Long Read: How can you benefit from learning more about traditional Chinese culture?

Wherever you are in the world, modern China is increasingly influencing daily life (even though you may not have noticed). So learning more about China, its language and culture, is important. The more you know about the China of the past, the more you can understand and appreciate the China of the present.

But how exactly can you personally benefit by learning about China’s history and traditional culture? Read on to find out our take!

Gods take a dragon bus, perhaps a play on words as 神龙 is the Chinese name of car company Peugeot. Mural ‘The Gods go to Work’ by Wen Na.

When we tell people that we, two British expats, opened a company that teaches people about traditional Chinese culture, and allows them to experience things like calligraphy, painting and martial arts, the reaction we often get is “Why?” and “You are British! You should teach British culture! It’s easier! You’ll earn more money!” Fair points, certainly.

For me personally, I would always say simply that I love traditional Chinese culture, and want to share that with others. At first, I hoped that answer would suffice, but as time has passed, I’ve come to realise that perhaps a more comprehensive answer is required. Of course, I don’t need to explain myself, but as a business owner and proponent of something as vague as traditional Chinese culture, I thought now was a good time to put words to something that had previously been something I just knew.

In this article, I cover three main points:

    1. What we mean when we say traditional Chinese culture
    2. The main benefits of learning about traditional Chinese culture
    3. Whether the Chinese mainland still has traditional Chinese culture

It’s my hope that by sharing my thoughts on this topic, it might encourage people to take a greater interest in studying traditional Chinese culture, or at least have a better appreciation of the value that can be found in it and in the people who take the time to study, experience and promote it. 

The traditional Chinese characters for ‘Chan’ (a form of Buddhism developed at the Shaolin Temple) and ‘Dao’ (the Way).

What do we mean when we say traditional Chinese culture?

Before discussing the benefits of experiencing traditional Chinese culture, we should first clarify what we mean by the phrase ‘traditional Chinese culture’, as it covers a huge range of topics and the phrase itself is open to widely varying interpretations.

At its most simple (and widely recognised) definition, culture can be broken down into five main categories (though of course, so many aspects could be included); language, religion or philosophy, food, the arts and the people. These are the general areas of influence that make up a society. Tradition, for the purposes of this discourse, is defined by the Merriam Webster dictionary as:

a: an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behaviour (such as a religious practice or a social custom)
b: the handing down of information, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another without written instruction
c: cultural continuity in social attitudes, customs, and institutions

Therefore, when talking about traditional Chinese culture, specifically as presented by companies such as ours, we are referring to the language, philosophies, food, arts and crafts and customs from thousands of years ago up to the turn of the 20th century, that have been passed down through the generations. 

And as anyone who has heard anything about China knows, with a history of an estimated 5000 years (and increasing evidence that it may be even longer), that covers a lot of culture! In order to present information in an easily digestible way, we do need to choose a focus for what we as a company offer, so we have chosen Han culture. That doesn’t mean we don’t value or respect the other cultures China has to offer, but this is the one we have most access to, and therefore can best offer a clear understanding of. In the future we may consider offering access to the intangible Chinese cultural heritage of China’s numerous minority ethnic groups.

Young women wearing the traditional clothing of the Han ethnic group on the Beijing subway

Benefits of Learning About and Experiencing Traditional Chinese Culture

In August 2017, Jean-Pierre Lehmann, emeritus professor at IMD, Lausanne, Switzerland, wrote in an opinion piece for the South China Morning Post “it is dispiriting and indeed alarming to see how ignorant the West is about China and, from what I can see, intends to remain so.” While perhaps a little harsh (and while Professor Lehmann was focusing specifically on Hong Kong’s role on the world stage), there is surely some truth to the statement. Whether through choice or lack of exposure, much of the world only knows China from what they see on TV or read in newspapers, which often has a negative slant, dictated by political or business tensions.

