What is China famous for? China is known for its architectural wonders such as the Great Wall and Forbidden City, its staggering variety of delicious food, its martial arts, and its long history of invention. More than just tea and temples, China is a fast-changing mix of the ultra-modern and the very ancient.
Set to be the 21st century’s principal superpower, one-fifth of the world’s population now live in China. It would take a lifetime to fully explore this vast and varied country, its landscapes, its culture, and its food.
Here are just 25 things that China is known for:
1. Marital arts
According to legend, Chinese martial arts or Wushu, were invented over 4,000 years ago by the legendary Yellow Emperor. Martial arts techniques have had thousands of years to develop and there are hundreds of different styles.
Shaolin style Kung Fu is the most famous and was brought to China by the founder of Chinese Buddhism. Kung Fu was once the preserve of monks who learned to fight so that they could protect themselves from banditry. As well as being a form of self-defense, Chinese martial arts focus on health and the cultivation of Qi, — lifeforce energy. Those who train hard enough can break concrete with their heads and hands, so get training!
While you are in China, you can visit one of the many temples that teach kung fu and live there as a student. These grueling boot camps will put you through your paces, with early starts, meditation, and intense workouts. If exercise is not your thing, try watching Stephen Chow’s fantastic martial arts movies instead. One of China’s best directors, Chow’s hilarious modern takes on classic Kung Fu films regularly sweep award ceremonies.
2. Chinese food
China has an expansive repertoire of amazing dishes. Voted the 2nd most popular national cuisine worldwide, China’s many regions have their own styles and traditions of cooking. Visitors to China with no knowledge of Chinese frequently find they have no clue what they even eating, as everything from boiled fish eyes, to chicken feet, to sharks fins gets on the menu. There is a saying that Chinese people will anything with legs apart from the table.
Although most people are more familiar with Cantonese-style cooking than anything else, popular dishes come from many different regions, and many lesser-known dishes are a treat to explore.
Head to Szechuan for spice. Dishes here have that characteristic red-hot chili oil appearance and include chili Pork, Kung Pao Chicken, and Dandan Noodles. Beijing is the place to go for classic Duck Pancakes and Mongolian inspired foods such as hotpot. Guangzhou (Canton), has many well-known dishes such as Wonton Noodles and Sweet and Sour Pork.
3. Terracotta warriors
Nestled in the countryside near Xi’an, a long-dead emperor lies in a tomb surrounded by thousands of terracotta soldiers. Emperor Qin was an impressive Chinese leader, and the first Chinese emperor. He unified the country and created a complex and orderly system of government. Despite his achievements, he is primarily remembered as a cruel autocrat and a megalomaniac to boot. His actual tomb has not yet been excavated, in part due to the care needed to carefully unearth the thousands of clay soldiers that surround it. It is rumored that the tomb itself was surrounded by a lake of liquid mercury, a metal that fascinated the emperor. Increasingly unpopular and surrounded by enemies, the emperor protected himself even in death.
The famous warriors themselves are quite spectacular, housed in situ in aircraft hangers. Once brightly painted, the warriors have their own facial expressions, hairstyles, and poses to make them look like individual people.
Silk is associated with China because it was once a national secret, one which Europeans were desperate to discover. Due to the impossibility of making the precious fabric in the West, silk became an extremely valuable commodity. The Silk Road, an epic trek from East to West, carried the commodity across two continents and introduced China to the rest of the world. China’s silk monopoly would not come to an end until two Greek monks snuck out of China with silkworms hidden in bamboo staffs.
Once reserved exclusively for royalty and prohibited for normal people, in more recent times the Chinese have made use of embroidered silk to fashion dresses and shirts. During the 1920s in Shanghai, the fashionable and figure-hugging Cheongsam dress replaced more modest loose-fitting silk clothes for women. Beautiful and elegant many visitors to china like to pick up a Cheongsam of their own. The National Silk Museum in Hangzhou features a stunning array of embroidered Chinese silk and is well worth the visit.
China’s answer to New York City, Shanghai is a busy metropolis with a stunning skyline. Monolithic modern mega-structures tower over tiny pagoda-roofed teashops in an eclectic blend of the very ancient and very modern. The highlight of Shanghai has to be its Bund riverfront, which makes for an impressive light show especially at night, and features a dazzling array of modern architecture. Shanghai has modernized at lightning speeds over the last 30 years and has some of the world’s tallest buildings, and one of the world’s fastest transit systems, the bullet-train underground network. One of China’s most famous buildings, the Shanghai Tower, is still the second tallest in the world.
