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Chinese Culture: Customs & Traditions of China

dragon dance
A dragon dance celebrates the temple at Foshan, China.
Credit: windmoon / Shutterstock.com

The teachings of Confucius — which stress obedience and deference to elders and responsibility to community — are a dominant part of the Chinese culture. The country is extremely large, so customs and traditions vary by geography and the more than 50 ethnic groups that reside in this country of 1.34 billion people. Here is a brief overview of Chinese culture.

Confucius
Statue of Confucius at Confucian Temple in Shanghai, China.
Credit: Philip Lange | Shutterstock

Religion

Because China is a communist state, there is no official religion and more than half of the population claims no religious affiliation or identifies as atheist. About a quarter of the people practice Taoism and Confucianism and other traditional religions. There are also small numbers of Buddhists, Muslims and Christians. Although numerous Protestant and Catholic ministries have been active in the country since the early 19th century, they have made little progress in converting Chinese to these religions.

Language

There are seven main dialects of Chinese — Mandarin, Cantonese, Hakka, Wu, Min, Xiang and Gan. Pŭtōnghuà, the type of Mandarin based on the speech in the capital Beijing, is the official national language of mainland China. Many Chinese are also fluent in English. The written language is symbol-based.

Food

Like other aspects of Chinese life, cuisine is heavily influenced by geography and ethnic diversity. Among the main styles of Chinese cooking are Cantonese, which features stir-fried dishes, and Sezchuan, which relies heavily on use of peanuts, sesame paste and ginger and is known for its spiciness.

The Chinese word for rice is fan, which also means meal, and it is a staple of their diet, as are bean sprouts, cabbage and scallions. Because they do not consume a lot of meat — occasionally pork or chicken — tofu is a main source of protein for the Chinese.

chinese calligraphy
Chinese calligraphy. Chinese writing is based on symbols.
Credit: ariadna de raadt | Shutterstock

Tea is the beverage of choice.

Arts

Chinese art is greatly influenced by the country’s rich spiritual and mystical history. Many sculptures and paintings depict spiritual figures of Buddhism.

Many musical instruments are integral to Chinese culture, including the flute-like xun and the guqin, which is in the zither family. The country’s musical history dates back to the beginning of its existence.

Eastern-style martial arts were also developed in China, and it is the birthplace of kung fu, which translates to human achievement.

Ancient Chinese were avid writers and philosophers — especially during the the Ming and Qing dynasties — and that is reflected in the country’s rich liturgical history.

Customs and celebrations

The largest festival — also called the Spring Festival — marks the beginning of the lunar new year. It falls between mid-January and mid-February and is a time to honor ancestors. During the 15-day celebration, children receive money in red envelopes for good luck and people thoroughly clean their homes to signify a fresh beginning. The holiday is marked fireworks and parades with dancers dressed as dragons.

Many people make pilgrimages to Confucius' birthplace in Shandong Province on his birthday, Sept. 28. The birthday of Guanyin, the goddess of mercy, is observed by visiting Taoist temples. It falls between late March and late April. Similar celebrations mark the birthday of Mazu, the goddess of the sea (also known as Tianhou), in May or June. The Moon Festival is celebrated in September or October with fireworks, paper lanterns and moon gazing.

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