China – 中国

  Welcome/歡迎光臨 to the Chinese section of ‘Speaking my Language’!


Mikela Fotiou (‘Speaking my Language’ Assistant)

Of course Mandarin is a difficult language to learn, and we don’t expect you to become fluent Mandarin speakers (or readers!) after this programme of activity. But we do hope that you will be able to introduce yourself and say hello to other Mandarin speakers, and feel confident in basic conversational skills. More people in the world speak Mandarin than any other language – making it an extremely useful but also social language to learn. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to welcome Chinese doctoral students to your institution, in Mandarin. (A newspaper report in 2012 estimated that there are more than 6,000 Chinese students studying in Scotland this year – making our institutions rich and diverse places to be.)

‘Speaking my Langauge’ also provides an opportunity for you to continue learning Mandarin in China – for example, you may choose to undertake a summer school in Beijing, or perhaps there are Chinese art collections you would like to study in detail…

Through out the programme you will have the chance to experience a part of Chinese
culture through various cultural events (e.g. Chinese film screenings, Chinese food, Chinese music, etc) and later on having a first hand experience of China by visiting the actual country.

But why learn Chinese, the Chinese culture and why visit China?

As mentioned above, more people in the world speak Mandarin than any other language. Chinese has many languages and dialects, but Mandarin and its varieties is spoken by over 70% of the population. This means that about 800 million people speak it as their mother tongue, plus 200 million as a second language. Chinese languages are written more or less the same and that if you can read one, you can read all. Wouldn’t be great to know that you are able to communicate with a billion people?

Chinese is not the easiest language to learn due to all the differences it has to the English language and the Romance languages, as far as syntax, grammar and, of course, characters are concerned. However, this means that a few people are actually learning it, which gives you a very strong advantage over others. Plus, who can deny that their writing and calligraphy is art?

China being the world’s fastest growing country for the past 30 years creates many career opportunities for people studying Mandarin. There is no doubt that Mandarin could become a lingua franca and the language of the future. Speaking Mandarin benefits you both if you are interested in living in China, but also for jobs back home. It is now very clear that people who speak Chinese and have a first hand living in China, as you will have the opportunity to do through the programme, have a great advantage in terms of employments, as China serves as a huge market for multinational corporations and employers are looking to hire people with a real understanding of China and its culture. Moreover, if you plan to pursue an academic career, it is always important to speak a foreign language and know that you can teach in Universities in the country of which the language you speak. And even if you don’t speak Mandarin in the level to teach in it, China has many big Higher Education Institutions with English language speaking courses to which you can be qualified to teach.

But learning Mandarin is also about learning the rich culture and history of China. China’s historical journey sets off from prehistory, as Ancient Chinese Civilization was one of the world’s earliest civilization. Confucian philosophy, the Four Great Inventions, the flourishing Tang dynasty are just some instances of the glory of Chinese civilization. With the rise of Chinese Nationalism and the end of the Cultural Revolution there has been a revival of various forms of traditional Chinese art, literature, music, film, fashion and architecture which have triggered the interest of people worldwide.

In China one can spot an incredible diversity. As the third largest nation in the world, China occupies a vast expense of territory, making it home to tremendous regional diversity in terms of everything from terrain and weather to culture, language and food. The Chinese population is itself made up of 56 ethnic groups each with their own customs and traditions. All this makes China a wonderful country to travel and explore.

Well, I might not speak Mandarin, or I might have never visited China- two things that I plan to change in the near future- however, I am a multilingual Greek student, studying in Scotland, in a language which is not my mother tongue and in an institution which differs a lot from the Higher Educational Institutions of my country. I believe that this opportunity and versatility I have to choose where I want to live and work is a very important aspect for my future career, whatever that might be. But speaking other languages has also have to do with learning the culture of the countries of which the languages you speak. I believe that you can’t really acquire the language 100%, unless you get to learn the culture of the country and live in it, you intermingle with the locals, get acquainted with their habits and apply there all the knowledge you got while learning the language. And no books can teach you the everyday language and life of the people of the country the language of which you want to learn. Moreover, I believe that learning a foreign language and culture, broadens your horizons and ameliorates you as a person, and also, learning other cultures, helps you understand your own culture better and the differences of your culture with the others. So, it is a bit like realising yourself better.

Exploring China and its Culture

Seeing the opening ceremony of the London Olympic Games, the impressive opening ceremony of the previous Summer Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008 was brought into my mind. The Beijing Olympic Games opening ceremony was a sum up of China’s history, culture and tradition, given in an amazing atmosphere and great artistry.

Starting with 56 children bringing the Chinese flag in the stadium, representing the 56 ethnic groups the Chinese nation consists of, the artistic part of the ceremony alluded to the great Chinese philosophers, to Chinese Calligraphy and their invention of paper, moving on to the Silk Road and its spread through the oceans.

And these are only a few elements China is proud of…

Before we move on to the introduction to the amazing Chinese history, culture and tradition, here is another very interesting video to summarise all the above:

Urban China: Beijing and Shanghai

Beijing and Shanghai are the two largest cities in China, Beijing being China’s capital and Shanghai being the China’s largest city by population and the larger city proper by population in the world.

