China Smart: What You Don't Know, What You Need to Know- A Past & Present Guide to History, Culture, Society, Language

China Smart: What You Don't Know, What You Need to Know- A Past & Present Guide to History, Culture, Society, Language

by Larry Herzberg


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How is China organized politically? What are the issues that young people face in today's China? What is China doing about its problem with pollution? Is the Chinese internet like our internet? What's China's role in the world today? And how much do you know about China's great woman emperor or the Chinese explorer whose voyages may have inspired the legend of Sinbad the Sailor? What are the major Chinese holidays, their superstitions regarding numbers, and the true nature of the Chinese written language?

In nearly 60 brief essays, long-time China expert Larry Herzberg tackles important facts and myths about China, its history, people, and culture, as well as its contemporary society. Anyone dipping into this book will emerge that much smarter about China, whether visiting, conducting business, studying the language, or simply being fascinated by one of the world's greatest and most influential civilizations.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781611720501
Publisher: Stone Bridge Press
Publication date: 05/21/2019
Pages: 248
Sales rank: 1,136,371
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Larry Herzberg studied Chinese for five years at Vanderbilt University before doing his Master's and Ph.D. work in Chinese Language and Literature at Indiana University. In 1980 he founded the Chinese Language Program at Albion College and then did the same at Calvin College in 1984. For the past three decades he has taught the Chinese language at the college level. He is author of Speak and Read Chinese and along with his wife, Qin Xue Herzberg, of China Survival Guide, Basic Patterns of Chinese Grammar, Chinese Proverbs and Popular Sayings (all from Stone Bridge Press), and A Writing Guide for Learners of Chinese (Yale University Press).

Read an Excerpt


Over the past four decades that I have taught Chinese language and culture to college students, there have been certain facts about both China’s past and present that I have found important to mention. Whether speaking about the many great inventions of the Chinese in the past, or the dramatic progress China has made very recently in areas such as solar power and high-speed rail, I discovered that few of my students knew about any of these.

In this book I have attempted to introduce to a general audience some of the most significant and fascinating aspects of both ancient and contemporary China. I have included separate articles divided into three major sections: China’s Past; Chinese Society, Culture, and Language; and China Today.

In the section on China’s past, there are short essays about everything from the history of the Great Wall and the origin of silk, porcelain, and tea to the story of the only female emperor to the history of Chinese migration to the U.S. The section on Chinese Society, Culture, and Language contains short essays that explain aspects of the culture such as the nature of the spoken as well as the written language, the various ethnic groups within China, the major holidays, and superstitions regarding numbers. The final section on China today covers topics as diverse as the recent economic miracle, the problem of pollution, gender inequality, and the rapid progress toward a cashless society.

For the most part I have deliberately avoided taking sides and wading into controversial subjects such as the perceived economic and military threat to the U.S. posed by China’s rise, or human rights abuses. Those are highly complex issues that I did attempt to examine in a 2½-hour documentary that my Chinese wife Qin and I produced in 2012, entitled The China Threat: Perception versus Reality. (See the copyright page for more information.)

What I offer instead in this little book is a glimpse into some of the defining aspects of China, either historically or in today’s world. I have tried to make it as interesting and entertaining as possible, while also providing some substantial educational value. Hopefully you will discover how much there is about China that is absolutely intriguing and worth learning about.

Larry Herzberg
Professor of Chinese
Director of Asian Studies
Calvin College
Grand Rapids, Michigan



Origin of the word “China”

The word that we use in English to describe the world’s most populous country actually bears no resemblance to the term that the “Chinese” themselves use. The word “China” derives from the name of the first Chinese dynasty. The kingdom of Qin (pronounced close to the English word “chin”) defeated the rival kingdoms that were its neighbors in 221 B.C. and unified them into one country or empire. The King of Qin proclaimed himself “Qin Shi Huangdi”, the “First Emperor of the Qin”.

