Whether you have visited China or not yet, you probably still have a vague idea that it is an awesome country, even if you are not actually sure just how amazing everything really is. Here are a few facts to help.
Do you know – or can you guess – which country has the largest land area in the world? (Do you think it is the United States of America?)
In fact, Russia is by far the largest country in the world. The answer to the question of which country is second, third, or fourth, depends on exactly how people choose to measure. It could be China, Canada, or the USA as each of these covers nearly 10 million square kilometers (more than 3 ½ million square miles), while Russia occupies around 17 million square kilometers (nearly 6 ½ million square miles). However, to impress you, China is over twice as big as the entire 28 countries in the European Union.
China has borders with 14 other countries, namely India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Russia, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Bhutan and Nepal, making a total of 22,117 km (14,900 miles) of land boundaries with other nations.
Russia also shares borders with 14 other countries, but, unlike China, it has no tropical regions, and much of its natural wealth lies under frozen forests and tundra. Within China we can see a huge range of climate types from sub-arctic in the north, to the world’s fourth largest desert in the center, and tropical regions in the south.
Despite its massive size, the whole country of China has only one time zone. This is why in some parts of the country the sun rises as late as 10am, and sets at midnight in the summer. At one stage, there were 5 different time zones, but in 1949 the Communist Party leaders decided to set one time for the whole country, namely Beijing time. Of course, not everyone is happy about this, and some ethnic groups continue to operate illegally on their own time.
Mountains, Rivers, Lakes and Coastline
China’s coastline extends 14,500 km (9,009 miles) from the border with North Korea in the north, to Vietnam in the south. China meets the sea on the East China Sea, Korea Bay, Yellow Sea, and South China Sea.
Inland, China has 270,550 square kilometers (104,460 sq. miles) of lakes and rivers. The Yangtze River in China is the third longest river in the world and extends for 6,418 km (3,988 miles) in length. As well as this, the Yellow River is the sixth longest river in the world, stretching 5,464 km (3,395 miles).
The highest mountain in the world, which is 29,028 feet (8,848m) tall, is named after the first surveyor of India, Sir George Everest. Mount Everest lies on the border between China and Nepal, and the Chinese people call the mountain ‘Qomolangma’, which means “Mother Goddess of the Earth.”
If you look at China as a whole, it consists in general of a lowland portion on the east side, which takes up about a fifth of the total area, and a much larger section with a great many mountains and plateaus to the west.
To the west of the fertile lowlands the topography rises to plateaus of 1,200 – 1,500 m (about 4,000 – 5,000‘) with the Shanxi and Shaanxi loess plateaus in central China, and the Mongolian Plateau in the north. To the west of that are the high plateaus of Tibet, averaging 4,600 m (15,000‘), and the great mountain ranges, with the highest being the Kunluns and the Himalayas. To the north of Tibet are two plateau basins, the Tarim and the Junggar, separated by the Tian Mountains which rise to above 7,000 m (23,000‘). These areas are much more sparsely populated than the lowland plains.
There are four main lowland plains, each watered by mighty rivers.
Firstly, the Dongbei Plain (or Northeast China plain), which is sometimes also called the Manchurian Plain, is drained by the Sungari River (or Songhua Jiang) which is the largest tributary of the Amur River. The total length of the Sungari River is 1,925km (1,195 miles), some 1,300km (800 miles) of which cross the Dongbei Plain. Below Jilin the Sungari flows more placidly, and is frozen from November to March, and flooding caused by thawing mountain snows and summer rain can be devastating. As an important waterway, it is navigable upstream as far as Harbin by steamships of up to 1,000 tons, and farther by smaller steamships. The Liao River drains the southern part of the Dongbei Plain, flowing to the Yellow Sea, but is not so important as a waterway because its mouth, near the port of Yingkou, is constantly silting up.
Secondly, the North China Plain (‘Huabei Pingyuan’) is the largest alluvial plain in China, and is traversed by the lower course of the Huang He, or Yellow River. The plain covers an area of about 409,500 sq. km (158,000 sq. miles), most of which is less than 50 m (160’) above sea level. The area is the center of the Chinese Han culture, and is one of the most densely populated areas in the world. The Huang He is 5,464 km (3,395 miles) long, and is China’s second longest river, but it is only the lower section that flows through the North China Plain. When you see the river you can immediately understand where it gets its name as you watch the yellow-brown silt-laden water thunder past. The Huang He and other rivers have deposited enormous quantities of silt, sand and gravel, creating the rich agricultural North China Plain.
The third plain is the valley and delta of the Yangtze River, or Chang Jiang (‘long river’). The Yangtze – as it is called only by people in the West – is the longest river in both China and all of Asia, and the third longest river in the world. After its source on the Plateau of Tibet, and three quarters of its course through mountains, it then traverses, or serves as border for, ten provinces or regions before pouring into the East China Sea. Along the way it has eight major tributaries. It is the most important river in China, and the principal waterway. The basin is China’s great granary, and contains nearly one third of the national population.
The fourth plain is the delta of the Pearl River surrounding Guangzhou. Also known as the Zhujiang Delta (‘River Zhu Delta’), the low-lying area where the Pearl River flows into the South China Sea is one of the most densely urbanized regions in the world, and is referred to as the Pearl River Delta Metropolitan Region (PRD). The region has become the largest urban area in the world both by virtue of its area and the population. The river delta is formed by three major rivers – the Xi Jiang (West River), Bei Jiang (North River), and Dong Jiang (East River) – and is divided by the Pearl River.
And then, of course, there are more than 24,800 lakes in China, some freshwater and some salt, but not all of them very big. However, more than 2,800 are natural lakes each with an area of at least 1 sq. km. The western part of the Qinghai Tibet Plateau has a collection of mostly salt water lakes, and there is a large group of freshwater lakes near the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River. Some well-known freshwater lakes are Gaoyou Lake, Poyang Lake, Dongting Lake, Tai Hu, Hongze Lake and Chao Hu.
These immense rivers are not the only waterways winding through this great country. China’s remarkable Grand Canal is the world’s oldest and longest canal, extending for 1,795 km (1,114 miles) with 24 locks and about 60 bridges.
