Impressions of China

China is a wonderful place with a rich history and complex culture. Its people and its monuments still carry the traditions and stories of their past close to their hearts. In my recent two week trip to China I was fully enveloped by their cultural heritage, people, and cuisine. The trip itself was absolutely wonderful and I hope to return soon. In this article I will relate some of the overall impressions of the country and its people and culture. In the following articles in this series I will write my day to day journals of the trip so that others may experience my trip along with me. I will back date these articles so that they are posted on the dates that they actually occurred. To enjoy more pictures from my trip please stop by the Gallery.

Language

China’s national language is Mandarin. Considered the common people’s tongue it is widely spoken but many dialects of it exist. Almost every province in China has its own unique dialect. There are many ethnic minorities within China and these groups often have their own unique languages. Cantonese, from the province of Canton (Guǎngdōng 廣東), itself is another regional dialect that is so widely different from Mandarin that it is now considered another language. All of the spoken dialects are tonal in nature using tones not for emphasis, as in many Western languages, but instead to alter the meaning of words. Since many of the words are pronounced with the same tones the language is also very heavily contextual.

Most people within China speak Mandarin and can understand if not speak a few other dialects. Usually this includes the regional dialect from their home province, the major dialect spoken in the city or province they live in, and possibly one other. For most of the population even if they cannot speak a given dialect they can generally identify which provincial dialect it is.

The written language was standardized during the Qin Dynasty (Qín Cháo 秦朝) from 221 BCE – 206 BCE by China’s first emperor Shǐ Huáng Dì (始皇帝). The written language is a pictograph based language and is the same among all dialects even between Cantonese and Mandarin. These pictographs are often comprised of several identifying radicals as well as parts for borrowing phonetic characteristics. There are currently two sets of characters in use in China, traditional and simplified. The simplified characters were introduced in 1954 in an attempt to increase the literacy of the common populace. Traditionally characters were written from top to bottom and moving from the right to the left. In the modern era, however, most Chinese follows more a more Western writing structure and reads from left to right. It requires a knowledge of approximately 3,000 characters to read the newspaper in China and decently literate individual generally knows approximately 6,000 – 7,000 characters.

People

China’s populace are by far very friendly and curious of foreign visitors. They are interested in foreign thoughts, ideas and cultures more as a novelty than inquiring for different ways to view the world. Once they discover that you are capable of speaking the language, even if only in a limited capacity, they will attempt to engage you in conversation and try to share some of their life and experiences with you and listen attentively while you tell some of yours.

In general the Chinese are very health conscious. Their diets contain a wide variety of dishes that contain both meat and vegetables and fruits. Each food is known to be good for the health of certain organs within the body or to help an individual overcome certain ailments.

The Chinese are also very active. Sports are promoted among all ages even the elderly. Physical exercise exists as a part of most peoples daily work or leisure activities. Even people in their 80’s get out and play sports with friends, dance, practice martial arts, play badminton, or walk almost every single day. It is quite amazing to see the amount of vigor that is present among the elderly in China which has almost no correlation among people in the United States which do not often keep themselves engaged mentally or physically in the later years.

Spirituality

China, not surprisingly with such a large population, has a wide diversity of spiritual beliefs. China has a large population of Buddhists, Daoists and Muslims among many others. The five religions that are officially recognized by China are Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism.

China comes from a background heavily steeped in mythic folklore that permeates through their stories and traditions. In more recent history the amount of religious affiliation among the Chinese has declined into passive observance as a result of the cultural revolution when religion was considered as a backward and superstitious behavior. This passivity is more prevalent in the rapidly changing metropolitan areas while traditional faiths are held on to more passionately by those in outlying rural areas. Many people in China, however, are still quite superstitious. These superstitions involve numerology, colors, foods, holidays, and placement of objects. Religion is on the rise again since the end of the Cultural Revolution, when the government relaxed its position on religious affiliation, recognizing that both Buddhism and Daoism played a heavy role in the development of their culture.

Many of the religions are more philosophic than theistic and do not require strict adherence to only that faith. Many followers of Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism may pray or pay respects at temples of other religions, follow several different philosophies, or overlap these philosophies with their own ancestor worship. This trend is seen less within the adherence to the more theistic religions which have a place in China such as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.

