Introduction to China


Introduction to China

Why learn about China ?

  • It has the world’s oldest continuous civilisation.
  • Its culture is fascinatingly different from our own: people enjoy learning about life in a country very different from the West
  • As contacts between China and the West increase rapidly, there are greater opportunities than ever before for learning about China and its people
  • What is happening in China will affect the whole world politically, economically and culturally.

China’s size


It is the third largest country in the world in area (after the Russian Federation and Canada). The USA has a very slightly smaller land area. It is the largest country in terms of population (over 1,000 million people), about a quarter of the world’s total.

China’s diversity of scenery

China has two of the world’s longest rivers (the Yellow River and the Yangzi); two of the largest deserts (the Gobi and the Taklamakan); the world’s highest mountain (Qomolangma Feng – Mt Everest); the vast Qinghai-Tibet plateau and the huge plains of North China. The climate varies from the subtropical south, with a heavy monsoon rainfall, to the arid North-west; in winter the temperature can be -30°C in the North-east, yet 15°C in the far South.

desertmountains riversnow fieldscity lake

China’s diversity of people

There are over 50 different nationalities living in China. The majority (94 percent) are Han Chinese; the other groups include Tibetans, Mongolians, Uyghurs, Zhuang, Li andMiao whose languages and customs are quite different from those of the Han.

she minority people    tibetan minority people     tai minority people
She minority people                            Tibetan minority people                  Tai minority people
uighur minority people    teng minority people     oroqen minority people
Uighur minority people                      Teng minority people                      Orogen minority people


Chinese language

Chinese (Hanyu), the language of the Han Chinese is spoken by most people in China. The term ‘Chinese’ includes many different dialects. The most important by far is Northern Chinese (Mandarin), spoken by several hundred million people. Other dialects include Cantonese, Shanghainese, Hakka, Fujianese, (Min), Xiang and Gan. The differences between dialects can be quite large, Cantonese and Northern Chinese (Mandarin) so much so that people who can only speak Mandarin find Cantonese extremely difficult to understand. For example, ‘pot’ in Mandarin is guo, whereas in Cantonese it is wok. Most of the time Chinese people write their language in Chinese characters.

A Chinese character stands for a syllable, and is not a letter of an alphabet. For instance, humeans ‘pot’.

Chinese characters have had the effect of unifying Chinese people in spite of differences in their dialects, and people read newspapers and books printed with the same characters all over the country, even though they will pronounce the words differently. For more on the Chinese language see our Language index.

Pinyin romanisation

This is a system for writing Chinese using the Roman alphabet. It is used on road signs (in addition to characters), for teaching children in China how to speak putonghua, and also for helping foreigners to learn the language. Below is a rough guide to how some letters should be pronounced:

a = ‘ah’ u = ‘oo’ q = ‘tch’ zh = ‘j’ as in ‘join’
e = ‘er’ c = ‘ts’ x = ‘sh’
i = ‘ee’ or ‘ur’ o = ‘aw’ z = ‘dz’

Personal and place-names are now uniformly written in pinyin, and this has resulted in some familiar names being spelt in a different way: Mao Tse-tung as Mao Zedong, Peking as Beijing, and so on. Putonghua or Modern Standard Chinese is the official language of the People’s Republic of China. Putonghua is based on the ‘Mandarin’ dialect. It is still often called ‘Mandarin’ in the West even though this is a very outdated term, as Mandarins (court officials) have not existed in China for over 70 years. In this issue, most of the Chinese terms will be given in Modern Standard Chinese (abbreviated MSC) unless otherwise stated.

China as a third world country

China sometimes sees itself as a Third World country, but outsiders sometimes find it puzzling that a Third World country can build its own rockets and nuclear weapons and have advanced research programmes in many aspects of science. About 55 percent of the people live in the countryside, and though many parts of rural China are still poor, the Chinese have, through their own efforts, managed to solve their food problem, achieved a remarkable level of health care, and provided at least primary education for the majority of children. Since 1949, China’s achievements have been an inspiration to many Third World countries.

The Chinese Word for ‘China’

One of the oldest terms for ‘China’ is Zhongguo which means ‘Middle’ zhong=middle,centre ‘Kingdom’ guo=kingdom,country One explanation, sometimes disputed, is that the Chinese regarded China as the centre of the civilised world, surrounded by barbarians. The English word ‘China’ seems to derive from the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) during which the Great Wall was built.

Poetic names for China include Jiuzhou, ‘Nine Regions’ – China was supposed to have been divided into nine regions in ancient times – and Shenzhou ‘Divine Region’.

Between 1912 and 1949, the official name for China was Zhonghua Minguo, ‘The Republic of China‘. Hua was the name taken by the early Han people, and the word is often used to mean ‘China’ in names such as Xinhua Shudian, ‘New China Bookshop’.

Since 1949, China has been called Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo, ‘The People’s Republic of China’, although in everyday speech it is still called Zhongguo. You often come acrosszuguo, ‘the motherland’, and wo guo, ‘my country’, as synonyms for China.

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