As well as this impressive man-made canal system, China boasts the spectacular Three Gorges Hydroelectric Dam which spans the Yangtse River and is the largest dam in the world. Its main purpose is producing electricity, but the dam was also purpose built to solve flooding problems in the Yangtse valley. Towns, villages, and bridges were dismantled and rebuilt higher up on the tops of the mountains in preparation for completion of the dam and inundation of the valley. The reservoir created is the size of the Kingdom of Bahrain, and holds back some 39.3 cubic km (9.4 cubic miles) of water.
Population, Families and Homes
There are a lot of people in China! The present population is nearly 1.5 billion – 1,414,113,000 on 1st May 2018, according to the United Nations estimates. That means that 18.54% of the world’s population are Chinese. Of course, that makes for a population density of more than 150 people for every sq. km (390 people per sq. mile), and considering that there are large areas in the west that are uninhabitable, or only very sparsely populated, some places would have to be very crowded. More than half of the population (53%) live in the cities.
By way of comparison, India’s (also massive) population is nearly 1.3 billion, and in third place is the US with a mere 325.3 million.
The median age of individuals in the Chinese population is 37.3. However, in China there are way more men than women, with the shortfall being estimated at about 32 million less females than men. The reason for this is largely because during the many years that the government tried to limit population growth with the ‘One Child Policy’, only allowing one child for most families, there were many couples who (for obvious reasons) wanted or needed a boy child rather than a girl, and so many methods were used to make sure that happened. With marriages still largely arranged by the parents, the inequality is now creating a huge headache as they try to track down a suitable match for their sons.
With so many people occupying a relatively small amount of suitable space, things can get quite crowded. Not surprisingly, China has the most number of houses in the world. There are more than 456 million households in China.
In recent years, housing development has ballooned in China as its economy has developed. Since 1978, the government has promoted the commercialization of housing in urban areas. Property development has become big business in China, with new cities and suburbs springing up with new apartments, and house prices have rocketed in recent times. Annual sales of newly built homes in 2015 reached over RMB 7.3 trillion (over USD 1 trillion), according to China’s National Bureau of Statistics data. Sales volumes have been around the one trillion mark for the past three years.
But only a small proportion of Chinese people live in brand new homes and apartments. In the north, where wood is scarce, dwellings and walls have traditionally been made of stone, tamped mud or sun-dried bricks reinforced with straw. In the south homes have traditionally been made with wood, brick or woven bamboo.
The most common sort of residence is the very ordinary-looking housing blocks, which you can find in any city in the world. They are often architecturally fairly ugly, but they are an efficient solution for housing needs, to house a lot of people in a small area. With its massive population, China needs a lot of housing blocks.
Traditionally, however, the most common housing was the courtyard home, consisting of four large rooms all facing an inner courtyard which acts as a garden to hang laundry and a place for children to play.
In Fujian, in southern China, the Hakka people continue to live in their huge traditional Roundhouses each of which houses a whole village. They are generally made of mud, circular, and three or four stories high, with a central courtyard, and with individual family homes built into the walls.
A great many people in China, reported to be as many as 30 million people, live in cave houses, especially in the hillsides in Shaanxi province, where the porous soil and limestone cliffs make for easy excavation. Some are very basic and require a primitive lifestyle, but many have multiple rooms, electricity, running water and other amenities. The front of the dwelling is constructed with bricks or mud, and the rest is dug back into the hillside. They are economically viable, and passed down through the generations, and incorporate a lifestyle that Chinese people appreciate.
And in other parts of China, especially in the mountains of Tibet and the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, there are nomadic people who live in different places throughout the year. They live and work like farmers, moving around the countryside, finding the best grass for their animals to eat. As they move from one part of the countryside to another, they pack up their houses and carry them. Like giant tents, they are made of animal skin, and so are very warm, even in winter.
Government, History, and Military Might
China is the longest continuous civilization in the world, and much of its long and illustrious history, has been recorded, in writing or artifacts, extending way back into the centuries Before the Christian Era (BCE). Here are the highlights of that lengthy and convoluted story.
The Xia Dynasty (2100 – 1600 BCE)
The Xia Dynasty is the first dynasty to be described in ancient historical records such as Records of the Grand Historian and Bamboo Annals. Most archaeologists connect the Xia to excavations at Erlitou in Central Henan Province, where a bronze smelter from around 2,000 BCE was unearthed.
Shang Dynasty (1600 – 1046 BCE)
The earliest discovered written record of China’s past dates takes the form of inscriptions of divination records on the bones or shells of animals, called oracle bones. Bronze casting and pottery had advanced and the invention of Chinese writing is associated with this era. Shang warriors used horse-drawn carriages.
Zhou Dynasty (1027 – 221 BCE)
The Western Zhou was the longest dynasty in Chinese history, as the king invoked the Mandate of Heaven to legitimize his rule. He set up the nation’s capital near modern Xi’an. The first half of the Eastern Zhou is known as the Spring and Autumn Period, and is marked by the falling apart of central Zhou power, so that China consisted of hundreds of states, some only as large as a village with a fort. This period culminated with a consolidation of power into seven states, leading to the Warring States Period. There was a proliferation of iron-working during this period, as iron replaced bronze in implements of combat.
Qin Dynasty (221 – 206 BCE)
The unification of China in 221 BCE under the first Emperor Qin Shu Huang marked the beginning of Imperial China. Although the unified reign of the Qin Emperor, which also gave China its name (from ‘Qin’) lasted only 12 years, he managed to subdue great parts of the core of the Han Chinese homeland and unite them under a tightly centralized legalist government seated at Xianyang (near Xi’an).
The building of the Great Wall commenced, and there was a standardization of weights, measures, currency and writing along with the legal system. Taxation was severe, and hundreds of thousands of conscripts labored to build the wall and the army of Terra-Cotta warriors to defend the emperor in his afterlife.
Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 Common Era)
Four years of conflict ended in the establishment of the Han Dynasty which showed more regard for peasant welfare and scholarship, and discovered silk. The Han created an empire larger than the Roman Empire. Internal conflicts, hostile warlords, and a rebellion led by the “Yellow Turbans” secret Taoist society contributed to the disintegration to the Han.
