What are some examples of traditions in Chinese culture?

June 07, 2010 | Posted by Chris

There is nothing difficult to grasp about the everyday behavior of people in China. Like anyone who has interacted with a person from another culture knows, we're all human with the same cognitive abilities, tools of communication, and problems to deal with. Exposure is the key to becoming familiar with a culture like China's, and that familiarity is something that simply happens over time.

There are, however, some traditions in Chinese culture that are difficult to master, even for Chinese people themselves. With a 5,000-year history, there is much that constitutes Chinese culture, but three traditions generally stand head-and-shoulders above all else: Confuciansim, Daoism, and Buddhism.

Confucianism (rújiào or 儒教) unlike the other two, is not a religion but rather a philosophy that details specific codes of social behavior. Confucius (kongzi or ??) was a peripatetic teacher with a modest number of followers who lived during China's Warring States Period (476 BCE--221 BCE) before the country was first unified, and he preached a theme of hierarchy and self-control meant to make order of his time's chaos. For example, one of his rules was that knives were not suitable for a civilized dinner setting, and so no knives were allowed while eating. This tradition survives to today, where Chinese food is chopped up in small pieces and gingerly handled at the dinner table with chopsticks. The wisdom of Confucius is recorded in The Analects (lúnyǔ or 论语), which is a collection of conversations he had with his students. Like Socrates, Confucius wrote nothing down, and it was his students that preserved his contribution to posterity.

Today in modern China, the influence of Confuciansim can best be seen in the understanding of proper manners. Li mao (lǐmào or 礼貌) is the term for manners in Chinese, and one of its stipulations is that members of a younger generation never call members of an older generation by their name; instead, as students of Chinese learn, all members of the older generation are called "aunt," "uncle," or another respectful address, no matter whether the person being addressed is real family or a stranger on the street.

Daoism (dàojiào or 道教) comes from the classic book Dao De Jing (dàodéjīng or 道德经), which was written by Laozi (lǎozǐ or 老子) around the 6th century BCE. The book expounds Laozi's concept of "the Way," which is meant to bring insight into the nature of the universe. The Way as described by Laozi cannot be put into words and transcends all things; known as wu wei (wúwéi or 无为), one of Laozi's biggest ideas is that a person's behavior should be marked by "an active passivity" that pays no heed to any specific outcome and accepts what may happen. Daoism is quite esoteric stuff that is best understood by monks who spend years meditating on such abstract notions, and the average Chinese person readily admits they know little about it.

Buddhism (fójiào or 佛教) was imported to China from India by way of the Silk Road by 220 BCE. This is why Dunhuang, in the middle of the desert in Gansu Province, has the Mogao Caves, which boast some of the finest carvings, paintings, and other Buddhist artifacts in the world. Buddhist influence in Beijing is minimal; the religion is observed mostly in southern China.

Of all these traditions, the one with the most influence on life in Beijing is Confucianism. Because of the nuanced behavior that it espouses, proper behavior in China can be complicated, and there are unspoken rules how to, among other facets of social communication, make requests, refuse an offer, complain, give bad news, disagree, and give compliments. It is in the execution of these customs that many foreigners and even Chinese themselves make embarrassing social blunders -- and it is precisely these skills that Wudaokou Borderless Learning seeks to instill in its students.

  • Inori chan
    February 23, 2014 5:02 am
    Could you include some information regarding China's food culture? Like what are the types of food that they usually eat or some traditional food that they eat on special occasions and stuff. This would help alot in my research, could you please provide these informations in your website? Thank you.
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