Sometimes it's hard to say you've had a "genuine" experience in a country, but here are ten things that are unique to China – that don't cost very much to do. If you can tick them all off after a vacation in China, then you're entitled to call yourself a veteran.
The Authentic China Trip – Item 1 – Eaten Chicken's Feet
A very smart guy made his millions by importing chicken's feet to China. Why? Because the Chinese just can't get enough of them. They're sold in soups, fried, boiled, roasted, in little take away vacuum packs (drowned in vinegar or chilli or both) everywhere. There is no more authentic food than chicken's feet. For our taste they're a little lacking in substance – but they don't taste bad. So get stuck in.
The Authentic China Trip – Item 2 – Drunk a Bottle of Baijiu
Made from sorghum this ubiquitous local tipple can be found everywhere – a cheap bottle starts at 10 RMB (that's $1.50) so there's no excuse for not having a try. Apart from the "unique" taste that is. But no trip to China's complete without at least one session with a group of friendly locals, shouting "gan bei" and drinking a gallon or so of the stuff. Try and leave it for a day where you don't have much to do the next morning though.
The Authentic China Trip – Item 3 – Worn A Strangely Worded T-Shirt
China is the home to the world's manufacturing heartland. However, much of the new found wealth hasn't yet trickled down into the everyday person's hands. So there's a conscious decision never to spend too much money. This means that many of the clothes sold in China's stores are factory rejects – many of which have been rejected for atrocious English spelling or incomprehensible use of the language. So dress like a local in a "angry monkey ballets with laughing squirrel" t-shirt, it'll set you back less than 30 RMB ($5) to do so.
The Authentic China Trip – Item 4 – Had a Foot Massage
Unlike some other Asian countries, China's massage parlors are mainly about massage. A foot massage cost less than 20 RMB ($3) for an hour in most places, though it's customary to leave a small tip (say another 5 RMB) on top. Sit in a big comfortable chair and have your worries rubbed gently away, it's a perfect way to end a day's sight seeing. Don't worry if you've never had a foot massage before, it doesn't tickle.
The Authentic China Trip – Item 5 – Sung (as badly as you like) at Karaoke
Karaoke may be China's number one pastime and everyone who is anyone will spend some part of their week belting out cover versions with their friends. Go during the day to a nice place and you'll spend less than a 100 RMB renting a private room and getting some cups of tea and soft drinks in. Go at night and you might spend rather more on alcohol, but it's up to you – there's no need to drink if you don't want to. If you'd like to treat some Chinese friends to a nice time – karaoke is the place to go. Just one request, please don't sing "Mandy" by Barry Manilow...
So for a shade under $30 you can do all the things the locals do on your China vacation.
Whether you're planning cheap China travel or a more luxury break in the country, most people want to know a little bit about life in China before they come. Modern China is a land of contrasts from the brand new heaving metropolis of Shenzhen, where everything has a price and everyone is busy making money. To the laid back provinces where you can find a more traditional way of life. We've put together a little bit of a guide on some of the traditional elements of the Chinese lifestyle so you can enjoy your China tour that bit more when you get here.
At the heart of all Chinese life is the family. The traditional family unit is "four generations under a single roof". In some rural locations this tradition still persists today and you will find great-grandparents, grandparents, parents and children all sharing the same home.
This kind of family arrangement is possible because of the Chinese cultural focus on harmony and unity in the family unit. Many people think that this is a relic of communism, and whilst it is true that the communists adopted this philosophy for themselves – it's actually a much older concept.
There is no official religion in China, and with the exception of a couple of state maintained efforts (in particular Islam and Christianity) most Chinese do not worship. While communism has controlled the growth of religion, China's spiritual past is not particularly religious anyway.
