Culture, history, and things to do in China

Exploring History & Culture in China

Jonathon Engles|June 18, 2018|Blog Post

China is home to some of the oldest cultures in the world, and its rich history is a deep well from which to draw.

Chinese farmers have been growing grains and domesticating animals for over 7,000 years now. Artisans have been making distinctive pottery, baskets, and woven hemp cloth for nearly as long. The wheel was actually invented in China, as were paper, gunpowder, compasses, and alcohol. The umbrella. Silk. Cultivated tea. Porcelain. Bronze. The kite. The list goes on…

Today, China’s ancient history exists along its borders, in royal tombs, and within its sacred religious temples. Many of its early civilizations still persist today, and many of its oldest customs and traditions are still practiced. Its bustling cities offer a mixture of cutting-edge 21st-century technology rising amongst the longstanding hutongs and decades of Maoist monuments.

Zegrahm’s 14-day Legendary China expedition offers a unique opportunity to explore history and culture in China, visiting six different regions of the country. Here’s a look at some of the many ancient attractions, indigenous cultures, and local landmarks you’ll have a chance to visit along the way.


Chinese culture really began to advance around 2,000 BCE with the discovery of bronze. With it, the Chinese were able to make strong weapons, which led to more warfare.

Due to the increased fighting, settlements were reinforced with protective walls, and wealth and class became more established. Ruling dynasties were established, and China began its long march to modern times. En route, many wonderful treasures were created:

The Great Wall of China

The Great Wall is one of the largest and longest construction projects ever undertaken, beginning in 3rd century BC as a venture of the first emperor of a unified China. It was originally built for protection from northern nomadic tribes. Over time, it morphed and extended for different strategic reasons. Though the wall was originally built over 2000 years ago, the majority of what stands today is the work done to it during the Ming Dynasty, between 1368 and 1644.

Terra Cotta Warriors

The world-renowned Terra Cotta Warriors are a feature of the tomb of Qin Shi Huang Di, the same emperor who started construction of the Great Wall. His tomb is filled with models of palaces and other buildings, as well as many precious artifacts. However, the large Terra Cotta army (including horse-drawn chariots and real weapons) gets the most press. Over 700,000 workers constructed the mausoleum, which has an estimated 8,000 clay figures. The warriors were discovered in 1974 by laborers digging a well.

Three Pagodas

The Three Pagodas, located near the town of Dali in southern China, date back to the 9th and 10th century. They’re constructed of brick, plastered with white mud, and arranged as the corners of an equilateral triangle. The main pagoda— Qianxun— is over 200 feet high and 16 stories, each with a white marble Buddha statue. The other two, built about a century later, are about 140 feet tall. According to local legend, the Three Pagodas were originally erected to ward off dragons from nearby swamps.


China’s capital has over 3,000 years of history and was regarded as significant long before China was united. It historically functioned as a strategic military base and center of trade.

Even Marco Polo, perhaps history’s most famous traveler, doted on the city as “incommensurable.” Though it has had several names, it became known as Beijing during the Ming Dynasty. Today it remains a city deeply steeped in history, including these highlights:

The Forbidden City

The Forbidden City was the political center of China for over 500 years, from the Ming Dynasty into the 20th century, when the country’s last emperor was expelled. The site has since been treated as a palace museum, receiving around 80,000 visitors a day. The Forbidden City was laid out in reference to Confucian astrological order, and set up for ceremonies and important rituals. The city has nearly 100 buildings and is surrounded by a moat that sometimes measures 150 feet across.

Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen Square, though most recognized for the pro-democracy protest and massacre in 1989, holds more historical significance in China. Outside the “Gate of Heavenly Peace,” Tiananmen Square marked the entrance to the Forbidden City. On National Day– October 1, 1949– over a million people attended an event in the square to celebrate the establishment of The People’s Republic of China. It has since grown to include government buildings and museums, and is considered the largest open-air square in the world.


Hutongs are narrow alleys lined by courtyard homes. Though the word comes from Mongolian origins (meaning “water well”), it is now commonly used for neighborhoods of alleys and courtyards. Beijing is particularly renowned for its hutongs, which are said to represent the essence of the city’s true culture. They are often comprised of winding streets with plenty of shops and eateries, as well as lots of anecdotal history.

 Culture, history, and things to do in China


For all the grandiosity of Beijing’s political prowess, Shanghai is more known as China’s progressive and cutting-edge city. It began as a small trading village thousands of years ago, and grew into a city during the Qing Dynasty in the 18th and 19th century.

It’s now a global financial center and trading hub populated with over 24 million residents. Due to its seaside location in the delta of the Yangtze River, Shanghai had plenty of international attention (particularly from the British) through its formative years.

Though the city’s history may not go as deep as Beijing’s, Shanghai has a fascinating past and offers plenty to see:

Yu Gardens and Bazaar

Yu Gardens and Bazaar is the tourist spot– both for foreign visitors and the Chinese– in Shanghai. It’s part of Old Town Shanghai, with plenty of antique shops and classic architecture. The Yu (short for Yuyuan) Garden is said to be over 400 years old, dating back to the Ming Dynasty. With lots of sculptures, pools, pagodas, and carvings within, the Yu Garden is also surrounded by a bustling bazaar, a great place for local snacks and souvenirs. It’s also adjacent to the Temple of the City Gods.