However, this first Chinese dynasty was by far the briefest of all Chinese dynasties. It lasted a mere fifteen years, ending only four years after the death of the First Emperor. During his eleven year reign the first Qin Emperor did have some impressive accomplishments. He undertook gigantic projects, including ordering the building and unifying of various sections of what we now call the “Great Wall of China” to protect his new country from invasion by the “barbarians” to the North. He created a massive national road system. He also standardized weights and measures and even wheel ruts across all the kingdoms that he had unified. The Chinese writing system was also standardized for the newly unified country.

However, most of this came at the expense of a great many lives. The building of the Great Wall and the national road system were only made possible through the conscripted labor of hundreds of thousands of peasants. These unfortunate men were often taken hundreds of miles from their villages to work many hard years on the frontiers of the country. A large percentage of them never returned to their families but died in these forced labor projects.

In order to avoid having anti-government scholars make comparisons of his reign with the past, the Qin Emperor ordered most existing books be burned. The only exceptions were those on astrology, divination, medicine, and agriculture, as well as those that related the history of the Kingdom of Qin. The burning of so many books of the past also served the purpose of furthering the ongoing reformation of the writing system by removing examples of variant forms of Chinese characters.

Most infamous of all was the fact that this first of world’s book-burning dictators had nearly 500 scholars buried alive for illicitly owning such classic books as the “Book of Songs” and the “Classic of History”.

Given the cruelty as well as the short-lived nature of this first dynasty, the people we call “Chinese” in later centuries never wanted to be known as the “Qin people” or have their country called the “Kingdom of Qin”. Four years after the death of the Qin Emperor, the rebel Liu Bang overthrew the Qin to establish the Han dynasty. This dynasty lasted for more than four centuries, from 206 B.C. to 220 A.D.

It was the first of several golden ages of this newly unified empire. Under Han rule, China greatly expanded its territory and power, conquering what is today northern Korea and northern Vietnam. The “Silk Route” was established to provide a trade route with Rome, the other great civilization of its time. The civil service examination system was created to select officials, based largely on the teachings of Confucius. Under Han rule, the country produced important works of history, medicine, philosophy, poetry, and politics. Artists produced glazed pottery, large stone carvings. bronze vessels, and exquisite lacquer work. Silk was woven in rich colors and creative patterns to become a major industry and a source of export trade. And it was during the Han dynasty that China invented paper, sundials, and a seismograph.

In recognition of China’s achievements of this period, the Chinese people for several millennia have referred to themselves as the Han people. The pictographs that form their writing system are called “Han characters” (“Han zi”), pronounced by the Japanese as “kanji”. Since 1911, when the last imperial dynasty was overthrown, the “Chinese” have referred to their country as 中国 (“Zhōngguó”, “the Middle Kingdom”,) and call themselves 中国人 (“Zhōngguó rén”, “people of the Middle Kingdom”). But the term “Zhōngguó” was in use even before the Qin dynasty and was used by subsequent Chinese rulers to reflect their belief that their country was the center of civilization for all the countries that surrounded it. Indeed, there is some validity to the Chinese view of themselves. After all, both Japan and Korea adopted Chinese characters for their writing systems. More than half of all the words in the spoken Japanese and Korean languages have Chinese roots. China also gave Japan and Korea, as well as Vietnam, their traditional

architecture, Buddhism, Confucian philosophy, rice cultivation, the use of chopsticks for eating, and much more.

If for the last century the Chinese have referred to their country as “Zhōngguó” and call themselves “Zhōngguó rén”, the official name of both the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China (Taiwan) uses the term 英语 (“Zhōnghuá”, “Middle Flowering/Flourishing”). The full term for the PRC is 中华人民共和国 (“Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó”, “Middle Flowering People’s Republic”), while Taiwan calls itself merely 中华民国 (“Zhōnghuá Mínguó”, “Middle Flowering Republic”). In any case, both “Zhōngguó” and “Zhōnghuá”, as well as the term “Han”, have nothing at all to do with the English terms “China” and “Chinese”, just as “Germany” has no connection with the term the people of that country use when referring to their country, namely “Deutschland”.


