know China, travel China

A dancing dragon during Chinese New Year celebrations
know China starter info
travel China starter info
travel reports starter + in-depth info

image: David Brodie

Know China starter info


China's unique nature owes much to its separation from other cultures by geographical vastnesses. To the north is the tundra of eastern Siberia; deserts of central Asia to the west; the Himalayas and the forested hills of southeast Asia to the south, and the sea in the east. Within those limits are two of the longest rivers in the world – the Yellow River, or Huang He (still called ‘the mother river’) and the Yangtse, or Jiang Chang, further south.

Administration is based on provinces and autonomous regions, with a few cities outside that system.


The provinces themselves are large. Xinjiang is three times the size of France, and many smaller provinces are comparable in area to the UK.

This is a list of Mainland Chinese cities by population:

• Shanghai

• Beijing

• Tianjin

• Guangzhou

• Shenzhen

• Wuhan

• Dongguan

• Chongqing

• Chengdu

• Nanjing

All of them have a population of more than 7 million, with Shanghai having 22 million. There are 66 cities with populations of more than 1 million. (These are official figures, which are boosted by unregistered residents.)


Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Donguan, together with Hong Kong, Zhongshan, Zhuhai and Macau, form a conurbation in the Pearl River Delta (PRD). It competes to be the world's largest megacity.


Map of China showing main geographical features (Taklamakan and Gobi Deserts, Himalayas, Yellow River, Yangtse River) and cities

Map: David Brodie

Map of Chinese Provinces

Map: David Brodie

Map showing the top ten biggest cities in China, according to

Map: David Brodie

National identity, ethnic and linguistic diversity

China identifies itself by its ethnicity. It is an official government line that there are 56 ethnic groups. It is also government policy that the differences are publicly celebrated.

People of Russian descent make up one of the 55 minorities in the cultural crossroads of Urumqi, in the far west of China. Here, Uyghur, Russian and Chinese texts sit together.

Han Chinese are the by far the largest group of people of the lower great rivers, and of the great population centers of the east.


Indeed, Han people make up almost 92% of the total population. None of the other groups, the 55 minorities, numbers more than 20 million. Only one, the Zhuang people, contributes more than 1% of the population.


There are many dialects. Mandarin (Putonghua) and Cantonese (Guangdonghua) are indeed separate languages. Mandarin – Putonghua means 'common language' – dominates public life, and linguistic diversity is declining.

Shopfront in Urumqi, Xinjiang Province, showing name of restaurantin Uyghur, Chinese and Russian texts

image: David Brodie

The ethnic minorities provide a focus for 'heritage' tourism, as here at a 'Miao' village in western Hunan province.

If you do not belong to one of the 56 ethnic groups then you are a foreigner. You will receive friendliness, but you will forever be an outsider. There are several names for foreigners – wai guo ren (outside country person) and lao wai (old outside) are two. The second is more informal, but neither term carries any negative baggage. Additional names are lao wai peng you, or wai guo peng you – meaning foreign friend.

Street scene, Shanghai Former French Concession (FFC)

image: David Brodie

The Former French Concession in Shanghai was a centre of European trade in the past, and retains a Fench flavour. Now it is a popular residential area for 'expats'.


Several hundred thousand foreigners now livea happily in China, teaching, running business of their own, or working for larger companies.

Display of traditional weaving at a Miao minority village, Hunan Province

image: David Brodie


All children are taught English in school but, although there are plenty of exceptions, speaking skills are generally poor.

Many, but not all, signs in public spaces have English or pinyin (and sometimes Chinglish). Pinyin is the representation of Chinese using the western Roman alphabet. It helps, but it doesn't solve every problem. For foreigners trying to speak there is the matter of tones. Even if a traveller can read a sign, speaking it so that an average Chinese person can understand it is often impossible.


In Chinese (Mandarin, four tones; Cantonese nine tones), the meaning is changed by the tone. Thus Chinese people have a very strong sensitivity to tones.

Chinese man listening, struggling to understand

image: Adobe Stock

Shop doorway with Chinese text over the door

Most visitors to China are functionally illiterate, so that day to day business can be a problem.

image: David Brodie

Chinese text is a central part of culture and identity, and many people practice calligraphy. The principle of Chinese text is that each character represents a concept, and acts as an equivalent to a syllable.

In mainland China, ‘simplified’ Chinese characters are used. That doesn’t reduce the number of them – there are very many thousand, much the same as in the ‘traditional’ characters as still used in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Pinyin is frequently used, for example to enter text using a qwerty keyboard. A great strength of pinyin is that, as a modern representation, it has consistent rules.

