Obscure Facts About China Everyone Needs to Know

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China is a vast country, and with the diversity of landscapes and historical traditions there is much to discover. Some of these insights may completely change your perspective on the Eastern world, modern and ancient. Here we share 10 new must know facts about the Middle Kingdom, from the origin of sauerkraut, to Caucasians native to China, to the mystery of an ancient plague…

10. Sauerkraut is Chinese Food

It may shock people to learn that one of the most quintessential delicacies of German cuisine, sauerkraut, is actually a traditional Chinese food that was brought to Europe, where it became popular. Sauerkraut, which means “sour cabbage” in German, was a popular food that formed part of the staple diet for workers constructing China’s Great Wall more than 2,000 years back. Chinese sour cabbage, as originally made, consisted of cabbage cut into shreds and then fermented in rice wine.

Various theories on the exact nature and circumstances of sauerkraut’s trip to Europe have been put forward. Being taken to Europe by Genghis Khan after conquests in China is a leading suggestion, while others have identified the Tartars as the purveyors of sauerkraut from China to Eastern Europe. This would have set it up for its journey to Germany and lands yet further west. Changes in Germany consisted of dry curing of cabbage with salt in lieu of the Chinese wine, while water from the cabbage made the juice in which the cabbage is stored.

9. Chinese People are Diverse

China’s Han people are the single largest ethnic group on the planet. Let that fascinating fact sink in for a moment: one tribe has become the world’s largest single group. Yet this group that we think of when we think of China’s population is not synonymous with Chinese nationality. It is one ethnic group making up 93 percent of China, but other Chinese people, forming the remaining 7 percent of China’s population range from Korean ethnic origin to Pamiri, who are Indo-European. Yes, there are even natural blondes in China.

China has, at the time of writing, 1,220,844,520 Han, 16,926,381 Zhuang, and 10,586,087 Hui, these forming the three largest ethnic groups in China. But the diversity of ethnic groups when all of the other minority groups are considered is incredible. China has recognized 55 ethnic minorities that exist apart from the Han majority. In their entirety, the total population of all of the ethnic minority groups put together was 8.49% of the population according to a 2010 data covering mainland China.

8. Ke-tsiap

It is beginning to look like a theme. Many items common in modern Western culture have a historic, often Asian origin. Take ketchup, for example, ubiquitous in British Fish and Chip Shops and the German-American culinary classic, the hamburger. Ketchup is actually an evolution of an Asian sauce that made its way to England back in the day. It changed a lot, most significantly with the addition of tomatoes. The name ketchup has it’s etymology in the southern Chinese name ke-tsiap, which means pickled fish sauce.

Used to add flavor while a dish was being prepared, rather than served on the side as a condiment, ke-tsiap is thought to have Vietnamese origins further back but really taking off when it was brought into the cuisine of southeast China, where it became a staple addition to popular dishes. Arriving in Malaysia and Indonesia, adoption by the English was inevitable. English sailors loved it and took it back to Britain. Changes and experiments ensued, until it came to the United States. Sandy Addison recommended tomatoes for a ketchup recipe in The Sugar House Book and from there a classic was born. When the Food and Drug Administration prohibited sodium benzoate addition, older tomatoes were substituted and sugar and vinegar was included, making for a modern ketchup.

7. The Strangest Mass Burial

The outbreak of Covid-19 is putting China on the world stage, and not for a good reason, yet its origins seem obvious. Zoonoses, or disease transmissions from animals to humans as novel viruses, come from consumption or handling of novel wildlife. Yet the finding of a gruesome mass death site in ancient China raises many more questions and may never be solved. A total of 97 bodies of varying ages and genders, reduced by the passage of time to mere skeletons, were found literally jammed into the space of one house, dating 5,000 years in the past.

This place is in the boundaries of what is now called Hamin Mangha. What kind of outbreak or other disaster could have done this? A bacteria? A virus? These kind of terrible ancient findings emphasize the importance of maintaining good hygiene and discipline in rigorous disease control and outbreak mitigation measures. It is worth noting that Chinese culture has traditionally highlighted the importance of good hygiene.

6. Northern China’s Cave Homes

Northern China’s loess landscapes are among the most interesting places in China. Not only do these lands hold some of the great mysteries of the ancient world, they also continue to be home to modern cave dwellings that serve admirably as homes. Economical to construct in terrain characterized by much loess, or compact, yellow earth, yaodong (house cave) dwellings range from the simple to the ornate and define a way of life for approximately 35 million Chinese citizens.

With a history originating in the Stone Age, the little-known dwellings have the advantage of keeping people warm in the winter and providing summer cooling. This design with nature trend has continued for thousands of years to make great use of the natural surroundings and is considered sustainable. Two principle forms of yaodong exist. These are cliff dwellings, which are carved into the side of a cliff to form a cave home, and pit dwellings, which consist of a dugout courtyard, which then allows multiple homes to be carved into each side of the sunken courtyard.