Beijing or 北京 means the “Northern Capital” in Chinese (北 for north and 京 for capital). People in Beijing speak the Beijing dialect, which belongs to the Mandarin subdivision of Chinese. Beijing is China’s political, economic, cultural, educational and international trade and communication center. Beijing, one of the six ancient cities in China, has been the heart and soul of politics and society throughout its long history, thus travelers, while exploring the city’s ancient past and exciting modern development, are intrigued by its rich history and tradition. Nowadays, Beijing has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, with about 140 million Chinese tourists and 4.4 million international visitors in a year.

Shanghai or 上海 means “Upon-the-Sea” (上 for above and 海 for sea) and its vernacular language is Shanghainese. Shanghai is an international metropolis constantly drawing attention from all over the world. Situated on the estuary of Yangtze River, it serves as the most influential economic, financial, international trade, cultural, science and technology center in East China. In Shanghaione finds ta blend of cultures, both modern and traditional, western and oriental. New skyscrapers and old Shikumen together draw the city’s skyline and also, western customs and Chinese traditions intertwined and formed Shanghai’s culture.

Chinese Cuisine

Chinese food is quite prevalent worldwide, however the Chinese food we are acquainted with has many differences to the original one, as it is westernised to suit our tastes. China’s tradition and history has given it a rich and diverse cuisine. Food has always had a central role in the lives of Chinese people which always had a deep consideration for healthy eating. The most widely known Chinese food ingredients and types are:


There is a rich collection of rice dishes in China. Among them, fried rice might be the most popular not only in China. Depending on the types and amount of added ingredients, such as beans, chopped meat, vegetables, eggs, etc., as well as different manners of preparation, there have developed endless variations of fried rice.


Because of different methods of preparation and use of materials and ingredients, there are over a thousand types of noodles from all over China with local characteristics. Among them, the most famous ones are soy bean paste noodles (or Zhajiang Mian) in Beijing, hand-pulled noodles (or Lamian) in Shaanxi Province, sliced noodles (or Daoxiao Mian) in Shanxi Province, dandan noodles (or dandan mian) in Sichuan Province, to name just a few.


Vegetables are, in general, the second most fundamental part of Chinese cuisine, after the staple rice. Chinese people are fond of vegetables, especially leafy greens, and eat many different kinds at almost every meal, sometimes preserve and eat them as snacks.


China has a large consumption of eggs each year. People consume eggs laid by many poultries; the most common ones are chicken, duck, goose, pigeon, and quails. Food savvy Chinese people make lots of dishes out of eggs. In Chinese, the pronunciation of fish, “yu”, sounds the same with the word for abundance, richness, or surpluses, and it is believed that eating fish will bring prosperity in the coming year. Therefore, in China, especially at banquets, it is customary to serve the entire fish, with the fish head pointing towards the honored guest.


Tofu is made from soy milk, water and a curdling agent. The production of Tofu from soy milk is similar to that of cheese from milk. It is made by coagulating soy milk, then pressing the resulting curds into blocks.


In Chinese, the pronunciation of fish, “yu”, sounds the same as the word for abundance, richness, or surpluses, and it is believed that eating fish will bring prosperity in the coming year. Therefore, in China, especially at banquets, it is customary to serve the entire fish, with the fish head pointing towards the honored guest.

Meat and Poultry:

Chinese people basically eat all animals’ meat, such as pork, beef, mutton, chicken, duck, pigeon, as well as many others. Pork is the most commonly consumed meat, and it appears almost in every meal. It is so common that it can be used to mean both meat and pork.


Chinese Yams and Pork Soup is a kind of healthy dish, which can help digestion. The history of soup might be as old as the history of cooking. Chinese soup has been an important part of Chinese food culture for a long time. It is considered to be one of the most nutritious and digestible food types.

Chinese Tea Culture

Chinese tea culture refers to the methods of preparation of tea or 茶. Tea culture in China differs from that of Europe, Britain or Japan in such things as preparation methods, tasting methods and the occasions for which it is consumed. Even now, in both casual and formal Chinese occasions, tea is consumed regularly. In addition to being a drink, Chinese tea is used in traditional Chinese Medicine and in Chinese Cuisine.

China is the homeland of tea. It is believed that China has tea-shrubs as early as five to six thousand years ago, and human cultivation of teaplants dates back two thousand years. Tea from China, along with her silk and porcelain, began to be known the world over more than a thousand years ago and has since always been an important Chinese export. At present more than forty countries in the world grow tea with Asian countries producing 90% of the world’s total output. All tea trees in other countries have their origin directly or indirectly in China. The word for tea leaves or tea as a drink in many countries are derivatives from the Chinese character “cha.” Tea is produced in vast areas of China from Hainan Island down in the extreme south to Shandong Province in the north, from Tibet in the southwest to Taiwan across the Straits, totalling more than 20 provinces. These may be divided into four major areas: the Jiangnan area, the Jiangbei area, the Southwest area and the Lingnan area.

