China country overview

The culture of China

Geography, People, Culture, and Economic Profile

China information index

Cultural life of China

China stands as a pivotal birthplace of global civilization, distinguished by its enduring presence, extensive diversity, and profound impact on surrounding cultures, particularly those within the East Asian region. Presented herein is an overview of Chinese culture. For comprehensive analysis on particular cultural facets, please refer to the article on Chinese literature, as well as the dedicated sections concerning Chinese visual arts, music, and the performing arts within the article titled “Arts, East Asian.”

Cultural milieu

The archaeological evidence, including skeletal remains and stone tools, indicates that the earliest phase of human cultural evolution, the Paleolithic period, extended from approximately 29,000 to 17,000 BCE. Subsequent periods, particularly the Incipient Neolithic and Neolithic eras, spanning from the 12th to the 2nd millennium BCE, are distinguished by the discovery of numerous decorated objects, predominantly pottery vessels with intricate designs.

In the realm of Chinese Neolithic ceramics, two predominant styles have been identified. The first, known as Yangshao ware, emerged from the central Zhongshan region and is notable for its geometric patterns. The second, Longshan ware, which originated in the Northeast and also found its way to Zhongshan, is recognized for its unadorned surfaces and distinctive raised bases, either circular or tripod in form.

The advent of the Bronze Age heralds the emergence of China’s first historically documented dynasty, the Shang, which reigned from circa 1600 to 1046 BCE. This era is particularly renowned for the oracle bones unearthed near Anyang, the last Shang capital. These artifacts, primarily turtle shells and cattle bones, bear inscriptions and were integral to the Shang rulers’ elaborate divination and sacrificial practices, aimed at garnering ancestral support. The use of writing in this context established a lasting association between written language and political power. The Shang and subsequent Zhou dynasties (1046–256 BCE) witnessed the refinement of bronze craftsmanship, producing intricately decorated items for a variety of ceremonial and practical purposes.

The significance of the written word in Chinese culture cannot be overstated. Scholars have traced the origins of ideographic writing on pottery to around 4000 BCE, with the written Chinese language evolving continuously from the late Shang period onward. The relationship between the written language and Chinese culture manifests in three fundamental ways. Firstly, writing serves as the primary conduit for cultural preservation and dissemination, as reflected in the Chinese term for culture, ‘wenhua,’ which translates to ‘becoming literate.’ Secondly, mastery of the written language is a defining characteristic of Chinese identity, setting the Chinese apart from ‘barbarian’ non-Chinese groups. Thirdly, the intertwined nature of writing and governance is evident, as literacy and knowledge of written traditions have been essential qualifications for public office for millennia. From the oracle bones of the Shang dynasty to contemporary printed materials, written works have been instrumental in shaping political thought and governance practices.

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