The Characteristics of Chinese Culture
Generally speaking, different cultures have some qualities in common. Against the backdrop of modernization and globalization, the convergence of cultures is obvious as people began to wear the same clothes, live in similar houses, use the same means of transport and even eat similar food. In this case, it is more meaningful to stress the individuality of cultures. I would like to brief you on the characteristics of Chinese culture based on my own knowledge.
Chinese Culture is Continuous
There are several ancient civilizations in the world, among which Egyptian, Indian, Babylonian, Greek, Mayan and Chinese civilizations are the most famous. The greatest difference between Chinese and the other five civilizations are consistency, continuity and succession. With a recorded history of over 5000 years, Chinese civilization does not have marked advantages over others in terms of time span. However, the 5000 years of history has never been broken down with an amazing succession from the birth of the civilization until now. Other civilizations, once so brilliant and splendid, broke off and became dead relics that have little relevance with the present. Some were considered as mysteries and others the forever regrets. Among other things, the sharp contrast between the incredible ancient sculptures of Benin in Africa, the over 1000 years’ Angkor Wat of Cambodia and the people living there now will astonish you. How can history discontinue so cruelly resulting in two totally different worlds? According to archeology, the Chinese civilization was diverse at its birth. Among its sub-civilizations, central plains civilization, the lower reaches of Yangtze River River, especially the Yangtze River Delta civilization, and Sanxingdui civilization around Chengdu, Sichuan Province, are the most well-known. Only several sub-civilizations, such as Sanxingdui civilization were discontinued. The image of the human face with vertical eyes is quite bizarre and finds no succession in the following Sichuan Basin civilization. In contrast, central plains civilization and Yangtze River Delta civilization have passed on and spread to the far South, North, and West of China. Generally speaking, architecture, clothing, food and drink, living appliances and art forms have not changed and have continued to form a unique feature and enormous ancient civilization that is full of vitality that can be touched upon. The Chinese cultural elements displayed at the opening ceremony of Beijing Olympics, i.e. typography, gunpowder, the compass, papermaking, tea, the magnet, silk, drawing, writing, opera, etc, are used, enjoyed and inherited by us now. The incredible continuity and succession is the grandness and characteristic of Chinese civilization.
Chinese Culture is Created by Multiple Nationalities
As is known to us all, China is a multi-ethnic country with 56 nationalities. Except the Han nationality, the other 55 nationalities are called ‘minority nationality’ because those 55 minority nationalities have small populations. The biggest minority nationality has only 10 million people, incomparable with the 1.3 billion people of Han nationality. Besides, these minority nationalities live in the remote areas with a relatively backward economy, giving people a false impression that they have little influence in China. In fact, most minority nationalities live in the northern part of China in. Living a nomadic life, they are brave and good warriors and at riding, bullying the Han from north for a long period. They usually defeated the Han and drove them to the south of the Yangtze River, dividing China into two parts and becoming leaders of the whole country. However, those minority rulers who had led half or the whole of China were assimilated by the Han culturally and even ethnically in the end. Many famous minority nationalities in history ended only as historical nouns, such as Xiongnu, Xianbei, Qidan, Dangxiang, Nvzhen, etc. Beijing has been the national capital for more than 800 years, spanning six dynasties: Liao, Jin, Yuan, Ming, Qing, and part of the Republic of China. During these periods, most rulers were from minority nationalities, for example, Qidan nationality in Liao dynasty, Nvzhen in Jin dynasty, Menggu in Yuan dynasty and Manchu in Qing dynasty with the rulers of Ming dynasty let alone the Han. Such a special history shows that the integration among different nationalities is a feature of Chinese civilization, in other words, Chinese civilization has been created by multiple nationalities. Take language as an example, the Peking dialect is a ringing and light language created by Manchu, which means that not only are there some Manchu words in Peking dialect, but also Manchu are the main creators of this dialect as a whole because Manchu had been the rulers and residents of Beijing for the past 267 years. Another example is China’s two Buddhist caves that have been listed as World Cultural Heritage, one is Longmen Cave of Luoyang, Henan Province, another is Yungang Cave of Datong, Shanxi. And the creator of these two caves is Tuobo, the ruler of Xianbei minority nationality in North China in the Northern Wei Dynasty.
