It seems as though whenever I read about China in the news, its in the context of “look at the weird shit that happens in that country.” Clearly there’s infinitely more to China than ghost towns or massive traffic jams or the airpocalypse. Or cheap labor or uncomfortably unusual local delicacies like urine-soaked boiled eggs (THIS IS NOT A THING IN LIKE 99 PERCENT OF THE COUNTRY) … the list could go on. So in defiance of this trend, I present my very own listicle of 10 random yet amazingly interesting facts about the Middle Kingdom.
10. China will (maybe) have the world’s largest Christian population by 2030
China’s ruling Communist Party may be an atheist organization, but that doesn’t mean religion has no place in the lives of the average Chinese person.
Although the Communist Party expects active – and even retired – party members to abstain from religious activities, its constitution protects what it calls “normal religious activity” for Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims (with some restrictions), Chinese Catholics (which is separate from the Roman Catholic Church) and Protestants (officially the “Three-Self Patriotic Movement”) who are members of state-approved religious organizations.
On mainland China most people follow some version of Buddhism, Taoism or a local folk religion, if they follow anything at all. But Christian churches have been flooded with new members since the 1970’s; the number of Chinese Protestants alone has risen 10 percent each year since 1979. The country even has its own mega-church celebrities. And while Christians currently only make up five percent of China’s population, that still amounts to a substantial 67 million people. Some analysts have suggested the number could be higher, since available statistics rely on reports primarily from state-sanctioned churches and do not include information from underground house churches.
Partially as a side effect of what the Center for Foreign Relations calls a “spiritual vacuum” resulting from China’s quick – and competitive – economic growth, social scientists seem to think Christianity will continue to attract new followers in the world’s most populated country. One highly-publicized prediction from a Purdue University professor determined that, if membership rates keep up, China could have the world’s largest population of Christians by 2030 (160 million versus 159 million in the United States).
9. China’s “elderly rights” law makes it illegal for people to neglect their parents
Filial reverence and responsibility is a virtue that has been stressed in traditional Chinese culture for centuries. But as of 2013, that virtue has been intertwined with the law of the land.
According to Chapter II of a Chinese law called the “Protection of the Rights and Interests of Elderly People,” family members – with an emphasis on sons and daughters – are legally required to provide financial support and comfort to their elderly parents (here defined as 60 years old or above). Healthcare, housing, maintenance support (“The supporters have the duty to help farm the land the elderly contract to farm, and take care of the trees and livestock contacted or owned by the elderly, but the earnings there from shall go to the elderly”), comfort and “attention to special needs” must be covered by family members of the elderly.
Family members must also respect the autonomy of the elderly; the law specifically states that older people should have control of their property rights and forbids children from interfering in decisions regarding marriage or post-marriage life.
The idea of “filial piety” is still commonly idealized in Chinese culture. As the New York Times mentioned, Chinese media likes to publish feel-good articles featuring examples of that reverence, such as the story of one young Chinese man who pushed his disabled mother in a wheelchair for 93 days so she could visit a popular tourist destination.
8. China gave us “Panda Diplomacy”
Everyone loves beautiful, wide-eyed, squishy-looking pandas ( xióngmāo), and the Chinese government must know it. Because after decades of gifting pandas to various nations in shows of diplomatic friendliness that has come to be known as Panda Diplomacy (seriously), the nation’s leaders decided to reverse course and make a profit from their adorable commodity.
In the 1980’s China announced it would offer 10-year leases on pandas to foreign zoos (in many cases at least a portion of the fee is donated to wild panda conservation efforts). The loan terms state any cubs born during the loan are automatically the property of the Chinese government.
Fun fact: “Panda Diplomacy” has been a thing since the 7th century, when Empress Wu Zetian first gifted a set of pandas to Japan. And speaking of that…
7. Empress Wu Zetian was China’s only female sovereign ruler
The only women cut-throat enough to usurp the living Chinese emperor and then establish an imperial dynasty in her own right has been fantastically described by one writer as the “Chinese Cersei Lannister.”
But as the adage goes, the truth is often stranger than fiction. And unlike Cersei, the real-life Wu Zetian actually managed to seize a throne held by a weak male ruler to spearhead a five-decade grip on power. Her reign – alternatively as regent, dowager empress and finally as the sovereign herself – was generally peaceful and defined by a loosening of restrictions and tax burdens on peasants, the cultural elevation of women and the expansion of China’s borders.
Okay, she did a lot of crazy shit too.
Wu Zetian’s rise to power could fill the plot of at least one season of an HBO drama. Born during the Tang Dynasty, highly-educated Wu became a concubine (of course) to the Tang Emperor Taizong when she was fourteen… only to become his son’s concubine as well following Taizong’s death. Long story short, Wu became the son’s – now the Gaozong Emperor – “favorite” concubine, bore his children, accused his empress of murdering a baby, and then rose through the resulting chaos to become empress herself. Some stories suggest Wu ordered that the former empress’ hands and feet be cut off, and then her body submerged in a vat a wine so she would drown to death.
Within five years the Gaozong Emperor – surprise! – had a debilitating stroke and Empress Wu Zetian began to rule in his place as regent. She created what may have been the world’s first secret police organization to spy on and sometimes brutally kill her enemies and political opponents.
But in her version of “fuck the patriarchy” Wu Zetian also decided to use her power to (sort of) elevate the position of women. She commissioned the written biographies of famous and heroic women, declared that future emperors would be descended from the maternal line and separated from the Tang to create her own dynasty – the Zhou Dynasty. She was the only member of the “new” Zhou (she took the name from an ancient Chinese line of rulers) but that’s still something. Wu’s reign is also credited with investing in public works, expanding agricultural production and encouraging the practice of Buddhism.
Wu, however, isn’t really a celebrated figure in Chinese culture. In fact she’s often characterized as nothing more than a murderer (which may have been true) and tyrant. This could be because Wu’s rise and rule as Emperor of China offended the sensibilities of the era’s gender-biased Confucian establishment, according to the Smithsonian Magazine article “The Demonization of Empress Wu.”
“Explaining why the empress was so reviled … means acknowledging the double standard that existed–and still exists–when it comes to assessing male and female rulers. Wu probably did dispose of several members of her own family, and she ordered the deaths of a number of probably innocent ministers and bureaucrats,” the article argues. “None of these actions, though, would have attracted criticism had she been a man.”
And don’t forget. Wu Zetian also started Panda Diplomacy (see previous entry).
6. Tibetans have a genetic mutation inherited from ancient humans
Tibetans often live at elevations of at least 4,000 meters above sea level, a height that would make it difficult to breathe, think and function for most people.
It turns out that indigenous Tibetans, who have been living in extremely high altitudes for about 10,000 years, have inherited a gene variant from ancient humans that helped them adapt to their environment. According to Science Magazine, this “super athlete” gene comes from a people known as Denisovans who went extinct approximately 40,000 years ago.
While some other high-altitude dwellers adapted to their regions by producing more hemoglobin (which contains oxygen) in their blood, Tibetans have adapted to do the exact opposite: They have less hemoglobin in their blood. This trait, in addition to forcing their bodies to use oxygen more efficiently, also helps Tibetans avoid problems typically caused by an overabundance of hemoglobin, such as blood clots and strokes. Although uncommon, about 1 percent of China’s majority Han ethnicity may have the same high-altitude gene.
So don’t feel bad if you ever suffer from altitude sickness. You just don’t have the right gene.
Stay tuned for numbers 1-5 in part 2.