The Great Wall

To foreigners, the Great Wall is the best known and most celebrated structure in China. It seems to us, and to the Chinese as well, a symbol of the greatness of ancient China. No trip to China seems complete without a visit to “The Wall”.

This man-made wonder is truly an incredible achievement. Without the construction equipment employed today, the Chinese were able to build a wall that stretches from east to west across approximately one thousand miles of often rugged and inhospitable terrain, with nearly four thousand miles of walled structures. When Richard Nixon stood on the Wall in 1972, during his trip to open restore U.S. relations with China, he famously declared “This is a Great Wall and it had to be built by a great people.”

And yet many myths persist about the Wall, as Julia Lovell points out in her insightful book, “The Great Wall: China Against the World”.

Myth #1 is that it is one long, continuous structure that has existed in its present form ever since the time of the First Emperor in the 3rd century B.C. The first mention of the Wall in the Chinese historical record is in the 1st century B.C. and refers to the walls built in the two previous centuries, including by the Qin Emperor, which often joined already existing fortifications constructed by former Chinese states when China was divided.

The Wall, incidentally, has never been called the “Great Wall” by the Chinese, but, rather, “the Long Wall”. The English term is certainly more grandiose, but inaccurate. The “Long Wall” is rarely mentioned in Chinese sources between the end of the Han Dynasty in 220 A.D. and the beginning of the Ming Dynasty in 1368. That is because so much of it fell into disrepair in the intervening millennium. Much of The Wall as we know it today is the result of building during the Ming Dynasty in the 14th through the 17th centuries. In recent centuries the greatest part of the Wall has crumbled in many places and is hardly visible. The places tourists visit today are reconstructions done in the past three decades under the Chinese Communist government.

Myth #2 about the Great Wall is that it clearly marked the border between the Chinese on one side and the barbarians to the North on the other. It is viewed as the Chinese feeling culturally superior to all other peoples and therefore wanting to keep all foreigners out. This ignores the fact that during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.) and Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) in particular, China welcomed in people from many cultures to the West, including Jews and Muslims. For much of Chinese history, the country was ruled by emperors who loved and emulated many aspects of the nomad cultures to the North, or who came from the steppes to the North. The latter includes the Mongols, who controlled China from 1260-1368 A.D., and the Manchus, who ruled from 1644 to 1911.

Myth #3 is that the Wall was a symbol of the power and prestige of ancient China. It actually was more commonly used as a strategy for defense on the frontier borders of the country. It was seen as the last resort for dealing with the barbarians when all else, including trade, diplomacy, and military expeditions, had failed. The Wall is better seen as the weakness and failure of the Chinese emperors.

The cost of trying to maintain this sprawling defensive structure bankrupted many of China’s weaker rulers and led to the overthrow of their dynasties. To the common people in ancient China, the Wall represented the misery of conscripted labor, with hundreds of thousands of young men forced from their villages

To either build or guard this frontier barrier. Most never returned and the bones of a great many of them were buried next to and beneath it. There are famous poems by Tang Dynasty poets like Du Fu that express the sorrow of the peasants dragged away from their homes and that of their wives left to mourn.

The Great Wall also proved little protection from marauding barbarians intent on conquering China. When the Mongol hordes under Genghis Khan conquered China in the 13th century A.D., they had little problem circumventing this supposedly impregnable barrier. So it was, too, with the Manchus from the northeast, when they invaded China in the early 17th century. The invading armies either made detours around the defenses to find gaps or weak spots in the Wall, or they simply bribed the Chinese officials assigned to guard the lonely outposts to let them through.

Myth #4 is that the Great Wall was built for purely defensive reasons, to protect the peaceful Chinese peasants in the border areas from invasions by marauding barbarians. In actuality, from even well before the Qin Emperor, the rulers of various Chinese states built walls far out into the steppes of Mongolia to the north as well as into the deserts of northwest China, hundreds of miles from any arable land. The purpose was originally more to expand the territory under Chinese control and to protect trade routes to the West than it was to protect the “civilized” Chinese from the “uncivilized barbarians”.