3 Kingdoms (220 – 280 CE)
Peasant rebellion, foreign invasion, weak rulers and strong regional warlords kept China disunited for hundreds of years following the Han. The Wei, at Luoyang, occupied the north, the Shu occupied the southwest, while the Wu took the south and east.
Eastern & Western Jin (265 – 410), Southern & Northern Dynasties (420 – 589)
Northern China was ruled by the Sixteen Kingdoms, many founded by the Wu Hu, non-Han ethnicities.
After hundreds of years of conflict, China was reunited in 589 by Sui Wen-ti, a military leader.
Sui Dynasty (581 - 618)
The most massive construction project of the Sui Dynasty was the Grand Canal, running from Beijing in the north to Hangzhou in the south, running across the east-west rivers Yangtse River, Yellow River, and others. About half of the estimated six million who labored on the project reportedly died during construction.
Tang Dynasty (618 – 907)
During the Tang Dynasty China was the largest, richest, and most civilized country in the world. The Taoist saltpeter and sulfur mixtures were combined with charcoal to make the world’s first gunpowder. Commerce with, and tolerance of, tribute-paying foreigners was encouraged, and Xi’an was the eastern end of the lucrative Silk Route.
5 Dynasties and 10 Kingdoms (907 – 960)
This was a period of disunity between the Tang and the Song. By the early 10th century the Jiedushi, who commanded de facto independence, were not subject to the authority of the imperial government, resulted in the 5 Dynasties and 10 Kingdoms.
Song Dynasty (960 – 1279)
The Northern Song (960 – 1127 ) established Kaifeng, near the Yellow River, as capital, and was the start of economic prosperity. Literature and knowledge spread with woodblock printing. The Southern Song (1127 – 1279 ) established the capital at Lin’an (now Hangzhou).
Copper and silver coins replaced grain and silk as media of exchange and basis of taxation. Later paper money, bills of exchange, and promissory notes were introduced. Chinese sailing ships were the biggest and best in the world, navigating through the use of chart and compass.
The military was not held in very high regard by the Song, who preferred paying tribute as a means to avoid war. China was unified under the Northern Song, but Manchurians drove the Song out of northern China in 1127. The Southern Song survived another 150 years. At the Battle of Yamen on Pearl River Delta 1279, the Yuan army crushed Song resistance.
Liao Dynasty (907 – 1211)
The Liao Dynasty (907 – 1125) and its successor, the Western Liao (1124 – 1211), were founded by the nomadic Khitans, residing in modern Inner Mongolia, Mongolia, and Manchuria. They ruled roughly in parallel to the Song Dynasty.
Jin Dynasty (1125 – 1234)
The Jin dynasty (separate from the earlier “Jin” dynasty) was one of the last to predate the Mongol invasion of China. After vanquishing the Liao, and waging war against the Song for more than 100 years, the Jurchens of Jin quickly adapted to Chinese customs, and even fortified the Great Wall against the Mongols, who invaded the Jin under Genghis Khan in 1211. The Jin succumbed after 23 years, in 1234.
Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368)
In 1213 the Mongol invader, Genghis Khan, crossed the Great Wall. His grandson Kublai Khan completed the conquest and reunification of China in 1279 . The Mongols defeated the Song in the first war where firearms played a significant role. Kublai Khan became the first emperor of the Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty and he made Beijing the capital of the new empire. The Mongols promoted Tibetan Buddhism and persecuted Taoism. The Grand Canal was fully extended to Beijing, where artificial lakes and mountains were built for his palaces.
Succession was a problem, later causing strife and internal struggle.
Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644)
When Kublai Khan died, the Yuan Dynasty went into a rapid decline until a peasant rebellion established the Ming Dynasty. The Ming looked to the Tang Dynasty as a model of the way Chinese should rule Chinese (a nationalist reaction against Mongol rule). The capital was moved to Nanjing, but was restored to Beijing in 1421 . Threatened by both the Japanese and the Mongols, the Great Wall was extensively rebuilt. Portugal established the colony of Macau in 1557. As had happened with the Tang Dynasty, the Ming was ultimately eroded by the insatiable grasping for wealth and power by palace eunuchs.
Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911)
The Ming Dynasty formally ended when Beijing was attacked by rebel forces led by an irate postal clerk who had lost his job due to budget cuts. The last Ming Emperor hung himself from a tree as the rebels approached. A Chinese general allowed the Manchus through the Great Wall to drive the "bandits" from Beijing. Rather than leaving China, the Manchus continued to fight their way south, eventually conquering the whole of China, establishing the Qing Dynasty.
In the 19th century, Qing control weakened. As Britain’s desire to continue its opium trade with China collided with imperial edicts prohibiting the addictive drug, the first Opium War erupted 1840, which resulted in indemnities paid to Western powers, annexation of Chinese port areas by Europeans and the promotion of opium-smoking in China. In 1842 Hong Kong became a British colony.
Then there was the Taiping Rebellion (1851 – 1864), with the Taipings finally crushed by the Third Battle of Nanking 1864. There were more rebellions such as the Punti-Hakka Clan Wars, the Nien Rebellion, the Muslim Rebellion, the Panthay Rebellion, and the Boxer Rebellion. They were all put down by the 1860s, at great loss of life.
In 1861 a six-year-old emperor ascended to the Qing throne, but for the next 48 years the real power lay with his aunt, the Empress Dowager Cixi who had formerly been a concubine. Japan seized Korea in 1885 and defeated China in the Sino-Japanese War of the mid-1890s.
The Republic of China (1912 – 1949)
In 1912 the Cantonese Dr. Sun Yatsen led a rebellion which ended the Qing Dynasty and established the Chinese Republic. The May Fourth Movement of 1919 was a response to the insult imposed on China by the Treaty of Versailles ending World War I. In 1920, Sun Yatsen established a revolutionary base and, with Soviet assistance, entered into an alliance with Communist Party of China (CPC). Sun Yatsen died of cancer in 1925.
Chiang Kaishek's struggle for control of the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) ultimately led to a massacre of Communists in Shanghai in 1927. In 1934 Mao Zedong led the Long March over six thousand miles of mountainous territory to escape Chiang's attacks and consolidate Communist forces. Meanwhile the communists reorganized under Mao Zedong.
