7 Things You Might Not Know About China

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Even if you failed world geography class, you know that China is an enormous country, in both land mass and population (1.34 billion and counting). You are probably familiar with the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and the country’s cuddliest mascot, the giant panda. You might also have heard that over the course of a 5,000-year history, Chinese came up with such innovations as paper and gun powder. But some things can’t be learned without time spent on the ground, getting to know the place.  Here are some of my discoveries after two years in Shanghai:

1. China is diverse


Before moving to the Middle Kingdom, I imagined the country as very homogeneous. While Han Chinese, at 91 percent, make up the majority of the population, there are 56 officially recognized ethnic groups in China, and around 200 languages spoken. Manchus, Tibetans, Mongols, Uighurs, Hui, Miao and Koreans all have sizable communities, though the largest ethnic minority group in China is the Zhuang. With a population between 16-18 million, this group rivals some European nations.

Yunnan Province, bordering Tibet, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam in China’s southwest, is home to the most diverse collection of minority groups. As many as 100 different languages are thought to exist in Yunnan, some with just a few thousand native speakers.




2. Fireworks aren’t just for Chinese New Year

The Chinese invented fireworks so it stands to reason they are fond of setting them off. New Year celebrations continue for nearly two weeks with fireworks going off around the clock. Anyone can buy them, so displays aren’t limited to those planned by city officials.

Some believe that the loud noise scares away evil spirits and have incorporated fireworks into other areas of their lives. You can often hear the familiar pops in residential areas on weekend mornings, signaling a marriage or the purchase of a new house. Family members and friends try to chase away bad spirits to ensure good fortune for their loved ones.

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3. Western names are never boring

It’s a common practice for young Chinese to select an English name for themselves and these can be surprisingly creative. I’ve been served in Shanghai’s shops and restaurants by girls with names such as Dazzle, Leaf, Passion, Energy, Venus, Lemon, September and Fish. Boys get in on the action, too, with monikers like Mars, Dante, Rambo, Wiggle, Echo, Nokia and Beyond. The practice makes our run-of-the-mill English names appear quite dull by comparison. I think I’m going to start calling myself Bōluó (pineapple) because it’s my favorite Chinese word.

4. In fashion, anything goes


For several decades of the previous century, Chinese mainlanders mostly wore standard-issue navy blue suits and cropped hairstyles. When the policy of Reform and Opening Up took effect in 1979, the citizenry was introduced to Western fashion, some seeing it for the first time. With few Chinese style icons to follow, an “anything goes” approach was adopted and continues to this day. Girls will wear lace, bows, sequins, polka dots and animal print, often in a single outfit. Miniskirts and stilettos are the norm, even for the office.








Guys tend to be a little more subdued, though they do have a penchant for mixing stripes and plaids and unusual colors. As in much of the rest of Asia, it’s not uncommon to see couples in coordinating or even matching outfits. I have yet to get my husband on board with this trend.




5. The Chinese get flex-time, sort of

When Chinese are given a midweek day off work to celebrate a national holiday, they are expected to work through a weekend and take three consecutive days off.  In other words, Chinese will work the preceding Saturday and Sunday in lieu of two weekdays, ostensibly to maximize what they can do with the free time. While this gives them a lengthy break, it also means working nine days in a row without pause and they have no choice in the matter.

The result is hundreds of millions of people hitting the roads, trains, buses and airports simultaneously to make the most of their long holiday. During Chinese New Year especially, many leave the cities to visit families and hometowns, though more and more Chinese are taking the opportunity for leisure travel. If you are planning to visit China, these festive times should probably be avoided unless you enjoy waiting in line.


Waiting in line for the Leshan Giant Buddha.

6. Number 13 is lucky


Growing up in the U.S., the number 13 was always regarded with a bit of superstition, like black cats and broken mirrors. The horror flick Friday the 13th is a cult classic, while it’s generally accepted that bad things will happen should the thirteenth day of the month actually fall on a Friday. The superstition is so ingrained that some elevators and buildings in North America won’t have a 13th floor, even if the building is 40 stories tall.