There are also many examples in daily life. For example, Qipao is still the formal dress of Chinese women, dumplings and instant-boiled mutton are favorites of Chinese people, and all of them come from minority nationalities. In a word, multi-nationality is another unique characteristic of Chinese culture.
Chinese Civilization is Guided by Philosophy in all Aspects
From the planning of a city to the arrangement of a garden, order instead of randomness is applied in all aspects. This is the third great characteristic of Chinese culture.
Where do this order come from?
They come from myths, the Chou Rituals, divination, shamans, Daoism, Buddhism, Confucianism and philosophy. In a word, it comes from the ancient civilization.
Take Beijing as an example, instead of evolving little by little, bit by bit from small villages and fishing villages as other famous historical cities did, it was planed beforehand and built according to a blueprint 1000 years ago. Then what are the guiding principles of the construction of Beijing? They are the axis, zygomorphy, ‘Palace Front and Market Back’, ‘State Temple Right and Ancestral Temple Left’. That is to say, the palaces of the emperors are located in the centre of the city and called ‘Front Palaces’; shops and markets of citizens are to the north and called ‘Back Markets’; State Temple is to the west and signifies the land of the country; while the Imperial Ancestral Temple is to the east and symbolizes the history of the country. There are nine gates in Beijing. nine is the largest odd number within 10, signifying the place where the emperors lived. The distances between the western gates and eastern gates are the same with 21 Hutong stretching from east to west distinctively. So are the distances between each Hutong, i.e. 71 metres. This shows that Beijing was planned as early as 700 years ago and was built gradually with a map. If you look at Beijing from the sky, you may find three hills around Beihai Park: one is Yingtai in the Zhongnanhai Park, one is Tuancheng, and the other is Qiongdao in the centre of Beihai Park. These three hills are symbols of fairylands: Yingzhou, Penglai and Fangzhang Hills in fairy tales. 2200 years ago, the first emperor of Qin dynasty went to the far east of Shandong Province many times, i.e. Yingzhou, Penglai and Fangzhang Hill in East China Sea for elixir. Since then, emperors would build these three fairy hills symbolically around their palaces, such as Genyue in Kaifeng, the capital of Song Dynasty; the hills in Yuangmingyuan (Garden of Perfect Brightness) and the Summer Palace in Qing dynasty. Inside the Beihai Park, the best imperial park in China, there is an open-air square pond where Song emperors used to have saunas. There even are three stones in the pond, signifying the three fairy hills. It can be seen that for Chinese ancestors, everything is with order and reason. Besides the State Temple, the Temple of Heaven, Earth, Sun and Moon are the most famous among the other eight temples. The Temple of Heaven is the largest, its north wall is straight while the south wall is round, embodying the philosophy of ‘Round Heaven and Square Earth’. In contrast, the Temple of Earth is square. The arrangement is related to Chinese understanding of earth and universe. The amounts of components in the Circular Mound Altar of the Temple of Heaven are multiples of nine, because this is where the emperor prayed and communicated with heaven; oppositely, the amounts of everything in the Temple of Earth are even with the pattern of (夙). The composition fully reflects the philosophy of Yin-yang, proving again that each detail is with reason and order.
