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Cultural milieu


Imperial palace of China
Imperial palace of China

China is one of the great cradles of world civilization, and its culture is remarkable for its duration, diversity, and influence on other cultures, especially those of its East Asian neighbours. Following is a survey of Chinese culture; in-depth discussions of specific cultural aspects are found in the article Chinese literature and in the sections on Chinese visual arts, music, and dance and theatre of the article arts, East Asian.

Skeletal remains and stone implements date to the Paleolithic stage of cultural development, from the 29th to the 17th millennium bc. Decorated artifacts, primarily marked pottery vessels, have been found in dozens of Incipient Neolithic and Neolithic sites, dating from the 12th to the 2nd millennium bc. Chinese Neolithic pottery shapes and types are mostly classified into two families: the earlier Yangshao ware from the central Zhongshan region, characterized by geometric painted decorations, and the later Longshan ware, primarily from the Northeast but also found in the Zhongshan area. Longshan ware is unpainted and is elevated from the ground on a circular foot or tripod legs.

The Bronze Age includes the first historically verified dynasty, the Shang (c. 1600–1046 bc), and China’s first written records. The late Shang is well known from oracle bones recovered from the site of the last Shang capital, near Anyang. The bones are turtle plastrons and ox scapulae with inscribed texts, used by the Shang kings in a highly regularized system of ritual divination and sacrifice aimed at securing the support of the ruler’s deceased ancestors. Through their use, writing became linked to authority in a way that endured throughout premodern Chinese history.

During the Shang and Zhou (1046–256 bc) dynasties the art of bronze casting became highly developed. Finely cast and richly decorated pieces included cooking and serving vessels, bells, drums, weapons, and door fittings.

The written language is central to China’s culture. Scholars have identified ideographic inscriptions on pottery dating to about 4000 bc, and written Chinese has developed continuously since the late Shang period. Chinese culture is inextricably bound up with the writing system in three ways. First, writing is the medium for the preservation and dissemination of culture. Indeed, the Chinese word for culture (wenhua) means “to become literate.” Second, command of the writing system distinguishes the Chinese and their culture, seen as the centre of the world, from all non-Chinese peoples, categorized by the Chinese as “barbarians.”

Third, culture and the writing system are inseparably linked to statecraft in that a command of writing and knowledge of the written tradition were for millennia necessary and requisite skills for holding office. Thus, from the Shang dynasty oracle bones to the products of the modern printing press, culture in the form of written works has been a key instrument in the development of political thought and a tool of governance. "China" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia

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