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Caravan Travel China
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China, formally known as the People's Republic of China is a vast country in Eastern Asia (about the same size as the United States of America) with the world's largest population.
With coasts on the East China Sea, Korea Bay, Yellow Sea, and South China Sea, in total it borders 14 nations. It borders Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam to the south; Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to the west; Russia and Mongolia to the north and North Korea to the east. Only Russia has more land borders in Asia.
The first civilizations in China arose in the Yangtze and Yellow River valleys at about the same time as Mesopotamia, Egypt and India developed their first civilizations.
For centuries China stood as a leading civilization, outpacing the rest of the world in the arts and sciences. Paper, gunpowder, the compass and printing (both block and movable type) for example, are Chinese inventions. Chinese developments in astronomy, medicine, and other fields were extensive. A Chinese tomb contains a heliocentric model of the solar system, about 1,700 years before Copernicus. In mathematics, "Pythagoras' theorem" and "Pascal's triangle" were known in China centuries before their Western discoverers even lived.
China was also the first civilization to implement meritocracy of any form. This meant that unlike in other ancient cultures, official posts were not hereditary but instead had to be earned through a series of examinations, which were first conducted during the Han Dynasty, and further refined into the Imperial Examination System and opened to all regardless of family background during the Tang Dynasty.
The vast historical influence of China is also evident in the traditional cultures of some of its neighbors, most notably Vietnam, Korea and Japan, with them even adopting the Chinese writing system at some point, some of which is still in use in the latter two today.
China also explored the world and traded extensively with other nations. By the 5th-6th centuries AD, voyages to India and the Arab countries were routine. In the 15th century the Ming Dynasty fleets under Admiral Zheng. He reached as far as East Africa. The ships were technically very advanced, much larger than European ships of the day and with a system of watertight compartments that Europe was not to match for several centuries.
However, China has always been inward-looking. China is "zhong guo", literally "center land" often translated "middle kingdom;" all others are "wai guo ren", literally "outside land people", often translated "barbarians." The Emperor did not receive ambassadors, but only tribute bearers. Around 1425, China turned inward with a vengeance. Records of the great trading voyages were destroyed and the ships allowed to rot.
Interaction with the West
The first Westerner to visit China and write about it was Marco Polo in the late 13th century. He wrote of Hangzhou, "The city is beyond dispute the finest and the noblest in the world." and rated Quanzhou as one of the two busiest ports on earth. (The other was Alexandria.) Among the Chinese innovations that Europeans first heard of from Polo were paper money, window glass and coal.
When seaborne Western traders arrived in the 16th century, China was initially hostile to them. The first Western base was Portugal's colony Macau, near Guangzhou (Canton).
The Emperor imposed various restrictions on trade, allowing Westerners to trade only at Canton (Guangzhou), only with payment in silver, and only with a government-approved monopoly of traders called the Cohong. Export of items that would break Chinese monopolies, such as tea seeds or silk worms, was strictly forbidden. Traders eventually smuggled both out, creating two of India's greatest industries. Western traders resented these restrictions and struggled to interest the Chinese in Western goods, without notable success.
By the end of the 19th century, assorted Western powers had taken various pieces of China and trade was well established through an ever increasing number of treaty ports and spheres of influence. The relationship, however, was fraught with difficulties. Westerners tended to see China as corrupt and decadent. Chinese often viewed the West as greedy and contemptible. Both were right, at least part of the time.
The great issue, however, was opium. For the West, the profitable commodities were "pigs and poison," indentured laborers and opium. Britain's balance of trade Ч paying for tea and silk in silver and being quite unable to interest Chinese in most British products Ч would have been disastrous without opium. However, by growing opium in India and exporting vast amounts to China, they were able to have a nice trade surplus. Many Chinese were involved as well, and some made fortunes from it, but every Chinese government from the Qing to the present day has been unalterably opposed to the trade.
Two Opium Wars (1839-1842 and 1856-1860) pitted China against Western powers. China quickly lost both wars. After the first one, Britain got Hong Kong Island, and five "treaty ports" (Guangzhou, Xiamen, Fuzhou, Shanghai and Ningbo) were opened to Western trade. After the second, Britain got Kowloon, and inland cities such as Nanjing and Wuhan were opened to trade.
There were several Muslim rebellions in Western China. The suppression of these rebellions brought what is now Xinjiang firmly under central rule.
The Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864) was led by a madman claiming to be Christ's younger brother. It was largely a peasant revolt; its program included land reform and eliminating slavery, concubinage, arranged marriage, opium, footbinding, judicial torture and idolatry. The Qing government, with some Western help, eventually defeated them, but not before the Taiping had ruled much of China for over ten years. This was one of the bloodiest wars ever fought; only World War II killed more people. Nanjing, which was their capital, has an interesting Taiping museum.