The Bund

The Bund refers to the waterfront promenade and wharves of Shanghai, which stretch about a mile along the Huangpu River. This area is wrought with historical buildings, including a bevy of international trading houses and consulates. Initially a British settlement north of the walled city of Shanghai, it’s now the center of commerce in East Asia. From it, there’s a great juxtaposition of old and new development (as well as urban and natural forms) to appreciate.

The Former French Concession

The Former French Concession is an area once conceded to and developed by the French. The area was given up during World War II. Despite some unregulated development in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it remains architecturally and culturally distinctive in the city and a truly beautiful historical attraction. It’s a large area– over five miles wide– with highlights including Wukang Lu and Wulumuqi Rd., which are both replete with cool cafes and artsy shops.

Culture, history, and things to do in China


The blanket term of “Chinese,” while unifying, fails to capture the diversity of this enormous nation, which was proudly built by the congealing of many indigenous cultures.

Though the Han people make up around 90% of China’s population, over 50 ethnic minority groups still remain in the country today, each with their own distinct customs and some with millions of representatives. To miss this fact is to leave out a huge part of what China is: a cultural melting pot all its own.

Here are a few of the noteworthy indigenous cultures in China:

The Hui People

The Hui have a population of nearly 10 million and are the most widely dispersed minority group in China. However, concentrated Hui communities can be found in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in Northwest China, as well as within many cities in nearby provinces. They originally migrated to China following invasions by Mongols in the 13th century, and are predominantly Muslim.

The Yi People

The Yi people number around eight million, most of whom are settled in the mountainous regions of Sichuan, Guizhou, and Yunnan. They have their own language, which is related to certain Tibetan-Cambodian dialects. They enjoy sour, spicy flavors, with staple foods like buckwheat, potatoes, corn, and typical domesticated meats. The Yi of Yunnan have a curious tradition, Tiaocai, which entails dancing while serving food to seated guests.

The Bai People

The population of Bai people (who are descendants of the ancient Ji people) has dwindled to under 200,000 in recent years, but they are spread across several provinces. They have unique traditional clothing, with many bright colors and symbols. Pork is a huge part of their diet, as are vegetables, pickles, and tea, which is prepared in an elaborate ritual. Bai homes are attached to many traditional beliefs and practices, such as fireplaces being considered sacred. 


China has many cultural practices for keeping the mind and the body healthy. Martial arts feature largely within the country, as does religion and philosophy. Some would say the soul of Chinese culture is derived from its attentiveness to the mental consciousness, combined with a concerned approach to natural medicine and physical exercise.

Tai Chi

Tai Chi is a type of Kung Fu, a collection of fighting styles developed over the course of China’s extensive past. It is affiliated with Taoism, and is commonly used as a form of exercise. This method of Kung Fu relies on accumulated strength for attacking and defending action with inaction. Tai Chi is known to be a uniquely slow and elegant martial art. Other popular styles of Kung Fu are Shaolin, Wudang, and Qigong.


 Culture, history, and things to do in China

Buddhism is a huge part of Chinese culture, playing a role in its art, politics, medicine, and many other aspects of lifestyle. Monasteries are a common sight in China, both in the countryside and in urban areas. Though legend has it that Buddhism has been in China since BCE times, most experts place its arrival in the first century CE via missionaries from India. Whatever the case, it has remained firmly embedded in Chinese culture ever since.


Confucianism is actually not a religion, but merely a philosophical system of ethics. This was the social ideology of the early Chinese feudal systems, and has shaped many prototypical Chinese thought patterns and educational practices. The system was developed by Confucius, a noble thinker from fifth century BCE. He was a big believer in educating everyone, regardless of social classification.

 Culture, history, and things to do in China


Of course, historical accounts paint an incomplete picture of a destination without a look at its natural attractions. Though its technology and manufacturing industries may get more press, there are also plenty of things to do in China for nature lovers.

From mountains that reach high above the clouds to deep gorges in the earth, the landscapes in China can get a bit extreme. Many are stunningly beautiful as well, particularly those with water features and stone formations.

Kunming’s Stone Forests

 Culture, history, and things to do in China

Kunming’s stone forests date back some 270 million years. The large rock formations consist of limestone that has been shaped by wind and water erosions over millennia. The stone forests are often accompanied by many caves and waterfalls. Much of this area (nearly 150 square miles), which is part of the South China Karst, has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Puduaco National Park

Pudacuo National Park is part of yet another UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site, the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan. Pudacuo features two stunning lakes, Shudu and Bita, as well as beautiful pasture land. The ecosystem is full of unique flora and sits at over 11,500 feet above sea level. It is renowned for being pristine and has remained largely unblemished for centuries.

Jiuzhaigou Valley National Park

 Culture, history, and things to do in China

Jiuzhaigou Valley National Park is another site in China’s extensive UNESCO collection. It’s a stunning valley, with nine villages dotted amongst old forests, ridiculously blue lakes and pools (114 in total), and earth-shattering waterfalls. While any time of year is a good one to visit the park, it is particularly beloved in fall due to the vivid colors of changing foliage. –Jonathon Engels

BIO: Jonathon Engels is a traveler, writer, and vegan gardener. Born and raised in Louisiana, he has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in between. His interests include permaculture, cooking, and music. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.

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