Traffic

Traffic in the cities of China is horrible. During the day the streets are almost in a constant state of congestion. It appears that all traffic laws are optional and left to the discretion and skill of the driver. I only rarely observed the use of turn signals to indicate intent of action while driving. At any point any driver may be in any lane, a combination of more than one lane, or the opposing traffics lane. The only concern appears to be getting from origin to destination in as quick a time as possible by any means possible. Included in the confusion are the numerous scooters, bicycles, and pedestrians. These fearless individuals will walk into traffic with or without the approval of the traffic lights. Usually they are huddled in groups that move in masses for safety to get to their destination regardless of the amount of cars trying to get through or the speed with which the cars are bearing down on them. Often traffic will pass by so close to the pedestrians and bicycle traffic that there is no margin left for error by either party or an accident and injury would occur. It was amazing to me that during the amount of travel that we did by bus on our trip that we only saw the results of two collisions and not an accident every few feet. For any vehicles, scooters, pedestrians, or bicycles that wish to occupy any part of the road their right to have that space appears to be determined by a massive game of chicken in which the party that makes it their first and does not move ahead or back to relinquish the space to someone else gets to stay their. This often results in heart stopping lurches when the drivers must hit the breaks to ensure they do not crash into another vehicle or crush a pedestrian.

The skill of the drivers is very impressive. They know the wheelbase and exact turn radius of their vehicle as well as routinely check its stopping capability. They are acutely aware of the dimensions of their vehicle and can maneuver into and out of areas that I would not even think of. They are very aware of everything around them through use of their mirrors and occasionally through cameras placed to show the very front of their bus.

Much of traffic is negotiated through use of horn etiquette. The drivers have developed their own language and constantly drive with one hand ever poised to hit the horn. There are unique horn signals to make someone aware that you are coming up on them and asking them to move over, another signal that you have decided they are moving too slow and that you are coming alongside them as you are passing them, signals that you are angry at what the driver in front of you just did and a variety of others. Every vehicle uses these so the streets are constantly filled with the sounds of horns. Only bicycles and pedestrians do not get to use these signals and are often lower on the traffic food chain, giving way more frequently.

There is currently no insurance so all damages are paid out of pocket by the individual involved. Though laws are improving it used to be that fault in an accident was determined by the size of the vehicle. The larger vehicle was always at fault. Because it is so expensive to own and operate a vehicle with great potential for accidents China is still very heavily a pedestrian country and supports a massive public transportation infrastructure.

Vendors

Many of China’s people are in business for themselves. Often this means shops of various sizes from the street vendor to the restaurant owner. Shops line the avenues of most streets with bored workers looking out or standing outside of their shops waiting for customers. With tourism such a high profit market, the number of street vendors and peddlers of souvenirs and trinkets are high.

At most tourist venues foreigners can expect to be assaulted by vendors selling everything from t-shirts and watches to guidebooks and maps. These vendors flock around foreigners since they often are more inclined to buy, have less practical knowledge of the cost of the items, and generally have more expendable income since they already have a enough to travel abroad. Often times the vendors carry identical stock as other street vendors and several will swarm you at a time. This can often be to your advantage by playing them off of each other as a bargaining strategy. Vendors often start the prices off very high especially for foreigners. These prices seem ludicrous to those who know better and a better deal can almost always be struck. Bargaining is expected and often you can buy items for ridiculously low prices especially if buying multiple quantities at once. Usually you can get items for at least a third off sometimes more if you are very shrewd in your bargaining skills. Walking away or seeming disinterested seems to be one of the most effective tactics.

Also snack and food vendors are often nearby if not directly associated with the attraction you are attending. Most of the government regulated factories that cater to tourist groups often include a restaurant. This means they can at least get some money out of you for a meal even if you don’t purchase anything and by taking you through the sales area to and from the meal it increases the amount of exposure you have to the merchandise in hopes of enticing you to a sale. These shops do not haggle over price and all prices are set quite expensively. Often similar items can be found in common markets elsewhere at drastically reduced prices. When out and about you are never really far from bottled water, meat treats, steamed buns, noodle bowls, or grocery markets to assuage any hunger or thirst while out for a day of sightseeing.