Types of Chinese Tea:

Chinese tea is classified in many ways, e.g., quality, method of preparation or place of production. The main processing methods include fermentation (oxidation), heating, drying and addition of other ingredients like flowers, herbs or fruits. These help to develop the special flavor of the raw tea leaves.

Green tea
Freshly picked leaves only go through heating and drying processes, but do not undergo fermentation. This enables the leaves to keep their original green color and retain most natural substances like polyphenols and chlorophyll contained within the leaves. This kind of tea is produced all over China and is the most popular category of tea. Representative varieties include Dragon Well (Long Jing) and Biluochun from Zhejiang and Jiangsu Provinces respectively.

Red tea / Black Tea
The tea leaves are fully fermented giving them to have a strong flavor and dark color. In comparison to other tea categories, its flavor is longer lasting and it has the highest concentration of caffeine. This is most popular form of tea in south Asia and Europe.

Oolong Tea
The tea leaves are partially fermented, imparting to them the characteristics of both green and black teas. Its taste is more similar to green tea than black tea, but has less a “grassy” flavor than green tea. The three major oolong-tea producing areas are on the southeast coast of China e.g. Fujian, Guangdong and Taiwan.

Pu-erh or Puer Tea
The tea leaves have undergone years of fermentation, giving them an unique earthy flavor. This variety of tea is usually compressed into different shapes like bricks, discs and bowls.

Scented Tea

There can be various mixtures of flowers with green tea, black tea or oolong tea. Flowers used include jasmine, gardenia, magnolia, grapefruit flower, sweet-scented osmanthus and rose. There are strict rules about the proportion of flowers to tea. Jasmine tea is the most popular type of scented tea in northern China.

Chinese Calligraphy

In China calligraphy occupies a distinguished position in the field of traditional art. The history of Chinese calligraphy is as long as that of China itself. Calligraphy is a special category in China’s world of fine arts and one of the most challenging Chinese art forms for a foreigner to appreciate or master. Calligraphy, or shufa, is one of the four basic skills and disciplines of the Chinese literati. It is not only a means of communication, but also a means of expressing a person’s inner world in an aesthetic sense. Calligraphy has endured for more than 2,000 years, and evolved into five main ways of writing each with different techniques. Even today, these are still followed and practiced often as a hobby.

The practice of calligraphy requires the basic tools of ‘four treasures of study’ (writing brush, ink stick, paper, and ink slab), as well as much concentration on guiding the soft writing brush charged with fluid ink, and writing on the paper where the ink will diffuse quickly. Once the brush movement hesitates, a black mark is created, so speed, strength and agility is the essence of fine artwork. When writing, many calligraphers forget all worries and it is believed that calligraphy is a reflection of the soul.

Today, although various modern ways have been substituted for the original calligraphy, especially which created with a writing brush, people still love the ancient form and practise it untiringly.

The Four Treasures of Study”

Writing brush:

The nib of the brush can be made from rabbit’s hair, wool, horsehair, weasel’s hair, or bristles, etc, and the shaft may be made from bamboo, ivory, jade, crystal, gold, silver, porcelain, sandal, ox horn, etc. There can be both soft and hard brushes each producing their own particular styles. The delicacy gives literators and painters inspiration for creation, and has led to brush shafts being decorated with artistic patterns.

Ink Stick:

A good ink stick should be ground so as to be refined black with luster. The most famous ink stick is hui mo (Anhui ink stick), made of pines that grow on Huangshan Mountain in Anhui Province. Clean water is needed to grind the ink stick, which must be balanced in the hand during the grinding or rubbing process. Press hard and rub lightly, slowly and evenly against the ink slab until a thick, liquid-ink forms. With the invention of paper, they were improved accordingly. Since the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220), ink sticks have been made from pine soot, using other procedures that include mixing with glue, steaming and molding.


Before the existence of paper, they used knots in cords to record events. They then carved on bone, ivory, tortoise shell and bronzes. For very many years they wrote on pieces of bamboo. There is a story that tells how Confucius was such an avid and diligent reader that he would wear away the strips of ox-leather used to bind the pages of bamboo books together. During the early Han Dynasty wealthy people would write upon white silk but this was beyond the reach of the majority as the cloth was so precious. It was Cai Lun who made the valuable contribution and his research gave rise to paper. Afterwards, many varieties of paper were produced of different quality and usage. Today, calligraphy may also be done using a pen, but pen calligraphy does not enjoy the same prestige as traditional brush calligraphy.With a good tensile strength and mothproof quality, the paper can be preserved for a long time.

