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10 Facts About China that Might Surprise You

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China is the most populous country in the world. It is the World’s oldest civilization and its culture is one of the oldest cultures to exist. Its Chinese name is Zhōngguó, which translates to “Middle Kingdom” and reflects the ancient Chinese worldview that China is the centre of the world. With many centuries of existence, it’s no wonder that China has developed many interesting traditions and habits, as well as being a country with many historical “firsts”. Quite a few of these traditions and facts are commonly known around the world. There are, however, some interesting cultural as well as historical facts about China that might not be so known. These make for a very different and mysterious culture and country to what many people, especially those from western countries, might be used to. At Intern Asia, we’ve put together a list of 10 more unknown and quite fascinating facts about China that will help you learn more about China and Chinese culture and might even surprise you.


1. Fortune Cookies

chinese fortune cookiesWidely known around the globe, fortune cookies are a crisp and sugary cookie with a piece of paper inside, a “fortune”, on which an aphorism or a vague prophecy can be found. You might naturally associate these fortune cookies with China as being part of Chinese culture. However, these are not a traditional Chinese custom and were not even invented by Chinese at all. Chinese fortune cookies are in fact a modification of the traditional 19th century Japanese cookies. These Japanese fortune cookies, known as “tsujiura senbei”, are very similar in appearance to the Chinese fortune cookies as we know them nowadays and originated in Kyoto, Japan. Though similar in appearance, they do have some differences. The ingredients are not the same and the fortune they contain is wedged into the bend of the cookie in the Japanese version rather than placed inside the hollow portion as we know it from the “Chinese” version. The Chinese fortune cookies as we know them today made their first appearance in San Francisco (U.S.A.) by Makota Hagiwara, a Japanese-American immigrant.


2. Ping Pong

ping pong in chinaPing pong may very well be the most popular sport in China with approx. 300 million regular ping pong players. Chairman Mao is responsible for making ping pong the national sport in the 50s, as a vehicle to recover national pride and facilitate international relations. It comes therefore to no surprise that China triumphs in global ping pong tournaments, playing even better than any other country at any sport. With Chinese people loving to play sports together outside, public ping pong tables can be found in many neighbourhoods in China. However, just as it happens with the fortune cookies, Chinese did not invent China’s most popular game either. In fact, it originated from Great Britain under the name of table tennis. Once Chinese discovered the game, they immediately went crazy for it producing now most world-class ping pong players. Chinese players have won the men’s World Championship 60% of the time since 1959, and all but two of the women’s World Championships since 1971. China also won all possible gold medals in ping pong in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, in the 2012 London Olympics and in the 2016 Rio Olympics. Chinese players are in fact dominating the ping pong Olympics so much, that rules were changed back in the 2012 Olympics. Instead of having three players, each competing country can only have two participating contestants, so that one single country cannot win all three medals.


3. Soccer

soccer in ChinaOn the other hand, soccer (football), the most popular sport in England, was invented in China over two thousand years ago during the Han Dynasty. According to FIFA, there is scientific evidence that the earliest versions of the game originated in China under the name of cuju (“kick ball”), which was incorporated as a type of exercise in the military manual dating back to the second and third centuries BC. Cuju players could use any part of the body apart from hands and the intent was kicking a ball through an opening into a net. It was remarkably similar to modern football, though similarities to rugby occurred. The sport was refined during the Tang Dynasty and Song Dynasty, when professional players would entertain the imperial court. Despite its origins laying in China, soccer is not a popular sport among Chinese.


4. The art of tea

tea in chinaAs the national beverage of China, tea likely originated in southwest China during the Shang dynasty as a medicinal drink. The beverage is considered one of the seven necessities of Chinese life. Every household in China has a traditional tea set and serving tea is considered a sign of deep respect. Having a pot of tea ready when visitors come around is the typical way of welcoming said visitors and it is quite common to get a cup of tea when eating at a restaurant in China, usually free of charge. When eating with a group of people, you should not pour your own tea. Instead, everyone should pour it for everyone else. If you do want to pour your own tea, refill other’s cups first starting with the highest-ranking person at the table, especially the host. This is not only a sign of respect, but also gives honour and status to the pourer. On the other hand, if the highest-ranking person pours your tea, it is an unspoken sign of disapproval, or of his desire for you to leave the dinner. Tea ceremonies or visits to tea houses are also part of Chinese culture and can even be an important way to finish business transactions. Even one of the most important ceremonies of a traditional Chinese wedding is serving tea to the parents and relatives. In traditional Chinese culture, tea played an important role in showing your social status in China. Both, the way in which you drink tea and the type of tea you drink are both indicators of your social status. In fact, tea drinkers in ancient China were primarily aristocrats who were highly respected in Chinese culture and society. Another interesting aspect of Chinese tea culture is that people apologise to each other by offering tea.


5. Ethnic groups

ethnic groups in chinaTo many people coming from western countries, Chinese people might seem like one big ethnic group. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, the Chinese government officially recognizes 56 different ethnic groups in China. The Han ethnicity accounts for the majority (around 92% of the total Chinese population) and is also the world’s largest single ethnic group. The non-Han Chinese population are considered the ethnic minorities in China and each ethnic minority has their own social customs, languages, dress, religions, and more. Some of the major minority ethnic groups in China are Zhuang, Hui, Manchu, Uyghur, Miao, Yi, Tujia, Tibetan and Mongol. Traveling to places like Guangzi or Yunnanwill allows an insight into these different groups and their varying cultures. These ethnic minority groups together with the Han majority make up the greater Chinese nationality known as Zhonghua Minzu. Chinese minorities alone are referred to as Shaoshu Minzu.