However, like everything else, such ancient civilization has its serious side. 1919 saw the well-known May Fourth Movement in China, which upheld the banner of ‘Science and Democracy’ and criticized the downside of Chinese civilization and ushered in China’s modernization. From 1944 to 1948, Lao She, the famous Chinese writer, wrote a novel named Sishitongtang (four generations living under one roof) of one million Chinese characters. This novel is considered the best modern novel in China and has been translated into English, French, German, Japanese, etc. Depicting the changing of mind of Chinese people during the eight years of Anti-Japanese Aggression War, Sishitongtang criticized the heavy cultural burden of China. The protagonist is a senior intellectual in Beijing. When the war started, he, guided by the ancient philosophy of ‘Both loyalty and filial piety are not attained’, decided to stay in Beijing which had already been occupied by the Japanese army and shoulder the responsibility of a male master of a family, letting others fight in the battle field. It can be imagined that if all the smart intellectuals thought like him, China would fall into a mess and find it difficult to win the battle. As a result, the war lasted for eight years and won narrowly with the aid of the international community. The idea of drawing the strong points of others to offset one's own weakness that this novel reflects may be a clear and reasonable judgment of the Chinese civilization and has been accepted by the Chinese people.
The Aesthetic Nature of the Chinese Civilization
Zhu Guangqian, the famous Chinese modern aesthetician once made a smart analogy that, in front of a large waterfall, an American might say: “Wow, How wonderful if it can be used to generate electricity!” an Indian might say, “Wow, how mighty Indra (印度教里面的神？) is!” while a Chinese might say: “ What a beautiful waterfall!”
At present, China boasts 36 World Heritage Sites, ranking third worldwide. Among them, five are World Cultural and Natural Sites: Mount Tai, Mount Huang, Ermei Mountain and Leshan Buddha, Wuyi Moutain as well as Mount Lu. Those five places have both the beautiful natural scenery and the profound cultural heritages thanks to the aesthetics of Chinese people. Since ancient times, emperors and men of letters would compose poems there and engrave them on the cliffs. Therefore, when the later generation climbs the mountains, they find themselves in a museum of beautiful scenery as well as poems and calligraphy. There also are amazing religious architectures, sculptures and fine arts along the road. The combination of nature and culture of Chinese scenic sights marks the huge difference from the pure natural landscapes in many other countries where moors, wilderness, forests, wetlands are developed into natural reserves or parks. Except for the tablets with scientific commentary and roads, there is nothing man-made. In contrast in China, while maintaining the beauty and naturalness of the landscapes, praise and all sorts of art forms are added to achieve ‘the integration of man and nature’.
Represented by the Summer Palace and Suzhou Garden, the Chinese gardens are famous in the world with the most important feature there must be mountains and water. If there is no mountain, beautiful stones such as Taihu stone are put in piles on the ground; if there is no water, a man-made lake with a slope stretching to the water, reeds and willows on the bank are built. This totally imitates nature and is also called ‘the unity of man and nature’.
With the four treasures of study (writing brush, ink stick, ink slab, paper) as its tools, the Chinese painting is totally different from occidental painting. In the painting of beautiful women, the drawing of clothes is the strong point, but the drawing of the face is unable to exceed that of the oil painting. The strong points of Chinese classic painting are landscape painting and flower/bird works, which are of great artistic value. The basis of them is the impressionistic style, which is much earlier than the impressionism and modernism after the Renaissance in Europe. The impressionistic style means that the painter adds his imagination to natural beauty, deforming it so as to achieve the high level of beauty that integrates spirit and nature. This is another example of realizing the ‘harmony between man and nature’.
Among others, the aesthetic nature of the Chinese civilization is also found in several utilitarian objects. As a result, they are turned into handicraft products or art work. Some even win worldwide reputation or become ‘China only’. They are porcelain, calligraphy, seal cutting and furniture.