Large parts of Shanghai’s old city are also still intact and contain some beautiful tea shops, Buddhist temples, and carefully manicured gardens. Check out the venice-like waterways that lace across the old city. One of China’s most historically important cities, Shanghai came into its own in the 19th century as a huge trade hub. In the 1920s and 30s, the cosmopolitan city had its golden age and was famous for merging Western and Eastern culture to create some unique styles of music, cinema, and fashion. Still a hub of Chinese cool, check out its burgeoning punk rock scene or sip a cocktail in one of the many rooftop bars overlooking the riverside skyline.
In the far west corner of China, the semi-autonomous region of Tibet has long claimed its case for independent rule. If you visit Tibet it is not hard to see why, as the region has a very distinct culture that feels like a different country. Situated on the Chinese plateau and part of the Himalayas, the landscape here is truly breath-taking. Mount Kailash, one of the world’s tallest and most sacred mountains, towers over the horizon here. If you plan on taking in some mountain views, head up to Zhuomala mountain pass, a place of prayer, and bedecked in colorful flags.
Once an empire in its own right, some of Tibet’s buildings are testament to its powerful past. Check out the sprawling and beautiful Potala Palace, once home to the Dalai llama for three centuries. The interior is plastered in a multi-coloured kaleidoscope of Buddhist murals. Alternatively head to one of the regions many Buddhist temples to soak up the atmosphere and reflect.
7. The Yellow River
The Yellow River is sometimes called the “Mother of China”. China’s Yellow River is one of the six cradles of humanity where civilization began. It is also less cheerfully known as “China’s sorrow” for its catastrophic flooding. Its distinctive yellow color is due to the sediment carried from China’s northern desert. One of its most impressive spots along the river is the Hukou waterfall, whose giant torrents of bright yellow water are just as impressive in the winter when they freeze solid. If you are lucky you may see the endangered red-crown crane, a symbol of good luck and fidelity, which fishes in the river.
What about famous animals in China? Well, giant pandas are an emblem of China. Notoriously bad at staying alive, these endangered animals rarely mate with each other and live off bamboo they cannot even digest properly. Weighing up to 200 pounds, these giant creatures are the world’s gentlest bears.
The easiest place to see Pandas is in Chengdu where a breeding center is attempting to preserve them. More intrepid travelers will want to head to China’s protected bamboo forests in Szechuan, a prime spot for panda stalking.
In ancient China, calligraphy was once considered one of the four traditional skills cultivated people should have. China has a tradition of writing as a meditative practice as well as an art form. You will often see calligraphy done in combination with Chinese painting. Modern Chinese artists are still incorporating Chinese calligraphy into their work today, including the world-famous rebel artists of the Yangjiang group. These innovative modern artists experiment with breaking the rules of calligraphy, such as painting while drunk!
China is known for its tea and teahouses. You will find traditional teahouses all over China, and in Beijing, they were historically a place to listen to stories and experience live entertainment.
One of the best-known facts about China is the importance of tea, but few know the range of teas that are actually drunk. Although when we think of tea most people think specifically of black tea, if you visit a tea house in China you will find hundreds of blends with a variety of medicinal uses. Proprietors in some teahouses play doctor, and if you have any specific bodily complaints they will find the right tea for you. Others are more focused on selling snacks like dim sum with a range of drinks. Ranging from tiny and adorable to the very grand, teashop lounging is a must for visitors to China.
This ancient Chinese boardgame is still passionately loved by players round the world today. First mentioned in the historical Zuo Zhuan annal written in 528 BC, the game is thousands of years old, and may be the world’s oldest continuously played boardgame. The game is mentioned in the analects of Confucius as a proper pastime for scholarly Chinese gentlemen. The object of the game is to place stones next to your opponent’s in order to capture them. Still considered a rigorous test of a player’s mental faculties, Go is a brain-twisting game like chess, who’s fanatics embark on a lifetime of study to perfect their moves.
12. The Great Wall
You are likely to get the Great Wall of China as an answer when you pose the question “what is China famous for?”
