In this article I discuss various aspects of life in China. In particular, I discuss (i) Guanxi, (ii) hygiene, (iii) marriage, (iv) pastimes, (v) Spring Festival, (vi) tea and (vii) transport. Bear in mind that I am writing about my experiences living in Hubei province (central China). Not all of this article will apply to all areas of the country.
Guanxi (guan1 xi5) is an important concept in Chinese culture that literally means relationship. Social circles are close-knit and Chinese people may not help you unless you are a member of the club. Contacts (and possibly even some friendships) seem to exist on the basis of favours given and owed. In practice, guanxi is a byword for bribery and nepotism, both of which are rife in China at all levels. It has even prompted a recent crackdown from Chairman Xi.
Bribery is always discreet but very obvious to spot. For example, Chinese people may invite an official out to dinner or offer him a box of expensive cigarettes. Personal connections count for a lot in China; it pays to have friends in high places. For example, the right contacts could admit your child into a prestigious school. I even know of teachers who successfully bribe their head teacher. They continue to draw a salary despite never teaching any classes.
The hygiene (or rather lack of it) in China is a main source of culture shock for new arrivals. Chinese people spit on the floor; they blow their noses without tissues and they do not use soap to wash their hands. Chinese parents do not buy nappies for their young children, choosing instead to let them urinate and even defecate on the street. New visitors to China quickly learn never to leave coats and bags on the floor for this reason. Moreover, Chinese people throw their litter on the floor or leave it on the table after they finish eating. The rubbish piles up in the street and in train compartments.
The Chinese are quick to point out that some of their apparently unhygienic habits are actually good for you. For example, squat toilets are better for the digestive system than sit-down toilets are. It may be disgusting to blow your nose without a tissue. But the Western habit of blowing into a tissue and retaining it for future use is not exactly hygienic, either. In the UK, we do not throw our rubbish on the floor, but I suspect that this is for aesthetic reasons. After all, we neither crawl on nor eat off the floor.
Arranged marriages were common in China not so long ago. Even today, it is vital for young people to seek their parents’ approval before considering marriage. Chinese parents want to know that their future son-in-law has a respectable job and will be able to provide for his wife. The man may have to buy a car and/or an apartment before he is considered eligible for marriage. The more traditional parents also put emphasis on the man’s looks and/or the social position of his parents.
The lead-up to marriage is very expensive for the husband and his family. The man must present gifts (and often money) as a token of good will to the woman’s parents at each visit. In addition, the husband’s family pays for the wedding ceremony in full. In the absence of social welfare, the husband must also take care of his parents and parents-in-law in their old age. Husbands and wives assume traditional gender roles in China: husbands go out to work; wives cook, do the housework and raise the children.
Chinese school pupils spend all of their free time completing homework or attending extra classes. But Chinese university students have more free time for sports and other social activities. KTVs are very popular. These are large buildings with numbered rooms for private parties of karaoke singing. Aside from this, many Chinese people enjoy hiking and playing Mahjong (ma2 jiang4). Others seem to be content wandering around the markets, or just sitting and smoking.
It is very common to see groups of middle-aged women gathering on street corners for aerobics and dance sessions, which take place either early in the morning or late at night. Chinese people are also fond of walking and exercising at the same time. This may appear strange to new arrivals. Chinese streets come to life at night with music and late-night shopping. And Chinese people make better use of public spaces than we do in the UK. I have seen people hanging their washing out in parks, playing badminton on the pavement or even just singing at top volume without a care in the world.
Spring Festival (chun1 jie2) is the most important festival in China. It is basically the Chinese, secular equivalent to Christmas. Spring Festival marks the beginning of a new (Lunar calendar) year and the date changes each year according to the Gregorian calendar. Spring Festival has its origins in myth. The story goes that Chinese people wanted to scare away a monster called Nian. To do this, they set off firecrackers and wrote goodwill verses that they attached to their front doors.
Spring Festival is a time of mass migration in China. People leave the big cities and return to the rural towns and villages where they grew up, or where their parents now live. Everybody heeds the call to return home for Spring Festival, no matter what the distance or inconvenience. It is a time for family reunions as well as for eating and drinking to excess in front of the TV, just like Christmas. The difference is that children receive red envelopes of money rather than gifts
Chinese tea is often served in restaurants (free of charge) as an alternative to boiled water. Green tea (lv4 cha2) and buckwheat tea (qiu2 mai4 cha2) are the most common varieties (in XiangYang, Hubei province). Other varieties include black, red, white and yellow. There are many tea shops in Chinese cities where you can buy every conceivable type of tea.
The Chinese attach great significance to the drinking and preparation of tea. Tea is used in traditional Chinese medicine as well as in Chinese cuisine. Drinking tea is also associated with high culture. There is social significance, too. Young people may offer their elders a cup of tea as a sign of respect (this forms part of traditional wedding ceremonies). It is also customary to offer tea when receiving guests. You can still visit a traditional tea house and to witness a tea ceremony. This costs 100 RMB in XiangYang.
Chinese people tend to travel across the country by train and some journeys can last up to 24 hours. The trains are especially crowded near Spring Festival. Often, only standing room tickets are available. There are four ticket types: (i) hard seat, (ii) soft seat, (iii) hard sleeper and (iv) soft sleeper. Hard sleepers are bunks that are arranged three on a side. There is not much space and there are no doors for the compartments. Soft sleepers are bunks that are arranged two on a side. There is more space and there is a compartment door. Coaches and sleeper coaches provide an alternative to rail travel.
Imported cars in China are shockingly expensive and yet they remain popular (especially gas-guzzling SUVs). A car is a status symbol in China and it is often a prerequisite for marriage. Major cities in China have very well-developed public transport. The buses are cheap and appear every 5 minutes or so. Moreover, many cities (e.g. Beijing, Shanghai and Wuhan) have clean and modern subway networks. In spite of all this, traffic congestion and the resulting air pollution still cause problems in China. Many people choose to wear a facemask when walking outside.