How Chinese Traditions Work


China is one of the oldest civilizations in the world.
China is one of the oldest civilizations in the world.
Spike Mafford/The Image Bank/Getty Images

With a population of more than 1.3 billion people and a recorded history that goes back more than four millennia, China is both the largest country and arguably the oldest continuous civilization in the world. As such, it has rich and diverse traditions.

To understand some of China's important cultural traditions, let's first delve into some background about the country. The Han are the largest ethnic group in China, making up about 91 percent of the population. However, even Han peoples have various cultural and linguistic differences across several regions. Other major ethnic groups include Zhuang, Manchu, Hui, Miao, Uyghur, Yi and more.

About 70 percent of the Chinese people speak Mandarin, one of seven major dialects of the Chinese language [source: State.gov]. Despite differences in spoken language, however, a common written language helped strengthen unity and common social values among the civilization, as well as the political control of successive dynasties throughout history.

Although China was historically an epicenter for religious thought and practice, today only about 31 percent of adults are religious believers [source: State.gov]. The country is officially atheist, but government-sanctioned religious practice is allowed. Buddhism is the biggest religion, followed by Taoism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism (without official ties to the Vatican, due to government rules).

However, the country's social values have long been deeply rooted in Confucianism, which is not strictly a religion, but rather considered a way of life. For instance, Confucianism values among other things a reverence for one's ancestors, one of the most important traditions for the Chinese. In fact, Confucianism has been a major unifying factor in Chinese culture, along with written language.

Although our discussion of Chinese traditions certainly can't be exhaustive for such a culturally rich civilization, we'll cover the basics of some of their significant traditions, as well as the predominant philosophies behind them.

Traditional Chinese Food

Chinese cuisine has always been an important element in the culture, and beliefs about the best diet even reflect Taoist principles. Of course, China's diverse people and landscape have resulted in extremely varied foods. And compared to what they find in their own Chinese restaurants, Westerners are often surprised at just how diverse and exotic real Chinese food is. This is partly because necessity and famine have historically driven Chinese peoples to look for food in unlikely places, and delectables like chicken kidneys, stinky tofu, fried insect larvae, pig's maw, and liver with dried squid don't usually suit a Westerner's palate.

Pre-refrigeration preservation methods such as pickling, drying, salting and fermentation are still widely employed for traditional Chinese foods. Thus, some common items include pickled vegetables, semidry meats, salted fish and salt-cured eggs, as well as fermented products such as vinegar, sauces and rice spirits [source: Li].

The need to conserve food, fuel and cooking oil has led to preference for efficient cooking styles and methods. For instance, because meat is historically expensive, a cook made it go further by chopping it into smaller pieces and serving it with an abundance of vegetables. Meanwhile, vegetables were usually steamed or boiled in soup rather than simply boiled in water that is later thrown out, which wastes some of the nutrients [source: Wu]. The wok is popular for cooking traditional Chinese food because it evenly distributes heat, cooking food faster and requiring less oil.

Researchers Jian-rong Li and Yun-Hwa P. Hsieh argue that, compared to Western foods, Chinese food is generally less greasy and has fewer calories. The Chinese tend to value sophisticated flavor and interesting textures [source: Li]. Many Chinese also strive for a particular yin-yang balance in their diet based on traditional Taoist principles. They believe that certain foods are inherently cool (yin), such as tofu and cucumber, or warm (yang), such as meats and spices. Even certain cooking methods fall into these categories, with poaching and steaming considered yin and roasting and frying considered yang. According to tradition, striking a proper balance of yin and yang in your diet will help keep you healthy [source: Young].

Traditional Chinese Clothing

A woman wearing a traditional Chinese dress pours tea.
A woman wearing a traditional Chinese dress pours tea.
Armstrong Studios/Taxi/Getty Images

Modern Chinese have generally adopted Western-style clothing, but traditional Chinese clothing still has a place in society, especially for special occasions as it reflects their cultural heritage. Clothing traditions also have roots in Confucian ideals, as Confucius taught the importance of how people present themselves both for the individual and society.

