Young Students at their school

The great majority of the people of China are known as the Han. The name comes from the Han dynasty, which ruled China for more than 400 years, from about 202 B.C. to A.D. 220. While the Han are the dominant group, China has 55 national minority groups of varying sizes. These include the Zhuang (Chuang), who live in the southwest and are culturally close to the Han; the Uygurs (Uighurs) in the northwest, who speak a Turkic language and are Muslims; the Hui, Han Chinese who adopted the Muslim religion; the Tibetans, who inhabit the vast Xizang (Tibetan) plateau in the west; and the Mongols, who live in Nei Mongol (Inner Mongolia).

The Family
For many hundreds of years, the Chinese taught their children that duty to the family came first. It was the chief loyalty. A Chinese family might include a man, his wife, his mother, his unmarried sisters, and aunts, his sons and their wives, his unmarried daughters, and his sons' children. In the past the father, as the head of the family, made all important decisions. All family members were supposed to obey him, although he usually talked over important matters with the other adults.

If a family owned the land or business from which it made its living, the property belonged to the entire family. There was only one family purse, and everyone shared whatever money there was. The family decided about the children's education, and it decided when and whom a young man or woman should marry.

The family in the old days was supposed to take care of its own. Family members who became ill or suffered some other misfortune counted on the family to take care of them. They knew that they would not lack necessities so long as the family had anything. They knew that if they died, brothers and cousins would take care of their children.

Changes in the Traditional Family. Families are still important in China. But the process of modernization, resulting from the impact of the West and increasing under Communism, brought many changes. Land can no longer be bought and sold, and marriages can no longer be arranged by parents. Many women now work in commerce or in industry. The government has taken over many traditional duties of the family, providing child-care centers and medical care. To keep the population at a manageable level, couples are strongly urged to have only one child. This is a strong break with the past, when large families were considered desirable.

Language — Spoken and Written
If a Chinese from Guangzhou in the south and a Chinese from Beijing in the north met, they might not understand each other. Each would speak a different form of the Chinese language. These different forms are called dialects. Dialects are regional variations in pronouncing the same syllable, or speech sound. Spoken Chinese is a tonal language, in that each syllable has four or more tones and each tone may represent a different word. For example, the four tones of the syllable ma mean mother, jute (a plant fiber used in making sacks), horse, and scold. By far the most extensively used of the eight major dialects of Chinese is Mandarin. Mandarin Chinese is the official language of China.

The different dialects do not affect written Chinese, because Chinese writing is not based on the sounds of the spoken language. Instead, each written word has its own special sign, called an ideograph or character. This system of writing has been used throughout China for thousands of years and is understood by Chinese no matter where they live. There are more than 40,000 different characters. Most are rarely used, but a person must still understand 3,000 to 5,000 characters in order to read a newspaper.

There are two main systems of representing Chinese words in the Roman alphabet. In this article, the newer Pinyin spelling is generally used. Names in the older Wade-Giles spelling are often noted in parentheses.

Attempts at Language Reform. The government has tried to make Chinese writing simpler. It has adopted an official system that simplifies characters by reducing the number of strokes needed to write the more complex ones. The use of an alphabet, much like that used in writing English, has also been introduced. Chinese alphabetic writing is based on the sound of the spoken official language, Mandarin. Children in school learn both the characters for a word and the alphabetic spelling of its pronunciation. However, at this time the alphabet has not replaced the characters, and it seems unlikely that it will ever do so.

Problems of an Alphabetic Language. Some Chinese leaders have said that once everyone in China speaks Mandarin, the characters will no longer be used. This has both advantages and disadvantages. It would be easier for large numbers of people to learn to read and write Chinese in the new alphabetic form. But if they did not learn the characters, also, they would not be able to read the writings of the past, unless these were translated into the alphabetic system. A number of Chinese fear that this would result in the loss of China's centuries-old literary heritage.

The Chinese have a saying: "The Way has more than one name. There is more than one wise man." This saying tells much about the Chinese view of religion. China has several religions, and the Chinese have not thought that any one of them was the only way of truth.

The ancient Chinese believed that the world contained many spirits. There were spirits of the rain, wind, thunder, trees, rivers, and mountains. There was a spirit of the kitchen and another in charge of marriage. The spirit of Heaven was usually thought of as the greatest of all. People believed that it was necessary to perform certain ceremonies in order to live on good terms with the spirits.

Ancestor Worship. Ancestor worship was the oldest and most widespread religious practice in China. One's ancestors were honored and in turn were believed to watch over and safeguard their descendants.

Confucianism. The Chinese do not regard Confucianism as a religion so much as a social and moral philosophy. Confucius was mainly concerned with teaching people how to live together in harmony. But he did stress the importance of ancestor worship and of properly performing the ancient ceremonies and rites.

Taoism. The Taoists, like the followers of Confucius, took over many old rituals and beliefs. Lao-tzu (604–531? B.C.), the supposed founder of Taoism ("the Way"), said very little about spirits or gods. But his followers of later times worshiped a vast number of them. Taoist priests claim magical powers for the ceremonies they perform.

Buddhism. Buddhism came to China from India, its birthplace, almost 2,000 years ago. It flourished in China and soon became one of the predominant religions of the country.

Other religions of China include Islam, the religion of the Muslims, which was introduced by Arab traders; and Christianity, which began to win Chinese converts after the arrival of Jesuit missionaries in the 1500s. Small numbers of Jews also settled in China.

Religion Under Communism. Until the late 1970s the Communist government discouraged the practice of organized religion. Chinese Christians were persecuted most severely. In recent years, however, the government has liberalized its policy on religion. Many Buddhist and Taoist temples, as well as Christian churches and Muslim mosques, which had been taken over by the government, were restored to their former owners. Religious activities, though still not encouraged, are now permitted.

Kenneth S. Cooper
George Peabody College, Vanderbilt University

Reviewed by C. T. Hu
Coauthor, China: Its People, Its Society, Its Culture

Write about it:
Imagine needing to know 3,000–5,000 letters just to read a newspaper! The Chinese government has created an easier alphabet. Should students still need to learn both? What might happen if children only learn the new alphabet?