Sanitation

Beijing is a fairly clean city in China.  They spent a lot of time and money and instituted many regulations to clean up the city for the 2008 Olympics.  Beijing is trying to continue such regulations to keep the amount of pollution in the city to a minimum.  Most of the rest of China is not so luckily.  China is a horribly polluted country.  With an industrial revolution under way many new factories and enterprises have developed.  Since the Chinese government has yet to regulate pollution and waste removal, the environment in the nation suffers.  The rivers are all highly polluted with factories dumping waste, garbage, and human waste.  They do not have any water treatment facilities resulting in no drinkable water within China.  All water must first be boiled before it is consumed.  At most meals it is common to have hot tea, beer, or soda, though rarely any water.  The air pollution from factories is horrible.  While traveling by train through the countryside it was common to see numerous factories spewing forth smoke into the sky.  Many of the cities are undergoing heavily development with dozens of tall apartment complexes being developed using heavy machinery.  The pollution in Xi’An was the worst.  It was so thick you could taste it in the air and made breathing difficult.  The pollution left a film on everything in the city giving the whole city a very unclean feeling.

Despite the pollution though, China does employ a large workforce with the sole purpose of keeping areas clean.  This is most evident near tourist attractions.  Many of the tourist attraction have people who pick up trash and waste or spend time sweeping the grounds.  Most locations do make designations for recyclable and non-recyclable material in an effort to encourage recycling.  Many of these jobs for cleaning and site maintenance often fall to the elderly.  Sometimes they were even hired to clean sections of the road.  You can see them with their brooms out sweeping dirt, trash and dust into piles. Mostly this seems like a futile effort because the wind and the air displaced by vehicles quickly blows this dirt back into the streets.  In areas without people employed for sanitation the conditions are clearly worse.  Most Chinese people do not seem to think about where they are or what they are doing in regards to waste and will just throw trash down where ever they happen to be.  This is most evident in rural areas where you can see long swathes of trash that have collected on the sides of the roads.

Restroom sanitation is an entirely different matter.  I have decided that 90% of China smells like urine.  Pay toilets are the worst.  I do not think those restrooms have been clean since they were first opened.  Most bathrooms are not cleaned at all.  It is often very easy to determine where the restroom is in any location simply by following your nose.  China still uses squat toilets in most bathrooms.  Exceptions are only in hotels that are frequented by more foreign clientele. These hotels which cater to a more Western audience will often have Western style toilets.  Even on the trains they use squat toilets.  On one train that we took I felt particularly bad for anyone who had to use the restroom without standing up.  While the newer bullet train is a very smooth ride, this train was older and rocked and swayed.  I am also fairly certain that the drain led right outside to the tracks when flushed as the entire time I could see what appeared to be daylight shining up through the drain.

Quality of Life

Within the more metropolitan areas of China the quality of life is very comparable to that of their American counterparts.  The rural areas, however, are another story entirely.  Most of the conditions in the rural areas border on Third World.  At first I had to constantly remind myself not to pity these people.  These people seem to be very poor and live in horrible conditions.  Most of these people,however,  are very happy.  They do not realize that there is any other way to live.  Their lifestyle has been like this for countless generations and is just the way that it has always been.  They work hard and appreciate what little they have.

In past generations the children are watched over by the elderly while the adults work to provide for the family and care for the elderly.  These family units stay together very close and as the children grow to adulthood and take over working the adults become the elderly and raise the next generation.  In more recent times, however, as the children get older they want to achieve more than their parents.  These children attend school and often university and then elect to move to larger urban areas where they are more likely to make a better living.  While these people will send money home to help their families, they are not there to help take care of the elderly.  This is a drastic break in tradition that is not looked upon favorably by the families living in rural areas.

Experience

This was definitely an amazing trip. I am very glad that I took the time to go it is an experience I will never forget. I sincerely hope that I get the opportunity to go back again and see more of China. There are already preparations being made for the Eric Lee China Tour 2009.  During the next trip they will visit Canton and the home where Sigung Eric Lee was born as well as a few days in Hong Kong.  In between they will spend 6 days training at the Tagou school outside of the Shaolin Temple.  If anyone has any questions about the trip or would like more information on the next martial tour of China please feel free to contact me.  I encourage anyone who is considering a trip like this to take full advantage of China’s hospitality.


Comments  1 Comment »

  1. andrea - November 9, 2008 3:06 pm

    Hi! Matt I just got done reading about your trip. I enjoyed it and laughed a few times too. I haven’t looked at all the pictures yet but the ones I have are awesome. You have a talent for writing. Bye Andrea :)

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