China A to Z: Everything You Need to Know to Understand Chinese Customs and Culture

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9780142180846: China A to Z: Everything You Need to Know to Understand Chinese Customs and Culture

A practical and accessible guide to an ancient but rapidly changing culture—now revised and updated
 
Perfect for business, pleasure, or armchair travelers, China A to Z explains the customs, culture, and etiquette essential for any trip or for anyone wanting to understand this complex country. In one hundred brief, reader-friendly essays alphabetized by subject, this  fully revised and updated edition provides a crash course in the etiquette and politics of contemporary China as well as the nation’s geography and venerable history. In it, readers will discover:
 
·        How the recently selected President and his advisors approach global relations
·        Why China is considered the fastest growing market for fashion and luxury goods
·        What you should bring when visiting a Chinese household
·        What’s hot in Chinese art
·        How recent scandals impact Chinese society
 
From architecture and body language to Confucianism and feng shui, China A to Z offers accessible and authoritative information about China.

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

MAY-LEE CHAI is the author of six books, including Hapa Girl. She lives in San Francisco.

WINBERG CHAI is the author and editor of more than twenty books on China, and the executive editor of Asian Affairs: An American Review. He lives in Wyoming.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction

Since the first edition of China A to Z, China’s position in the world has grown more important. Economically, socially, culturally, and politically, China’s influence cannot be ignored. China now has the world’s second largest economy and is projected to overtake the United States for the number one spot by 2017. Once known for producing goods on the cheap, China is no longer the world’s sweatshop: the economic boom has helped the country to become the largest consumer market for many goods, ranging from fine art to automobiles, as well as the fastest growing market for luxury goods. As more Chinese tourists travel the world and more students from China choose to study abroad, the opportunities for social and cultural exchange are growing ever greater. At the same time, China and America disagree politically on almost every important issue, including human rights, global warming, investments in Africa and other parts of the developing world, how to handle crises from the Middle East to the South China Sea, and U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, a democracy and longtime U.S. ally that China considers to be a renegade province.

Despite these continuing disagreements and potential for conflict, China’s transformation into a powerful, modern nation is a historic feat that deserves the world’s attention. The growing economy has allowed hundreds of millions of people to enter the middle class, one of the fastest economic turnarounds in history. It’s a remarkable development, especially considering that just over fifty years ago, more than 40 million Chinese starved to death, some under Mao Zedong’s disastrous Great Leap Forward policies.

When the United States and China first reestablished diplomatic relations and Deng Xiaoping ushered in the “Open Door Policy” of economic reform in 1979, Chinese were still living under the “iron ricebowl” system. The old Communist system guaranteed everyone a (low-paying) job for life and government-approved housing. The society suffered under these laws: everyone was poor, consumer goods were rarely available and of questionable quality, births were restricted to one child per couple, and political rights were nonexistent. The unleashing of China’s economic power under Deng Xiaoping’s reforms allowed for some free enterprise and joint ventures with the world’s companies. The material quality of life in China improved rapidly, although the political system remained controlled by the Communist Party.

After the Open Door Policy of Deng (who was the paramount leader from 1979 to 1997), China’s next generation of leaders initiated and implemented more economic reforms, even permitting capitalists to join the Communist Party. So long as a person had connections—called guanxi in Chinese—to high officials, that person’s business could thrive. In fact, by 2012 China had the third highest number of billionaires in the world, behind the United States and Russia, and in 2013, China had more billionaires created by the stock market than the United States.

The next challenge for China’s leadership has been to transition the export-based economy based on cheap labor into a more mature form that promotes domestic consumption and innovation. Manufacturing has already shifted away from clothes and toys, and now China assembles the world’s smart phones, tablets, and personal computers. No longer content to make goods for other countries, China has invested heavily in its universities and research parks, hoping to spark a technological revolution on its own soil. And the effects have been tremendous: Chinese companies are developing green technology, from wind power to solar energy to batteries for electric cars; and entrepreneurs are launching their own social media sites and online shopping sites.

Once repressed under Mao, Chinese artists and writers have gained unprecedented audiences domestically and worldwide now that they, too, are encouraged to create. A Chinese novelist won the Nobel Prize in Literature for the first time in 2012. Investors have paid millions of dollars for traditional artists like Qi Baishi as well as contemporary art pieces. Chinese movie directors, actors, composers, and fashion designers are finding success at home and internationally, creating a period of cultural ferment unlike anything China has experienced since before the revolution of 1949 gave birth to the People’s Republic of China.