The two main spiritual centers of China's past were Confucianism and Taoism. The former has by far the greatest influence on modern culture. Confucianism accepts no heaven and no hell. Instead it offers guidance on social structure and conformity (or harmony) with that structure. It is from Confucianism that the family unit is derived. Taoism on the other hand offers an approach to personal balance (again with no heaven or hell) and inner harmony. It's influences can be seen clearly in one of the world's other major religions – Buddhism.
Superstition pervades every aspect of Chinese life, as it does in the Western world. However, in China it is given a much higher level of importance. The lucky number is "8" and most combinations of eight are considered to be very auspicious. However four 8's is not lucky. That's because the word for "4" in Chinese is very similar to the word for death (there is only a tonal variation between the two) and thus "4" is equivalent to the number "13" in the Western world.
Colors are also important in the Chinese world, and you'll want to make certain that you're wearing the appropriate colors if you're attending a wedding or a funeral. (Don't wear red to a funeral or black to a wedding).
This can be one of the most confusing parts of Chinese society for the China vacation traveler. That's because it's so directly in conflict with the way the West conducts itself. Because Chinese society is built on harmony and unity, this has a direct measurement in social terms.
This measurement is known as "face". Someone loses face when they are wrong, shamed, or embarrassed and they gain it when they are right, pleasing or praised. Causing someone to lose face is in itself a shameful thing.
How does this translate into real life on my China vacation?
In general terms it means that people won't want to lose face when you ask things of them. That means if you ask direct questions with a "Yes/No" response – you may get the answer you want to hear, whether or not it's the truth. That doesn't mean that your Chinese contact is a liar. It means that you put them in an impossible situation. You forced them to choose between lying and losing face, and as lying may delay losing face (or in the best circumstances give the person the time to get away – so they never lose it) that's the option they took.
It is always better to ask for a Chinese person's opinion on when something will be done, or if it can be done. This gives them the option to present a less palatable truth without losing face.
Of course there's much more to traditional Chinese culture than we can cover in a short article. And on your China travel experience you're likely to learn a whole lot more. However, taking a little time out to understand what's important to your local contacts can make relationships in China much richer, and more rewarding.
We won't be talking about that event, in this post. Mainly because it's been done to death and also because it has no relevance to China travel today. Tiananmen Square brings visitors from all over the world that want to experience Chinese heritage and culture, so let's focus on that.
Tiananmen Square – Some Facts
In most guide books Tiananmen Square, is described as "big" but that doesn't really do it justice. It's the third largest city square in the world covering nearly 110 acres. So huge would probably be closer to the mark.
The name means the "Square of Heavenly Peace" and is drawn from the name of the gate from the Forbidden City; "The Tiananmen Gate". In the center of the square there once stood an enormous gate, known as the "National Gate" sadly in the early 50's it was demolished in order for Chairman Mao's vision, of a square that could hold ½ a million people, to be accomplished through aggressive expansion.
During that time, a lot of the historic buildings around the square were also cleared. However, many others were built to take their place – and while they may not be quite as attractive, they have huge significance for the Chinese people. There's a monument to the heroes of the revolution, the National Museum and the Great Hall of the People all of which were built during the expansion.
Once Chairman Mao had passed away in 1976, a mausoleum for him was built during another wave of extension to the square. This allowed another 100,000 people to be accommodated on the square. Today his mausoleum still draws visitors from all over China to pay their respects to his accomplishments. Whatever your personal views may be, it really isn't a good idea to start debating politics here.
What to see in Tiananmen Square
Mao's mausoleum draws the crowds and if you want to get in, you'll want your China tour party to get there early, otherwise you could be waiting around a long while. For the Chinese crowds this is a near-religious experience so remain respectful throughout.
The gate to the Forbidden City and the Zhengyamen Gate on the other side of the square offer some nice photo opportunities, and should be easy enough to check out at any time of day. Following the Beijing Olympics the National Museum of China has become a lot more foreigner friendly and you should be able to understand pretty much everything without any jarring Chinglish. Though to be fair, Chinglish is one of the real delights of a China tour and it is missed here a little too.