In 1884-1885, China and France fought a war that resulted in the loss of China's modernized Fuzhou-based naval fleet and China's accepting French control over their former tributary states in what is now Vietnam.
In 1895, China lost the Sino-Japanese war and ceded Taiwan to Japan. In addition, it had to relinquish control of Korea, which had been a tributary state of China for a long time.
Many Chinese resented various things in this period Ч notably missionaries, opium, grabbing Chinese land and the extraterritoriality provisions in the "unequal treaties" that made many foreigners immune to Chinese law. To the West trade and missionaries were good things, and extraterritoriality was prudent in view of the corrupt and brutal laws in place.
Around 1898, these feelings exploded. The "Society of righteous and harmonious fists" (the Boxers) led a peasant religious/political movement whose main goal was to drive out evil foreign influences. Some believed their kung fu and prayer would stop bullets. While the Boxers' organizations were initially anti-Qing, once the revolt began, they enjoyed some support from the Qing court and regional officials. They killed some missionaries and many Chinese Christians and eventually besieged the embassies in Beijing. An eight-nation alliance was sent up from Tianjin and relieved the legations. The Qing had to accept foreign troops permanently posted in Beijing and pay a further indemnity as a result.
The Twentieth Century
The 20th century brought revolution. The empire was overthrown in 1911 and Sun Yat Sen, a doctor, nationalist, socialist and democrat, became president. He stepped down shortly thereafter allowing the former Qing general Yuan Shikai to become president. After an abortive attempt at declaring himself emperor, Yuan died in 1916. Central rule then collapsed as China broke into different semi-autonomous warlord regions. Until 1949 the various warlords fought challenges to their local power from any outsider, regardless of nationality or ideology.
In 1926-28 a united front between the late-Sun Yat Sen's Kuomintang (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) united much of China proper under KMT rule after the "Northern Expedition." During the Northern Expedition, the KMT turned on the Communists in 1927 killing thousands and driving the movement underground. During this time, Mao Zedong set up a base area in the mountains of Jiangxi Province called the Jiangxi Soviet. The Kuomintang launched a series of campaigns designed to crush the Communists. Pressure on the Jiangxi Soviet forced the Communists to break out and flee west in 1934. The Long March led the Red Army from Jiangxi across southern and western China before ending in 1935 in Yan'an in Shaanxi Province.
China in the 1930s had other problems as well including civil unrest and major famines. However the period from 1927 to 1937, often called the Nanjing Decade after the Kuomintang capital in Nanjing, was a period of economic expansion, industrialization and urbanization. Many of the great trading families of Hong Kong made their fortunes in Shanghai during this time. Shanghai became one of the world's busiest ports and the most cosmopolitan city in Asia, home to British taipans, American missionaries, Iraqi Jews and refugees from Nazi Europe, Indian police, White Russians and many other notables.
Meanwhile, after the 1895 war, Japan continued its imperial expansion in East Asia and invaded Manchuria in 1931. In 1937 Japan launched a full-scale invasion of China, conquering much of eastern China by the end of the decade. Japanese behavior was often brutal; Chinese resistance was spirited. The Japanese generals thought they could take all of China in three months; instead it took them three months just to drive the Chinese army out of Shanghai. Throughout the war, roughly half the Japanese army was tied up in China. The allies sent aid via the Burma Road.
As a result of the Japanese invasion, the hitherto warring Kuomintang and Communists signed a tenuous agreement in 1937 to form a second united front against the invaders. However the agreement broke down in the early 1940s. The Kuomintang frequently held back troops from fighting the Japanese and used them against the Communists. The Communists used the power vacuum behind the Japanese lines to expand guerrilla operations and set up rural networks. The stage was set that after Japan's defeat the Communists under Mao Zedong and the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai Shek would openly fight each other again.
Outright civil war resumed in 1946. In 1949, the Communists won, causing the Kuomintang to grab the national gold reserves and imperial treasure, and then flee to Taiwan where it set it up shop and promised to recapture the Mainland. Various Western countries refused to recognize "Red China" and continued to treat the Kuomintang as the only "legitimate" government of China, some until the early '70s.
The new Communist government implemented strong measures to restore law and order and revive industry and economic institutions reeling from more than a decade of war. Factories, farms, labor unions, civil society and governance were brought under Party control. The government tried various social experiments, such as the Great Leap Forward, intended to industrialize China quickly, and the Cultural Revolution, aimed at changing everything by discipline and attention to Mao Zedong Thought. Both are generally considered disastrous failures.
The cultural and historical damage from the Cultural Revolution can still be seen today; many traditional Chinese customs, such as the celebration of the Hungry Ghost Festival, are still thriving in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and overseas Chinese communities, but have largely disappeared in mainland China.
