Preparing for Your Trip To China
Farmers with Water Buffalo Photo by Zhengfan Yang
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China is one of the world’s most fascinating countries. As the world’s third-largest and most populous country, China has risen from near poverty in the 1950s to become a genuine global superpower. Featuring several thousand years of history, a rich cultural heritage, and jaw-dropping natural wonders, China is one of the world’s most rewarding and exciting places to visit. But how to make sense of it all? Where do you even start with such a massive and imposing place. Read on, for the best resources to explore when preparing a trip to China.
Follow the Story of China
Recorded Chinese history dates back over 4,000 years, and has a dizzying array of dynasties, kingdoms, periods, invasions, counter-invasions, and much more. In this six-part documentary series produced by PBS, historian Michael Wood travels across China to trace its dramatic rises and falls – from the 4,000 year old Shang Dynasty, right through to the Communist revolution and modern economic boom. Beautifully filmed and edited, The Story of China is a fantastic overview to help learn your Qins, Qings, and Mings!
Delve deeper with the China History Podcast
For those who prefer listening to watching, Laszlo Montgomery’s The China History Podcast has been running since 2010, and has clocked up over 250 episodes! Each episode focuses on a different aspect of China’s long history, and features anything from the history of a particular city, to profiling a prominent Chinese figure. One highly recommended series is episodes 14 through 42, which profiles each ruling dynasty, their accomplishments, and their impact on Chinese history. Each episode runs for about 25 minutes, so it’s great bite-sized content to consume at your leisure.
See China's World Heritage Sites with World Heritage Journey
With its long history and impressive culture, it’s hardly surprising that China has the equal-highest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites (55, equal with Italy). Along with famous monuments such as the Great Wall, Forbidden City, and Terracotta Warriors, China’s World Heritage Sites include many lesser known places, too. There’s everything from prehistoric burial caves, to sacred mountains, hidden temples, and even migratory bird sanctuaries! In this YouTube series, a pair of Australian travel bloggers attempt to visit all 55 Chinese sites, and produce a short video about each one.
Watch China's most famous story: Romance of the Three Kingdoms
Romance of the Three Kingdoms is China’s most beloved story. An historical novel written in the 14th century, Romance tells the story of the Three Kingdoms period, roughly 184 – 280 AD, as various warlords fought for control of the collapsing Han Dynasty. With its potent mixture of history, legend, and myth (similar to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in Western culture), Romance follows memorable characters like the tyrannical Dong Zhuo, duplicitous Cao Cao, charismatic Yuan Shao, and inspiring Liu Bei. If you’d prefer to read the story, the Moss Roberts translation is highly recommended, while a 95-episode TV adaptation (in Chinese, with subtitles) from 2010 is the current gold standard.
Enjoy China's most beloved tale: Journey to the West - Legends of the Monkey King
Journey to the West is another of the greatest Chinese novels. It dates from the 16th century, and follows the travels of Xuanzang, a Buddhist monk who travels through central Asia and India in search of sacred Buddhist texts. Well known in the West as Monkey (and other adaptations like The Legend of Monkey), Journey to the West – Legends of the Monkey King is equal parts funny, moving, inspiring, and dramatic. A classic of Chinese animation, this joint Chinese-Canadian animated production is a great way of introducing kids to Chinese culture.
Read about the clash of cultures in Mao's Last Dancer
One of the most important narratives of the past 30 years has been the clash of cultures between China and the West. Understanding the clash is key to preparing for a trip to China, and reading Mao’s Last Dancer by Li Cunxin gives a fascinating perspective. Mao’s Last Dancer is a 2003 memoir written by Li Cunxin, a talented ballet dancer from an impoverished Chinese village. Allowed to study in the United States, Li struggles to reconcile his propaganda-heavy education with the reality around him. It’s a fascinating insight into the varying mindsets of different cultures, and ultimately an uplifting and inspiring story.
Experience one of the world's great cuisines
One of the best experiences when visiting any country is of course – the food! Naturally, China is no different, and as such a huge and ethnically diverse country, there’s a colossal amount of variety available. Look beyond Panda Express, and discover the delights of regional Chinese cuisine. Down south in the warmer climates, you’ll find Cantonese style cooking with dim sum, dumplings, and more. Sichuan province is famous for hotpot, and fiery dishes laden with chilli and mouth-numbing peppercorns. The long coasts of Fujian and Shandong provinces have fish-heavy diets, while up north in Beijing you’ll find classic roast duck, jiaozi dumplings, and various noodle dishes.
Try your hand at the ancient Chinese art of calligraphy
Calligraphy, or the art of drawing characters, is an instantly-recognisable facet of Chinese culture. It requires great skill, poise, delicacy, and attention to detail, and it’s little wonder that practising calligraphy is a classic Chinese pastime. Obtaining your own Chinese calligraphy set and learning to draw some simple characters can be a great way of engaging with one of the world’s oldest written scripts. Kits are available from Amazon and most art stores, and there are many great instructional videos on YouTube.
Learn some Chinese
Mandarin Chinese is the world’s most widely-spoken language, with over a billion native speakers. With unfamiliar characters and delicate pronunciation, Chinese can be a difficult language to learn. Although most tourist sites in Beijing and Shanghai have signs in both Chinese and English, learning a few key phrases is a great way to prepare for visiting China, and will absolutely endear you to the locals. Basic phrases like “hello” (ni hao) and “thank you” (xie-xie) are a great start, along with counting to ten. Although guidebooks will teach phrases like “where is the toilet”, it’s often unhelpful as the answer will be in Chinese! One suggestion is to learn phrases where you don’t need to understand a response, like: “the food was delicious” or “it is very beautiful”. For learning some Chinese, apps like Duolingo and Babbel are the best option.
Plan your Trip to China
Overall, China is an enormous blend of people, languages and cultures, blessed with a spectacular natural environment and several thousand years of history. If you’re planning to visit China, a little background knowledge of the land and its people will go a long way to enriching your visit. Happy travels!