China, a country of superlatives, most populous of nations, hidden for so long, is now emerging onto the world travel scene. From frozen north to tropical south, modern east to wild west, this is a huge, diverse land just waiting to be explored. It abounds in magnificent sights – some are natural like the mystical limestone peaks of Guangxi, while others are manmade testaments to the power and glory of China’s past, such as the Forbidden City. Some are a combination of the two such as the Great Wall or the impossibly steep Longji rice-terraces, where man has ruthlessly crowned nature’s achievements.
Speaking of population, in 2 AD China’s population was estimated at nearly 58 million by the world's first large-scale census. In spite of famine, plague, epic natural disasters and mass exodus, the population has grown steadily since then and today stands at over 1.3 billion people, making it the world’ s most populous nation. In spite of a quarter-century of the one-child policy, it looks as if it will maintain pole position until at least the middle of the century, when India may take the lead.
Still predominantly rural, China's massive population, though principally Han Chinese (who make up 93% of China's population today), is actually comprised of some 56 different ethnic groups ranging from Central Asian horsemen such as Kazakhs in the northwest, more akin to Turks than Chinese, to the hill tribe peoples of the southwest. With such diverse people and regions comes an incredible variety of food, making China one of the world’s great culinary centers – from ultra-fresh Cantonese to fiery Szechuan, or Mongolian hotpot to Beijing duck.
From a visitor's perspective, the principal areas of interest in China include the great cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, the Terracotta Warriors near Xi’an, the Yangzi River’s Three Gorges and the majestic rural scenery around Guilin in Guangxi Province. A few other choice sights close to these cities are the imperial retreat at Chengde near Beijing and the picturesque cities of Suzhou and Hangzhou close to Shanghai, while the freshly painted mountain scenery of Huangshan adds a little rural flavor to this highly developed part of the country. Yangshuo near Guilin makes for a lower-key introduction to this idyllic rural area and is a great place to try your hand at Chinese calligraphy or tai chi, and Longji up in the hills is unmissable for its rice terraces. Proceeding south, Guangzhou and Shenzhen offer many visitors their first taste of mainland China while, nestled on the western side of the Pearl River Delta, Macau is definitely worth the short boat ride from Hong Kong.
In religion, China’s history is steeped in overlapping belief and philosophy. Starting with animist worship, religion developed through Taoism and Confucianism, the latter of which, with its hierarchical code of moral values, was more a philosophy than a religion. Outside influence brought Buddhism to the country and together these three belief systems are the foundation of religion in China – known as The Three Teachings. With the onset of communism, socialism was the new doctrine; religion in all its forms was suppressed and only practiced secretly. In the last 20 years, however, religion has reemerged, albeit in party-approved form and far from free. Indeed, several religious groups are outlawed in China, such as Falun Gong (meaning Wheel of Life, a quasi-Buddhist order) , but they flourish in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The Three Teachings remain the most prominent beliefs in modern China, although some would argue they come second to capitalism, albeit with socialist characteristics!
Politically, the People's Republic of China remains a single-party communist state.
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