The Monument to the People's Heroes is impressive enough, but it's not really why anyone except the locals visit the square, nor is The Great Hall of the people. However if you've got a digital camera, then there's no harm in taking some time out to take a few snaps as it's an experience that most visitors won't be able to repeat on a regular basis either.
Finally take a minute to contemplate this massive open space in the world's most densely packed city, and marvel at this monument to the people of China.
There's no doubt that the number one reason for most tourist's China trips is to see the Great Wall of China. The wall's history and dramatic presence as the longest man-made object on earth, guarantee its position of importance on a visitor's itinerary.
One common misconception is that the Great Wall can be seen from outer space with the naked eye. It's sadly not true, it's not that it isn't long-enough (it's nearly 9,000 kilometers long), it's that it isn't wide enough (at its widest the wall is around 10 meters wide). You can't see a house from that height for much the same reason.
The wall also wasn't built in one go. It's the culmination of centuries of effort that span several Chinese dynasties. Construction began in the Qin era, on the back of several smaller and earlier walls. The Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, is regarded as the first contributor to the Great Wall and his reign ran from 220-206 BC. You won't see much evidence of his (or many of those who came after him) efforts though, despite the wall being expanded and enhanced for hundreds of years afterward. During the Liao, Yuan and Jin periods, the wall was neglected as their own holdings were far North of the wall and it served no purpose in protecting them.
It wasn't until the 14th century and the arrival of the Ming Dynasty that construction of the wall began again in earnest. Having been soundly beaten in the Battle of Tumu, the dynasty was failing to keep a control on China due to the presence of raiding nomads – in particular from Mongolia and Manchuria. The original earth fortifications were resurrected and improved using brick and stone to improve the longevity and strength of them. Over 25,000 watchtowers were built to enable effective communication along the length of the wall.
Seeing The Wall Today
Today, the wall is in disrepair in many sections and the Chinese government has not yet been able to devote the budget and resources to its restoration. This is why the vast majority of China tours take in the wall in Beijing. The wall itself runs from Liaoning, Hebei, Tianjin, Beijing, Inner Mongolia, Shanxi, Shaanxi, Ningxia and Gansu but the best preserved sections are in Beijing.
There are two very well known sections that are closest to Beijing. Badaling and Juyongguan, both are in excellent repair and the only drawback of visiting is that they are also extremely popular with overseas and local visitors alike. On holidays and weekends the crowding can be quite severe, though the Chinese actually prefer it like this, as large crowds are an indication of how highly regarded a venue is.
Mutianyu, is nicer as though it is a little further out from the city center it's less packed and the locality is a bit greener. You could also visit Huanghuacheng, the best constructed part of the wall – though that's a little unfortunate for Lord Cai who built it – the emperor was not impressed with how much it had cost to construct and had him beheaded on this section. Most China Spree tours under categories of (First Class Travel, Affordable Luxury, and Expeditions) visit Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, while Winter Special tours and tours under Super Value category visit Badaling section.
Further away still are Gubeikou, Simatai (currently closed for restoration), Jiankou, Shuiguan and Jinshanling. Each is 80+ miles away from Beijing.
The great wall may bring the greatest numbers to China tours, but the most memorable place to see in Beijing is The Forbidden City. Immortalized for Western audiences in the movie, The Last Emperor (the first film ever authorized by the government of China inside the grounds of the city) it's an extraordinary place.
The original Forbidden city was built over a period of 15 years, by over 1 million craftsmen and workers. Zhu Di, the Yongle Emperor of the Ming Dynasty not only returned Beijing to capital city status but in 1406 he oversaw the start of the building work. In the 1600's the Forbidden City and the Ming Dynasty fell to the Shun Dynasty, during the retreat of Ming forces from Beijing much of the city was razed to the ground.
