CULTURE AND ARTS 

Despite the ravages of time, war and ideology, there's still a lot to see architecturally. Traces of the past include the imperial structures of Beijing, the colonial buildings of Shanghai, the occasional rural village and Buddhist, Confucian and Taoist temples. Funerary art was already a feature of Chinese culture in Neolithic times (9000-6000 BC), ranging from ritual vessels and weapons to pottery figures, jade and sacrificial vessels made of bronze. Earthenware production is almost as ancient, with the world's first proto-porcelain being produced in China in the 6th century AD, reaching its artistic peak under the Song rulers.

Calligr aphy has traditionally been regarded as China's highest form of visual art - to the point that a person's character was judged by the elegance of their handwriting! Decorative calligraphy is found all over China, in temples and adorning the walls of caves and the sides of mountains and monuments. The basic tools of calligraphy - brush and ink - are also the tools of Chinese painting, with linework and tone the all-important components.

Chinese cuisine is justifiably famous, memorably diverse - and generally not for the squeamish. The Chinese themselves like to say they'll eat anything with four legs except a table. For the most part, however, it's a case of doing ingenious things with a limited number of basic ingredients. The cuisine can be divided into four regional categories: Beijing/Mandarin and Shandong (with steamed bread and noodles as staples), Cantonese and Chaozhou (lightly cooked meats and vegetables), Shanghainese (the home of 'red cooking' and wuxi spare ribs) and Sichuan (spicy, with lots of chilli). Tea is the most common nonalcoholic beverage on sale, although Coca-Cola (both original and bogus) is making inroads, while beer is by far the most popular alcoholic drink. 'Wine' is a loose term which can cover oxidised and herb-soaked concoctions, rice wine and wine containing lizards, bees or pickled snakes. Another favourite is maotai, a spirit made from sorghum which smells like rubbing alcohol and makes a good substitute for petrol or paint thinner.

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