Chiang Kaishek seized control of the Kuamingtang (Nationalist Party). The bitter struggle between the Nationalist KMT and Communist Party of China continued throughout the 14-year long Japanese invasion (1931 – 1945), during the Sino-Japanese War (1937 – 1945) portion of World War II and resumed following the Japanese defeat in 1945.
By 1949 the Communist Party of China occupied most of the country, and Chiang Kaishek fled to Taiwan.
People’s Republic of China (1949 – present)
The People’s Republic of China was founded on Oct 1, 1949, after near complete victory by the Communist Party of China in the Chinese Civil War. Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China from Tiananmen Square, the world’s biggest public gathering place. China’s national banner was first flown on that occasion. The color red in the banner symbolizes revolution, the big star symbolizes communism, and all the little stars represent the Chinese population.
Socialist transformation under Mao Zedong (1949 – 1976)
The year 1953 saw the beginning of various campaigns to suppress former landlords and capitalists and stop foreign investment. In May, 1966, the Cultural Revolution was launched, led by Mao's wife and her associates (later called the Gang of Four). The Cultural Revolution sought to purge China of all bourgeois or non-communist cultural influences. The Cultural Revolution ended with the death of Mao in September, 1976. Within a month the Gang of Four was under arrest. Nearly one million people, particularly intellectuals and old Party members, had been persecuted in the name of ideological purity.
Rise of Deng Xiaoping and economic reform (1976 – 1989)
At the Third Plenum of the 11th Communist Party of China Congress, Deng started China on the road to Economic Reforms and Openness. In 1979 he broke Mao's communes into smaller units and allowed a free market for excess crops. This and other anti-socialist reforms – such as encouraging foreign investment – allowed the economy to grow. In 1986 the Shanghai Stock Market was re-opened after having been closed for nearly 40 years.
Economic growth under the Third Generation (1989 – 2002)
Deng retired from public view, and the Third Generation of leadership was led by Jiang Zemin. Jiang’s macroeconomic reforms furthered Deng’s vision for Socialism with Chinese Characteristics. Work on the Three Gorges Dam commenced.
Two foreign colonies returned to China – Hong Kong from Britain in 1997, and Macau from Portugal in 1999.
2002 – Present Time
Hu Jintao was the paramount leader of China from 2002 – 2012. In November, 2002, China was at the center of the outbreak of Sever Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that spread around the world, and infected more than 5,300 people, causing a severe political crisis for the leadership. In May, 2008, a massive earthquake, 8.0 on the Richter scale, struck in Sichuan Province, flattening four-fifths of the structures in the area, and leaving 90,000 people dead or missing.
In 2008, China hosted the Summer Olympics in Beijing, the preparations for which included a massive tidying of less prosperous areas, and building of some now well recognized structures such as the ‘Bird’s Nest Stadium’.
Xi Jinping became president of China in 2012, ushering in an era of increased assertiveness and authoritarianism.
Ethnic Groups, Languages and Religions
Not surprisingly, the magnificent diversity in the Chinese countryside is reflected with a substantial diversity in the population. China is home to 56 recognized ethnic groups, has the world’s 18th largest Muslim population, and the 19th largest Christian population.
The largest ethnic group, accounting for 91% of the total population, is the Han people, who form a majority in most of the settled east and south, but remain a minority, despite continuing immigration, in the west. The remaining 8.1% of the population is comprised of the 55 minority groups. The largest minority is the Zhuang, a Buddhist people, related to the Thai, who are primarily concentrated in Guangxi, Yunnan, and Guangdong. Other large minorities are :
• the Manchu, concentrated in Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning;
• the Hui, a Chinese-speaking Muslim people concentrated in Ningxia, Gansu, Henan, and Hebei;
• the Uygur, a Muslim Turkic people of Xinjiang;
• the Yi, a Buddhist people related to the Tibetans and concentrated in Yunnan, Sichuan, and Guizhou;
• the Miao, in Guizhou, Hunan, Yunnan, and Guangxi;
• the Tibetans, concentrated in Xizang (Tibet), Qinghai, and Sichuan.
• Other minority nationalities, with estimated populations of more than one million, include the Mongolians; Tujia; Buyei; Koreans; Dong; Yao; Bai; Hani; Li; and the Kazaks, concentrated in Xinjiang, Gansu, and Qinghai.
The Chinese language is spoken by 92% of China’s population. Local varieties of Chinese are classified into seven dialects: Mandarin, Gan, Xiang, Min, Hakka and Yue (which includes Cantonese).
Chinese script is not phonetic and remains the same throughout China. However, the spoken language has regional phonetic differences. There are two main groups of spoken Chinese. Firstly there are the so called Mandarin dialects, based on the Beijing dialect and known as Putonghua ("common language"). The next most common dialect is that of Shanghai, the Wu dialect spoken in the Yangtze River Delta. Hakka and Hokkien are dialects of the southeastern coastal provinces. Cantonese, the Yue dialect spoken in southern China, is the language of the majority of Chinese emigrants. Others include the Minbei or Fuzhou dialect, the Xiang, and Gan dialects. Mandarin Chinese was adopted as the official language of China in 1955.
Communicating in written Chinese requires memorizing thousands of Chinese characters. A simplified system of writing, requiring less strokes per character, has been developed since the establishment of the PRC in 1949, so that learning the basic 2-3,000 characters is sufficient for basic tasks such as reading the newspaper.
With more foreigners visiting China, increases in International trade, and with the development of the Internet, there is a greater need for Chinese language to be translated into the Latin alphabet. Up until 1979 the principal romanization system was the Wade-Giles system. Then the PRC government instead adopted Pinyin, a system which had been under development since the mid-1950s. Pinyin is used in the schools to facilitate the learning of Chinese characters, in minority areas where other languages are spoken, and on commercial and street signs. It also enables foreigners to attempt Chinese pronunciation. Pinyin pronunciation follows standard English, except for the following sounds:
• q is pronounced like ch- as in chart
• x is pronounced like sh- as in ship
• zh is pronounced like j- as in judge
• c is pronounced like -ts in cats
• z is pronounced like -dz in kidz
• e is pronounced like -oo- as in look
• eng is pronounced like -ung as in lung
• ui is pronounced like -ay as in way
• uai is pronounced as wi- in wide
Of the 55 recognized minority peoples in China, only Hui and Manchus use Chinese as everyday language. More than 20 minority nationalities have their own forms of writing for their own languages. Minority languages are used in all state institutions in minority areas and in all newspapers and books published there.