Not so in China! 13 is lucky because it is associated with being ‘definitely alive’. The number 10 (十) sounds like the word ‘definite’ (实) in Mandarin while 3 (三) is similar to ‘life’ (生). That sounds like a floor I want to live on!


7. Doors may be optional on toilet stalls


Everyone is probably aware of China’s penchant for squat toilets, with some being little more than a glorified hole in the ground. But unless you have spent some time exploring less cosmopolitan areas of the country, you might not have come across the toilets without doors on the “stalls.” I will spare you graphic details, but let’s just say this puts you in a very compromising position in a very public way.

Have you been to China? What surprised you the most? Tell me in the comments!

24 thoughts on “7 Things You Might Not Know About China

  1. I loved reading these – I’ve never been to China and haven’t even thought about most of these things in relation to the country. Those squat toilets are scary…I think my bladder would suffer if we visited from my holding it, haha
    Andrea recently posted…There’s More To Maine Than Lobster…My Profile

    • China is an endlessly fascinating place. I love nothing more than walking down the street and people watching! The toilets are definitely scary, though. I’ve gotten adept at using them, but that doesn’t mean they are any more pleasant LOL!

  2. Hahaha! China is so endlessly quirky. I’m going to miss the fashion. Especially how women at an age will dress fantastical. I saw a 50 year old the other day in spike heels and hot pants. It completely explains my mother’s awful fashion sense, which makes me thankful I was born in Canada. 🙂
    Nomadic Chick recently posted…Suicide and Being Solo ForeverMy Profile

    • LOL! I saw an older lady tonight wearing hot pants and heels. She had the legs to pull it off too! I wish I could be so free with my fashion choices 🙂

  3. Nice post ! I love reading this post. Infact, I was lost in thoughts of visiting China. It was the very first post of my life, which I enjoyed a lot.

  4. I’m surprised that hotel had a 4th and 14th floor. Ours didn’t. Which I conveniently “forgot” whenever I ran flights of stairs and wanted to count how many I’d done!
    Liezl recently posted…On being 36 and childlessMy Profile

    • LOL! The building where I went to school didn’t have a 4th floor, but I didn’t pay attention to 14. Maybe I should have run up and down them a few times to work off all those dumplings I ate!

    • LOL, you should! I’ve been tempted to wear my pajamas to the grocery store – that’s another big fashion trend here that’s going to get its own post 🙂

  5. I think I’ve stayed in China too long to be aware of all the differences anymore, but back at home we certainly do not have cars and motorcycles that start singing when it’s raining really heavily.

    I was also surprised to find out that fashion preferences can differ a lot from city to city in China.

    And with all the squat toilets I can actually understand why women prefer wearing high heels day in day out (although I doubt that this is the reason they wear high heels).
    chinaelevatorstories recently posted…“Once you’re married, you’ll have kids”My Profile

  6. After spending a year in Korea where everyone is straight laced and incredibly fashion conscious, Chinese sense of style feels like a slap on my corneas. I do love the exposed bellies on super confident men. Such bosses!

    It’s funny, these flex times feel way more stressful than regular working days. I don’t know how people do it their whole life.

  7. Thanks for interesting insights into the Chinese culture. Well there are more than just 7 things you might have not known off. Women do different and strange types of morning exercises; women will adore your blond hair kids, you name it. Nice post, love to hear more.
    Matthew recently posted…Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre on FireMy Profile

    • Thanks Matthew! You’re right, there are so many quirky things in China. I loved watching the people walking backwards for exercise. I even saw a women doing it on a treadmill at my gym! I will definitely share more things about my time in Shanghai so I hope you’ll stop by again!

  8. I really enjoyed this post! It reminded me of my two visits to China. We saw quite a few wild hairdos too 🙂

  9. Hi! This is my first time on your blog. This article on China is very informative. There are definitely many similarities in the cultures in Asian countries, but then again every country has its own uniqueness to. Lovely post.

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