The People


China's population is the largest in the world. The resident population according to the 2000 census was 1,242,612,226. China's average annual growth rate between 1990 and 2000 was .96 per cent, which is low relative to the rates of other Asian countries. The government aimed to achieve zero population growth by the year 2000.

More than 95 per cent of the people live in China Proper, where the average population density exceeds 555 persons per square mile (217 per km 2 ). In level to rolling areas of good agricultural land, densities run far higher. The most heavily populated large areas are the Manchurian Plain, the North China Plain, the lower Yangtze Valley, and the Sichuan Basin.

Many of China's cities, especially those selected for rapid industrial development, have grown rapidly under the Communists. It is believed that as many as 30 municipalities (shihs) may have populations of more than 1,000,000. Many of them cover very very large areas—the Shanghai municipality, for example, has an area of 2,388 square miles (6,185 km 2 )—and include, in addition to the central city, small cities and towns, much farmland, and vast numbers of people living in communes. The list below gives figures for the central cities and their immediate suburbs.


Chinese, a Sino-Tibetan language, is spoken by most of the people in China. There are a large number of dialects, the chief being Cantonese, Fukienese, and Wu. The official language is the Mandarin dialect, officially called putonghua (common speech), which is understood by about 70 per cent of the people. Other languages include Tibetan, spoken in Tibet and parts of China Proper; Turkic, in Xinjiang; Mongol, in Inner Mongolia; and Thai, in parts of southern China.

Formerly, written Chinese was a classical, literary language, in which the construction and much of the vocabulary were different from those of the spoken language. This classical Chinese could be read and understood only by those trained for years in literature. The script itself consisted of thousands of characters, many of them highly complicated. The difficulty of this written Chinese was a principal obstacle to the people becoming literate.

In the 1920's pai hua, a written Chinese approximating everyday speech, began replacing the classical form; now it was possible to learn to read in a few months instead of many years. In addition, the script was simplified. Under the Communists, further steps were taken to simplify reading and writing Chinese; pai hua has replaced classical Chinese in all publications.

In the late 1970's China adopted the Pinyin System for spelling proper nouns in Roman letters; it was designed for use by foreigners and was intended to give a more accurate idea of pronunciation than earlier systems.


Fees are charged at all levels of the educational system. Elementary education lasts five or six years. Lower secondary education lasts three years; and upper secondary education, two or three years. China has an extensive adult-education program, particularly to teach literacy. About one-fifth of the population is illiterate.

China has more than 200 colleges and universities, of which about one-fourth are technical and engineering institutions. The leading institutions of higher learning include Beijing University (founded 1898), Fudan University (1905), Nanjing University (1902), and Tianjin University (1895).


After the Communists came to power in 1949 they began a policy of discouraging religious belief and of closing churches, mosques, and temples. In 1977 the government changed its policy to one of tolerance, and the constitution of 1982 guarantees freedom of religion. However, in 1999, the government outlawed the practice of a spiritual movement called Falun Gong and began arresting its members on political charges.

The religion of most Chinese is a blend of various beliefs and practices, including animism (the belief in demons and spirits) and ancestor worship. Much of the religious tradition is based on three ethical systems—Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. As practiced by the Chinese, they are religions in a limited sense, and are confined mainly to teaching a code for righteous living and fair dealing. Their teachings over the centuries have had a profound influence on Chinese customs and attitudes.

The most influential of the traditional ethical systems is Confucianism, which teaches the need for an all-inclusive morality. It especially emphasizes respect for one's parents and love for the family. Buddhism, as taught by its founder, is a way of life emphasizing freedom from desire. Buddhism is strongest in Tibet, where it is known as Lamaism. Taoism, as a philosophy, teaches of human oneness with nature and urges people to be natural and spontaneous. As practiced, Taoism is a combination of magic and ritual.

Muslims are scattered throughout China, but are found mainly in the northern and western areas. They make up about 1 to 2 per cent of the population. There are also about 3 to 4 per cent of Chinese people that practice Christianity.

Way of Life

Traditionally, the Chinese placed great emphasis on the family. The character and reputation of the individual was a reflection on the entire family. Family unity and loyalty were strong. The wife was subservient to her husband and his family. The children respected their elders and accepted marriage partners selected by their parents. The joint family, including several generations and many relatives in the same household, was considered ideal. It was headed by the eldest male. Most poor families, however, could not afford to provide the housing necessary to maintain a joint-family arrangement.