Unified rules and customs of clothing developed in China during the dynastic period and as early as the Xia and Shang dynasties (which spanned the 21st to the 11th centuries B.C.). In general, the Chinese have traditionally valued symmetry of design and composition in their clothing styles [source: Yang].

Ancient Chinese believed two-piece outfits reflected the order of heaven and earth and considered them appropriate for ceremonial occasions. But by the Warring States period, from the 5th to 3rd centuries B.C., a one-piece robe called the shenyi became popular. Meaning "deep garment," the shenyi is made of two pieces sewn together, was considered functional and simple, but still somewhat formal [source: Hua]. The shenyi one-piece gradually evolved into the qujupao, a long robe of the Han Dynasty (3rd century B.C. to 3rd century A.D.), a long-sleeved chang shan during the Wei and Jin periods (3rd century A.D. to 5th century A.D.), and eventually into the qipao (or cheongsam) of the 20th century, a form-fitting one-piece woman's dress [source: Hua].

When the Manchu Qing dynasty took over in the 17th century A.D., this also brought changes in dress. The Manchu preferred close-fitting styles as opposed to the loose, flowing attire that had been popular. They also imposed rules that were meant to reflect Confucian principles, such as integrity and altruism [source: Condra].

During certain times in the Dynastic period, laws have governed how the different classes could dress, even down to the colors people wore. Traditionally, colors have always held special significance for the Chinese people, as they could represent the elements of earth, fire, water, metal and wood. For instance, red, representing fire, and consequently summer, life and joy, was worn for happy occasions such as weddings and births [source: Condra]. By the 17th century A.D., yellow was reserved exclusively for the emperor as it symbolized wealth and power. Green, red, black and white represented East, South, North and West respectively and at times also assigned to upper classes [source: Yang].

Traditional Chinese Medicine

Dating back about two millennia to the Han Dynasty, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has endured to modern times as a holistic and multi-faceted approach to treating illness. It primarily has to do with the Chinese belief that the human body is a microcosm of the same forces at work in nature. The theory states that just as nature is interconnected, so is the human body, with the organs being interdependent and often affecting each other. So treatment often addresses such interrelationships.

Historically, according to the TCM approach, illness was not believed to be caused by germs and viruses, but rather an imbalance and disharmony of forces in the human body. In this way, TCM also incorporates the yin-yang theory of balance. The concept of qi, which is the flow of energy or life force that permeates all living things, also plays an important part in this balance. Qi fluctuates and flows, and if it gets blocked, this will promote imbalance and sickness. Two different but respected diagnostic theories include the eight principles (Interior/Exterior, Cold/Hot, Deficiency/Excess, Yin/Yang) and the five elements (Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water). Each theory can be used to help understand a particular illness. The eight principles help pinpoint a particular bodily imbalance of qi. The five elements, on the other hand, represent phases of qi energy. Fire represents a phase where activity is peaked about to decline, while water represents the opposite. Wood represents growing of activity, and metal represents decreasing. Earth, however, is neutral [source: Holland].

The most well-known methods of TCM treatments are herbal remedies and acupuncture. The study of the effects of herbs dates back to ancient times and has always been central to TCM. Acupuncture is a practice of placing needles in the skin to seek to open blockage of qi in the body. Researchers believe this practice dates back to ancient times when the Chinese would use sharp stone to puncture abscesses to let blood and pus out [source: Jiuzhang].

Another common treatment is moxibustion, which is the burning of mugwort (or another dried herb) near or actually on the skin. Moxibustion is often performed in conjunction with acupuncture and is also meant to restore the flow of qi. Cupping is a treatment involving placing a warmed cup on the skin to create a suction. Other treatments include massage, tai chi and dietary therapy, among others.