One of the seven wonders of the world, the Great Wall stretches over 13,000 miles across China and was once a deterrent to Mongolian invaders. The best place to visit the wall is just north of Bejing, where huge sections run along steep mountain ridges.
The treks here are far more taxing than most visitors expect and can take you up to a height of close to 5,000 feet high. The trek is worth it for the panorama across the Chinese landscape which awaits you at the top. In places, you can see the Great Wall twisting its way across the countryside for miles. The Great Wall of China has been graffitied for centuries, and you can still see thousands of names carved into the stone as you traverse the steps. The oldest etchings were carved by bored guards protecting China in ancient times.
Confucius is one of history’s greatest philosophers, and one of China’s most famous people. His personal philosophy has come to dominate Asian thought up to this day. Confucius was a prominent intellectual who lived under the Zhou dynasty and had many disciples. He worked with classic Chinese texts in addition to writing his own.
Born a generation before Socrates in the West, Confucius’ promotion of learning helped ensure that China’s culture became one that was highly literate and scholarly long before most of the rest of the world. He is famous for arguing education and moral virtues make a man a gentleman.
Best known for his catchy aphorisms, Confucius promoted a law-abiding and paternal school of thought, that stressed the importance of virtue in rulership. You have almost certainly heard some of his saying before such as: “To study and not think is a waste. To think and not study is dangerous.”
14. The Forbidden City
Constructed during the Ming dynasty in Beijing, the Forbidden City is China’s most famous landmark. An enormous palace complex of over 980 buildings, the Forbidden City truly is one of the most impressive palaces on earth. To get to the palace visitors must walk through the notorious Tiananmen Square. Once populated by an army of eunuchs, servants, and royal women, who served the Emperor and his family, the Forbidden City was designed so that the emperor need not leave or mix with ordinary people.
Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, the palace today is home to one of the best museums in China. Parts of the Forbidden City are actually still forbidden. The official story is to do with preservation, but many locals will tell you it is because of the many ghosts who haunt the rooms there from years of executions and sordid murders! Mysterious crying, creepy animals, and unexplained disappearances are all rumored to have occurred since the revolution removed the imperial family from the Palace.
15. Harbin City Ice Festival
Harbin City is located on the borderlands of China and was built by the Russians. It is sometimes referred to as the Moscow of the East. One of China’s most famous festivals, the Ice City festival is held here.
The largest ice carving festival in the world, legions of sculptors descend every winter to show off their impressive creations. Most spectacular of all are the ice buildings constructed to create an actual ice city. Giant ice palaces are lit up with colorful lights. They resemble something out of the movie Frozen. When visitors get tired of the magnificent cultural displays, skating, snowboarding, skiing and dog-sledding feature prominently in this larger than life celebration of winter.
16. Chinese Zodiac
Legend has it the Buddha invited every animal in the world to meet with him and only 12 showed up! These twelve animals became the signs of the Zodiac which mark the Chinese years.
Most people know their Chinee Zodiac sign, although less know their personal element; wood, metal, fire, or water. The signs rule the months as well and fit with the lunar calendar in a similar way to Western astrology.
Each sign is auspicious for certain things and associated with different numbers, colors, places, and occupations. Some of the signs are more favored than others. The sign of the dragon is considered especially lucky, a symbol of power and leadership. The number of Chinese births peaks in dragon years! Women who are born under the sign of the horse, however, are deemed to be too rebellious for marriage.
17. The Summer Palace
The Summer Palace is one of Beijing’s principle parks, but it was once barred to everyone but the imperial family. With a massive boating lake, perfect for hot days, locals like to stretch out under the willows in the heat of summer. The palace itself includes a walkway with hundreds of Chinese myths painted on the lintels.
Make sure you visit the exquisite marble boat on the lake’s edge. The palace also has a fantastic theater that is still in operation and it is worth watching some of China’s most famous dances performed here. Beijing opera was born here, created for the amusement of emperors and empresses.
18. Hong Kong
Hong Kong is without a doubt China’s most exciting city, if you consider it part of China.
The financial capital of the East, the money that flows through Hong Kong has brought luxury, style, entertainment, and cool nightlife. There are lots to do here, but one of the stand-out attractions is the Peak, the highest point in Hong Kong which overlooks the bay. The contrast between Hong Kong financial district on one side and the lush mountainside on the other is truly a sight to behold.
