Article: Common misconceptions about Ancient China

So I thought I’d post about this here, because there’s a bunch of clichés floating around about Ancient China that are not exactly true, or at least not in the way you think. By order of growing annoyance:

-All Chinese practised special brands of martial arts: er, ok. While martial arts are pretty old (Shaolin Monastery, for instance, was founded in the 5th Century), martial arts have always been viewed with suspicion, and it’s only recently that they’ve become mainstream. The dominant and mainstream culture of Ancient China was Confucianism as practised by scholars, and this frowned upon sports (which were viewed as risky and unbecoming of an apprentice scholar, who had better things to do than rub in the dirt–such as learning the Classics by heart). To a lesser extent, diehard Confucianists also frowned upon religion, especially the excesses they engendered: both Daoism and Buddhism promote setting aside the world, and this didn’t sit well with a culture that valued ancestral worship and promoted family ties. Shaolin monastery, and many other places where martial arts were practised, were the target of several government purges because they were suspected of harbouring dissidents. So, if you have a martial arts practioner, chances are the authorities will not be looking kindly on them (nor his neighbours, if they’re scholars).

-All Chinese had pigtails: that one is a bit of a sore spot. When the Manchu invaded China in the 17th Century to found their own dynasty, they forced all Chinese to wear pigtails as a means of differentiating between Chinese and Manchus. The pigtail was a humiliation: before that, the Chinese wore their hair in buns.

-China has always been ruled by the Han Chinese: or not. It’s been more a “Chinese rule, mongol rule” for a long time: the Song dynasty (960–1127, 1127–1279) held only part of China, and co-existed with the Liao and the Jin dynasty, neither of which were ethnic Han, the Yuan (1271–1368) were Mongols (Gengis Khan founded the dynasty), the Ming (1368–1644) were Chinese (but pretty closed to external commerce as a backlash to the previous invasion), and the Qing (1644-1911), the last imperial Chinese dynasty, was founded by the Manchu, who have much more in common with the Mongols than with the Chinese (at the beginning. They adapted pretty well afterwards, though they never did get the hang of customs like bound feet).

-Chinese porcelain is pretty blue designs on white porcelain: ironically, this kind of design was way more successful abroad (both in Islamic and in European countries) than it ever was in China. Chinese ideas of beautiful porcelain is more celadon, or other techniques that produce a glaze without deliberate motifs.

-White is the mourning colour and very unlucky. Yes and no. White is the mourning colour, and is worn at funerals, associated with ghosts, etc. But strictly speaking, the colour this is referring to is su, which is that of unbleached hemp–a sort of brownish-yellowish pale colour, rather than pure white. Hemp was worn as mourning clothes because it’s uncomfortable as much as for the colour. Also, while some things associated with white are unlucky (wearing white in one’s hair, for instance), white has associations with virginity, purity and the unknown. You thus find a lot of references to white in Daoism.

-Chinese culture didn’t change for millennia: That’s about as rational as saying that French Gaul and France today are the same. There have been some pretty big upheavals (Mongol invasions, see above), but even then, the culture changed a lot. The traditions evolved: during the Han dynasties (3rd century BC-3rd Century AD), China didn’t know Buddhism, and even Daoism was still developing its ideologies. The flamboyant princesses of the Tang dynasty have very little in common with the Qing dynasty women, cloistered in their apartments and with very few rights of their own. Also, China is huge, and different regions have wholly different histories: the area around Beijing doesn’t have much in common with that around Guangzhou, climate-wise, food-wise, culture-wise…


  1. White is certainly an unlucky color for weddings; most will be covered with red instead.

    Another misconception is religion. There’s Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism (which isn’t really a religion, but is adhered to so strongly to this day that it might as well be), and lots and lots of varied folk religions that differ by region. While it takes a simple Google search to differentiate between them all, many Western writers conflate different parts of these religions into some bizarre concatenation that doesn’t even exist.

  2. Definitely (weddings in Vietnam are the same, insofar as I know). Red is a better colour for luck anyway; white has lots of uncomfy associations which I didn’t mention (old age). Though, amusingly, there was one dynasty (I think the Shang or the Han), where people who hadn’t been appointed to official posts yet wore white. I’m guessing it was before funerals were formalised.
    I totally agree with you on religion (it’s staggering the number of people who mistake Confucianism for a religion, though). Mishmashes are always a bit startling. I can guess where they’re coming from, though–at least for Ancient China (I can’t speak for modern Chinese culture), you don’t find much differentiation between religious beliefs. One can be a Daoist and a Buddhist and a Confucianist, and it’s not contradictory, at least not in the same way that being a Protestant and a Muslim at the same time would be. From there, if you don’t know the belief systems well enough, I guess it’s easy to be mistaken that they all stem from the same source (not that it’s a good thing to do. It’s still annoying).

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