During the first half of the 20th century patterns of living underwent a considerable change as a result of Western influence and government policy. Ties among family members weakened. Many customs, such as arranged marriages, disappeared. Under the Communists, the abandonment of traditional ways was hastened. The joint family was eliminated, and women were given equal status with men. The government has a strict birth-control policy; couples who have more than one child are economically penalized, usually by receiving reduced food rations.

Clothing for both sexes consists generally of a loose cotton jacket and trousers—the traditional apparel of peasants and coolies. In the cities, Western-style suits and dresses are the fashion for many Chinese.

There is a critical housing shortage, especially in the cities. Most families live in one room. Kitchen and toilet facilities are shared by several families. In rural areas, many families still live in mud-brick huts with floors of pounded earth, but brick homes are becoming common.

Southern Chinese depend mainly upon rice as food. Millet and wheat are mainstays of the diet in the north. Soybeans and fish are the main sources of protein.

The Chinese work seven days a week, but throughout the year there are various festivals and holidays to break the routine. Traditional celebrations include New Year's in mid-winter and the Festival of the Eighth Moon in mid-autumn. Others, added by the Communists, include Labor Day, on May 1, and the anniversary of the Chinese People's Republic, on October 1.

The Arts

China's artistic tradition is one of the oldest in the world. The foundations of Chinese music were laid some 5,000 years ago, and music was highly developed by the sixth century B.C. The visual arts of China had their beginnings with jade carvings and decorated bronze vessels more than 3,000 years ago; painting with a brush was known in China 2,000 years ago. Chinese poetry dates back to about 1000 B.C. Theatrical performances—a combination of dance, song, and spoken dialogue—had royal support in the eighth century B.C. and developed into a popular form known as classical Chinese drama, or Chinese opera.

The first Oriental art works to be widely known in the West were from China. First imported into Europe in the 16th century A.D., they greatly influenced Western art. An outstanding contribution was porcelain, or china, developed by Chinese potters as early as the ninth century A.D.

A reverse influence—that of the West on Chinese culture—began to be markedly felt early in the 20th century. European musical techniques and instruments were adopted. Literature—especially fiction and poetry— showed the impact of Western concepts and forms. Realistic plays began to flourish alongside the more stylized classical ones.

After the Communist takeover in 1949, the concept of art as an end in itself was condemned and art was often judged accoerdng to its contribution to revolutionary thought. Realistic drama was used to further political aims. Traditional landscape painting gave way to paintings of mines and factories, peasants and industrial workers. Traditional sculptural forms were replaced by representations of Communist heroes and events.

The Cultural Revolution of 1966–68 set even greater limits to artistic expression. For a while all entertainment was banned. Traditional poetry and fiction were denounced. Museums and art galleries were closed, and a number of historical and artistic treasures were defaced. The years that followed saw a relaxing of restrictions. Museums were reopened and historical and artistic works were restored. Ancient writings were republished, and popular forms of entertainment were agein allowed.

Classical plays, puppet shows, acrobatic shows, and ballets are especially popular in China. Western-style music, particularly classical music and marches, is prevalent. With young people, rock music is gaining in popularity. In the years after the Cultural Revolution, China developed a new literature, called “the literature of the wounded,” dealing with the abuses of power that took place during the late 1960's and early 1970's. China has a well-developed motion picture industry that began to gain international acclaim in the late 1990's.

Many artists are trained at the Central Institute of Fine Arts, and many musicians are trained at the Conservatory of China. Both institutions are in Beijing.

Almost all inhabitants of China are of Mongoloid descent, and ethnic distinctions are largely linguistic and cultural rather than racial. The Chinese, also known as the Han or Han Chinese, make up about 92 per cent of the population. More than 50 other ethnic groups make up the remainder. The Chuang, a Thai-related people living in southern China, are the most populous ethnic minority. In Tibet, Xinjiang, and other frontier areas, minority groups outnumber the Han Chinese. Most numerous of these people are Manchus, Huis, Miaos, Uigurs (also spelled Uighurs), and Yis.