With its immense population, it is not surprising that almost every recognized religion can be found in China. The most popular religions are Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. The Constitution of the PRC provides for freedom of religion, as long as it is normal religious activity, such as activities that take place within government-sanctioned religious organizations and registered places of worship.
"House churches," a term that typically applies to unregistered Christian groups that meet in homes or businesses for prayer meetings and Bible studies, are somewhat common. Small groups of a dozen or so members are usually allowed to gather without registration as long as the meetings are small, private, and unobtrusive.
The five officially sanctioned organizations are the Buddhist Association of China, Chinese Taoist Association, Islamic Association of China, Three-Self Patriotic Movement, and Chinese Patriotic Catholic association. In 2004, about 8% of the population were Buddhist, 1.4% were Muslim, 1.2% were Protestant, and less than 1% were Catholic. A majority of the population does not claim official religious affiliation. The religious practice of the average Chinese has traditionally been an eclectic mixture of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism.
Cities and Provinces
With its immense size and incomparable population, China’s administration is naturally quite complex. There are 34 provincial-level administrative units. This includes the 23 provinces, which are, for example, Guangdong, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Shandong, Sichuan and so on. Then there are four municipalities which are Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, and Chongqing. The five autonomous regions are Guangxi, Inner Mongolia, Tibet, Ningxia, and Xinjiang. And finally the two special administrative regions are Hong Kong, and Macau.
The cities in China are organized into five tiers for administrative purposes. There are multiple criteria used to designate each tier, including population size, infrastructure and economic outlook.
Tier I cities include the municipalities of Shanghai, Tianjin, Chongqing and Beijing which each have a population over 10 million, and central administration. Tier II cities include the larger cities such as Guiyang, Nanjing, Qingdao, and others. Tier III cities are not as developed as Tier II cities but many that fall into this category are considered to be economically significant. Tier IV and Tier V cities round out the majority of the country’s urban population.
China has 65 cities with more than a million people, 360 cities with between 100,000 and 1 million people, and 387 cities with between 10,000 and 100,000 people. The largest city in China is Shanghai, with a population of 22,315,474 people.
There has been an ongoing trend of movement from the rural areas to the cities, and 2011 was the first year that the urban population exceeded that of the rural population, with 656.56 million living in rural areas and 690.79 million living in urban areas that year. By 2016 there were 589.73 million rural dwellers as opposed to 792.98 million living in the cities. More than 55% of people now live in urban areas.
Industry, Economy and Transport
With its immense size and massive population, it’s hardly surprising that China is a force to be reckoned with in the world economy.
Based on the theory of purchasing power parity, China is the world’s largest economy. In 2017, its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was $23.4 trillion. Over the past 30 years, China’s economy recorded the fastest growth rate in the world, with an annual average of 10%. With exports amounting to $2.09 trillion (in 2016), China is the world’s biggest exporter of commodities. China is also the second-biggest importer of goods.
The biggest industry by far is manufacturing, which accounts for 46.8% of the country’s GDP. Some examples of China’s intense investment in heavy industry are:
- • China used more cement in three years (2011-2013) than the US’s cumulative consumption for the entire 20th century.
- • The total manufacturing output in China is equivalent to 19.8% of the total global production.
- • China is the world’s number one producer of cement, steel, and chemical fertilizers.
- • Textile manufacture accounts for 10% of China’s gross industrial output, with the largest cotton textile output of any country.
- • China is the third largest producer of automobiles in the world behind the US and Japan with the annual automobile export being estimated to be $70 billion.
- • Manufactured products account for about 94.3% of China’s $2.09 trillion total exports which include automobiles, ships, locomotives, textiles, fertilizers, and electronics.
Mining is among the major industries in the Chinese economy, injecting billions of dollars into the country’s GDP annually.
- • China is by far the largest producer of gold in the world, producing about 463.7 tons of gold in 2016. (By comparison, the second biggest, Australia, produced 274 tons in 2016.) Most of China’s gold deposits are found in the eastern part of the country, in the Liaoning, Henan, Fujian and Shandong provinces. And most of the gold produced in China is consumed locally as China is the world’s fourth largest gold consumer.
- • China is the world’s largest producer of coal, with a production of 3.89 billion tons in 2014, and has the third largest coal reserves in the world, behind the US and Russia. The majority of the coal is consumed domestically, with China being the world’s biggest coal consumer, with an annual consumption around 3.2 billion tons.
- • Other valuable minerals produced in China include tungsten, copper, tin and iron ore.
China is the leading country in electricity production since 2011 when the country’s production exceeded that of the US. Most of the country’s electricity (57.2% in 2016) is produced from coal, and hydro-power if the second-most important electricity source, accounting for 20.1% of the total electricity production (2016). However the country’s vast size causes voltage drops when electricity is transmitted across long distances, so that the country is grappling with lacking a unified national grid system for proper distribution.
China is also the fourth-largest oil producer in the world, producing 1.3 barrels (2002), however the country is still oil-deficient and – being the world’s largest oil consumer – relies on oil imports to meet its domestic oil demand.
China is the top electricity producer from renewable sources, with numerous wind farms located in its territory as well as offshore.
Agriculture continues to be a major industry in China, with the country being both the largest producer and consumer of agricultural products in the world. Even with only 15% of land in China suitable for cultivation, China has 30% more agricultural production than the US and produces sufficient to feed the enormous population. About 300 million people work in China’s agricultural industry, the majority of whom are small-scale farmers. The most important crop is rice, which is cultivated on millions of acres of land. China is also the largest producer of poultry, eggs, and pigs.
With such a massive population and such an immense area to cover, it’s no surprise that China’s transportation systems are awesome.
