What is Chinese culture?
Chinese culture, one of the four most ancient cultures in the world, was developed along China’s Yellow River and Yangtze River. The other three were Babylonian at Mesopotamia and Euphrates, Egyptian of Niles River, and Indian along Ganges River. While these three ancient cultures diminished and ceased in history, Chinese culture is the only one that has evolved in past 5,000 years continuously to the modern times.
The breadth and depth resulted from the continuous assimilation of hundreds of Asian tribes in Asia since time of the Stone Age. Because 20% of the world’s population is comprised of 1.3 billion Chinese, more people use Chinese on a daily basis than any other language, even though English is today’s international language. The influence of the Chinese culture on Asia and the west can be observed by objects and concepts which have adopted from China, such as china, silk, alchemy, gong-fu, to name just a few.
What are other unique characteristics about Chinese or China?
Hanzi - China is the home of the giant panda, one of the most beloved animals; the Great Wall, the biggest man-made structure on earth; and 56 nationalities, with the majority of 1.2 billion Han people, the largest single nationality of the world. Hanzi, the Chinese writing, is the only form of ideographic writing where characters are developed from pictures and symbols. The first record of nova was carved in hanzi on a turtle shell some 3,400 years ago. This is antedated by unearthed clay vessels (called “zun”) from 4,500 years ago, each bearing a pictograph quite close to the inscriptions on oracle bones and shells.
China is the only country that has a continuous history of 5,000 years with relatively complete written record of major events. Chinese calligraphy, which evolved from the ancient hanzi, has become a very high regarded art form in its own right. In this vast land, there are hundreds of dialects spoken by many regional groups. Hanzi is the single written language in which all Chinese people can communicate. It has played an important role in the history of China as a unified country.
Performing arts – Even older than Hanzi, Chinese dance, music, and martial arts were developed from religious and hunting rituals that were daily activities of primitive tribes. The oldest Chinese musical instrument still played today is called "xun", a clay pot with several wind holes, invented some 7,000 ago. Chinese dances with props and costumes decorated with feathers can be traced back to the celebration of a successful hunt in prehistoric times.
As early as 200 BC in the Han Dynasty, performing arts described as "hundred acts" were very sophisticated even compared to today’s standards. Ancient paintings, literature, and unearthed pottery, revealed a full flare of performing arts such as:
- Acrobatic feats like juggling, balancing, wire walking, etc
- Martial arts incorporating swordplay, archery, fist sets, etc
- Dances with fans, silk ribbons, lanterns, dragon props, etc.
- Solo & ensemble music, opera, etc.
- Magic acts of cutting strings, disappearing and reappearing fish or human bodies, etc.
- Sports like wrestling, horse races & games
- Circus acts with clowns, monkeys, horses, elephants, rhinos, etc.
Special performances were presented in professional theaters. Outdoor performances extending for several miles with participation of over hundreds of thousands of common folks were recorded during the Sui Dynasty of the 6th Century. Even today Chinese dance, music, acrobatics, magic shows, and martial arts continue to dazzle audiences all over the world.
Philosophy - The continuity of Chinese culture over thousands of years is remarkable, and this ancient culture is still held high esteem today. Born in the same period as Plato (438-348 BC) and Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) (563-483 BC,) Confucius 孔子 (551-479 BC,) Sunzi 孙子 (around 600 BC,) Zhuāngzi 莊子 (around 500 BC) are the great Chinese philosophers and have been often quoted in our daily conversation. Sunzi authored the book The Art of War, which is studied as the military bible in military academies and in the business world today. Zhuāngzi , a Taoist, believed in “Man and Nature exist as One 天人合一. His philosophy of conservation of nature is certainly ahead of his time.
Confucius is the most well-known among the Chinese philosophers. He believed in education to all people, noble and common. He taught his students “Six Arts”:
- Rites (a system of social structure and decorum)
- Music (including other performing arts)
- Archery (including martial arts)
- Horsemanship (including military skills)
- Literature (liberal arts)
Confucius believed in selecting government officials from the most learned and capable through examinations. His philosophy for academic excellence has influenced generations of Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese, and people of many other Asian countries.