Ink Slab:

Ink stones or ink slabs have been classified into three categories: Duan, She and Tao. Features common to all three ink slabs are the stone’s hardness and fineness. Although the stone is hard and fine, it is not dry or slippery. Using a hard, smooth stone, liquid ink can be produced easily by rubbing the ink stick against the stone. Through ink slabs, people can sample the artistic charm of sculpting and the ink stone’s natural tints. Nearly all Chinese calligraphy enthusiasts hold that the star of ink slab is the Duanyan, ink slab produced in Duanzhou of Guangdong Province. It has its base a purple hue and enjoys the poetic name ‘purple clouds’. It was always a tribute to the royal families during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907)

And here is a nice video of the history of the Chinese Characters:

Chinese Music

“Classical traditional” music refers to art music or “sophisticated” music composed by scholars and literati in China’s history. Chinese classical music often has poetic or philosophical associations and is typically played solo, on instruments such as the qin, or the pipa. Traditional music has come down to us as an oral tradition from masters to students and is linked to poetry and to various forms of lyric drama.

In the past this music was played by well–educated people and monks but never for the public or for commercial reasons, mainly in order to keep a distance from entertainment industries that were connected to the low social status. This music was played for personal reasons: for self-cultivation, meditation, soul purification and spiritual elevation, union with nature, identification with the values of past sages, and communication with divine beings or with friends and lovers. Up to the beginning of the twentieth century, classical music had always belonged to elite society but today everyone has the chance to enjoy it. However, it is rare to hear classical music in concert halls due to the influence of the “Cultural Revolution” (1966-1976), when all classical music was deemed to be “bourgeois” and outlawed, and the spiritual side of traditional arts was “washed out” through the “revolutionary” ideology.

The resources for folk traditions are many and vary. There are many ethnic minorities living everywhere in China, each with their own traditional folk music. Folk traditions are often vocal, or for instrumental ensembles (such as the “silk and bamboo” ensembles, and music for folk dances, and regional operas). The various folk melodies have become a major source of inspiration for the growing repertoire of contemporary music. Most contemporary works are westernized, particularly those for ensembles and orchestras, which are easily accessible to the general public. Quite often some of the traditional classical masterpieces that are presented in commercial shows sound “modern” result in giving a misleading impression, as it has very little to do with the original folk Chinese music.

Some of the most well-known musical instruments:

Suona – 

Suona is a very expressive high-pitched reed instrument with a conical metal bell. Originated in Arabia, it has been widely used in China since the 16th century. The reed is affixed to a conical wooden body covered by a copper tube with eight finger holes (seven in front and one in back), to which is fitted a brass bell. It is very popular in China’s countryside in funeral, wedding, and other celebrative occasions. Suona, with a strong rustic and grass-roots flavor nowadays, was also an imported instrument as early as in the Jin dynasty (265-420). As a result of its high-pitched timbre, Suona is good at depicting the joyous, noisy, and magnificent scene.

Pipa – 琵琶

The pipa is a four-stringed lute, one of the oldest Chinese musical instruments with over 2000 years of history. The term pipa consists of two Chinese characters symbolising two playing techniques (denoted as “Tan” and “Tiao” today) while their pronunciations p’i and p’aare imitations of the sounds produced accordingly. The most common pipa has a body with a short neck and a wooden belly. There are 19 to 26 bamboo frets called Xiang on the neck. The Xiang are either made of wood, jade, or elephant tusks. The pipa has a long history with the Chinese people. Compositions were passed from master to student over hundreds of years. As the Chinese people rediscover their history, so too has there been a reemergence in interest in classical instruments such as the pipa. Some contemporary performers have even started to also integrate the music with western sounds to create a new generation of pipa music.

Erhu – 二胡

Erhu is a kind of violin (fiddle) with two strings which, together with zhonghu, gaohu, sihu, etc, belongs to the “huqin” family. It is said that its origin would be dated up to the Tang dynasty (618-907) and related to the instrument, called xiqin originated from a Mongolian tribe Xi. The sound body of the erhu is a drum-like little case usually made of ebony or sandalwood and snake skins. It usually has a hexagonal shape with the length of approximately 13 cm. The erhu sounds similar to human voice, and can imitate many natural sounds such as birds and horse. It is a very expressive instrument, most well-known for playing melancholic tune, but also capable of play merry melody. The erhu often plays an important role in the national orchestras. In the smaller orchestras, there are usually 2 to 6 erhu, in larger ones, 10 with 12. In fact, the erhu plays the same role as the violin in the Western orchestras.

Banhu 板胡

Banhu is mainly an accompanying instrument for various local operas in North China. It is a Chinese traditional bowed string instrument in the huqin family of instruments. It is used primarily in northern China. Ban means a piece of wood and hu is short for huqin. Its construction is basically the same with Erhu, and the most noticeable difference is that Banhu uses a thick wooden board to cover the soundbox instead of snakeskin. The timbre of the instrument is clarion and bright, which makes it hard to join other instruments for tutti. Therefore it’s usually for solo, and Banhu is especially good at presenting joyful and passionate moods. The banhu often leads a band or orchestra with its alto sound. This instrument boats a history of over three hundred years; modern versions of the banhu include the bamboo banhu, three-stringed banhu, mediant banhu and alt banhu.

