Even if you failed world geography class, you know that China is an enormous country, in both land mass and population (1.4 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 surprising facts about China that I learned after living in Shanghai for two years:
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. 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 when sightseeing.
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.
3. China has the Largest Human Migration on Earth
Most Chinese are given a week off of work for the Lunar New Year. This allows the many millions of migrant workers to leave the cities and return to their families in the countryside. It is considered the largest human migration on the planet. But more and more Chinese are taking advantage of the vacation time to explore more of their country. They pack trains, buses, and planes If you are planning to visit China, local holidays should probably be avoided unless you enjoy waiting in line.
4. 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.
5. Number 13 is Lucky
Growing up in the USA, 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, and it’s generally accepted that bad things will happen should the thirteenth day of the month 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!
6. Toilet Doors are Not Guaranteed
Most travelers to China have probably come across a squat toilet or two. But the further you get from the cities, the more interesting the toilet situation becomes. Fancy using one without doors on the stalls?
7. 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’m going to start calling myself Bōluó (pineapple) because it’s my favorite Chinese word.