Pottery was invented by forefathers in many countries in the world, who independently invented the making and usage of pottery at approximate times. However, the Chinese are the only inventor of porcelain. After glazed and fired, the surface of pottery gets a lustre resembling that of jade. The earliest celadon was found in Deqing County, Zhejiang Province, where more than 40 ancient porcelain kiln sites were discovered after 20 years of excavation. Among them, more than 30 kilns belong to the Warring States Period of 2200 years ago. Since its invention, porcelain had enjoyed great favour among emperors of many dynasties. With their support and advocacy, a great number of official kilns specializing in all kinds of artistic porcelain were built throughout the country. In Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties there appeared many priceless porcelain rarities. With the construction of the Great South-North Canal and the expansion of overseas trade, Chinese porcelain had spread across the world and become the targets of lords and collectors of all countries. As a result, porcelains are valued not only as vessels but also as a perfect representation of Chinese aesthetics.
Calligraphy is the form of character writing. As an independent writing system, the Chinese character evolved from hieroglyphs and experiences developing phases including seal characters, clerical script, regular script, running script, cursive script, simplified characters, etc. The advantage of such characters is obvious as the monosyllabic character is concise and easy to be input into the computer. Besides, since the Chinese character imitates the image of the real object or derives from it, people can easily understand then remember it. The greatest characteristic of Chinese character is that it can be turned into a form of art, i.e. calligraphy, like fine arts, while other alphabetic writings do not have such a feature. Therefore, Chinese calligraphy turns from a pure utilitarian tool to the object of aesthetics, and a number of art forms of Chinese characteristics derive from it, such as tablet inscribing, a rubbing from a stone inscription, a horizontal inscribed board, the couplet (vertical written couplets are usually placed along either side of a doorway). These art forms have been spread to nearly every place of interest, park, store, family and even graveyards.
Seal cutting is a unique art form in Chinese culture. Chinese people prefer affixing a seal to signing their names. We carve our name on a piece of fine stone and with an inkpad stamp it on to papers that need signatures. Although the seal is small, the calligraphy, arrangement, cutting skill and materials of the seal are all taken into account thus forming an art. At wedding ceremonies of the past, the main participants including bride, groom, chief witness, parent family, introducer should bring their seals and stamp their names on the marriage certificate ceremoniously. And a wedding gift might be a pair of seals, which are of great value to be kept forever.
Since the Ming Dynasty, rare wood such as red sandalwood, rose wood and mahogany from Hainan Island and Southeast Asia had been transported to the imperial palace in Beijing and become the exclusive wood of the imperial family for making imperial furniture. With little quantity, but beautiful design and exquisite craftsmanship, they are of high artistic value and called ‘Classic Furniture of the Ming Dynasty”’ Later, the imperial furniture of the Qing Dynasty continued to win great favour among emperors and is considered the third artistic works besides porcelain as well as painting and calligraphy. When these imperial furniture spread to the public, they received great attention among collectors at home and abroad. In recent years, through the systematic study of Mr. Wang Shixiang, a rush of imitation of such furniture emerged and the huge production and distribution industry have been formed in general society. The Chinese cultural elements embodied in this hardwood classic furniture have drawn more and more attention and in-depth research.
The aesthetic nature of the Chinese people not only transforms the above utilitarian objects, i.e. porcelain, character, seal and furniture to artistic works, but also results in many interesting and odd things. For example, some emperors were incapable of running a country but were great painters and calligraphers, and left quite a few valuable artistic works. Emperor Huizong of the Song Dynasty belongs to the above group; some emperors who were diligent in managing state affairs even made furniture and porcelain wares themselves, e.g. Emperor Yongzheng of the Qing Dynasty; still others designed their own gardens and inscribed poems everywhere. Take Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty as an example, to everyone’s astonishment, he went so far as to inscribe 207 seven-character verses in a pavilion in Beihai Park alone. Generally speaking, writing poems is what young people love to do in their adolescence. China is a country of poem and prose. Many Chinese people, nurtured by poems of Tang and Song dynasty since childhood, become fond of writing poems when they get old. They write poems to express their feelings while visiting landscapes, and become poets and calligraphers. The great mathematician Su Buqing and Hua Luogeng are best examples of this group. What a natural thing for a nation with aesthetic nature!