Guzheng – 古箏

Guzheng is a plucked string instrument that is part of the zither family. It is one of the most ancient Chinese musical instruments according to the documents written in the Qin dynasty (before 206 BC). Zheng is the forerunner of Japanese koto, Korean kayagum, Mongolian yatag, and Vietnamese dan tranh. Due to its long history, the zheng has been called guzheng or Gu-Zheng where “Gu” stands for “ancient” in Chinese. The guzheng has been a popular instrument since ancient times and is considered as one of the main chamber as well as solo instruments of Chinese traditional music. Since the mid-19th century, guzheng solo repertoire has been growing and evolving towards an increasing technical complexity. It is build with a special wooden sound body with strings arched across movable bridges along the length of the instrument for the purpose of tuning. In the early times the zheng had 5 string (quite probably with bamboo sound body); later on developed into 12 to 13 strings in the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907AD) and 16 strings in the Song and Ming dynasty (from the 10th to 15th century). The present day zhengusually has 21-25 strings.

Guqin – 古琴

Guqin is seven-stringed zither without bridges, the most classical Chinese instrument with over 3000 years of history. It is literally called qin yet commonly known as “guqin” (where “gu” stands for ancient), whereas the qin has become a generic name for all string instruments today. Guqin has the most well-documented history and best preserved repertoire among all the intruments from China. There are a lot of literatures around guqin, and the information about the guqin is plenty. Guqin has been frequently referred to as the preferred instrument of the sages and the literati. For instance, Confucius (551 – 479 BC) was a great master of this instrument. Another notable great master is Ji Kong (223–262) who is one of the “Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove”. Guqin has been registered as one of the master pieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of the humanity by the United Nations’ Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organisation (UNESCO).

Xun – 埙

The xun is one of the oldest musical instruments in China, with a history of approximately 7,000 years. It is said that the xun originated from the hunting tool of the stone meteor. During ancient times, people often tied a stone or mud ball to the rope that was used for hunting wild animals. The people would then throw the ropes, with the stones wrapping around the animal’s limbs, bringing them down, Hence the name of stone meteor. Some of the balls were hollow, and so made many sounds when thrown. Most people found these hollow balls enjoyable and learned how to blow air into them. Gradually, the stone meteor became the musical instrument known as the xun. The earliest xun was made of stone or bones, but later it became earthen. Also, the forms varied in many ways. For example, it could be shaped like a ball, a pear, a fish, or a flat circle or ellipse. The xun is an egg-shaped, windpipe instrument. Initially it had only one hole, but afterwards it gained more holes. Finally at the end of the 3 century BC a six-holed model appeared. The xun instrument was usually used in making royal music in Chinese history. There are two kinds of xun. One is shaped like an egg (smaller but louder) and the other is often played along with another kind of pipe instrument called a chi, an ancient Chinese musical instrument that is made of bamboo. Some descriptions about the xun can be found in shijing, the earliest form of poetry in China.

Chinese Dancing

Chinese dance is unique and very expressive as through it, the dancers use their bodies to express their feelings and their thoughts.

The art of Chinese dance appeared before the the first written Chinese characters did. Chinese dance was divided into two types, civilian and military, during the Shang and Chou periods of the first millennium B.C. In civilian dance, dancers held feather banners in their hands, symbolising the distribution of the fruits of the day’s hunting or fishing. This gradually developed into the dance used in the emperor’s periodic sacrificial rituals held outside the city, and other religious rituals.

In the large group military dance, on the other hand, the dancers carried weapons in their hands, and moved forward and backward in coordinated group motion. This later evolved into the movements used in military exercises. Chinese used choreographic movements of the hands and feet to express their veneration of the spirits of heaven and earth, to act out aspects of their everyday life, and to give expression to shared feelings of joy and delight. Dance was also a performing art that brought pleasure to both the performers and the audience.

The early Chinese folk dances, like other forms of primitive art, were essentially ritual enactments of superstitious beliefs performed in the hope of a good harvest, or – in the case of the earliest Chinese folk dances – in the hope of a good hunt, since the earliest Chinese folk dances were performed by hunter-gatherer folk.

Two of the main Chinese folk dances – the Dragon Dance and the Lion Dance – stem from the Han Chinese, even if these have since been borrowed by many other Chinese ethnic minorities. In addition, one of the most elaborate forms of Chinese folk dance, the Court Dance, was originally adopted by the royal court of a Han Chinese emperor, though subsequent Chinese emperors, including those of Mongol or Jürchen/ Manchu background, continued the well-established custom of the Court Dance.

While the heritage of the folk dance that was passed down the generations among ethnic groups as a whole was rich and varied, it was unevenly distributed from group to group, partly because whole chapters, as it were, of the tradition had been lost, for various reasons, often owing to the upheavals of war and the struggle for survival in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Therefore, after the People’s Republic of China came to power, it set about to help the ethnic minorities to each regain its unique modes of expression, including as complete a recovery as possible of the art and practice of the folk dance, through a thorough research into the historical record. The result is that the richness of the original Chinese ethnic folk dance, in all its aspects – both in terms of choreography and repertoire as well as in terms of the exact replication of the original costumes – has slowly made a comeback, and today is recognised, also beyond China’s borders, as a world cultural heritage worthy of preservation.

