over the centuries and are used to help balance qi, the body’s internal flow of energy. However, with rapidly changing diets and salt, fat and sugar intakes increasing with growing national affluence, the health of the Chinese population is declining, with diabetes now an epidemic.
R – Restaurants
Spicy Sichuan hotpot.
One of the great lures of visiting a foreign nation is sampling the local food, and with a globally renowned cuisine, Chinese food offers a range of taste sensations that can please almost anyone. Gastronomically, China can be divided into five regions: Beijing and the north, which is prominently salty; Shanghai and the east, which is typically sour; Hong Kong and the Cantonese south, which is largely sweet; the Sichuan southwest, which is very spicy; and the Islamic fare of far western Xinjiang province, which is heavily influenced by Kazakhstan and other Central Asian states. In major cities it is possible to sample all these food types at specialist restaurants, which are shared with fellow diners. Additionally, there are some main dishes that should be ordered, including Peking duck and spicy hotpot. It is in the local restaurant that the most memorable Chinese experiences will most likely occur.
S – Superstitions
Filling restaurant aquariums with as many red or gold fish as possible is thought to invite prosperity.
With centuries of continuous history, it is unsurprising that numerous superstitions exist in Chinese culture, many of which are taken seriously. The numbers 6, 8 and 9 are thought to bring great luck, and telephone numbers containing these digits are highly prized. The number 8 is especially revered because it sounds like the Chinese word for “wealth”, hence why the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games commenced at 08:08:08 in the evening, on the 8th August 2008. Pronounced like the Mandarin word for “death”, the number 4, conversely, is considered extremely unlucky; indeed, lifts in buildings often go from the 3rd to the 5th floor – the 4th floor does not exist. Other popular thoughts include having restaurant aquariums filled with gold fish to bring good fortune, and placing your chopsticks on the table, not vertical in a bowl of rice. And to give a Chinese person a clock as a gift is a great insult.
T – Trains
Meeting locals on the hard sleepers.
All major Chinese cities are interlinked by an extensive rail network, and Chinese train journeys can range from a few hours to a few days. Accordingly, trains are equipped with restaurants, and you can chose between the relatively lavish soft sleepers with four beds in a cabin, to the mainstream hard sleepers, with six beds per room, or the cheapest hard seats, which during the busy holiday periods are often the only option. Sleeper tickets are favoured by many travellers; however, even when on a hard seat during a long journey, such economical train rides can be a great way to brush up on Chinese, eat packs of chicken feet, and interact with locals, who will be fascinated by your every move. Indeed, for many visitors, the train journeys can often be one of the highlights of a trip to China.
U – UNESCO
Lotus lilies flourish in the ponds of the scenic gardens around Suzhou, in Jiangsu province.
As well as 43 UNESCO World Heritage sites, China has plenty of other natural and historical wonders to occupy the visitor. Many major cities are site-seeing centres: Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and Great Wall are located in and around Beijing; the Terracotta Warriors are in Xi’an; and there are the famous skylines of Shanghai and Hong Kong. There are, however, other places of great interest for the more adventurous traveller, including the ancient walled city of Pingyao, the German architecture and breweries of Qingdao, the pagodas around West Lake in Hangzhou, the Japanese occupation museums of Nanjing, and the circular mud houses of Fujian, which have survived earthquakes and typhoons for 200 years. There are also many natural wonders, including the rounded limestone karsts of Guilin, the sacred Yellow Mountain in Anhui, the alpine landscapes around Songpan in Sichuan province, the dramatic scenery along the Yangtze River, and the tropical beaches of Hainan.
V – Visas
Chinese tourist visa.
Some key concerns many people have before visiting China involve visas and travel restrictions. To enter the country, almost all non-Chinese nationals need to obtain a valid visa – usually a tourist visa unless you plan to work – from a Chinese embassy. Depending on nationality, visas are usually quite straightforward to obtain, take only a few days to process, cost around 30 or so dollars for one month, and allow for entrance into the country by land, sea or air. Once in China, with the exception of some blocked websites, it is rare to encounter any restrictions unless travelling to Tibet (and occasionally Xinjiang), where travel permits need to be arranged, or when entering Tiananmen Square, where bags might be checked and efforts should be made to be culturally sensitive. Everywhere else, though, is more or less free and safe for adventure.
W – Wildlife
On the brink of extinction, the giant Chinese paddlefish inhabits the Yangtze River.
The most famous animal in China is undoubtedly the panda. Endangered, the remnants of the surviving panda populations inhabit the bamboo forests of Sichuan in the Southwest of the country. Although you can see pandas at Beijing Zoo and Wolong Nature Reserve, there are many other large and fascinating animals indigenous to China, including Asian elephants in Yunnan, tigers and Amur leopards along the Russian border to the north, and the Chinese alligator in the east. Aquatic organisms also reach large sizes, including the Yangtze giant paddlefish, one of the world’s largest freshwater fish, reaching lengths of over six metres, and the Chinese giant salamander, which can grow to almost two metres long and is the world’s largest amphibian. Unfortunately, though, all of these animals are critically endangered, thus the likelihood of seeing an individual is just as rare.
X – Xinjiang
Trading at the Kashgar Sunday Market.
Located in the northwest of the country, Xinjiang is land of diverse environments and home to the Uighur people, a Muslim minority that share a heritage with the peoples of Central Asia. This region is one of extreme seasonal temperatures, outstanding natural beauty, and fascinating human cultures, including the nomadic Kazakhs in the north of the region, and the famed Uighur livestock markets of Kashgar, close to the border with Kyrgyzstan, where nan breads and lamb kebabs are the staple foods. Compared to the rest of China, autonomous Xinjiang is remote and sparsely populated, and there are sometimes protests from Uighurs, who resent the control of Beijing, which can result in travel restrictions. Nevertheless, for the visitors who make it to China’s Wild West, the hospitality of the local people will make the trip more than worthwhile, and create an atmosphere that may make travellers forget they are even in China.
Y – Yunnan
Rice terraces around Yuanyang in Southeast Yunnan.
Of all of China’s 33 provinces, Yunnan is often considered to be the most fascinating. Situated in the subtropical south, Yunnan borders Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar, Southeast Asian nations that characterise local cultures. The undulating foothills of the eastern Himalayas have buckled the regional geography, leading to deep valleys, such as Tiger Leaping Gorge, which support traditional villages. There are 56 ethnic groups in China, the largest of which is the Han that comprise over 90% of the national population. Yet in Yunnan, communities representing almost half of the remaining ethnic minorities can be found, including the Dai, Hui and Miao, who live in towns and villages ranging from Lijiang, with an intricate system of miniature canals, Dali, with annual fire festivals, and Yuanyang, which has magnificent terraced rice paddies etched into the landscape.
Z – Zhongwen
Probably the biggest obstacle for an outsider in China is the language, Mandarin Chinese, known locally as Zhongwen. Considered to be one of the most difficult languages to learn, this tonal-tongue uses a system of many thousands of characters that can take decades to learn. In major cities, there are tourist sites, hotels, hostels and foreign restaurants with English speakers, and menus and signs are often in Chinese and English, or accompanied with pictures. While in smaller cities and rural areas, a language guide is a useful possession; although one of the joys of travel is improvising and learning the hard way – which is also, incidentally, one of the best ways for picking up words and phrases. Thankfully, the Chinese are aware that their language is difficult, and appreciate even the most basic phrases, such as ni hao (hello), xie xie (thank you) and zaijian (good bye).