Traditional Chinese Houses

A view of a village in the Guangxi province in China.
A view of a village in the Guangxi province in China.
Yann Layma/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Due to China's vast and varied landscape, the people historically developed diverse housing styles that adapted to each particular region and climate. However, we'll discuss a few of the most famous designs. And, despite the different geographical conditions, traditional Chinese dwellings are usually designed around the common values of shared communal and family space.

Dating back to ancient times, courtyard houses, also known as Beijing siheyuan buildings, are enclosed and inward-facing structures with a courtyard in the center surrounded by four, one-story housing structures. This design helps maximize sunlight, but minimize contact with the busy outside world. They are also family-oriented and meant to house four generations. Traditionally aligned along a north/south axis (which will provide good fortune, according to the principles of feng shui), the main entrance is on the south end -- usually off center and opening to an outer courtyard or transition space. A visitor would enter through another passageway before entering the main courtyard. The south side contains rooms that traditionally serve as the kitchen and servants' quarters. The main house on the north end, while the east and west sides made up smaller structures, usually for married children and their families [source: Keister].

One of the most interesting styles of Chinese residences are the so-called "cave dwellings." Despite the name, these are man-made structures dug out of the sides of cliffs or the ground. They are found along northern China, which has dry, loess soil, and using earth helps economize building materials while providing comfortable temperatures in both the summer and winter. Ones dug out of cliffs are convenient to allow inhabitants to make use of the flat land for farming. Those dug out of the ground can be either fully or partially subterranean. One of the most common designs of underground cave dwellings is actually modeled on the courtyard design. For these, the people dig a large pit in the ground, which will serve as the courtyard, and dwellings are dug out of the sides of the pit.

Another famous style is the earthen house of the Fujian province in southeast China. A group of Han Chinese known as Hakka originally built these study clay houses more than a millennium ago after they migrated south to escape wars and unrest. These structures are three or four floors high, and are in enclosed round or rectangular designs, which helped protect from invaders.

Traditional Chinese People

The structure and importance of family is one of the most central and defining characteristics of traditional Chinese people. We've already seen how central the family is to living conditions, as houses were modeled to accommodate multiple generations. In this communal atmosphere, the family shared property and income. In fact, the traditional ideal was to have five generations under one roof, which is considered a "round" family, and was a sign of prestige. However, this was rarely possible, and three-generation households were more common [source: LaFleur].

The principles of Confucianism largely guided family structure and held that family was a building block for society. Confucianism put special emphasis on filial piety, which was believed to preserve harmony and keep families together. And entwined in the concept of filial piety is worship of ancestors, which is a central tradition for the Chinese family. For thousands of years, traditional Chinese family structure was strictly patriarchal, with the father or eldest male as the head of the household as well as provider and guide.

Women had little power in the family system, and the patriarch held absolute authority. Both tradition and laws upheld this patriarchal structure. Property passed down to the male line and was divided equally among sons. A daughter who got married was always to move in with her husband's parents to assist that household. In general, sons were prized more than daughters, as sons were seen as carrying on family lineage (the way for a father to achieve immortality), but daughters were often considered simply a burden. In fact, one traditional Chinese saying states that raising daughters is like "watering a neighbor's garden."

Fathers also had final say in arranging the marriages of their daughters. Traditionally, the institution of marriage was for the benefit of the family and had no basis in the romantic feelings of the bride and groom. Love was not considered a sound foundation for marriage under the Confucian view [source: Yang].

As we merely skim the surface of the ancient traditions of this civilization, we've only seen a glimpse of what is obviously a complex and rich culture.