While Cultural Keys doesn’t provide services or content directly connected to Chinese political or economic insight, we do believe that whatever field you are in, having an understanding of China’s past through its history, its traditional culture and its people, will be of benefit. As Professor Lehmann noted, “Learning about Chinese philosophy, history, music, painting, calligraphy and literature will bring culturally enriching rewards.” 

Chinese culture, both modern and traditional, can seem very ‘alien’ to many westerners. But even with a world of resources available to you to learn more about China, both from Cultural Keys and our peers around the world, why exactly should you do so? While most articles and opinion pieces focus on the business and career benefits of learning more about China’s culture and history, what about for everyday people, both those who live in China and those observing around the world? How can learning about China benefit them and you?

A traditional Chinese calligraphy class

It’s fun and interesting!

Putting aside any deeper reasoning behind learning more about traditional Chinese culture, and the history and philosophies behind it, the simplest reason to experience the various activities that come under the Chinese culture banner is that it can be a lot of fun!

Activities that can be classified as ‘traditional culture’ cover such a huge range that you are bound to find something you’ll enjoy doing. Whether it’s painting and calligraphy, dough figurine sculpting or knot making, taichi or fan dancing, there is something for every taste. With a good teacher and environment, all of them can  be very enjoyable. And as with any fun activity, it can lead to a whole range of benefits, such as it becoming a new hobby or making new friends. Plus it’s interesting to find out about customs that are different from your own!

Lion dancing workshop

Because knowledge negates fear, misunderstanding and distrust

While various media outlets bombard us daily with their take on the current situation in China, often ignoring the historical and cultural context of such situations, if you take the time to learn about something for yourself, you will see issues often have more than one side, and can in fact be multi-layered. The culture of China, both modern and traditional, can appear quite different and at times even mysterious to those who have never experienced it before. When we don’t understand something, it is human nature for that to lead to fear. And as we all know, fear can lead to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate always leads to dark places. And the best counter to fear is knowledge.

That’s not to say that you personally have fear or misconceptions about China. But perhaps the more you personally learn and understand, the more you can share your insight with others who don’t know China so well. Of course, that means more than taking one calligraphy class or trying out taichi one afternoon, but each experience you have brings you closer to answering any questions you have and closing the gap between your perception and reality.

To facilitate understanding and interaction

Whether you are a business person with ties to China, someone travelling here short-term for work or leisure or an expat with plans to stay for a while, the more you know about a place, the better you understand it. And the better you understand something, the more you can benefit from and enjoy it. But what does that mean, in real terms? An example is dealing with culture shock: getting to know more about a country’s culture is the best way to negate it. Not everyone suffers from this in the same way, but if you are worried about what to expect in China, or are finding it hard to adapt to life after arriving, taking a few cultural workshops can help with your understanding and with the way you perceive the country and its people, and the way they perceive you, especially in China. Chinese people are generally very pleased when they meet foreigners who know something of the culture or language, so this can be a great way to get closer to neighbours, colleagues or people you meet in your daily life. People are, and the culture in general is, very accepting of visitors, even if they make errors in their daily dealings. Knowing more about the culture can generally help avoid awkward situations and business faux pas, and can even save you time and money! What’s not to like about that?

Traditional culture is prevalent in the lives of modern people in China.  The philosophies of thousands of years ago are still visible and influencing the culture today, even if not recognised by name.  In the same way that understanding the ideas of the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers or the Renaissance might give you better insight into the way of life in modern western society, so the study of traditional Chinese culture and philosophies can aid in our understanding of life, culture and society in modern China.

The old and the foreign, incorporated and repurposed in new ways at the Porcelain House in Tianjin

To help with language learning

If you are serious about knowing more about China, the best way to do that is by learning the language – after all, language is culture. Numerous concepts, everything from the amount of eye contact to the name of an item used for worship, can be unique to a culture, and therefore unique to the language used to describe them. Language also tells us about how people think and interact with the world. Of course, while Mandarin is the lingua franca, when dealing with a country the size of China, it’s important to remember that both culture and local language vary widely in different areas.

