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By Alex Brown




1.1    Geographical position


China is surrounded by chains of mountains and deserts in the west and vast extensions of sea in the east. In the North, it is linked to Mongolia, Manchuria, Korea and Russia (outlying regions and islands). In the South, it is land-linked to Indo Chinese countries: Burma, Kampuchea, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. Other neighbouring links include Russia, the Middle East countries and Japan.


Three main rivers serve the agricultural cultivated lands:


1.      Yellow River (North)

2.      Yangtze River (Central)

3.      Xi River (South)


Because of its geographical position, China has more than 1 billion people with the Han Chinese constituting 95% of the population. The remainder consists of over 55 different ethnic groups. In terms of physical appearance, almost all are of Mongoloid stock. What makes the Han Chinese different from other ethnic group is the presence of a written language and sharing of same traditions Basically, more than one fifth of mankind is of Chinese nationality.





With 5000 years of recorded history, China is one of the few existing countries that also flourished economically culturally in the earliest stages of world civilisation.


2.1  Pre history/ Cultural Life


The most famous is the Peking Man found in a cave site dating some 460,000-230,000 years ago. However skeletal remains of Chinese people date from the 29th to the 17th millennium BC.


Cultural life is shown through discoveries of decorated artefacts, primarily marked pottery vessels. Famous Chinese Neolithic pottery shapes, sizes and types (12th millennium to 2nd millennium) are the Yang shao (geometric painted) and Lung shan (unpainted) pottery.


2.2.  Tradition of Historical Narrative/Records


China has a unique tradition of recording its own history. Chinese historical narrative dates China's dynastic history from the Hsia Dynasty (19th/18th century BC) to the Qing Dynasty (AD1644 -1911).


However in terms of historical records discovered, scholars have identified ideographic inscriptions of Chinese written language dating back to 5000 BC or so. This is the Late Shang period where widespread Chinese written records are found in include the famous oracle bones with inscribed texts found in Anyang.


2.3    The Written Language and Chinese Culture


The writing language is central to China's culture:  writing is the medium for the preservation and dissemination of culture  command of the writing system distinguishes the  meaning of wen hua ( to become literate)  command of writing relates to leadership skills.


2.4   Prehistoric Chinese Agriculture


Archaeological excavations showed domesticated crops by 5th millennium BC. Staples include millet, rice, fruits, nuts, legumes, vegetables and aquatic plants while the proteins include pigs, dogs, fish and shellfish. Soybeans, tea, hemp, mulberries and lacquer are also found.




3.1    The Mandate of Heaven (part of Daoism)


Farmers were at the mercy of atmospheric phenomena which would influence yearly crops or cause disasters like floods, droughts and famines. Prosperity and peace are thus depended on a harmonic balance between forces of nature and on the competence and justice of the rulers who ruled under the Mandate of Heaven. Should they be corrupt or unjust that Mandate would be removed and rebellion against them would be justified.


Hence, past Chinese emperors must be of pure nature and moral conduct to obtain the mandate of heaven to rule the country. In fact, the Zhou claimed that the Shang emperor was no more the Son of Heaven because he was corrupt and incapable to govern, therefore he had lost the mandate and had to be replaced.


This harmony or balance in society required to maintain and ensure the Mandate of Heaven can also be related to traditional beliefs in the concept of polarities that reigned through the natural and social worlds. For instance:


negative vs positive

male vs female

light vs darkness

right vs left

Earth vs Heaven

Yin vs Yang


Traditional beliefs also recognized the existance of mountain powers, ancestor powers, river powers but the highest of all is Tian Gong, the Sky Father. He controlled victory in battle, harvest, fate of cities, weather etc. and was an impartial figure who had no specific cult.


3.2  Ancestor Worship


Kinship grouping and elaborate graveside rituals and burials were already developed during the Shang Dynasty. Ties of affection, obligation, the psychological and ideological nature of kinship made social and family ties strong and such qualities have survived till today.


