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The Old and the New of China

Asia Product Manager Glyn tells us more about the contrasts of China from his recent recce trip.

Why visit China?

There are some very obvious reasons to visit China –to see the world famous Great Wall for instance, or the ancient Terracotta Warriors that guard the tomb of the first emperor. Or perhaps the infinitely cute Pandas or the stunning limestone karst scenery. But there is so much more to the country; details that exist outside of those famous attractions, some of them surprising, all of them wonderfully accessible once you veer from the well-trodden path and in to the ‘real’ China.

The Old and the New

It might be a cliché, but old and new really do exist side by side in China – perhaps more so than in any other place I’ve visited. The modern highways, teeming with the latest imported cars, cross vast valleys by way of impressive feats of engineering, and pass through mountains in seemingly endless tunnels.

Yet turn off from the highway and in no time you’ll find yourself in a village where life carries on oblivious to the modern world; where agricultural communities live their lives dictated by the seasons and the needs of their land and animals. Friendly, warm and welcoming, the villagers are as likely to be as interested in you as you are in them, and don’t be surprised if you are invited in to someone’s house for a look around and something to eat and drink. They expect nothing in return, it’s just the way things are done in the villages.

You don’t need to venture deep in to the countryside to experience the contrast of old and new. Amongst the gleaming skyscrapers of the cities you may well come across an ancient Buddhist or Taoist temple – an oasis of calm in the hectic, modern city. Wander in to the alleyways beyond the gleaming shop fronts, or around the backstreet markets, and you’ll find craftsman and traders making their living the old fashioned way, with small workshops or stalls providing necessary products for the local community.

All of this makes China one of the most fascinating places to visit – a real glimpse of the future and a society hurtling towards it, but with more than an eye on the past and traditions of yesteryear.

Park life

Visit any park in just about any Chinese town or city and you’ll notice something odd to the Western eye; instead of teenagers hanging out and making a nuisance of themselves, the elderly rule the roost! A highly sociable bunch, they meet every morning to chat, exercise, play games, fly kites or dance.

All sorts of activities go on from Tai Chi to Kung Fu, ballroom dancing to aerobics, dominos to Mah Jong. And this is not just limited to the parks. Any public space can become a dance floor, exercise space or outdoor games area, from riverside promenades to city centre squares to ancient temple gardens. The atmosphere is jovial and relaxed and foreign visitors are more than welcome to watch or even join in! I tried my hand at Tai Chi in Kunming, and a traditional fan dance in Guiyang, much to the delight of the locals who all seemed to have a wicked sense of humour, relishing my ineptitude!

The ethnic minorities of Southern China

Most of the people in China are Han Chinese. At around 1.2 billion they are easily the world’s largest ethnic group. But there are also more than 50 ethnic minorities, mainly in the south of the country, and their traditions are rich and surprisingly robust, surviving to the present day in many of the villages and towns of the region. The ones that you are most likely to come across on a visit to China are:

The Zhuang

The Zhuang ethnic group is the largest minority in the country with a population of around 18 million. Most live in the Guangxi Autonomous Region and Yunnan Province, but they can also be found in Guangdong, Hunan, Guizhou and Sichuan provinces. Fond of singing, they often hold Gexu, or singing fairs, where the young people of the villages wear their best costumes and meet to sing and socialise, with the subtext of finding a suitable marriage partner. The Zhuang worship their ancestors as well as nature and sometimes offer sacrifices and practice shamanistic rituals, often with the aim of returning the soul to the body of a sick person.

The Miao

The Miao are widely spread throughout Southern China and neighbouring countries, generally living in very rural and mountainous areas, with Guizhou Province considered their homeland. They believe that everything that moves or grows has its own spirit and worship the sun, the moon, lightning, thunder, fire, rivers, caverns, large trees, huge stones, and some animals. They also believe the spirits of the dead become ghosts that may haunt their families and their animals. They are famed for their festivals, especially the Sisters Rice Festival, where the young meet to try to find a suitable marriage partner, and the Lusheng festival, where they demonstrate their skill at dancing and playing the traditional Lusheng instrument.

The Dong

There are around 3 million Dong people in southern China, mainly in the provinces of Guizhou and Hunan. The Dong are polytheistic but regard the almighty Goddess Sasui as their protector. Each village has a temple dedicated to the goddess and a drum tower which was once used to warn of impending raids. Divination is practiced using chicken, grass, eggs, snails, rice. Like the other minorities, they are very fond of singing and festivals.

Tibetan Minority

With a population of more than 5 million the Tibetans live mainly in the Tibet Autonomous Region and the neighbouring provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan. They have their own spoken and written language and their own form of Buddhism, famously led by the Dalai Lama.

I think you’ll agree, there’s a lot more to China than the Great wall, but it is a fantastic sight!

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