Calligraphy has traditionally been regarded as China's highest form of visual art - to the point that a person's character was judged by the elegance of their handwriting! Decorative calligraphy is found all over China, in temples and adorning the walls of caves and the sides of mountains and monuments. The basic tools of calligraphy - brush and ink - are also the tools of Chinese painting, with linework and tone the all-important components.
Despite the ravages of time, war and ideology, there's still a lot to see architecturally. Traces of the past include the imperial structures of Beijing, the colonial buildings of Shanghai, the occasional rural village and Buddhist, Confucian and Taoist temples. Funerary art was already a feature of Chinese culture in Neolithic times (9000-6000 BC), ranging from ritual vessels and weapons to pottery figures, jade and sacrificial vessels made of bronze. Earthenware production is almost as ancient, with the world's first proto-porcelain being produced in China in the 6th century AD, reaching its artistic peak under the Song rulers.
China's language is officially Mandarin, as spoken in Beijing. The Chinese call it Putonghua. About 70% of the population speak Mandarin, but that's just the tip of the lingusitic iceberg. The country is awash with dialects, and dialects within dialects - and few of them are mutually intelligible. Of the seven major strains, Cantonese is the one most likely to be spoken in your local Chinese takeaway. It's the lingua franca of Guangdong, southern Guangxi, Hong Kong and (to an extent) Macau.
China's literary heritage is huge, but unfortunately its untranslatability makes much of it inaccessible to Western readers. Traditionally there are two forms, the classical (largely Confucian) and the vernacular (such as the prose epics of the Ming dynasty). Chinese theatre is also known as opera because of the important role played by music, and has spawned such diverse arts as acrobatics, martial arts and stylised dance. Many Western film-lovers are fans of Chinese cinema, with releases enjoying success at film festivals and art-house cinemas. Recently there has been an emergence of talented 'fifth-generation' post-Cultural Revolution directors, including Zhang Yimou (Red Sorghum, Chen Kaige (Farewell, My Concubine), Wu Ziniu and Tian Zhuangzhuang. Add to them Hong Kong's East-meets-West action directors John Woo (Hard Boiled) and Ringo Lam (Full Contact) and you have a full-fledged, extremely successful film industry.
Chinese cuisine is justifiably famous, memorably diverse - and generally not for the squeamish. The Chinese themselves like to say they'll eat anything with four legs except a table. For the most part, however, it's a case of doing ingenious things with a limited number of basic ingredients. The cuisine can be divided into four regional categories: Beijing/Mandarin and Shandong (with steamed bread and noodles as staples), Cantonese and Chaozhou (lightly cooked meats and vegetables), Shanghainese (the home of 'red cooking' and wuxi spare ribs) and Sichuan (spicy, with lots of chilli). Tea is the most common nonalcoholic beverage on sale, although Coca-Cola (both original and bogus) is making inroads, while beer is by far the most popular alcoholic drink. 'Wine' is a loose term which can cover oxidised and herb-soaked concoctions, rice wine and wine containing lizards, bees or pickled snakes. Another favourite is maotai, a spirit made from sorghum which smells like rubbing alcohol and makes a good substitute for petrol or paint thinner