China’s growth has not gone unnoticed by the world. Tourists have made China the third most visited country in the world, record numbers of American students are now studying Mandarin, and many of China’s Asian neighbors are expressing concern about the rise of China in their backyard. In turn, China has become embroiled in territorial disputes across Asia from Japan to Vietnam to the Philippines. In 2013, the Pentagon issued a report officially accusing the Chinese government of waging a cyberespionage campaign on U.S. military, government, and business computer systems in order to gain valuable information.

China’s unprecedented economic growth has also brought about increased social problems. China remains one of the most inequitable societies on earth—13 percent of the population earns less than $1.25 per day. Migrant workers are demanding more rights, including higher wages, benefits, and the right to live and educate their children in the cities where they work. Women’s rights activists have decried traditional values that have skewed the birth rate in favor of boys and that cause unmarried career women over the age of twenty-six to be labeled as “leftovers.” Dissidents like artist Ai Weiwei and lawyer-activist Chen Guangcheng have focused worldwide attention on corruption ranging from the lethal bypassing of safety regulations to the flaunting of laws by party officials . . . and have been punished by the government for their actions. Pollution from the rapid industrialization has reached catastrophic levels. The smog over Beijing reached twenty times levels considered safe for humans to breathe and created a diplomatic breach when the U.S. embassy refused to stop broadcasting the particulate levels on its @BeijingAir Twitter feed. The dismal yellow cloud could be seen from space, a vast miasma covering Northern China like a special effect in a terrifying sci-fi movie. And China’s growing car culture has caused China to hold another ignominious title as home to the world’s longest traffic jam: a sixty-two-mile standstill that lasted for a miserable twelve days on a stretch of highway outside Beijing.

Napoleon was perhaps the first Westerner to accurately assess China’s potential in the world, remarking, “Here lies a sleeping giant. Let him sleep, for when he wakes up, he will shock the world.” In the eighteenth century, China seemed dormant, a traditional culture experiencing economic stagnation, unwilling to adapt to a changing world. However, today it is clear that China has awakened. Whether the world will adapt to China’s rise peaceably or with increased belligerence remains to be seen.

I have been visiting China since 1985, six years after the United States and China reestablished diplomatic relations. My father, who was born in Shanghai, has been teaching about China for more than fifty years and has been returning nearly every year since the 1980s to witness the changes in the country of his birth. This new edition of China A to Z is a culmination of our experiences as China observers and scholars. We hope that these essays will provide readers with a basis for understanding the vast changes occurring in China and help them to benefit the most out of China’s rise—whether as tourists, students, businesspeople, or simply armchair travelers.

—May-lee Chai

Animals

Despite Chairman Mao’s best efforts to stamp out traditional beliefs during his decades of totalitarian control, many Chinese traditions have persisted, perhaps none more strongly than the Chinese belief in good luck. Numbers, certain alignments of days in a given year, the number of strokes in a written character, homonyms, proper feng shui—all can bring good luck. And since it seems auspicious to begin a book on such a note, we have decided to discuss some of the most visible signs of luck in China today, which are embodied by animals.

Foremost among these are the dragon. Dragons represent the Chinese nation, the emperor, and, at the popular level, grooms. Images adorned with dragons (the male) and phoenixes (the female) are commonly used as gifts for newlyweds as they represent wealth and prestige. Dragons are also believed to rule over the five elements that control one’s fate. There are dragons in water, including lakes, rivers, and the ocean. Dragons also live in the earth, and when angered—usually by corrupt officials—they cause earthquakes, a sign that a dynasty or a government is about to lose its Mandate of Heaven and be overthrown. Dragons can control fire, with its ability to both sustain and take human life. Other dragons rule the sky and clouds, proffering or withholding rain from farmers’ crops and even bearing augurs for the fate of battles. Finally, celestial (or heavenly) dragons have been thought to impart gifts to mankind, including the earliest form of the written Chinese language, supposedly given to the legendary emperor Fu Xi (c. 3000 BCE). In fact, in some versions of the legend, Fu Xi is half dragon, half man.

Real-Life Dragon Facts

Scientists have speculated that the Chinese concept of the dragon originated with the discovery of dinosaur fossils in northern China. These bones were locally called “dragon bones” and have been ground into powder for use in traditional medicines. “Dragon teeth,” which are also used to treat ailments, are believed to be fossilized ivory from prehistoric mastodons and latter-day elephants, which used to roam the land.