Whereas learning the English language can really help with cultural understanding, and vice versa (to pick a random word: knowing the etymology of the word avocado can really help you understand the history of the fruit and the culture in which it originated!) the same is possibly even more true with the Chinese language. As written Chinese is logographic, knowing the origin of the characters can help in not just learning the language and how to use it, but further deepening your immersion in the culture itself.

Take the word 武 (wǔ) for example. A simple translation of the character is ‘martial’ or ‘of war’. But what about the deeper meaning? Well, if you break down the character wu, it actually contains three parts, ‘one 一’, ‘weapon 戈‘ and ‘stop 止’. So we can see that 武 actually means to stop war or to stop fighting, to bring about peace, thus martial arts can be seen as a way to bring about peace. But in fact, that’s the comparatively modern understanding. Originally, the component 止 meant feet, or movement, so wu did indeed refer to martial or war like activities. Through the study of culture, we can see how language and understanding of characters have changed and adapted to meet the needs and wants of modern users. 

Children learning Shaolin Kungfu

Traditional Chinese culture gives us insight into leading a happier and more balanced life 

Traditional Chinese culture, and by extension modern Chinese society, is built upon China’s three main philosophies; Confucianism, Daoism and Chan  Buddhism. While different in their approaches, all three of those schools of thought promote mindfulness (though not named as such) as a means to achieve peace and harmony with yourself and everything around you.

But how do the three philosophies relate to the kind of Chinese cultural activities that can be experienced and enjoyed in daily life? Many of the most renowned Chinese masters from throughout history have been greatly influenced by them, incorporating ideas such as mindfulness, emptiness, and dynamic balance into their work. Painting and calligraphy, for example, require you to be simultaneously relaxed yet focused and were seen as a way to cultivate mindfulness.

And it’s not just the classical arts (painting, poetry, calligraphy) which contain those philosophies at their heart. Nearly all forms of Chinese art, food and traditional customs have aspects that were influenced and informed by philosophy.

We see Confucian influence in Chinese papercutting, for example, which was a way for common people to make representations of ‘luxurious’ offerings to their ancestors, and a way to observe and be mindful of the natural world and their place in it. 

Statue of Confucius in the Confucius Temple, Beijing

We see Buddhist influence in the act of using art as a way to observe the world from a neutral point of view, and simply ‘be in the moment’ when conveying your observations through the medium of your chosen art form. We see Daoist practices in the idea that the art you are creating is not something new, or separate from yourself, but is in fact an extension of you, the artist, and in creating the art (or food, or poetry etc.) you let qi (life spirit/essence) flow through you on its way out into the world, as a positive force.

Though it is true to say that the connections with and understanding of traditional philosophies, as originally presented through traditional culture, are  less prevalent today than in the past, those principles are still carried forward by traditionally trained modern day artists who seek to emulate the work done by the masters of the past, and for the same reasons, to spread the philosophical teachings, and to give people a way to both observe those concepts through their art, and to inspire others to cultivate their own mindfulness, balance, harmony and respect in their own lives.

It should be noted that none of these ideas are connected with formalised religion or indeed require ‘faith’ of any kind. While certain groups do treat the ideas presented by teachers such as Buddha, Confucius and Laozi as a religion, together with associated rules, rituals and doctrine, none of those teachers ever presented their ideas as religious. As such, everyone, regardless of their own belief system, or lack thereof, can partake in and benefit from ideas like mindfulness and qi. As a result, whether it is through painting, knotting, martial arts, cooking, or whatever repeated practice takes your interest, by using these concepts to help focus and calm the mind, you can bring balance to the unbalanced and create a positive life habit that will only benefit you more and more as time goes by. 

Calligraphy promotes mindfulness

Has the Chinese mainland lost its ‘true’ traditional roots?