In 2015 China already had 207 civil airports, and by 2025 hopes to add 136 new civil airports. Some mega airports are also under construction, such as Beijing’s new airport with 7 runways, handling 100 million passengers annually, and the 70 billion yuan international airport under construction in Chengdu with 6 runways. This major construction boom began in 2008, as a way of fighting off the global financial crisis through massive infrastructure spending. Flying in China can still be frustrating, with flight delays a huge problem, but it is hoped that the larger airports will solve some of the difficulties.
The railway system in China is mind boggling, but also constantly improving and increasing. In 2017 China planned to begin working on 35 new railway projects, spending at least 800 billion yuan ($116 billion) on new lines. This was after the massive investment that saw a new high-speed rail line from Shanghai to Kunming, traveling 2,252kim in just 10.5 hours. It’s all part of China’s 4.7 trillion yuan spending plan to provide more reliable transport to some of the country’s more remote regions. At the end of 2017 China was crisscrossed by an astounding 124,000 km of track, including 22, 000 km of high-speed track, which will increase to 30,000 km by 2020, and 45,000 km by 2030.
China has more than 125,000 km (75,000 miles) of navigable inland waterways, the most extensive system of any country in the world. The distribution of waterways is chiefly within central and South China, except for a few navigable streams in the Northeast. China’s 14,000-km- (8,700-mile-) long coastline is indented by some 100 large and small bays and has some 20 deep-water harbors, most of which are ice-free throughout the year.
The roads in China are also amazing, and the traffic you might see on them is sometimes astonishing. As with the other infrastructure, new roads are constantly being constructed. In Shandong there is an experimental kilometer-long stretch of road with 10,000 solar panels built into it, sandwiched between an insulating layer on the bottom and a durable, transparent one on top, less than 3 cm thick all told. As well as creating electricity, there are coils that may in the future charge electric cars as they drive over it, and the system can even warm up in order to melt snow and ice.
Along the expressways, every kind of freight is efficiently transported around the country in lorries and trucks. High-speed, long-distance sleeper buses provide an alternative passenger transport to rail. And in the urban areas, more and more families and individuals own their own forms of transport, clogging up the roads and increasing air pollution.
Motorbikes are a preferred mode of transport in China, mostly because they are fast and easy to maneuver around all of the traffic jams, often carrying surprising cargo. Motorbikes will wind through the traffic with an entire family of five squashed onto one bike, or an individual transporting a washing machine, or sky-high stack of baskets, caged animals, an entire month’s groceries or furniture and tools bigger than the driver. Even pedal bicycles can have huge loads balanced on the bar or back.
Education and Employment
With China’s “One Child Policy”, which began in 1979 and began to be phased out in 2015, there was increased pressure on parents to make sure that their one child did well in school and obtained worthwhile employment to be able to care for the parents in their old age.
Children in China must go to school for at least nine years under the state-run system of public education run by the Ministry of Education and funded by the government. This is made up of six hears of primary school education, usually starting at age 6 or 7, and three years of junior secondary education (junior middle school) for ages 12 to 15. After junior middle school there is an exam to decide if they go on to three years of senior middle school, with only 30% of middle school students able to go on to high school. In their final year they sit the all-important gao-kao exam, which decides whether they can go onto further education at university and/or whether they can find a good job.
Many parents also choose to send their children to kindergarten when they are very young, but these can be expensive and hard to get into. In 2015 there were 223,683 preschools.
Class sizes are often around 50 or 60, and schools, especially rural schools, are frequently not well equipped. Lessons involve a lot of rote learning and children generally have a lot of homework. Parents then enroll their children in all manner of extracurricular classes and tutoring to give them an edge over others. Nevertheless, it is said that the literacy rate is 96.36%.
Higher education is seen as essential in order to obtain better employment. In 1999 the government launched a program to massively expand university attendance, creating a huge influx of university educated workers into the labor market. In 2017, 8 million students graduated from university. The result has been a great deal of underemployment, with many students being unable to find suitable employment after graduating, and ending up working long hours for very low salaries.
At the end of 2015, the unemployment rate in China was 4.05 percent and is projected to remain stable over the next few years. The slowdown in the agricultural sector has made it hard to find employment in rural areas, resulting in huge numbers of migrant workers seeking employment in urban areas, the number reaching 227.47 million in 2015.
In 2015, the wage gaps between salaries is large, with the average annual salary in Beijing reaching approximately 111,000 yuan in Beijing, while in Henan Province it only reached 45,000 yuan.
Health, Medicine and Food
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) originated in ancient China and encompasses many different practices, including acupuncture, moxibustion (burning an herb above the skin to apply heat to acupuncture points), Chinese herbal medicine, tui na (Chinese therapeutic massage), dietary therapy, and tai chi and qi gong (practices that combine specific movements or postures, coordinated breathing, and mental focus).
The underlying principles of TCM are very different from traditional Western notions about health, illness and the workings of the body. Chinese herbs are prescribed to normalize imbalanced energy, or Qi (pronounced ‘chee’), that runs through invisible meridians in the body. Whether or not the philosophy is believed, studies have shown Chinese herbal medicines to be successful in treating a range of disorders, particularly gynecological and gastrointestinal disorders.
However, more and more Traditional medicine practices are becoming ‘westernized’, while still retaining that special Chinese flavor. A visit to a Chinese pharmacy will reveal a glass case with a supply of western pills and potions on one side, and wooden drawers full of interesting looking materials to serve those requiring traditional medicine only.
Healthcare in China consists of both public and private medical institutions and insurance programs. Residents of urban areas are not provided with free healthcare, and must either pay for treatment or purchase health insurance. Public hospitals and clinics are available in all Chinese cities.
About 95% of the population has at least basic health insurance coverage. Despite this, public health insurance generally only covers about half of medical costs, with the proportion lower for serious or chronic illnesses. Under the "Healthy China 2020" initiative, China is currently undertaking an effort to cut healthcare costs, and the government requires that insurance will cover 70% of costs by the end of 2018. The Chinese government is working on providing affordable basic healthcare to all residents by 2020.
