has traditionally been regarded as China's highest form of
visual art - to the point that a person's character was judged
by the elegance of their handwriting! Decorative calligraphy
is found all over China, in temples and adorning the walls
of caves and the sides of mountains and monuments. The basic
tools of calligraphy - brush and ink - are also the tools
of Chinese painting, with linework and tone the all-important
Despite the ravages of time, war and ideology, there's
still a lot to see architecturally. Traces of the past include
the imperial structures of Beijing, the colonial buildings
of Shanghai, the occasional rural village and Buddhist,
Confucian and Taoist temples. Funerary art was already a
feature of Chinese culture in Neolithic times (9000-6000
BC), ranging from ritual vessels and weapons to pottery
figures, jade and sacrificial vessels made of bronze. Earthenware
production is almost as ancient, with the world's first
proto-porcelain being produced in China in the 6th century
AD, reaching its artistic peak under the Song rulers.
China's language is officially Mandarin, as spoken in Beijing.
The Chinese call it Putonghua. About 70% of the population
speak Mandarin, but that's just the tip of the lingusitic
iceberg. The country is awash with dialects, and dialects
within dialects - and few of them are mutually intelligible.
Of the seven major strains, Cantonese is the one most likely
to be spoken in your local Chinese takeaway. It's the lingua
franca of Guangdong, southern Guangxi, Hong Kong and (to
an extent) Macau which is the casino capital of China..
China's literary heritage is huge, but unfortunately its
untranslatability makes much of it inaccessible to Western
readers. Traditionally there are two forms, the classical
(largely Confucian) and the vernacular (such as the prose
epics of the Ming dynasty). Chinese theatre is also known
as opera because of the important role played by music,
and has spawned such diverse arts as acrobatics, martial
arts and stylised dance. Many Western film-lovers are fans
of Chinese cinema, with releases enjoying success at film
festivals and art-house cinemas. Recently there has been
an emergence of talented 'fifth-generation' post-Cultural
Revolution directors, including Zhang Yimou (Red Sorghum,
Chen Kaige (Farewell, My Concubine), Wu Ziniu and Tian Zhuangzhuang.
Add to them Hong Kong's East-meets-West action directors
John Woo (Hard Boiled) and Ringo Lam (Full Contact) and
you have a full-fledged, extremely successful film industry.
Chinese cuisine is justifiably famous, memorably diverse
- and generally not for the squeamish. The Chinese themselves
like to say they'll eat anything with four legs except a
table. For the most part, however, it's a case of doing
ingenious things with a limited number of basic ingredients.
The cuisine can be divided into four regional categories:
Beijing/Mandarin and Shandong (with steamed bread and noodles
as staples), Cantonese and Chaozhou (lightly cooked meats
and vegetables), Shanghainese (the home of 'red cooking'
and wuxi spare ribs) and Sichuan (spicy, with lots of chilli).
Tea is the most common nonalcoholic beverage on sale, although
Coca-Cola (both original and bogus) is making inroads, while
beer is by far the most popular alcoholic drink. 'Wine'
is a loose term which can cover oxidised and herb-soaked
concoctions, rice wine and wine containing lizards, bees
or pickled snakes. Another favourite is maotai, a spirit
made from sorghum which smells like rubbing alcohol and
makes a good substitute for petrol or paint thinner.