There are some who might argue that the traditional Chinese culture we have access to today in China has been adapted simply with ‘showiness’ or ‘commercial viability’ in mind, and ‘drained’ of anything resembling traditional values or philosophies. Is that true? 

As someone who has lived in China for more than two decades, indulged myself in the study and discussion of traditional Chinese culture, and of course set up a company to help others experience it for themselves, I feel fairly qualified to say that yes, perhaps it doesn’t embrace its traditional roots the same way as other regions, like Hong Kong, do. Or maybe it’s not that the traditions aren’t embraced, but that simply their origins, and original intentions, are not so widely understood. 

Take taichi, as an easy example. Wandering around an average park on any morning of the week, you may see countless people practicing taichi, usually in bright clothing, moving softly to music or waving colourful fans. Asked why they are practising, the majority will answer ‘for health reasons’. Asked about the martial arts aspects of taichi, it would be quite common to hear practitioners tell you that taichi isn’t a martial art, and is only for health.

A taichi class in Beijing’s Ritan Park

While taichi is most definitely good for overall health and well-being, to suggest that it has no martial aspects, and could not be used for self-defence (regardless of how complicated or how long you would need to train taichi to be able to actually use it in a combat situation) is simply being ignorant of the roots of taichi. Of course, that is more the fault of the teacher, who themselves may not have learnt anything beyond the most shallow aspects of the art, but the fact still remains that a traditional aspect of the culture is being lost, because teachers aren’t teaching it, and students aren’t taking the time to enquire further.

And that doesn’t just apply to something like martial arts. From the Buddhist inspiration for some of the most spectacular paintings, to Daoist influence in Chinese arts and crafts as discussed above, many people simply aren’t aware of how essential traditional culture was to their history, nor how it is still very much present in their daily lives now. That doesn’t mean those roots are lost, just that people simply aren’t aware of them. 

It’s also true that traditional Chinese culture has never seen as much promotion as it does now. The world is interested in learning more about China, its history and culture, and so, the powers that be have often taken steps to make that knowledge more appealing or accessible, to better suit their perceptions of what the audience wants and how they want it.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Everything evolves and adapts to keep it relevant. And just because it’s being made easier to access and understand, it doesn’t mean it’s losing its value or ‘roots’. Sure, maybe 10 people will go to a calligraphy class, and get to hear about a little history, try a few strokes, maybe take a nice piece of art home with them. Nothing too deep or profound. But maybe one or two of those people really enjoy the experience, feel they want to know more about it, and so take the time and effort to look further into the art, its origins, philosophies and connections with TCM and mindfulness. Yes, they should have access to more in-depth information if they want it, but they might not have developed that interest in the first place if they hadn’t had such easy access to begin with!

New Year’s decoration in the style of a traditional papercutting at China World, Beijing

As long as we understand that what we are teaching or experiencing is simply the tip of the iceberg, with thousands of years of history and culture behind it, which interested parties have the ability to explore and experience for themselves if they wish, those ‘roots’ are not lost, and this method in fact gives us a way to help preserve and promote traditional Chinese culture further.

For an easy to understand example, beginning as early as the start of the 20th century but really coming into practical force in the early 1950’s, the simplification of Chinese characters was seen as a way to rapidly improve education and literacy for the general populace in China, and to help China’s development into a modern world power. Could it be argued that the true meaning or ‘roots’ of the language were lost in the transition to simplified characters? Possibly.  But it’s hard to argue against an adaptation that allowed easier access to knowledge and education, and the benefits thereof. And traditional characters weren’t ‘lost’ – they are still used today on the Chinese  mainland by those in cultural fields, in formal contexts, and even by young people seeking to be different.

Another example of this is the iconic Shaolin Temple, under the leadership of the venerable Abbot Shi Yongxin. Since taking over the running of the temple, Abbot Shi Yongxin instituted numerous changes, such as the speed of opening up multiple branches overseas, starting a dedicated media company to sell books and videos, and working to promote the Temple across many media and entertainment outlets.