The Court Dance

Prince Qin’s Cavalry – This dance, which ostensibly celebrates the might and grandeur of the Imperial army, was performed as a reminder to the emperor’s entourage – including ministers and princes – to never let one’s guard down, but to always be prepared to go into battle to defend the motherland. Prince Qin’s Cavalry involved a huge troupe of performers, consisting of well over a hundred dancers, as soldiers, and nearly twice as many singers and musicians. It was on such a grand scale that one can only liken it to a theatre performance. The music and the choreography, authored, as indicated, by the emperor himself, was naturally set to a military cadence, with the royal audience encouraged to beat the floor with their scabbards in time with the music. The dance involved 12 “acts” in all, portraying the preparation for battle (including spectacular sword dance displays), the lining up in tight battle formations, and the battle scenes themselves.

Nishang Yuyi (the Song of Enduring Sorrow) is also a royal creation, written and choreographed by Tang Dynasty Emperor Xuan Zong (known privately as Li Longji) who reigned from 712-756. The dance, sometimes referred to as the Feather Dress Dance due to the fact that the costumes are adorned with soft, fluttery feathers, suggesting lighness and flight, concerns a legend about an emperor who dreams that he travels to the moon and there, in a palace, sees a group of beautiful, heavenly virgins dressed in feathers and rosy clouds dancing in the skies. When the emperor awakens from this dream and recounts it to his concubine, the concubine recreates the dance for the emperor.

The Dragon Dance

Dragons are important to Chinese people who think of dragons as helpful, friendly creatures. The dragon is a symbol of dignity, wisdom and power in Chinese society and is linked with good luck, long life and wisdom. Chinese Dragons are associated with storm clouds and life-giving rain. They have special powers so they can fly in the air, swim in the sea and walk on land. The Dragon has features of other animals such as the horns of a stag, the scales of a fish and the footpads of a tiger.

Dragon dances are performed at New Year to scare away evil spirits. During the dance the performers hold poles and raise and lower the Dragon. Sometimes one man has a ‘Pearl of Wisdom’ on a pole and he entices the Dragon to follow him to the beat of a drum, as if searching for wisdom and knowledge.

There are several versions of the Dragon Dance, one of the most popular of which is the Fire Dragon performance, during which countless lanterns are paraded before the dragon, symbolizing the creature’s fiery breath. The Dragon Dance, as it is performed in China (the Dragon Dance is also a permanent fixture in almost every Chinese Lunar New Year celebration in the many Chinatowns all across the world. Various parts of the dragon’s body are lit up with roman-candle-like, spewing fireworks, adding to the festive spirit.

Dragons used in Dragon dances vary in length from a few metres to up to 100m long. Longer Dragons are thought to be more lucky than shorter ones. The dances can be performed either during the day or night, but at night a blazing torch will be carried to light the way.

The Lion Dance

The Chinese Lion performances during the new year celebrations start on New Year’s Day and continue through the end of the festivities. They play out during street celebrations to the sound of drums, gongs and cymbals.

Street celebrations often include a traditional lion dance which is thought to bring good luck. There are usually two dancers. One acts as the head and the other the body. They dance to a drum, cymbals and a gong. On the head of the lion is mirror so that evil spirits will be frightened away by their own reflections. As the lion runs along the streets he begins to visit different places. On his way he meets another person, the ‘Laughing Buddha’ who is dressed in monk’s robes and a mask. He teases the lion with a fan made of banana-leaves which makes the lion jump around. The lion dancers need to be very fit. As the lion moves from place to place he looks for some green vegetables such as lettuce which are hung above the doors of houses or businesses. Hidden in the leaves is a red packet of money. The lion eats the lettuce and red packet. He then scatters lettuce leaves to symbolise a fresh start for the new year and the spreading of good luck.

I had the chance to see live an amazing show of Chinese Dances when I was in Edinburgh in summer 2009 at the Military Tattoo. The dancers were the She-huo Group Shaanxi China which consists of 92 people altogether and is organized by the Shaanxi Provincial Cultural Department. The artists in this group are coming from 4 different cities of the Province: Xi’an (the capital city of the Province, twin city to Edinburgh), Bao-ji, Han-cheng and Zi-chang. Their age span varies from 19 year’s old the youngest to 61 the oldest. Though there are professional artists, a large part of them are amateur musicians or farmers.

She Huo is folk art performance given on traditional or religious festivals and a chief form of folk art especially popular in the rural areas. She Huo includes a great variety of folk history. “She”, is the God of Earth, and “Huo” (fire), is meant to drive away the evil spirit. She Huo is the voluntary activity among the countryside people during morning ceremony, and other social events, it is basically held between the 1st and 15th day of the first month of the traditional Chinese Lunar New Year, in the aim of praying for good weather for the crops, a bumper harvest, and making the State prosperous and people peaceful.

