During the Chinese Lunar month, it seems fitting to talk about some of the many salient features of Chinese culture. The British ruled for Hong Kong over a century, but influences of Chinese culture are prominently evident in all aspects of Hong Kong life as a majority of the city’s population is of Chinese descent.
Chinese culture is one of the oldest living cultures in the world. However, Chinese culture is not uniform, and it has various interpretations across geographical regions and communities. Important components of Chinese culture relate to various spheres of life including art, architecture, music and literature, martial arts, Chinese medicine, religion and astrology, cuisine and more.
Chinese art is an all-encompassing term for various art forms painting, ceramics, sculpture, carvings and more. Chinese cave drawings date back to the Neolithic age and feature pictographic themes depicting plant life, animals, birds, rivers, and rocks. As Chinese culture evolved so did its sphere of art, as swirling brush strokes became characteristic of Chinese paintings, which continued to feature nature as their central theme.
In addition to paintings, the Chinese also developed several physical art forms such as sculpture particularly Chinese Buddhist sculpture. Buddhism came as early as the second century BC. Foreign monks and teachers brought the teachings of Buddhism to China and representations of Buddha adorned cave temples.
By the tenth century, imagery and sculptures related to Bodhisattvas like Avalokiteshvara (Guanyin) and Manjushri(Wenshu)were prominent in several parts of China. These art forms developed as an offshoot of the Zen Buddhism and the Pure Land schools of thought that gained much popularity. Aside from Buddhist sculptures, the Chinese also used sculptures to adorn the graves of kings. The finest example of these sculptures is visible today, in the form of the UNESCO world heritage site of the army of terracotta warriors in Xian in Northern China.
Pottery and Ceramics
The art form of Chinese pottery (also known as Chinese ceramics) dates back more than ten thousand years. Chinese pottery is a loosely defined term that includes a wide array of products from bricks and tiles used in construction, earthenware, stoneware and porcelain vessels made in bonfires and kilns.
At first the Chinese extensively used the potter’s wheel to make their many sophisticated wares such as the intricately- detailed terracotta warrior army that guards the tomb of the first Qin Emperor in Xian. These early methods came to be further fine-tuned to produce the three-colored and celadon wares associated with the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). Blue and white porcelain, which is synonymous with Chinese ceramics today, was first produced during the Yuan Dynasty and elevated to a superior artistic level during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
The Chinese are also renowned for their carving skills. Carvings in particular jade carvings were used to make jewelry and home décor items down the ages. Ancient jade carvings are nowadays considered to be collectibles, which fetch considerable sums at auctions.
As with other art forms, Chinese music also dates back to antiquity. The Chinese down the ages, have constructed several kinds of musical instruments fashioned out of wood, clay, metal, silk, bamboo, gourd and stone. Some of these instruments include flutes, panpipes, long zithers, the sheng (mouth organ) and percussion instruments like drums, gongs, and clappers. Many of these instruments were brought to China from Central Asia and India through the country’s foreign trading channels. These instruments continue to be used until today for various celebrations and rituals. Music has played a dominant role in Chinese culture for centuries. In fact, the much-revered Chinese philosopher Confucius gave much importance to the soothing quality of music and deemed it be a means of promoting calm and banishing impure thoughts and unrest.
In addition to physical art, the Chinese also developed performance arts like opera. Chinese operas tell the tales of heroes and supernatural beings as well as prominent historical events. The Beijing Opera also known as the Peking Opera evolved from provincial forms more than 200 years ago. Even though this sophisticated form of opera is named after Beijing, it is believed to have originated in the Anhui and Hubei provinces.
Colorful costumes, facemasks, elaborate set arrangements, high-pitched singing, symbolic gestures are typical of Chinese opera. In Hong Kong as well Chinese Cantonese opera is a much-cherished art form. Cantonese opera features rich mélange of legends, history, mythology, music, and drama so much, so it featured on the UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009.
The Sunbeam Theatre (in North Point) and the Ko Shan Theatre (in Hung Hom) are the two main venues in Hong Kong that host regular Cantonese Opera performances in Hong Kong.
Chinese Martial Arts
Chinese Kung Fu or Wushu is a prominent aspect of Chinese culture. The origins of the art of Kung Fu date back more than 6000 years and references to Chinese martial arts can be found in ancient literary works and poetry. Records estimate that the art of Kung Fu came about during the rule of the Shang and Zhou dynasties when men were trained in Kung Fu when they went out to hunt.
The sport is based on classic Chinese philosophy and during its evolution process it developed as a form of exercise, self-defense and self-discipline. Chinese Kung Fu is of two forms, internal and external Kung Fu. While external Kung Fu challenges the physical body, internal Kung Fu trains your spirit, Qi, and mind. Various different schools of Kung Fu are in existence today; including Shaolin Kung Fu (a style of shadow boxing), Tai Chi, and Qi Gong.
Chinese Kung Fu over the years has found a worldwide appeal largely due to the popular films featuring Kung Fu stars like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li.
The Art of Drinking Tea
Tea is a much-loved beverage around the world nowadays. The practice of drinking tea originated in China more than 5000 years ago, and legends attribute the discovery of tea to Emperor Shennong, a visionary ruler who ruled in 2327bc.
At first though tea was only used in ritual offerings but it soon began to be favored for it’s medicinal qualities. During the reign of the Tang dynasty, the practice of tea drinking was elevated to an art form, and all strata of society began to enjoy it.
The quality of tea is judged by its flavor, color, and fragrance. The temperature of water used for making tea, the tea-making paraphernalia, the tea infusion techniques and the environment where the tea-based beverage is consumed, all play a part in Chinese tea drinking culture today.
Hong Kong has an abundance of teahouses, tea stores and partaking of yum cha is a tradition that endures. In addition to Chinese teas, even herbal teas renowned for their healing properties are favored in Hong Kong.
However, aside from Chinese influences, Hong Kongers also have their favored tea-based beverages. Hong Kong-style milk tea (black tea with condensed or evaporated milk) is a lunchtime staple as is another popular tea drink, lemon tea, served hot or iced depending on the weather. Both these tea beverages came into being during the British colonial era. They remain immensely popular until today along with another Hong Kong invention, Yuanyang, a drink that features a rather strange but not unappetizing mixture of coffee and milk tea.