Tai Chi is practiced in English tea gardens. Mah-jong tiles are clunked-down on Las Vegas casino tables. Shaolin Kung Fu is taught in Bolivian martial arts schools.
It seems China’s unique cultural traditions have spread the world over. But have they all? Let’s take a look at some obscure Chinese customs that, for one reason or another, have yet to make the leap to universal popularity.
Ever since Eastern Jin scrawler Wang Xi Zhi scribbled the seminal Lan Ting Xu (the prelude of the Orchard Pavilion) in 353 AD, the Chinese have considered calligraphy the highest art form and a possible bridge to personal enlightenment. “The way to elevate one’s spirits starts from the holding of the brush,” taught master Liu Shi Zai.
Now aspiring scribes are seeking sagacity in a new way. They have abandoned the strokes and squiggles of Chinese characters for the dots and dashes of a different dialect. Now goateed Chinese scholars sip green tea, play Mah-jong, and pen – in English!
“It’s important to have beautiful English handwriting” states Lu Yan Ni, a student of Xian International Studies University. She participates in the university’s annual English handwriting competition every year.
However, travelers who fancy their penmanship need first take note; the competition isn’t open to foreigners.
Holistic Hot Water
While western new age healers preach the benefits of acupuncture and moxibustion, bona fide Chinese doctors don’t dabble in such arcane practices. They know the true secret to the Han’s legendary longevity: drinking hot water.
Hot water is the real cornerstone of Chinese medicine. Don’t be surprised when your request for tried and trusted pharmaceuticals is met by your local doc with a scoff and a flask of the good stuff. Over here, it’s perfectly normal for a person suffering from a sensitive stomach to be treated with 98 degree water. Occasionally, things may be added to the water, but it’s generally taken on its own.
In the center of every Chinese mega-tropolis is a park. Inside that park, weaving through jade conifers and eaved pagodas, is a narrow footpath. And on that footpath are Chinese seniors, shuffling backwards.
To the uninformed, it appears these oldsters are trying to ‘step back in time’ to their youth. Actually, they’re balancing their qi, or ‘life energy’. Two hours of walking backwards each morning offsets eight hours of walking forwards each day.
Perhaps the concept could be applied to Beijing Games’ track events. Seeing 100 meter sprint participants run the last 20 meters backwards would be mighty amusing.
Lots of Sweeping
Travelers voyaging from the Tibet’s lofty peaks to Beijing’s smoggy sprawl could be forgiven for thinking they have crossed several different countries. However, despite the canyon-wide cultural differences between China’s diverse peoples, there is actually some common ground binding them all together. An obsession with clean floors.
The fixation began in the fabled age of sage-emperors Yao and Shun, around 5,000 years ago. Since then, specks of superstition have piled into the jumble of taboos, myths and rituals surrounding sweeping that abound today.
Sweeping should be done in an inward direction, lest fortune escape. One must not sweep on Chinese New Year’s. After New Year’s, dirt must be swept out the back door. If it is swept over the threshold, a family member will be swept away. On Tomb Sweeping Day, the graves of ancestors must be swept clean.
Sweep, sweep, sweep. The Chinese are broom bonkers.
So much so that in 2005 Taiwanese broom buffs bestowed an ‘Award of Excellence’ on a pair of floor sweeping flip-flops and sidewalks in Xian, Shanxi province, are mopped by hand.
From the tentative displays of Shang dynasty serfs to two-year-old Emperor Puyi’s royal runs, dropping one’s drawers in public has been a mainstay of Chinese culture since its genesis six thousand years ago.
The custom begins at infancy. Toddlers are accoutered with crotch less pants and allowed free reign to drop dim sum sized deposits anywhere they please. Participation is mandatory. ‘Street shy’ youths are held over bins with their ankles pulled to their ears until a trickle ensures.
By adulthood, pooping has soared to ostentatious heights. The Chinese use toilet time to showcase special talents. Women demonstrate their ability to prepare food in unsanitary conditions and men their mastery of chain smoking. An estimated 1.7 trillion cigarettes are huffed in China every year and male restrooms see their fair share of butts of both varieties.
Unfortunately, so do travelers. The exhibitionist displays of squatting Chinese have left Westerners feeling squeamish since Marco Polo’s time. Few foreigners can forget their first bathroom burlesque experience, although many have tried.
As you can see, there are still many undiscovered gems hidden in the rich strata of Chinese culture. Thankfully, the more off-color examples remain confined to Chinese soil.
Written by Greg Foyster.
Bio: Greg Foyster has worked as a copywriter, a travel writer, and according to his clairvoyant, a Tudor court jester. He currently lives in Xian, China. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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