5. The Great Wall is Made of Rice (Partially)

All cultures have their particular staple food, and a significant portion of China is ideally suited to growing rice. While nutritious, it also has more remarkable uses than as food — like helping to build the monumental Great Wall of China and other important structures in the Ming Dynasty era. It turns out that the wall is held together in many sections by mortar consisting of slaked lime and sweet rice flour, which has been the subject of investigation by researchers at Zhejiang University led by Dr. Bingjian Zhand. Upon chemical tests and electron microscope scans of Great Wall samples, it was discovered that rice and lime mortar drew its incredibly strong bonding power from a chemical reaction that results from the combination of calcium carbonate in the lime and a complex carbohydrate, a polysaccharide known as amylopectin.

Upon mixing, the amylopectin moderates calcium carbonate crystal growth, causing the mortar to bond tightly but more slowly, strengthening over time and also being water resistant. The result is a mortar with not only good strength, but incredible durability over long periods of time. The mixture is also far less subject to shrinkage, which can have a damaging effect on structural integrity. Modern researchers are calling for modern use of this mortar for building restoration due to its strength and authenticity. Ming rice mortar construction works have even stood up against earthquakes.

4. Shilin (Stone Forest)

In Shilin Yi Autonomous County in China’s Yunnan Province stands a forest of stone, or so it appears. Rising from the ground are spectacular and almost fantastical spires of stone that form Shilin (Stone Forest), commemorated in the Shilin National Scenic Area. The 270 million-year-old limestone spires, carved to look like petrified standing trees over the epochs were once part of a prehistoric shallow marine environment.

Legend says the formation is where Ashima, a Yi girl, was born and turned into rock after being disallowed marriage to her lover. Shilin sections Naigu Stone Forest and Suogeyi Village are designated as World Heritage Sites, part of the South China Karst. Shilin is considered an AAAAA-class site for tourism. Despite the marine origins of the “forest,” fossil remains are sparse, geological activity having heavily altered the material that makes up the stone spires. From the Ming Dynasty time onward, this place was known as the “First Wonder of the World.”

3. Chinese Biological Megadiversity

China does not only have the most humans of any country on Earth. The “Middle Kingdom” is the most biologically diverse country to be located fully in the Northern Hemisphere, encompassing two of the main ecozones, namely the Palearctic and Indomalaya, which could not be more different. China is the third richest country in biodiversity on the planet. The only nations with more species are Brazil and Colombia. A whopping 34,687 plant and animal species call China home.

There are remarkable endemic species found nowhere else on Earth, like the critically endangered Chinese Alligator, the famous and rare Giant Panda, the Golden Pheasant, and the Sichuan Jay, while a variety of orders and genera of species have an incredible number of representatives that are native to China. There are 1,413 bird species and 495 native mammals, while a wide range of iconic species also native to neighboring nations find their core range in China. The crow family alone has 29 species in China, the most of any country. For many categories of animals on Earth, China simply has more of them, or at least more types. Fortunately for endangered species, conservation efforts are growing.

2. Chinese Engineering Slowed the Earth

The Day the Earth Stood Still may only be a movie title, but there is some truth about the Earth at least slowing down. An enormous Chinese engineering project, the Three Gorges Dam, crosses the Yangtze River in Yiling District in Yichang, Hubei province. Located beside the riverside town Sandouping, this largest of world dams holds back nearly 86 trillion pounds of water. Thanks to physics, this giant project had the science fiction-like effect of slowing the Earth’s rotation. And this slowing was not just theoretical, it was measurable. Construction began on December 14, 1994, raising the Yangtze upstream of the dam 574 feet.

The buildup and raising of this massive quantity of water had enough braking power on the planet to slow its rotation down 0.06 microseconds, or six hundredths of a millionth of a second. The mechanism was by influencing its moment of inertia. When a skater tucks in their arms, their body spins faster. Building up the elevated reservoir was the equivalent  of putting arms out slightly, slowing rotation. Its not a problem, just fascinating, as earthquakes, Moon-Earth interactions, and polar movement cause rotation speed to fluctuate. But it is a fascinating measurable moment in human history.

1. Birds are of Enormous Cultural Significance

In much of the world, we either give birds little attention, or just think of them as the cute robins on our lawn or those annoying gulls and crows that pilfer lunch at the seashore. China has a remarkably detailed cultural element centered upon a deep knowledge and appreciation of birds, consistent with the advanced age of this ancient society. Birds are symbols of important virtues and cultural values in Chinese tradition, categorized by species. Furthermore, dances and art forms have taken their exact elements from specific types of birds. 

Cranes, of which China has the most species of any country, symbolize longevity and inspire a vast array of art and beautiful traditional dances. The Mandarin Duck, a strong contender in any avian beauty contest, represents loyalty and love in marriage and thus are valued symbols in artwork. Qing Dynasty wine vessels and Yuan Dynasty teapots fashioned as Mandarin Ducks have been preserved. In addition to these most stately birds, the magpie offers a more playful symbolism. China’s many species of magpies served as symbols of joy and good luck, being a positive messenger. It is said “When the magpie arrives, good fortune will follow.”


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