Technology - Many scholars like Joseph Needham noted that Taoism is the “father” of technology development in China, and that Taoism is rooted in the philosophy of Yellow Emperor, China’s legendary chief of 4,000 years ago. Taoism’s goal is the pursuit of a life of peace, health and longevity and embracing a life style of simplicity, honesty, and modesty. In the search, Taoists developed alchemy, chemistry, biology, medicine, astronomy, and many other fields that were the most advanced in the world before 17th Century. The father of modern science, Lord Francis Bacon (1561-1626) wrote in his book Novum Organum: "... printing, gunpowder, and the compass. For these three have changed the appearance and the state of the whole world..." Without knowing that they were from China, Bacon praised these three technologies as the greatest inventions of mankind.
The ancient Chinese were also credited for the inventions of silk, paper, porcelain, cast iron, cross-bow, kite, deep drilling, wheelbarrow, draw-loom, wagon-mill, and many others, according to Joseph Needham (1900-1995), a member of Royal Society of London for the Advancement of Science (once chaired by Isaac Newton). An accomplished biochemist and archeologist, Needham is the most recognized authority on history of Chinese science and technology. In his 20-volume publication, Science and The Civilization in China, he easily listed 26 inventions transmitted from China to the West through Middle East, and he could only name four inventions originated from the West to China before the Industrial Revolution: the screw, force-pump for liquid, crankshaft, and clockwork. Needham concluded that the advancement of technology in the West is built on the technology learned from the East.
All rivers flow toward the ocean
Joseph Needham called the ancient civilizations "river cultures" as major cultures were developed independently along the world's four great rivers. Besides China, the other three ancient cultures were Babylonian in Mesopotamia between Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, Egyptian around River Niles, and Indian along Ganges River. He analogized the modern civilization to "ocean culture," as all rivers flow toward the ocean and have become one giant melting pot.
He wrote:"Certainly it is that no people or group of peoples has had a monopoly to the development of science. Their achievements should be mutually recognized and freely celebrated with the joined hands of universal brotherhood."
So celebrated, as well, are arts and cultures. In the 21st Century, the contemporary America is truly of an ocean culture. A country of immigrants from over 100 countries, America is a relatively young country of a melting pot. However, the urgency now is not the assimilation but the preservation of the traditional arts brought over by immigrants from various countries. The arts and cultures of the world have been evolving for thousands of years. They embody the wisdom of humanity that people of today can benefit from learning and sharing the knowledge and experiences. Different cultures are like individual gems, but they need the passionate artists to make them into beautiful necklaces.
Why Chinese came to America?
In the past 2,000 years, cultural and technology exchanges flowed through Silk Road (Middle East) and other channels. China's World trading flourished until Qing Dynasty (1688-1910.) The Qing government adapted the "closed door" policy. Since then, to the West, China was an unknown in a never-never land. In the notorious Opium War, 1840, world’s eight powers (US, Germany, Russia, France, Italy, Japan, Austria, and Great Britain) forced China to open its doors. China lost the war, and she was to pay the foreign invaders astronomical sums of money. The burden lay on the people of Kwongtung Province where the Opium War took place. The unbearably high taxation was the major reason for the Cantonese fleeing overseas during the 19th Century, mainly to San Francisco during the Gold Rush. As the US became a world power in 21st Century, the American dream has attracted even more people, including Chinese, from all over the world.
Next – space culture?
As the modern technology advances, more and more people have realize that “Man and Nature exist as one,” the blue planet Earth. In hoping to continue our culture in the far, far future, humankind is exploring a possibility of immigration to other planets.
Note: Readers are encouraged to get more information from local libraries and from websites.
西元十九世紀李約瑟（Joseph Needham, 1900-1985）及許多漢學家經研究認為道家是中國古代科技發展的先驅。道家起源於中國傳說中四千年前各部落的領袖黃帝，道家崇尚以“無為”為健康長壽之道。在道家思想引領之下，過去幾千年在冶金，化學，生物，醫藥，天文等各領域都是世界最先進的。十七世紀曾是中國科技的鼎盛世紀。
被譽為現代科學之父的十七世紀英國大臣培根（Lord Francis Bacon, 1561-1626）曾在他的著作《新領域》中寫道：“印刷、火藥、指南針這三個發明改變了全世界的面貌”。他讚揚這是世界上最偉大的發明，當時他並不知道這三大發明都是來自古老的中國。