When the Qing Dynasty came to power later that year, the emperor was crowned in the Forbidden City's grounds. They would go on to add their own touches to the architecture, and changed the emphasis of rule from "supremacy" to "harmony" instead. This principle of harmony in society in China is still fundamental to Chinese life today.
The Forbidden City fell into British and French hands during the 2nd Opium Wars but after a year it was returned during the peace. Following the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, the Last Emperor, Puji abdicated in 1912 and the Forbidden City fell into disuse as a seat of government. However Puji remained in his quarters in the Inner Court, until he was expelled following a coup in 1924. In 1933, the Japanese sacked much of China and many of the treasures inside the Forbidden City were evacuated. Much of these were returned following World War 2, though a substantial part of the trove was taken by Chang Kai-Shek's government to Taiwan following their defeat in the Chinese civil war.
In the outbreaks of revolutionary zealousness after the cultural revolution the city was damaged again, though quick action by the Premier, Zhou Enlai, saved the majority from destruction. UNESCO gave The Forbidden City, World Heritage status in 1987 and in the same year a formal restoration project began to return it to its 1912 glories. It is now a firm favorite on the agenda of most China tours.
Inside the Forbidden City
The city is slightly less than 1 square kilometer in area, and is home to nearly 1,000 buildings with approximately 9,000 rooms (some say 10,000 if you count antechambers). It is the center of the original walled city of Beijing, and is surrounded by another walled area known as the Imperial City, which is further enclosed by the area known as the Inner City.
The surrounding wall is nearly 8 meters tall and is bordered by a 50 meter wide and 6 meter deep moat. On each corner of the city sits a tower, these are reproductions from paintings dating from the Song Dynasty and are extraordinarily intricate. There are gates along each section of the wall offering access to the Outer Court.
The Outer Court was used for entertaining royal guests and for Chinese ceremonies, it leads to the Inner Court – the traditional residences of the Imperial host and his family. Both courts are home to some spectacular buildings and represent a delicate inter-weaving of Chinese Shamanist, Taoist and Buddhist faiths.
If you're in Beijing on a China tour, you have to see for yourself the majesty of the Forbidden City and get a feel for how China was governed under imperial rule. All China Spree package tours include a visit to the Forbidden City.
This is an unusual festival for China, in that it's nearly 3,000 years old and only celebrating its fourth birthday under the current rule. It was one of many traditional holidays that was removed from the calendar when the people's party took over the country. However, in 2006 the festival was given the status of "intangible cultural heritage" and finally in 2008 it was recognized as an official holiday again.
When is it?
The mid-autumn festival comes exactly 7 lunar months after the lantern festival, on the 15th day of the 8th Chinese month (this is September/October in the standard calendar). It's also a holiday in Taiwan and Vietnam too.
What happens at the mid-autumn festival?
While it's not quite as big as the spring festival it is the second largest holiday in China, and as such there's plenty going on.
Firstly, you'll find mooncakes everywhere you go. These are traditionally made from a thick pie crust with lotus seed or red bean paste in them, which is set off with a salty duck egg in the middle. Many Westerners find these mooncakes a little more visually appealing than they taste. However, as with all things in China there's been a rapid modernization of the mooncake and they come in all different shapes and flavors now. One of the most popular amongst foreign visitors, is a chocolate ice cream mooncake with a vanilla center. Do try the traditional mooncakes as they might surprise you, but don't worry that you'll be left out if they don't suit your tastes.
Mooncakes are generally served in small slices, and drunk with lashings of Chinese green tea. They're often given as presents by business people, friends and family. So if you're visiting during the festival don't be surprised if you find yourself carrying dozens of ornate presentation boxes of mooncakes home with you.
Other Mid-Autumn Festival Customs
Keep an eye out for matchmakers brokering a little love between young couples, as the mid-autumn festival also serves as as sort of mini-Valentine's day. In some parts of China there are organized dancing events where the girls throw their handkerchiefs into a crowd of male admirers, the lucky fellow who catches the handkerchief "has a chance at romance" whatever that means.
