Know China: Culture and Language


China, although dominated by the Han group, is multi-ethnic. But if you do not belong to one of the 56 ethnic groups then you are a foreigner, forever an outsider.

In Gansu province, in Western China, there are Han Chinese, Tibetan Chinese and other ethnic groups living together, such as these restaurant staff resting after their evening’s work.

Han Chinese are the by far the largest group of people, making up almost 92% of the total population. None of the other groups, the 55 minorities, numbers more than 20 million.

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) still plays a part in the lives of most people (alongside modern scientific medicine).


Most visitors to China are functionally illiterate, so that day to day business can be a problem.

Many, but not all, signs in public spaces have English or pinyin (and sometimes Chinglish). Pinyin is the representation of Chinese using the western Roman alphabet. A great strength of pinyin is that, as a modern representation, it has consistent rules.

International sign in an airport

Chinese is a tonal language. That is, tone changes meaning. In Mandarin there are four tones, and children develop a sensitivity to tone that westerners and others just don’t have. So a visitor can believe that they’re saying the right word, but a Chinese listener might not understand.

There are many dialects. Mandarin (Putonghua) and Cantonese (Guangdonghua) are indeed separate languages. Mandarin – Putonghua means ‘common language’ – dominates public life, and linguistic diversity is declining.

There are subtleties of writing, as of speaking, that only the experienced can detect.

Chinese text is a central part of culture and identity, and many people practice calligraphy.

For travel, translation software (such as Google Translate) is a great help. To collect tickets at a station ticket office for example, just type in ‘collect ticket’ and the software will provide a translation that you can access as audio or as large size text to show to the ticket assistant.

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