Some animals are good luck because their names in Mandarin sound very similar to lucky words. For example, images of bats adorn Chinese traditional art, architecture, embroidery, and porcelain. Far from being seen as the vampiric and frightening creatures of the night as in Western culture, bats are instead harbingers of wealth and prosperity, because their Chinese name, bian fu, sounds like the Mandarin words for “to become wealthy” (even though the written characters are completely different).

Similarly, fish are lucky because the pronunciation of their name, yü, sounds just like the word for “surplus” or “plenty.” Thus, images of fish are used to adorn everything from New Year’s cards to scroll paintings, and live fish tanks with bright goldfish in them can be found in the fronts of Chinese restaurants throughout the world, as all Chinese wish for an abundance rather than a scarcity of money.

Monkeys hold a special place in the Chinese imagination. While dragons represent power, monkeys are seen as clever creatures, and in fact, in China’s most famous folktale, translated by Arthur Waley quite simply as “Monkey” (also known as “Journey to the West”), the infamous, mischievous Monkey King represents the Chinese nation, and his monkey subjects the Chinese people. Myriad films, television series, puppet plays, operas, and books have been written about the adventures of the Monkey King, who is entrusted by the Jade Emperor in Heaven to aid a devout monk to bring Buddhism to China, aided by the goddess Guan Yin. The Monkey King fights but is never vanquished by many monsters, and he represents a spirit of adventure, mischief, cleverness, loyalty, martial arts prowess, and ultimately kindness—all qualities that the Chinese people value in themselves.

Finally, the twelve animal signs representing the years according to the ancient lunar calendar are traditionally believed to bestow upon babies born under their signs certain lucky qualities. According to legend, the Lord Buddha invited all the animals of the world to a banquet. The first twelve to arrive were rewarded when he named a year after each, in the order in which they appeared in his heavenly palace. The first in the twelve-year cycle is the rat. The rat’s lucky qualities include a survivor’s instincts and a way with money. Next comes the ox, whose steadfast nature allows ox children to plow through adversity and attain their goals. Tigers, known as King of the Forest because the markings on their foreheads resemble the Chinese character for “king,” are strong-willed and powerful, enabling them to succeed in life. Rabbits are refined, elegant creatures who will enjoy the comforts of life because their charm will allow them to get their way. Dragons of course are the embodiment of power and leadership potential. Snakes, unlike in Western culture, are seen as wise creatures whose intellect makes them formidable in all their endeavors. Horses are swift, strong, spirited animals, hard to tame, with wild hearts that will allow them to pursue exciting lives. It used to be considered bad luck for girls to be born in the Year of the Horse, but this is no longer the case. Sheep (also known as rams or goats, as the Chinese character represents all three animals) are artistic, charming, mercurial, stubborn creatures who pursue their path in life with refinement. Monkeys, as described above, are clever, mischievous, and much beloved by Chinese parents. Roosters are detail-oriented, verbal, perhaps a bit bossy, but they know they want to rule the roost and will do their best to succeed. Dogs are loyal, strong, and patient. And babies born in the Year of the Pig are sometimes considered the luckiest of all, as pigs represent wealth, an easygoing nature, and a life of abundance.

Architecture

Perhaps nothing is as startling to both Chinese and foreign visitors alike as the rapid changes to the skyline of China’s cities. In its efforts to modernize its cities, the Chinese government has embarked on a redesign campaign that is unprecedented in world history. City planners estimated that 95 percent of Shanghai’s pre-1949 architecture was completely replaced by the time the Summer Olympics arrived in Beijing in 2008. Only the historic Bund on the Huangpu River (known as the Waitan in Chinese) and part of the French concession’s historic architecture were completely preserved. In Beijing, twenty-five thousand workers labored around the clock for years to build the new sports stadiums and Olympic village on the city’s northern border, while within the city, the historic hutongs—the winding alleyways lined with courtyard homes—were razed to make way for new highways, high-rises, and shopping centers.

As a result of the building boom, China consumed 55 percent of the world’s concrete and 36 percent of all steel produced in 2004. And there was more construction taking place in Beijing in 2005 alone than in the whole of Europe for the previous three years, according to the BBC.

A large number of the contracts for China’s new architecture are going to foreign firms, both a source of pride and a scandal within the country. Chinese architects are embittered that their own designs are considered inferior or at least less prestigious than the work of non-Chinese firms. For these foreign architects, “China is a land of dreams,” according to a New York Times Magazine report. The Swiss firm Herzog and de Meuron, hired to design the new Olympic Stadium (dubbed “the Bird’...

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