Mao Zedong died in 1976. Shortly after that, his widow was arrested as part of the "Gang of Four," who were blamed for the Cultural Revolution's excesses. In 1978, Deng Xiaoping became China's paramount leader. Deng gradually introduced market-oriented reforms and decentralized economic decision making. Economic output quadrupled by 2000 and is still rising at about 9% a year, but there are still problems Ч serious inflation in the '80s, pollution, rural poverty and corruption. Political controls remain tight even though economic policy continues to be relaxed, enough for China to secure admission to the World Trade Organization. In 2003, the CCP changed its statutes to accept a new category of members: "Red Capitalists." October 2007 saw the first official guarantees for private property, a clear step away from doctrinaire communist practice.
The current president, Hu Jintao, has proclaimed a policy for a "Harmonious Society" which promises to restore balanced economic growth and to channel investment and prosperity into China's central and western provinces, which have been largely left behind in the economic boom since 1978. This policy involves additional tax breaks for farmers, a rural medical insurance scheme, reduction/elimination of school tuition fees and infrastructure development to encourage investment in underdeveloped areas, e.g. the Beijing/Lhasa railway - a dream first put down on paper by Sun Yat Sen in the early 1900s.
The climate is extremely diverse, from tropical regions in the south to subarctic in the north. Hainan Island is roughly at the same latitude as Jamaica, while Harbin, one of the largest cites in the north, is at roughly the latitude of Montreal.
There is also a wide range of terrain to be found in China with many inland mountain ranges, high plateaus, and deserts in center and far west; while plains, deltas, and hills are to be found in the east. On the border between the province of Tibet and the nation of Nepal lies Mount Everest, at 8,850 m, the highest point on earth. The Turpan depression, in northwest China's Xinjiang is the lowest point in the country, at 154 m below sea level. This is also the second lowest point on land in the world after the Dead Sea.
China is a huge country with endless travel opportunities. However, during holidays, millions of migrant workers return home and millions of other Chinese travel, so travelers may want to think seriously about rescheduling. At the very least, travel should be planned well in advance. Every mode of transportation is crowded and tickets of any kind are hard to come by, so it may be necessary to book well in advance (especially for those traveling from remote western China to the east coast or in the opposite direction). Train and other tickets are usually quite easy to buy in China, but difficulties arising from crowded conditions at these times cannot be overstated. Some travelers who have been stranded at these times, unable to buy tickets have managed to get airplane tickets, which tend to sell out more slowly.
Around the Chinese New Year, many stores and other businesses will close for several days, a week, or even longer.
Chinese New Year Dates
2008 - 7 February
2009 - 26 January
2010 - 14 February
China has three major annual holidays:
National Day - October 1
Chinese New Year or Spring Festival - late January / mid-February
Labor Day (May Day) - May 1
These aren't one-day holidays. Workers get at least a week or two off for Chinese New Year; students get four-six weeks. Both groups get about a week for National Day and Labor Day.
Also, during early July millions of university students go home and in late August they return to school, jamming transportation options, especially between the east coast and the western provinces of Sichuan, Tibet, and Xinjiang.
Spring Festival is especially busy. Not only is it the longest holiday, it is also a traditional time to visit family, much as Christmas is in the West. More or less all the university students (20-odd million of them!) go home, and more or less all the migrant workers who have left their farms and villages for better pay in the cities go home. This is often the only chance they have. Everyone wants to go home, and China has a lot of "everyone"!
A complete list of Chinese festivals would be very long, since many areas or ethnic groups have their own local ones and even among the Han Chinese, the festivals celebrated vary from region to region. See listings for individual towns for details. Here is a list of some of the nationally important ones not mentioned above:
Lantern Festival - 15th day of the 1st lunar month, just after Chinese New Year, usually in February or March. In some cities, such as Quanzhou, this is a big festival with elaborate lanterns all over town.
Qingming Festival - About April 4-6, is called "grave sweeping day" in English. Cemeteries are crowded with people who go to sweep tombs and offer sacrifices. Traffic on the way to the cemeteries becomes heavy.
Dragon Boat Festival - 5th day of the 5th lunar month, usually in June. Boat races are a traditional part of it.
Double Seventh Festival - 7th day of the 7th lunar month, usually August, is a festival of romance, sort of a Chinese Valentine's Day.
Mid-Autumn Festival or Moon Cake Festival - 15th day of the 8th lunar month, usually in October. People meet outside, putting food on tables and looking up at the sky while talking about life.
Double Ninth Festival or Chongyang Festival - 9th day of the 9th lunar month, usually in October.
Winter Solstice Festival - December 22 or 23.
Government Socialist Republic
Currency Renminbi (RMB, ¥)
Area 9,596,960 km2
Language Mandarin (Putonghua)
Religion Daoist (Taoist), Buddhist, Christian 3%-4%, Muslim 1%-2% (officially atheist)
Calling Code 86
Internet TLD .cn
Time Zone UTC +8
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