Temple in the Fengdu Ghost City, Yangtze River, China

China, The Celestial Empire - In a Nutshell

Author: Sue
Date: 13th August 2023
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Facts and Factoids

  • Officially called the People's Republic of China (PRC), this is the world's second most populous country, exceeding 1.4 billion (just recently overtaken by India).
  • China is the world's third largest country.
  • China is the world's largest economy by GDP, at purchasing power parity (around one-fifth of the world economy),the second-wealthiest country and the world's largest manufacturer and exporter, as well as the second-largest importer.
  • It has the world's largest standing army by military personnel and the second-largest defence budget.
  • The Chinese flag was chosen via a competition - there were 2992 entries. The red colour represents the Chinese Communist Revolution. The stars stand for the unity of the Chinese people. The four small stars around one big star show that unity should revolve around one centre.
  • China spans the equivalent of five time zones (but only recognizes Beijing time)  and has land borders with fourteen other countries (tied for most with Russia). The country is divided into 22 provinces, five autonomous regions, four municipalities, and two special administrative regions (Hong Kong and Macau). The national capital is Beijing, but the most populous city and financial centre is Shanghai. Wow.
  • Football was invented in China - but table tennis (or ping pong), one of the national sports, actually came from Great Britain
  • As in Japan, the number four is widely avoided - it sounds too similar to the word for death

What's in a Name?

Trawling the internet throws up several nicknames for China. Perhaps most common is the “Middle Kingdom”. The Chinese believed that China was the centre of the world, surrounded by inferior cultures and civilizations. But the name “Land of Dragons”, also emerges. The Chinese believed that dragons are sacred creatures, symbols of power, strength, and good luck. The dragon also represented the emperor, who was believed to be a descendant of the mythical creature. Closely related is the alternative epithet,“ Land of the Red Dragon”. (Though Wales also lays claim to this one.) Red is considered lucky in Chinese culture. Finally, China is sometimes referred to as the “Celestial Empire”. The emperor was seen as the son of heaven, related to the divine beings who were in charge and gave rise to divine culture.

An Exceptionally Brief History of China

  • The Chinese have a long history.  They  trace their origins to a cradle of civilization in the fertile basin of the Yellow River in the North China Plain. This the only culture in the world to have a continuous recorded history of 5,000 years, beginning withthe The Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors - a group of mythological rulers and sheng (sages). The first was the wise, Yellow Emperor. He promoted the Tao (or the Way).
  • A long series of dynasties followed ensuring the development of Chinese culture, writing, literature, philosophy and  inventions like gunpowder, paper and paper money. It  began with the  Xia dynasty in the 21st century BC and ended with the Manchu-led Qing dynasty. The empire’s fortunes waxed and waned, but the Qing nearly doubled the empire's territory and established a multi-ethnic state. This was the basis for modern day China, as the Qing found themselves at increasing odds with European colonial powers.
  • Buddhism reached China from India in 67 AD and also had a profound effect on Chinese culture.
  • The Chinese monarchy finally collapsed in 1912, a result of  the Xinhai Revolution, when the Republic of China (ROC) replaced the Qing dynasty. The warlord era gave way to civil war between the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This was interrupted by the Japanese invasion in World War. The civil war ended in 1949, with the CCP establishing the People's Republic of China on the mainland while the Kuomintang-led ROC government retreated to the island of Taiwan. Today, both claim to be the sole legitimate government of China.
  • The CCP went through several manifestations and the Cultural Revolution, resulting in much hardship for the people. Today, China is governed by a UN recognised CCP,as a unitary Marxist-Leninist one-party socialist republic.

What to See in China?

If you’re a traveller, there can be few words more evocative than China. It's not the easiest or most welcoming of places to visit and it's huge. But solo travel is much more possible than it was. The choice of sights, both cultural and scenic, is exciting and overwhelming. The food is a gastronomic experience too. It varies widely across the country (you'll need to practice with chopsticks or you'll go hungry in some places), but in essence the Chinese eat everything. Rats, snakes, dogs, and many other less-consumed animals (pangolin anyone?) form some of the iconic Chinese dishes. Mostly with rice, of course. (N.B. Fortune cookies originated in San Francisco).

My first Chinese visits were to Hong Kong, then a British Overseas Territory. But you can read about my other trips:

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