Related Articles

Sources

  • Adler, Philip J., Randall L. Pouwels. "World Civilizations: Since 1500." Cengage Learning, 2007. (Aug. 4, 2011) http://books.google.com/books?id=mPoqfoiIp4sC
  • Browning, Don S., et al. "Sex, Marriage, and Family in World Religions." Columbia University Press, 2009. (Aug. 4, 2011) http://books.google.com/books?id=QNf9Nj-p3bUC
  • Cai, Yanxin. "Chinese Architecture." Cambridge University Press, 2011. (Aug. 4, 2011) http://books.google.com/books?id=U3spht1SXhgC
  • Chen, Jianfu. "Chinese Law: Context and Transformation." BRILL, 2008. (Aug. 4, 2011) http://books.google.com/books?id=r-domiEBdIsC
  • Condra, Jill. "The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Clothing Through World History: 1501-1800." Greenwood Publishing Group, 2008. (Aug. 3, 2011) http://books.google.com/books?id=S8bTzilz1BMC
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica. "China." Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2011. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/111803/China
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica. "Confucianism." Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2011.http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/132104/Confucianism
  • Finanne, Antonia. "Changing Clothes in China: Fashion, History, Nation." Columbia University Press, 2008. (Aug. 3, 2011) http://books.google.com/books?id=Ju3N4VeiQ28C
  • Golany, Gideon. "Chinese Earth-Sheltered Dwellings." University of Hawaii Press, 1992. (Aug. 4, 2011) http://books.google.com/books?id=Ha8-3IBLqj0C
  • Giskin, Howard, Bettye S. Walsh. "An Introduction to Chinese Culture Through the Family." SUNY Press, 2001. (Aug. 4, 2011) http://books.google.com/books?id=49HGTJYg4ScC
  • Holland, Alex. "Voices of Qi: An Introductory Guide to Traditional Chinese Medicine." North Atlantic Books, 2000. (Aug 3, 2011) http://books.google.com/books?id=nuYSbgF-UvIC
  • Hua, Mei. "Chinese Clothing." Cambridge University Press, 2011. (Aug. 3, 2011) http://books.google.com/books?id=ayKNyCz0cOEC
  • Jiuzhang, Med, Guo Lei. "Introduction to Traditional Chinese Medicine." CRC PRess, 2009. (Aug. 3, 2011) http://books.google.com/books?id=nuYSbgF-UvIC
  • Keister, Douglas. "Courtyards: Intimate Outdoor Spaces." Gibbs Smith, 2005. (Aug. 4, 2011) http://books.google.com/books?id=bIkoa6AyUuAC
  • LaFleur, Robert André. “China.” ABC-CLIO, 2009. (Aug. 4, 2011) http://books.google.com/books?id=tQ5fa43oy1kC
  • Li, Jian-rong, Yin-Hwa P. Hsieh. "Traditional Chinese Food Technology and Cuisine." Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2004, Vol. 13, Issue 2.
  • Min, Pyong Gap. "Asian Americans: Contemporary Trends and Issues." Pine Forge Press, 2006. (Aug. 4, 2011) http://books.google.com/books?id=5PSYZMs8TzEC
  • NCCAM. "Traditional Chinese Medicine: An Introduction." National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. National Institutes of Health. Last Updated June 20, 2011. (Aug. 3, 2011) http://nccam.nih.gov/health/whatiscam/chinesemed.htm
  • State.gov. "Background Note: China." U.S. Department of State. Aug 5, 2010. (Aug 4, 2011) http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/18902.htm
  • Wu, Dingbo, Patrick D. Murphy. "Handbook of Chinese Popular Culture." Greenwood Publishing Group, 1994. http://books.google.com/books?id=V0R-3zFSJbkC
  • Yang, C.K. "Religion in Chinese Society." University of California Press, 1970. (Aug. 4, 2011. http://books.google.com/books?id=wi9AdfGU_VcC
  • Yang, Shaorong. "Traditional Chinese clothing: Costumes, Adornments & Culture." Long River Press, 2004. (Aug. 3, 2011) http://books.google.com/books?id=nx5JDiacrH4C
  • Young, Grace. "The Cooking Wisdom of Yin & Yang." Health (Time Inc. Health); Jan/Feb2003, Vol. 17 Issue 1.