Chinese food is popular all around the world, with its huge variety of styles and tastes from the various regions of this vast country. There is an expectation that a Chinese meal will include at least rice or noodles, and be eaten with chopsticks rather than cutlery. Historians speculate that as the Chinese population grew, people had to conserve cooking fuel by chopping food into small pieces so that it could cook faster. These bite-sized foods eliminated the need for knives and, hence, chopsticks were invented. China uses 20 million trees each year to supply the country's disposable chopstick use.
People in China, while eating daintily with their chopsticks, are very enthusiastic about meal-times, talking loudly with friends and family, and not feeling the least bit uncomfortable about spitting, yawing, or burping at the table.
Festivals, Celebrations and Entertainment
The holidays, festivals and celebrations are the most colorful part of life in China, and looked forward to and enjoyed by everyone, Chinese and visitors as well. In fact Chinese New Year, in particular, is celebrated not only in China, but by Chinese communities and friends all over the world.
The best-known traditional festivals in China are: Chinese New Year, the Lantern Festival, the Qingming (Tomb Sweeping) Festival, Double Seven Festival, and the Winter Solstice.
The biggest and most important holiday in China is the Chinese New Year or Lunar New Year. In China, instead of individual birthday celebrations, it is traditional that every person turns one year older on the New Year and, thus, that day is considered to be everyone’s birthday.
The calendar date of the celebration changes every year, and the date is worked out according to the traditional Chinese calendar which is based on the cycle of the moon as well as the Earth’s course around the sun. The calculation is complicated, but in most cases it falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice, and typically occurs in late January or during one of the first three weeks of February.
The celebration is spread over 15 days, and everyone can expect to have at least some time off work. During this time people make offerings to household deities, wear specially purchased or made new clothes which are usually red, host a large banquet for family and friends, hang decorated lanterns in temples, and take part in festive lantern parades, lion and dragon dances, acrobatic demonstrations, beating gongs and clashing cymbals. Many children receive “lucky money” in red envelopes, and people leave their front doors open to let in good luck. Writings, inscribed with a brush on a diamond-shaped piece of red paper, and which refer to good luck, are seen in homes and business environments. Tangerines and oranges are also displayed in many homes and stores as a sign of luck and wealth.
Each Chinese New Year day is the start of an new zodiac year, and assigned to one of twelve particular animals. The sequence of zodiac animals is: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. People are said to inherit distinctive characteristics from the animal of their birth year.
The Chinese New Year holiday climaxes with the Lantern Festival on the 15th day. It is a celebration of family reunions, and has some spiritual traditions as well as a romantic feel. Activities include moon gazing, lighting lanterns, telling and solving riddles, lion dances and eating rice balls. Absolutely everyone goes out into the streets to celebrate and socialize. This day was important in Chinese paganism, and is also important in Buddhism and ethnic minority cultures.
The Qingming Festival, or Pure Brightness, falls on April 4-6 each year. There is an expectation that following this festival the temperature will rise, and rainfall will increase, so it is a time for spring plowing and sowing. But it is mostly a festival of commemoration. Sometimes it is called Tomb Sweeping festival as people head out to cemeteries to sweep tombs and offer sacrifices of food, flowers, and favorites of the dead relatives, and they burn incense and special paper money as they bow before the memorial stone.
The day has been combined with the Hanshi, or cold food, festival that used to occur the day before, and so people will not cook, and will only serve cold food.
The sadness of visiting tombs turns to happiness as people go out to fly kites by day and night – with a little string of lanterns tied to the kite to look like stars.
The Double Seven Festival is a special romantic time based on a legend that took place on the seventh day of the seventh month – hence the name of the festival. The story is a love story about a cow herder, Niulang, who fell in love with the fairy weaving maid, Zhinu. Seeing her bathing with her six heavenly sisters, he stole her clothes, resulting in her being left behind on earth. They married and lived happily together, had two children, and she became well known as she wove many beautiful things. Celestial soldiers were sent to bring her back, and, although Niulang followed behind, the heavenly Queen stranded them on either side of the Milky Way, but eventually relented and allowed them to meet once a year – on the seventh day of the seventh month.
Traditions for the festival include women and girls praying for more dexterous and skillful hands, and competitions to see who can thread the most needles within a minute. Young women display their needlework and make offerings under the night sky. Fruit carving is another tradition, where dexterity is demonstrated by intricately carving birds and flowers into fruits such as melons.
While the double seven festival is the traditional Chinese Valentine’s Day, many young people nowadays celebrate the Western day on February 14th.
The Winter Solstice Festival, or Dongzhi, is an important festival that occurs every year on or around December 22nd, on the winter solstice. The origins of this festival can be traced back to the yin and yang philosophy of balance and harmony in the cosmos. After the solstice, the days will start to get longer again, suggesting an increase in positive energy.
Traditionally it is a time for family get-togethers, and the making and eating of glutinous rice balls symbolizing reunion, and in northern China people typically make and eat dumplings and mutton soup. It is also a time to worship and offer sacrifices to the ancestors.
Older Chinese think of the winter solstice as the day when they all turn a year older, rather than the Lunar New Year.
As well as the festivals, the Chinese people celebrate October 1st as National Day in honor of establishing the People’s Republic of China.
When people are not working or celebrating festivals, there are a number of activities and types of entertainment available.
There are over 1,000 acrobatics troupes in China, many of which are sponsored by the military. There is even an acrobatics Olympics held every couple of years.
Ballroom Dancing is very popular in China. People often gather in parks and dance informally.
Beijing Opera remains popular in China, with serious shows running constantly in theatres, as well as opera arias being sung in teahouses.
Billiards, Snooker and Pool are incredibly popular. More than 60 million Chinese play the game regularly, and 66 million tune in to watch major televised tournaments. There are 5,000 places in China where people can play snooker, including 800 snooker clubs in Beijing and 250 super clubs that have more than 50 tables. Even in rural areas there are rows of snooker tables on the pavement outside of restaurants.
Since the 60s, Ten-Pin Bowling has been a popular pastime. Beijing and Shanghai have 24-hour bowling alleys with 50 lanes and more. It is a popular outing for a date for young couples, and is cheaper for those who are willing to play after midnight.
Exercise equipment can be found in all sorts of places such as parks, as well as in clubs and hotels. People regularly participate in exercises for their health as well as for the socialization.