3.3  Confucianism


Confucius (551-479BC), was essentially a philosopher. He wanted to reform the world through returning to traditions and classic studies because he believed the time of antiquity is a perfect virtue age. His teachings were:


ren    humanity or benevolence

yi       righteousness

li        propriety, rules of good manners/social behaviour

zhi     wisdom

xin     trustworthiness.

ciao   piety towards living parents and ancestors

zhong loyalty and filial piety

shu   decency, reciprocity or mutual respect between ruler and    subjects


Confucianism fitted naturally into Chinese pattern of close family ties and paternal domination i.e. the father governed like an emperor and should act with responsibility. Respect for the hierarchical line of relationship was encouraged.


Confucian contributions to the political organization of the Chinese state can be seen in the Confucian examination system which was enforced under the Han Dynasty. It created a class of bureaucrats or civil servants who had in common a classical education and a respect for learning, the arts and an ability to administer. This system produced a profound respect for education and the cultivation of the intellect was responsible for the creation of the largest single class of art patrons of any civilisation of the world.


3.4  Daoism


It is a uniquely Chinese religion compared to Buddhism. There are several levels of Daoism:


1.      Daoism as in performing of rites and rituals

2.      The philosophical Daoism with Lao-Tze

3.      Popular Daoism with magical practices

4.      NeoDaoism: (Merger of Daoism, Buddhism and Confucianism)


Lao-tze (? 640BC) preached renunciation of the world and a return to primitive simplicity. The sage person must find by himself the Way, the Path and the natural life force which liberates us from worldly human affairs and brings us closer to the universal laws of nature like the Yin & Yang etc. The sacred text of Daoism is Dan De Ding or I Ching. Daoism values the following:



 freedom from time


 nurturing spirit of solitude




Neo-Daoism re-emerged later in the Sung Dynasty. It accepted Buddhism and Confucianism as it underwent a phase oftransformation.Throughout China's religious history, Daoist priests had often competed with Buddhist priests as the Daoists regarded Buddhism a foreign import. Daoism contribution to Chines society include:


 preservation of rites and rituals



 technological inventions ( magnetic compass, gunpowder)

 landscaped gardens and paintings


 legendary gods and popular gods

 music / poetry with romance


Daoist female deity is Tien Hou Liang Liang (Queen of Heaven) But the supreme deity is Yu Huang Ta Ti, the Jade Emperor. In popular religious belief other Daoist gods include Longevity God, Happiness God and Prosperity God.


3.5    Buddhism


Buddhism came into China during the Han Dynasty and became established in court circles during the Sui Dynasty. The introduction of Buddhism to China from India was an important cultural and religious event. It came as a median between the strict hierarchical Confucianist concepts and dreamy Daoist practices.


Its main ideas are:


 there is individual salvation

 eternal peace in paradise

 subjugating desires of the world

 life is suffering

 methods to get rid of suffering


The Chinese in south first accepted Buddhism and it quickly spread to the north. Its appeal cut across all classes and had the support of both the aristocracy and the common peasant folks. Many monasteries were built especially in the south and they became centre of learning and culture.


Mahayana Buddhism is most popular among the Chinese. Stressing the Greater Vehicle doctrine, it teaches salvation through helping and saving people with the assistance of Bodhisattvas, enlightened beings, who delay their Nirvana in order to remain on earth to save mortals.


Buddhism is basically an adaptable religion. So the Chinese sinicized it to fit the local cultures, religions and philosophies. Thus images of Bodhisattvas are popular in China particularly Guan Yin, which assumes the attributes of a female deity during the Sung Dynasty. The Chinese believe the next Buddha is Mi Le Fo, the Laughing Buddha or Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future. Another popular deity is Amitabha, the Buddha of the Western Paradise.


As Buddhism is adaptable, a monk called Bodhidharma in Loyang (516-534AD) founded Chan Buddhism (called Zen in Japan) and expounded the principles of:


 There is no Buddha save the Buddha in our own pure nature 

 All rituals, acts of worship and study of texts were worthless

 Only meditation would bring us into higher stages

 Enlightenment happened in a rare flash of blinding clarity 

 It is possible to reach the state of Nirvana without going through rebirth.













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