As a result of these efforts, the Abbott is often accused online of only being interested in money, of turning the temple into a ‘money making machine’ and abandoning all the important traditions of the temple, and in fact of Buddhism itself! However, from the extensive time we have spent at the temple, talking with the monks there and being involved in aspects of the temple’s daily work, we can say the truth is in fact very different. Aside from the fact that Buddhism has no problem with people making money (nor even being rich!), what people don’t seem to realise is that the Abbot simply understands the necessity of adapting and providing access in new ways to meet the needs of new audiences and channels. By making it easier to learn about Shaolin history and culture, he is helping to create a whole new generation of potential students (both of Buddhism and martial arts). Sure, not all of them train or meditate 8 hours a day, read every scripture or practice every technique and dedicate their lives to the temple, but those who do (as a result of the initial exposure they might not have gotten otherwise) will be the ones who carry on the traditions to the next generation, and in doing so safeguard the lineage of the Shaolin Temple. 

As you can see, we don’t believe that modern China is giving up on the essence or roots of its traditional culture, but is finding new ways to present it. Yes, in the march to modernisation and accessibility, we do risk losing something along the way, and steps must be taken to preserve those treasures for future generations.  Whether people take the time to go deeper and ‘peel back the onion’, will be a matter of personal choice. But as teachers, facilitators, fans and proponents, it’s our job, our duty, to make people interested enough to want to do so, and help them find that information if they choose to look for it. 

Foreign Students Outside The Shaolin Temple

Final Word

What started out as a short look at some of the reasons why learning about traditional Chinese culture is so useful turned into a much longer discussion on a much wider topic. However, despite its length, this was still just a very brief look at our answers to three of the most common questions we get asked, as owners and operators of a Chinese culture company. Of course, it could be argued that we are biased, having been here so long and running the company that we do. And that might be true. But hopefully from what we’ve written you can get an idea of some of the reasons why we have stayed here so long and why we opened Cultural Keys. 

While not intended to be in any way academic, and simply presented as our opinion on a topic we obviously hold very close, we hope something written here will spur an interest so that you find out more for yourself. The study of traditional Chinese culture offers so many benefits, no matter your reason for being interested or whether you decide to find out more in your home country or in China itself. In either case, the benefits you reap will be a question of how much time you choose to dedicate to finding out more and how deep you want to go.

We’re not here to suggest any culture, or the teachings and experiences therein, are any better than any other. Everyone has their own path and will learn their life lessons in whichever way is best and most accessible for them. For us, the founders of Cultural Keys, we found those lessons clearest in traditional Chinese culture, which is what lead to our love of China and our passion for sharing the culture with others. If by doing so, we can help people understand China better, or indeed gain any of the benefits we have listed above, then we would definitely consider it work well done.

Further Reading

Neither Cultural Keys nor the author of this article necessarily agree with all viewpoints expressed in this ‘Further Reading’ list

Enjoying Spring Festival customs with Cultural Keys

Are you interested in traditional Chinese culture? What are you most interested in experiencing? What have you already tried learning about and what benefits did you find? Do you agree with our points above? Let us know in the comments below. We always love hearing your thoughts and insights! 

Photo Credits
– Cultural Keys

I would like to thank Tristan Petts, author of
Mindfulness and Traditional Chinese Zen Arts: The Way of Calligraphy, Painting, Kung Fu, and Tea, for his inspiration and input into this article. We might not always agree, but it’s always a joy to discuss the finer points of traditional Chinese culture with you! 

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    About Cultural Keys Chinese Culture Company

    Cultural Keys helps you access, understand and enjoy life in China through traditional Chinese culture. Click here to read more about Cultural Keys and what we can do for you, your school, company or group to help you get more out of your time in China!

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