You can’t ignore China: more than a country, it’s a civilization, and one that has continuously recycled itself, not much perturbed by outsiders, for three millenia. Its script reached perfection in the Han dynasty, two thousand years ago, and those stone lions standing sentinel outside sleek new skyscrapers are built to a three-thousand-year-old design. Yet this ancient culture is now undergoing the fastest creative and commercial upheaval the world has ever seen, with Hong Kong-style skylines rearing up across the country. This dizzying modernisation is visible in every aspect of Chinese life, and it is the tension and contrast between wrenching change and continuity that makes modern China such an endlessly fascinating destination.
The first thing that strikes visitors to the country is the extraordinary density of its population. In central and eastern China, villages, towns and cities seem to sprawl endlessly into one another along the grey arteries of busy expressways. These are the Han Chinese heartlands, a world of chopsticks, tea, slippers, grey skies, shadow-boxing, teeming crowds, chaotic train stations, smoky temples, red flags and the smells of soot and frying tofu.
Move west or north away from the major cities, however, and the population thins out as it begins to vary: indeed, large areas of the People’s Republic are inhabited not by the “Chinese”, but by scores of distinct ethnic minorities, ranging from animist hill tribes to urban Muslims.
Here, the landscape begins to dominate: green paddy fields and misty hilltops in the southwest, the scorched, epic vistas of the old Silk Road in the northwest, and the magisterial mountains of Tibet.
While travel around the country itself is the easiest it has ever been, it would be wrong to pretend that it is an entirely simple matter to penetrate modern China. The main places to visit – the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Terracotta Army and the Yangzi gorges – are relatively few considering the vast size of the country, and much of China’s historic architecture has been deliberately destroyed in the rush to modernize. Added to this are the frustrations of travelling in a land where few people speak English, the writing system is alien and foreigners are sometimes viewed as exotic objects of intense curiosity – though overall you’ll find that the Chinese, despite a reputation for curtness, are generally hospitable and friendly.Read More
Although China’s varied geography and climate have created a wealth of wildlife habitats, the country’s vast human population has put pressure on the environment, bringing some high-profile creatures to the edge of extinction. Most famous of these is the giant panda, which survives in pockets of high-altitude bamboo forest across the southwest. A few Siberian tigers haunt the northeastern highlands, while the critically endangered South China tiger numbers just thirty wild individuals. Less well-known rarities include the snub-nosed golden monkey, white-headed langur and Chinese alligator, all of which are possible – with a lot of luck – to see in the wild. Birdlife can be prolific, with freshwater lakes along the Yangzi and in western Guizhou, along with the vast saline Qinghai Lake, providing winter refuge for hosts of migratory wildfowl – including rare Siberian and black-necked cranes.
Thousands of martial arts have evolved in China, usually in isolated communities that had to defend themselves, such as Daoist temples and clan villages. All, though, can be classed into two basic types: external, or hard, styles concentrate on building up physical strength to overpower opponents; the trickier but perhaps ultimately more effective, internal, or soft, styles concentrate on developing and focusing the internal energy known as qi. Both styles use forms – prearranged sets of movements – to develop the necessary speed, power and timing; as well as kicks, punches and open palm strikes they also incorporate movements inspired by animals.
The most famous external style is Shaolin kung fu, developed in the Shaolin Temple in Henan Province and known for powerful kicks and animal styles – notably eagle, mantis and monkey. The classic Shaolin weapon is the staff and there’s even a drunken form, where the practitoner sways and lurches as if inebriated.
But the style that you’re most likely to see – it’s practised in the open air all over the country – is the internal tai ji quan. The body is held in a state of minimal tension to create the art’s characteristic “soft” appearance. Its emphasis on slow movements and increasing qi flow means it is excellent for health, and it’s a popular workout for the elderly.
Chinese characters are simplified images of what they represent, and their origins as pictograms can often still be seen, even though they have become highly abstract today. The earliest-known examples of Chinese writing are predictions that were cut into “oracle bones” over three thousand years ago during the Shang dynasty, though the characters must have been in use long before as these inscriptions already amount to a highly complex writing system. As the characters represent concepts, not sounds, written Chinese cuts through the problem of communication in a country with many different dialects. However, learning characters is a never-ending job – though you only need to recognize a couple of thousand for everyday use. Foreigners learning Mandarin use the modern pinyin transliteration system of accented Roman letters – used throughout this book – to help memorize the sounds. For more on language.
A reliance on coal for power and heating, factories spewing untreated waste into the atmosphere, growing numbers of vehicles, and the sheer density of the urban population all conspire to make Chinese cities some of the most polluted on earth. Black sludge fills canals and streams; buildings are mired by soot; blue sky is only a memory; the population seem permanently stricken with bronchitis; and acid rain withers plants. In summer, the worst spots are the Yangzi valley “furnaces” of Nanjing, Chongqing and Wuhan; winter in Xi’an, on the other hand, features black snow.