Man in traditional jacket writing Chinese text - calligraphy

image: Adobe Stock


Sadness in the rain ... a Chinese scene, West Lake, Hangzhou. The ‘core’ of China, including Shanghai and Beijing as well as Hangzhou, experiences hot summers and cool winters. The summer is also the wet season, with the plentiful rainfall.

Desert sand dunes

It's a different story further west, in the scrubland of the Gobi Desert and the dry sandscapes of Taklamakan.

image: David Brodie

... while down south in Guangdong province, in the hot humid summers and very mild winters, the vegetaion tells a different story

Another tree, another climate ... in the land of Siberian tigers (if now few in number) in the far northeast, the winters are not for wimps.

Woman standing on a bridge in the rain, with umbrella

image: David Brodie

Tropical trees

image: Adobe Stock

Fir tree in a blizzard

image: David Brodie

Past and present

Man with heavy make-up and elaborate and colorful traditional clothes, performing Chinese opera

image: Adobe Stock

Few empires or states last for thousands of years ... China is an exception.

image: Adobe Stock

Postage stamp showing woman paying a traditional Chinese instrument
Shelves, drawers and jars storing traditional Chinese medicines

image: Adobe Stock

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) still plays a part in the lives of most people (alongside modern scientific medicine).

Chinese people have good reason to be proud of their history. The text has developed over a period of several thousand years, and calligraphy is a revered activity. Music, dance, dress, architecture and art – they all have unique characteristics.

image: David Brodie

image: David Brodie

image: Gunawan Kartapranata

Mosque in Urumqi, Xinjiang Province, China
Buddhist building by a lake, surrounded by mountains, Xinjiang Province

Now Buddhism, Islam and other religions (including Christianity)  co-exist

Buddhism arrived in China in around the year 100CE.


Most famously, the monk Xuanzang travelled west and then south to India, 500 years later. His story, Journey to the West,  remains a classic that every child knows.

Map by Gunawan Kartapranata showing the spread of Buddhism from its heartland in the Ganges Valley

The spread of Buddhism.

Map by Gunawan Kartapranata / CC BY-SA 4.0,

image: Adobe Stock

A building in the style of the Tang Dynasty, reconstructed in Hong Kong

Buildings and gardens in the style of the Tang Dynasty ... China enjoyed one of its most productive periods of stability and cultural development during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) while Europe was immersed in brutality.

image: William Shepherd, Historical Atlas, Henry Holt and Company, 1911, downlaoded from Wikipedia

Map showing the maximum extent of the Mongol empire

The Mongol Empire in the fourteenth century, included all of mainland China and stretched far into eastern Europe.


William Shepherd, Historical Atlas, Henry Holt and Company, 1911.

Fireworks, representing gunpowder and so illustrating one of the technologies that originated in China

image: Adobe Stock

Chinese schoolchildren know about the sacking of the Summer Palace (by British and French soldiers) in 1860. In the years that followed European powers sought trade and influence.

Arch at the Summer Palace, Beijing

From China came the compass, paper, printing, gunpowder (and fireworks), the bowed musical instrument, the stirrup. Printing worked better with the western alphabet than with so many more complex characters, and gunpowder forced those seeking power to emerge from behind their castle walls to play games of finance instead. Thus Europe was reborn.

An arch of the Seventeen Arch Bridge, at the Summer Palace. Beijing – bright light shining through the arch creating patterns of reflections

image: David Brodie

Sun Yat Sen. also know as Sun Zhongshan, in traditional clothes, standing in front of a map of China and a flag of the Nationalist government

image: David Brodie

China experienced a painful period of instability during and after the decline of the last dynasty, the Qing. It lasted long into the twentieth century, and it still hurts.


Sun Yat Sen, also known as Sun ZhongShan, was the first leader of the Nationalist government after the fall of the last emperor in 1912, and is respected worldwide as a figure of passion and inegrity.

Onwards and a long long way upwards ... China now  finds its own way iinto the future.

One of the tallest buildings in the world, the Ping'an tower in Shenzhen, partly obscured by cloud

image: David Brodie

A timeline of China

It's almost ridiculous to try to fit so much history into such a tiny space, but we have to start somewhere.

A timeline of 4000 years of Chinese history

timeline image: David Brodie


Wechat (Weixin) is part of everyday life for most people in China … so that’s something approaching a billion folk. It's a messaging and sharing platform, and a way to arrange meetings and do other business, pay bills, order food and transport, share your latest selfie, and more.



Phone network coverage is excellent, and wifi is available in most restaurants and coffee bars (without the need to register information such as email address). On the other hand, internet speed is generally so-so, especially when accessing overseas sites.


Services such as Facebook and YouTube are not available, except by using VPN. Foreign news, such as from the BBC, is generally fully available (but a little slowly).

Phone on the beach – instant sharing

Man on beach leaping happily in the air and seen on the screen of a phone held by another person

image: Adobe Stock

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