Lanterns come back out too, and people carry lanterns through the streets and pile them on lantern towers, there are even floating lanterns to be found. Incense is burnt in the streets to appease and show reverence for certain Gods.
Dragon dancing is a particular highlight of the festival. The acrobatics involved at some of the more complex displays would defy belief if the participants weren't wearing a dragon costume that restricts their vision.
The moon rabbit, the Goddess of life, Chang'e is the symbol of the mid-autumn festival, and you should see plenty of interesting interpretations of her image.
One of the more interesting, but sadly untrue, legends of the mid-autumn festival is that it is a celebration of the Chinese driving back the Mongols in the 14th century. If your Chinese host brings this up, it would be unwise to contradict the belief. Instead, enjoy the story of how the cunning Chinese distributed messages to overthrow their evil overlords inside mooncakes.
Celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival on your China trip
The next Mid-Autumn Festival is September 30th, 2012. There are a quite few China Spree tours, with departure in mid or late September, cover this traditional Chinese holiday peroid. China Spree Travel will serve moon cakes for tours in China on this special holiday.
The Chinese Lantern Festival, like many other folk traditions has a somewhat mixed heritage with some debate as to where the concept comes from. In Chinese the festival is called Yuanxiao or Shangyuan.
China has a lunar calendar, and the first lunar month is Yuan. Historically, the night was known as xiao on the mainland. Thus Yuan Xiao is the night in the first month of the lunar year, that a full moon first appears on. This is usually the fifteenth day of Yuan.
Origins of The Lantern Festival
There's no doubt that the lantern festival is one of positive vibes, and whatever its actual roots it is about bringing people together and celebrating relationships.
The first legend, Taiyi the God of Heaven dominated the destiny of humans. He had 16 dragons on call to mess with the people below, and they would deliver storms, droughts, famine, etc. at his whim. The Emperor, Wudi of the Han Dynasty, back in 104 BC formalized an ancient Chinese tradition of paying bribes to this God to keep him off the backs of the people by creating the lantern festival.
Then there's the story that the Taoist God, Tianguan, who is responsible for good fortune enjoys a good party. So his followers decided to give him one in the first month of every year.
Or it might be that Lan Moon's, who defeated an evil king in China's distant past, but died in the process, followers threw the festival in his name.
In fact there are many other stories that attribute the festival to other powers including the Jade Emperor and a chap called Mr. Eastern in conjunction with the God of fire.
What does the Lantern Festival involve?
Originally the Lantern Festival doubled as a Valentine's day, and young people were paired by matchmakers in the streets. In fact, China has several Valentine's day equivalents and has even picked up on the Western one too – so it's not a common practice today.
There are however many lantern parades still going on. Chinese lanterns abound, and while there are some concerns regarding the safety of these devices they make for a wonderful sight. Streets and houses tend to be decked out as far as the eye can see with lanterns. Places like Chengdu have wonderful lantern fairs, usually held in major parks around the cities. The traditional paper lantern is slowly disappearing from the festival to be replaced with electronic versions, which might be a bit safer but aren't quite as inspiring.
There's also a tradition of Yuanxiao food, dating back over the last 800 years or so. Essentially it's a glutinous rice ball. These treats aren't a palette dazzling wonder, but fortunately unlike many other Chinese delicacies they won't offend the delicate Western taste buds either. The round shape is said to symbolize family togetherness and it's supposed to bring luck and prosperity for a family in the New Year.
In short the lantern festival is a gentle time of togetherness in China, with some very pleasant photo opportunities generated by the long lines of lanterns. The only down side is that as part of the New Year festival celebrations, transport to and from places can be a bit of a nightmare.