The last myth about the Wall, shared until recently by the Chinese as well as by foreigners, is that the Great Wall is the only man-made structure that can be seen from the moon. Actually in the Chinese case, until China launched its first manned space flight in 2003, textbooks in China declared that The Wall was one of two man-made structures visible from the moon. The other was said to be a sea embankment in the Netherlands. When the astronaut ofthe 2003 voyage, Yang Liwei, returned to earth, he announced with great embarrassment that he wasn’t able to see the slightest evidence of the Great Wall from the moon. It was only then that the Ministry of Education in China informed its elementary school teachers to stop trumpeting to its students that their symbol of national pride could be viewed from outer space.

Nevertheless, the Great Wall is evidence of the immense power and scope of the Chinese empire in past centuries, with a government that was able to undertake such a monumental building project over many centuries.

Table of Contents


Note to the Reader

China’s Past

CHAPTER 1 Origin of the word “China”

CHAPTER 2 The Great Wall

CHAPTER 3 The imperial examination system

CHAPTER 4 Two bloody civil wars in China

CHAPTER 5 China’s Queen Elizabeth I

CHAPTER 6 Hua Mulan

CHAPTER 7 Foot-binding

CHAPTER 8 Zheng He, the Sailor

CHAPTER 9 History of tea in China

CHAPTER 10 History of silk production in China

CHAPTER 11 The history of porcelain

CHAPTER 12 Invention of printing

CHAPTER 13 Origin of bonsai, tofu, and koi

CHAPTER 14 U.S. opium trade with China

CHAPTER 15 Chinese Educational Mission

CHAPTER 16 Chinese immigration to the U.S.

CHAPTER 17 Chiang Kai-shek

CHAPTER 18 Mao Ze-dong and his Legacy

China’s Society, Culture, and Language

CHAPTER 19 Terms for Family Members in Chinese

CHAPTER 20 Chinese Holidays

CHAPTER 21 The nature of the Chinese written language

CHAPTER 22 The Spoken Chinese Language

CHAPTER 23 Chinese dialects

CHAPTER 24 Chinese surnames

CHAPTER 25 Pronunciation of Chinese names in U.S. and British media

CHAPTER 26 Sayings falsely attributed to the Chinese

CHAPTER 27 Lucky and unlucky numbers in Chinese

CHAPTER 28 Ethnic groups in China

CHAPTER 29 Differences between Chinese culture and Japanese culture

China Today

CHAPTER 30 The Communist Party and the Government

CHAPTER 31 The Chinese Military

CHAPTER 32 China’s Population

CHAPTER 33 The Biggest Cities in China

CHAPTER 34 China’s Economic Growth and Rise in Personal Incomes

CHAPTER 35 Gender Equality

CHAPTER 36 Marriage and Divorce

CHAPTER 37 The LGBT Community

CHAPTER 38 Youth Culture

CHAPTER 39 Automobiles in China

CHAPTER 40 Pollution in China

CHAPTER 41 Religion in China

CHAPTER 42 Chinese students in the U.S.

CHAPTER 43 Chinese-American restaurants

CHAPTER 44 American fast-food restaurants in China

CHAPTER 45 Most Chinese don’t eat dog meat!

CHAPTER 46 High-speed railway system in China

CHAPTER 47 The Cashless Society

CHAPTER 48 The Internet and Social Media

CHAPTER 49 Social Changes and New Laws

CHAPTER 50 The Arts and Western Classical Music

CHAPTER 51 China’s Emerging Role in the World

At a Glance

  • China Map
  • China Fast Facts
  • China Timeline and Dynasties Milestones in Chinese History
  • Great Chinese Artists
  • Classic Chinese Texts
  • Powerful Chinese Leaders and Politicans



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