For food lovers, wander through the colorful and bustling stalls of Temple Street Market to soak up the atmosphere of the crowd, and sample Hong Kong’s unparalleled variety of Asian and international cooking. Or if you are a sucker for glitz and glamour pull up a stool in one of the cities world-class bars such as the Ozone bar in the Ritz skyscraper.
Probably the best thing about Hong Kong is its many islands. When you get sick of the boiling and crowded city, there are a wealth of places to explore by boat. One of Hong Kong’s most popular activities is hiring an old-fashioned Chinese junk to sail across the bay. Lamma island in particular is leafy, lazy and total breath of fresh air. Chill on the beach or hike up to Tin Hau temple for the peaceful atmosphere.
What to know more? Read about what Hong Kong is famous for.
Listed among the greatest Chinese things ever invented, along with paper and the compass. Initially gunpowder was never used for weaponry, instead the Chinese found a better use — fireworks!
Invented in the Song dynasty, they became a regular feature of all Chinese celebrations. Fireworks were supposed to scare evil spirits, but mostly they just look really cool. If you get the chance to go to China during the New Year’s celebrations, the pyrotechnics are truly epic.
20. Zhangjiajie National Park
Many famous Chinese watercolor paintings show towering stone pillars rising out of the mist. You can walk through a landscape just like this at Zhangjiajie National Park. There are many hikes ranging from the gentle to the grueling here, and the many little villages around the park are very beautiful. The forests here are populated with macaque monkeys. Mischievous and friendly, you won’t need to find them, they will find you!
21. The Gobi Desert
China’s largest desert, the Gobi, is famous for being part of the Silk Road through Asia to the West. A rolling sand desert, it was once traversed by caravans, who struggled to navigate the ever-changing landscape. Expert guides helped merchants to find their bearings in the gritty and dangerous expanse.
Local legend has it that the desert is haunted by spirits because of the strange and chilling cries that can be heard by wandering travelers. These noises are created by the wind whistling over the sand. The Gobi is now home to a number of events, including one of the world’s hottest marathons.
22. The Rainbow Mountains
Zhangye Danxia National Park is famous for its brightly colored mountains. The rainbow mountains get surprisingly little attention in guidebooks on China, in spite of their quite breath-taking qualities.
Colored in vibrant bands from reds to oranges, to greens and blues, these stripey mountains are made up of mineral-rich sandstone. The different metals in the sandstone have oxidized bringing out different colors and hues. Viewing platforms have been set-up in the park to give visitors incredible views over the landscape.
23. The Lantern Festival
The Chinese festival of lanterns celebrated across the country is the end of the New Year’s celebrations, which welcomes the start of the new lunar calendar. Towns are decked out with colorful lanterns, many of which contain riddles for passers-by to solve.
The most famous Chinese lanterns are the little round ones you see lighting city streets, but during the festival many people create more exciting lamps in the shape of just about anything, from birds to giant flowers. The close of the celebrations is marked by the famous dragon dance. Best celebrated with family, the lantern festival is one of the biggest and most colorful parties of the year.
What happens if you cross China, with Portugal and Las Vegas? You get Macau. Macau was ruled by the Portuguese until 1999, then invaded by American casino magnates lured by the lax rules on gambling. As a result, it is one of the oddest places in Asia. Many of the buildings resemble those from southern Europe, but are mishmashed together with Chinese architecture. The food in Macau also has strong Portuguese influences. Many in Macau are catholic and have western styles weddings, banquets, and holidays.
Macau is probably best known for its Las Vegas style casinos. In juxtaposition to old-world European style buildings, the Avenue de Amizade is a strip of gaudy light-filled mega-casinos. The Venetian Macao is the second biggest casino in the world, and the seventh largest building in the world by floorspace and cannot be missed. It even has fake Venetian canals and gondolas.
25. Feng Shui
The feng shui is wrong! But what does that mean?
The art of feng shui was invented in ancient China, but is poorly understood by most people today. Part of the Taoist school of philosophy, which stipulates that everything is in nature should be in harmony, a set of natural principles were created to guide people when creating buildings such as tombs and monuments. It is now more commonly known as an eccentric way to organize your furniture.
Once part of a complicated system of metaphysics, feng shui is supposed to prevent evil spirits from entering where they don’t belong, and create the optimum flow of Qi. The rules are extremely complicated and based on ideas such as the balancing of yin and yang as well as astrological alignments.