Celebrate the Lantern Festival on your China Tour
The next Chinese Lantern Festival is Feb. 24th, 2013. China Spree's popular 8-day Timeless Beijing tour with departure on Feb. 19-26, 2013 is specially arranged for this festival. An optional tour is available on Day 6, including an evening tour to visit the Beijing parks and temples where the traditional Lantern Festival celebration is held. The air inclusive China package tour is priced at $949 from San Francisco or Los Angeles, and $1049 from New York JFK. Air fuel surcharges, taxes are included.
The Four Main Styles of Chinese Cookery
If you're taking a China tour at some point this year, you'll want to make sure that you take advantage of all the food that China has to offer. There are four main styles of Chinese food and they are all very different to the Chinese food that you're used to back home.
Cantonese Food (Southern China)
Cantonese food is something we're all at least a little familiar with. The vast majority of Chinese emigrants to the West came from Hong Kong and the Southern Provinces (or Canton area). However when they arrived in their new homes they adapted their style of cookery to a Western palate, and many of the dishes you know and love – aren't really authentic.
The most popular form of Cantonese is Dim Sum. Dim Sum come in endless varieties and are usually dumplings or pastries – stuffed with meat, vegetables, fruit, sweet fillings or a combination of them. They make a great starting point for the clumsier chop sticks handler too – as they're quite substantial so they won't slip out of your sticks so easily. China Spree tours to Hong Kong include a Dim Sum lunch at the Jumbo Seafood Restaurant.
Sichuan (Szechuan) Food
Sichuan is China's largest and most populous province. It's another type of cuisine which we have a fleeting familiarity with, but in anglicized form. The province lies on the Western edge of China near the end of the old silk road and it's cooker is heavily influenced by traders traveling that route. In particular the use of chilli and pepper which was originally brought from India to China overland.
The dishes in the region are thus famously spicy and can be quite searing to the untrained palate, so it's a good idea to take your time when you start with Sichuan food. The Sichuan sausage is an extremely fiery alternative to Western sausages and a local hot pot packed with meat and vegetables is a great way to try Sichuan food. Take some breath mints with you because they use a lot of garlic and onions. All China Spree cruise tours include a visit to Sichuan province, the home town of Sichuan spicy foods.
Peking Food (Northern China)
This part of the country is very cold in the Winter and very hot in the Summer. The food reflects this by being heavier and more substantial than in the always warm regions of the rest of China. It's in the North that the Chinese love their noodles (rice is actually quite uncommon in Northern Chinese cookery) and you're never far from a bowl of steaming deliciousness.
Steamed dumplings and bread are also the order of the day. The dumplings (jiaoza) are a firm favorite of many a Western traveler and are very similar to Eastern European dumplings (pierogi). You'll also find a lot of lamb, which is conspicuously absent from most other menus in China – that's the Mongolian influence. But most importantly it's in Northern China where you find the best Beijing Duck on earth. It's served a little differently from in the West (the skin is considered to be particularly flavorsome and will be served before the main duck course) but the pancakes, spring onions, cucumber and sauce are all still there. Eating Beijing Duck is one of the highlights of any China tour. China Spree tours include Peking Duck dinner at one of the most famous duck specialty restaurants in Beijing.
Eastern China Food
The East of China offers by far the most varied food of all of the country and many people argue that you need to break the four main groups down further to accommodate the differences. In the North the emphasis is again on Noodles, in the South more on rice. The bread from the region is unbeatable and popular throughout the nation.
It's also the home of congee, a thick rice soup with a similar consistency to porridge. Most foreigners find it a bit of an acquired taste (and one that many are not willing to spend the time acquiring) but it's definitely an interesting experience. Much of the meat cooked in this region has a red hue to its flesh, that's down to being marinated in soy sauce and not a lack of cooking.
The Chinese are very proud of their food culture, in fact most domestic tourism is based around going to new places to try the local dishes. If you find yourself in a restaurant where the menu is only in Chinese, don't let that put you off eating there. Get up and point at things other people are eating that you like the look of – this is absolutely normal in China and won't upset anyone.