China is undoubtedly the cradle of martial arts in the world. Practiced for health, self-defense and spiritual development, Chinese martial arts (wushu, a.k.a kung-fu) are considered an integral part of the Chinese culture. Martial, of course, but art above all, kung-fu is a real way of life which goal is to improve both the body and the spirit.
Originaly practiced by monks only, it was then used by all, warriors, people and scholars. The martial arts gradually enriched and refined, culminating in an variety of styles and techniques almost infinite. We distinguish between external practices based on attack and defense, and internal practices, such as tai chi-chuan (or taijiquan), which emphasize energy control and work in flexibility, the two being complementary.
Thus, tai chi promotes the circulation of chi (or qi, the vital energy) and stimulates the organic functions.
Kung-fu can be practiced with bare hands, sabers, sticks or any of the 180 weapons listed, if possible early in the morning. The public gardens, public squares or docks along the rivers are invaded at dawn by the silent crowd of initiates, isolated or divided into small disciplined groups. Some companies even gather their employees for a session before starting the workday!
But it should be noted that the modern practice of martial arts in China has been erased from its traditional dimension. Persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, most of the great masters were forced into exile. As a result, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the West are considered to have the most authentic kung fu in the world.
Calligraphy (shufa) is considered one of the four major artistic disciplines, with painting, poetry and music. From pictographic origin, this writing is much more than a simple way of communication: it is a painting of meaning, of ideas, that transcends words.
In Chinese language, a word can be composed of 1 to 3 characters. These words (or combinations) are 30 to 40 000 for the casual vocabulary. On the other hand, there are about 8000 characters. A Chinese person who has gone until the end of high school knows on average 3 000 characters.
Early on, children learn to memorize, pronounce and understand them. They must write thousands of lines to learn the order of features (from 1 to 30 strokes) for each character and structure. The character is divided into 214 keys which often bear meaning.
Will there be many able people to write characters in 50 years?
The computer is in the process of upsetting Chinese calligraphy. Indeed, today, the writing of Chinese is increasingly made of pinyin, the Latin transcription of its pronunciation in Mandarin. After school learning, the computer takes power and the writing of the texts is done by visual recognition within a list.
Serious intellectual and cultural magazines highlight the dangers of this method: graduates of the university find themselves unable to write by hand. Writing by hand helps in a powerful way the memorization, calligraphy most often allows a real appropriation of writing.
A noble but non-major art in China, traditional painting is inseparable from calligraphy, sigilar art (seals) and poetry. The Chinese paintings, on silk or on paper, are not framed, but unrolled between two cylinders of wood. Traditional painting does not know the perspective nor the shadows cast, and the color, developed under the Tang with the contribution of Buddhism, has only a secondary role. All the force is in the line which, as in calligraphy, can not be retouched or erased.
Traditional Chinese music is divided into two types: folk music and classical music.
In the villages, popular music is played in orchestra, usually standing and moving, to rhythm weddings, burials, sowing and other inaugurations of businesses. Very rich in percussion, this energetic music uses gongs (luo), drums and tambourines (gu), as well as polyphonic mouthpieces of bamboo (sheng).
Folk music is also used to accompany the famous lion and dragon dances. The drums are then struck to “awaken the dragon of spring”.
More subtle, the music of the scholars is both based on sobriety and refinement. One plays it almost always seated, with one instrument at a time. The most famous are the 7 or 13-string easel cithar (guqin or zheng) whose strings are plucked. One also plays the pipa, a kind of guitar with four strings that is held vertically, and flute in bamboo and jade.
Chinese gardens and parks
These miniature landscapes, an integral part of the classical arts, depict the Chinese vision of the universe, its philosophies, religious myths, social order and political symbols.
Imperial Gardens, Mandarin Gardens
Alongside these vast imperial domains, even more modest private gardens appeared as early as the third century BCE. They are inspired by the surrounding nature and serve as a retreat for the scholars.
The most beautiful and renowned gardens of Mandarins are now in the city of Suzhou, west of Shanghai. They are also listed as World Heritage Sites by Unesco. Most were designed between the 16th and 18th centuries, such as the Yu Garden in Shanghai, the Geyuan and the Heyuan in Yangzhou, and the garden of Prince Wang’s villa in Beijing.
The universe in miniature
Water, represented by a creek, a lake or a pond, is the life breath (qi) that animates and unites the Universe. The mountains, on which the immortals sit, are represented by hills, rockeries or erected stones sculpted by waves and currents. The plants, on the other hand, mark the cycle of the seasons by their flowering and their changes of colors. They are charged with symbolic meanings.