Here are some of my pictures-sorry for the poor quality, I didn’t have a good camera- and a video of their show I found on youtube

Chinese Cinema

Early Cinema

Film arrived in China only a few months after its world premiere by the Lumière Brothers in the Grand Café in Paris on December 28, 1895. It is recorded that a few Lumière films made their Chinese debut on August 11, 1896 in Xu Garden (Xu yuan), a popular entertainment quarter in Shanghai. This new medium was introduced as “Xiyang yingxi,” or “Western shadow play,” which related it to China’s millenary-old indigenous tradition of shadow play.

China was portrayed in western movies as a fantasy, a place to have sex or to daydream, but then Chinese people themselves began to make movies. Bu Wanchang’s Romance of the West Chamber, made in 1927, probably the first great one, contained hints of what was to follow.

The first Chinese film, a recording of the Beijing Opera, The Battle of Dingjunshan, was made in November 1905. For the next decade the production companies were mainly foreign-owned, and the domestic film industry did not start in earnest until 1916, centering around Shanghai, a thriving entrepot center and the largest city in the Far East then. The first truly important Chinese films were produced starting from the 1930s, when the “progressive” or “left-wing” films were made, like Cheng Bugao’s Spring Silkworms (1933), Sun Yu’s The Big Road (1935), and Wu Yonggang’s The Goddess (1934). During this time the Kuomintang struggled for power and control over the major studios, and their influence can be seen in the ensuing films produced. The post-1930 era is called the first “golden period” of Chinese cinema, where several talented directors, mainly leftist, worked. The period also produced the first big Chinese movie stars, namely Hu Die, Ruan Lingyu, Zhou Xuan, and Jin Yan. Other major films of the period include Song of the Fishermen (1934), Crossroads (1937), and Street Angel (1937).

The Japanese invasion of China, in particular their occupation of Shanghai, ended this golden run in Chinese cinema. All production companies except Xinhua closed shop, and many of the filmmakers fled Shanghai, relocating in Hong Kong, Communist- and Nationalist-controlled regions, and elsewhere.

The Second Golden Age: the late 1940s, and the Communist Era

The film industry continued to develop after 1945. The Lianhua Company, a major Chinese production company, was established in Shanghai after the war and once again became the basis for leftist. Many showed the disillusionment with the oppressive rule of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party. Myriads of Lights (1948), Crows and Sparrows (1949), San Mao (1949), and, most importantly, The Spring River Flows East (1947) are the classics produced during this period. The Spring River Flows East, a three-hour-long film, which depicts the struggles of ordinary Chinese folks during the Sino-Japanese war, was immensely popular during its time, making social and political references to the period. The Wenhua Film Company, one of the two important production companies formed by left-leaning filmmakers in the city, also contributed to the Chinese Cinema cultural heritage with some of the masterpieces of the era. A film by Shanghainese director Fei Mu, Spring in a Small Town (1948), which was produced in Shanghai prior to the revolution, is often considered by Chinese film critics as the best and most influential Chinese film of all times.

With the Communists takeover in 1949, the government saw motion pictures as an important mass production art form and propaganda. The number of movie-viewers increased sharply, from 47 million in 1949 to 4.15 billion in 1959. In the 17 years between the founding of the People’s Republic of China and the Cultural Revolution, 603 feature films and 8,342 reels of documentaries and newsreels were produced, sponsored as Communist Party of China by the government. Chinese filmmakers were sent to Moscow to study Soviet filmmaking. In 1956, the Beijing Film Academy was opened. The first wide-screen Chinese film was produced in 1960. Animated films using folk art, such as papercuts, shadow plays, puppetry, and traditional paintings, also were very popular for entertaining and educating children. The thawing of censorship in 1956-7 and the early 1960s led to more indigenous Chinese films being made, which were less reliant on their Soviet counterparts. The most prominent filmmaker of this era is Xie Jin, whose two films The Red Detachment of Women (1961) and Two Stage Sisters (1965), exemplify the growing expertise China has in the craft of motion pictures.


The Cultural Revolution and its Aftermath

During the Cultural Revolution, the film industry was severely restricted. Almost all previous films were banned, and feature film production almost came to a standstill in the early years from 1966 to 1972.

In the years following the Cultural Revolution, the film industry flourished as a medium of popular entertainment. Domestically produced films played to large audiences, and tickets for foreign film festivals sold quickly. The industry tried to revive crowds by making more innovative and “exploratory” films which take in ideas from the West. In the 1980s the film industry was faced with the problems of competition from other forms of entertainment and concern on the part of the authorities that many of the popular thriller and martial arts films were socially unacceptable. In January 1986 the film industry was transferred from the Ministry of Culture to the newly formed Ministry of Radio, Cinema, and Television to bring it under “stricter control and management” and to “strengthen supervision over production.”

The end of the Cultural Revolution brought the release of “scar dramas”, which depicted the emotional traumas left by this period. The most popular of these is probably Xie Jin’s Hibiscus Town (1986), although they could be seen as late as the 1990s with Tian Zhuangzhuang’s The Blue Kite (1993).