Karaoke is a popular activity, almost challenging bowling lanes for popularity. There are more than 100,000 karaoke bars in China, 10 times more than there are cinemas.
Table Tennis is the most popular sport in China, and is ideal for when there is a lack of space and the equipment is cheap and easily available.
Flora and Fauna
What is the first animal you think of when someone mentions China? That would be the Giant Panda, right? All of the Giant Pandas in the world belong to China, although you may have seen some elsewhere because they are lent out to zoos around the world. All baby Giant Pandas born outside of China have to be returned before they are four years old in order to expand the gene pool.
Giant Pandas are in fact black and white bears, and their scientific name, Ailuropoda melanoleuca, means ‘black and white cat-foot’. In the wild they live in remote, mountainous areas of Sichuan, Gansu and Shanxi provinces, and they are good swimmers and excellent tree climbers. A census of the endangered Giant Panda in 2014 found that there were 1,864 pandas alive in the wild, which is an increase of 17% over the last decade. A count in 2016 estimated the population at 2,060, of which just over half were mature adults.
Giant Pandas are omnivores, and although they do occasionally eat small animals and fish, their diet is almost entirely made up of bamboo, which they munch on for up to14 hours a day, consuming about 38 kilograms (84lb). Baby Giant Pandas are about 15cm (5.9”) long at birth, and adults grow to 1.2 – 1.5m (4 – 5‘) in length, weighing 75 – 135kg (165 – 297lb).
While the Giant Pandas have been used to encourage International diplomacy, many other animals in China have special symbolic significance. The Chinese calendar is organized according to the zodiac which is made up of 12 symbolically significant animals. They are: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig.
In Chinese thought, there are many different things which have a special significance, including a number of animals. Here are some examples:
• There are four mythological creatures in the Chinese constellations. Important symbolically and also as part of spiritual belief, each one represents a direction, and a season, and each one has its own individual characteristics and origins. They are the Azure Dragon of the east, the Vermillion Bird of the south, the White Tiger of the west, and the Black Turtle of the north.
• In Western culture, the dragon is considered an evil creature, while in Chinese mythology, it is the first among the four great mythological creatures, and is commonly associated with the emperor.
• The mythical phoenix is the most important bird in Chinese legend and represents the feminine power of the empress. The graceful crane, which is a symbol of long life, is the second most important bird in Chinese legend. Ducks are also important symbols and represent happiness and marital faithfulness.
• The horse originated in Central Asia and became very significant in China. A horse is thought to be associated with yang, the masculine symbol.
• The cicada (katydid) has the longest life span of any insect (up to 17 years) and sheds its skin, so for the Chinese, it is a symbol of regeneration and rebirth.
• The carp is a symbol of strength and perseverance. The scales and whiskers of the fish make it resemble a dragon, the greatest symbol of power in China. Fish in general play a large role in Chinese culture and the words for “fish” and “abundance” are pronounced the same in Chinese (yu).
• The bat is a traditional good luck symbol that is frequently depicted in designs for porcelain, textiles, and other crafts.
• The pig is significant as a food source in China – half of the pigs in the world are found in China, and about 1.7 million of them are consumed daily.
There are also a number of animals which are unique to China. The golden-haired monkey is found in remote parts of Gansu, Sichuan, Guizhou and Yunnan. The northeast China tiger is found in Lesser Hinggan Ling and Changbai mountains along the Korean border. The middle and lower Yangtse River is home to the Chinese river dolphin and the Chinese alligator. The rare Père David’s deer, also known as the milu, is found in marshlands in the subtropics feeding on grass and aquatic plants. In Qinghai Province and Tibet lives the white-lipped deer, and in Hubei Province a rare kind of white bear is found.
More than 1,000 species of birds have been recorded, including some rare kinds such as mandarin duck, white-crowned long-tailed pheasant, golden pheasant, Derby’s parakeet, yellow-backed sun-bird, red-billed leiothrix and the red-crowned crane.
China’s diverse habitats are home to hundreds of species of animals and plants. More than 3,800 species of fish and hundreds of amphibians and reptile species live in the rivers, lakes and coastal waters.
In literature, China has sometimes been referred to as ‘the Flowery Kingdom’, and for good reason with the richness of flora across the country. China boasts 650 of the 800 known varieties of azalea, along with 390 of the 450 known varieties of primrose, and about 230 or the 400 known varieties of gentian. The glorious tree peony, which originated in Shandong Province appears in 400 varieties.
Flowers can also have special significance, such as the lotus, which has since ancient times been considered a symbol of purity and was sacred to both Buddhist and Daoists. The “king of flowers”, the peony, symbolized spring. The narcissus was believed to bring good fortunes, and the chrysanthemum symbolizes long life.
In China, more than 7,000 species of woody plants have been recorded, including 2,800 species of timber trees, and more than 300 species of gymnosperms (such as cycads, ginkgo, yews and conifers, where the seeds are open to the air and not enclosed in a flower or fruit.) Rare trees such as gingko tree, cathaya tree and metasequoia – extinct elsewhere – are found in the Chinese forests.
In the Greater Hinggan Mountains of the northeast there are rich and extensive needle-leaf forests with larch, Asian white birch and Scotch pine in abundance, while the Lesser Hinggan Ling Mountains boast stands of Korean pine and Dahurian larch. In the Sichuan Basin varieties of trees flourish at different altitudes with conifers at the high levels, deciduous trees and cypresses at middles elevations and bamboo at the lower elevations. Further south, in subtropical Fujian and Zhejiang provinces, broadleaf evergreen forests predominate, while forests give way to natural grasslands and scrub in the drier western and northwestern areas.
As you can imagine with such a numerous population, much of China's natural vegetation has been replaced or altered by thousands of years of human settlement. However isolated areas still support one of the world's richest and most varied collections of plants and animals. Nearly every major plant found in the tropical and temperate zones of the northern hemisphere can be found there.
China’s forest wildlife is threatened by logging and clear-cutting (clearing the land of all trees) for farmland. Expanding deserts in the north are also reducing animal habitats. The good news is that the Chinese government has created more than 1,200 reserves to protect plant and animal species.
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