6. The proper use of chopsticks

using chopsticksEveryone knows Chinese eat with chopsticks and, though they make it look so easy when you observe them, people not used to eating with chopsticks will most likely find it challenging at first. Once you’ve figured out how to properly hold your chopsticks and are able to pick up food with them and eat it, you might think that you’ve mastered the art of eating with chopsticks. We’re here to tell you that mastering this art is way more complicated than you’d think. In fact, there’s an entire etiquette that revolves around the proper use of chopsticks that you should keep in mind. You should, for example, never stick your chopsticks upright in a bowl as this means you’re offering the rice to the deceased and might be offensive to your host. Same goes with using a pair of chopsticks that are not the same length as this also represents death (uneven boards were once used to make coffins). You should also avoid chewing on chopsticks, playing with them or even digging through your food for the tastier pieces. Another thing to keep in mind: when sharing food with other people, you should use “public chopsticks” when available for serving yourself or use the reverse end of your own chopsticks.


7. Don’t finish your food

chinese foodFor most cultures, especially in Western countries, it’s polite to finish all your food on your plate when you’re a guest at someone else’s house as this symbolizes that you really enjoyed the meal. This is just another cultural difference between China and other countries. In China, there is an unspoken rule to always leave something on your plate at the end of the meal, that’s the only way your host will know that you’ve finished eating. For those of us who grew up being told it’s polite eating everything on your plate, this Chinese custom might confuse us. However, if you do so and don’t leave anything left on your plate, your Chinese host will interpret this as a sign that you’re still hungry and will keep serving you food. So, unless you want to keep eating forever, once you’re full and don’t want any more food, you should leave a little bit of food left on your plate to indicate that you’ve finished eating. In fact, Chinese language has two expressions to distinguish these differences: “chīfàn le” means that you’ve finished eating, whereas “chīwán le” means that you’ve finished all the food found on your plate and there’s nothing left on it. So, to follow this Chinese food etiquette, you should chīfàn le (吃饭了), but don't chīwán le (吃完了), meaning you should finish eating, but shouldn't eat everything on your plate but instead leave a small to indicate you’re done eating.


8. The concept of personal space

metro in chinaThose of you who have been to one of the bigger cities in China like Beijing or Shanghai and have taken the metro during rush-hour either in the morning or afternoon will be able to relate to this point. The concept of personal space in China is just not the same as in western countries. If you find yourself standing in the metro station when the fully packed subway arrives and you think there’s no way you or anyone else is going to fit in there, we’re here to tell you you’re wrong. No matter how full it seems to be, there are always a handful of people who will manage to fit themselves in there, even if it means being squashed to the doors once these close. Travelling by metro can be a “cosy” experience and make you become too personal with the around five people that’ll stand next to and thus inevitably touch you. You’ll encounter the same concept of personal space, or lack thereof, when walking along some of the more popular and busier streets. Chinese people have no problem running you over if you find yourself in their path and living in China will make you become an expert in zig-zagging your way through the streets. Holding a conversation with a Chinese can also quickly turn into an uncomfortable experience if the person you’re talking to just seems to become closer and closer to you when speaking. Their intention is not to intimidate you or make you nervous, they’ll probably don’t even realise that they might make you feel uncomfortable by standing so close in front of you, it’s just in their culture. Chinese culture is so different to Western cultures in so many aspects and this is just one of them. The concept of personal space in China might not be what you’re used to, but it’s interesting to see cultural differences for yourself. It’s just another aspect that you need to experience if you’re looking for a true China adventure.


9. The art of (not) saying no

saying no in chineseIt’s a part of Chinese culture to always try and be polite to others. It is therefore quite hard to find someone who’ll outright tell you “no” when you ask them for a request, or a favour or whether they’d like to go somewhere or do something with you (e.g. go watch a movie). In these situations, Chinese will always try to let you off smooth and hardly ever use responses that directly mean “no”. Instead, they’ll most likely give you a response that will make it seem like they’re making an effort so as to not offend you when, in fact, they know right away that the answer is going to be no. One of these answers you might hear often is “ràng wǒ xiǎng xiǎng zài gàosù nǐ” (让我想想再告诉你). This expression is used to let someone know that they will think about it and then let them know about an answer in the near future. You will most likely never hear from that person. The expression is similar to what we would use in the West as well. When you feel uncomfortable telling the person for example that you don’t want to meet up with them, you’ve probably used an expression similar to “let me think about it and I’ll let you know”, maybe even pretended that you’re so busy you’re not sure you’ll have time for the meeting whilst knowing quite well the entire time that you could meet up with them but don’t feel like it. However, whereas we would probably end up at one point or another giving the other person a direct “no”, Chinese will most likely just keep repeating to you that they need to think about it or check something first. If they want to let you know right away that the answer is going to be no, then you might be more likely to hear that “this is not convenient”.


10. (Un)lucky numbers

Most cultures have their lucky and unlucky numbers, especially the latter ones. Whereas for most western cultures the number 13 is considered an unlucky number, the unluckiest Chinese number is in fact the number 4 (“sì”). This is because when pronounced it sounds very similar to the word for death. It is therefore common for many buildings in China to not have a 4th floor, with some buildings even going to the extend of skipping any floor with the number 4 in it such as 14, 24, 34 and all 40-49 floors. On the other hand, the number 8 (“bā”) is considered the luckiest Chinese number because it sounds like the word for wealth. 88 is thus considered particularly lucky as it symbolizes the “double happiness” characters. In fact, the belief Chinese have in the number 8 being the luckiest number is so strong, that the Beijing Olympic opening ceremony started exactly at 8 seconds and 8 minutes past 8pm on August 8, 2008.


This list is just a brief summary of the fascinating culture and history China has to offer. China is like no other country and visiting it makes for a truly unique experience. Why not immerse yourself into Chinese culture by doing an internship in China that will help you understand more about the Chinese way of living and experience some of these facts hands on?

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