The rise of the Fifth Generation

 The rise of the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers in late 1980s, brought increased the popularity of Chinese cinema abroad. The first generation of filmmakers to produce Chinese films since the Cultural Revolution, they used traditional methods of storytelling and opted for a more free approach. Yellow Earth (1984) in particular, marks the beginnings of the Fifth Generation. Extremely diverse in style and subject, the Fifth Generation directors’ films ranged from black comedy (Huang Jianxin’s The Black Cannon Incident, 1985) to the esoteric (Chen Kaige’s Life on a String, 1991). Other notable Fifth Generation directors include Wu Ziniu, Hu Mei, and Zhou Xiaowen.

The Fourth Generation also returned to prominence. Given their label after the rise of the Fifth Generation, these were directors whose careers were stalled by the Cultural Revolution and who were professionally trained prior to 1966. Wu Tianming, in particular, made outstanding contributions by helping to finance major Fifth Generation directors under the auspices of the Xi’an Film Studio.

The Fifth Generation movement effectively ended in the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, although its major directors continued to produce notable works. Several of its filmmakers went into self-imposed exile: Wu Tianming stayed in the United States, Huang Jianxin left for Australia, while many others went into television-related works.

Mikela Fotiou is a PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow. Hailing from Greece, she speaks English, Spanish and a little Italian – but not Chinese (yet)!

We will be adding more information to these pages as the programme develops…

If you’ve visited China, we’d love you to post a message telling us about your experience.


10 thoughts on “China – 中国

  1. Hey there. Was told by JC about your blog. Great write up on things about China. I live in China, have a masters in Chinese Studies, and have lived here for 9 years. My experiences in China are vast, so don’t know where to start. I taught English in Tianjin for 1 year then studied Chinese full time for 3 years. Moved to Shenyang in 2006 to teach kindergarten, then when to University of Edinburgh where I met JC and did my masters in Chinese studies and then came to work in Shanghai at the end of 2009 where I am now. Will write more when I have some thoughts of what would be interesting.

    • Hi Rich!

      Thank you so much for posting on our blog!
      You really seem to love China and your career sounds stunning!
      I really admire your courage to decide to live in China! Isn’t amazing what options and opportunities you have when you speak a foreign language, especially a language like Chinese?
      Living abroad myself, I constantly realise how mind-broadening it is to meet new new cultures, so different from your own country’s culture! I am sure you see it as well!!!

      Hope our students will have the chance to experience at least a very small part of what you are experiencing!

      All the best to you and your amazing life journey!


  2. Thanks Mikela for sharing this website. Been to Hong Kong years ago, love their food and friendly people! Will add more info when I get back to Taipei 台北!

  3. This is a nice blog, Mikela. It has made me want to learn Chinese seriously.
    Thanks to the geographical advantage (I’m living in Japan), I’ve traveled to China twice, to Beijing and Shanghai. When I travel the world, I usually avoid big cities because the streetscapes are getting similar in most big cities. But these two cities are the exceptions; they are immense, modern, vibrant metropolises, while at the same time they preserve some traditional neighborhoods, among which I especially liked Hutong in Beijing and Tianzifang in Shanghai. People I met in China were very kind and food was excellent. I only wished I could speak Chinese (Chinese is more similar to English than to Japanese in terms of syntax).
    Well, if any of you have a chance to visit China, please visit the adjoining Japan on the way. We have many things to offer as well.

    • Hi Satoshi!

      So nice to hear from you!
      Thank you so much for sharing your experience in Beijing and Shanghai with us!
      These two cities, as well as Hong Kong that Lee has visited, seem big and chaotic but they seem to have an amazing culture and beauty!
      Actually I am considering learning Mandarin myself now!!! I knew China was a country rich in history and tradition, but I never realised how many things there is to say about China!
      I just have to state that I envy you, Rich and Lee for having traveled in China! I hope I will have the chance to visit it myself soon!

      Thank you once again for your feedback! It really made me more curious to visit these cities!

      All the best to you,


  4. What a blog! Mikela! I’ve never been to China, but people in Taiwan also speak Chinese 🙂 We are very similar in terms of culture and food as well. It’s very inspiring seeing a language program promoting this language.
    For people who are interested in making Chinese friends, please avoid giving a clock or an umbrella as a present. ‘Giving a clock/送鐘’, sounds like ‘I’ll attend your funeral in the near future.’ and ‘giving an umbrella/送傘, sounds like ‘I wish you or us get apart.’ If you really think this clock or umbrella is too good not to give as a present, the solution is to ask your friend to pay a very small amount of money (10 Ps). In this way, the present is being ‘bought’ instead of being ‘given’. Hope this is interesting for you.

    • Hi Marie!
      Thank you so much for posting a comment on our blog!
      This sound so interesting! Are there any more similar trivia? Such things are so difficult to have an idea of if you don’t live in a country the language is spoken or if you don’t have native speakers friends!
      It seems like the power of this language is huge! I am getting more and more excited and eager to learn it!
      I will make sure I will buy you a clock or an umbrella instead of giving you one!


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