China as a true unified nation begins in 221 BC, with its first Emperor Qin Shi Huang, whose tomb complex at Xian, guarded by the famous Terracotta Warriors, and his embarkation upon the Great Wall set the tone for succeeding Emperors to emulate his grand vision, which achieved its architectural climax during the Ming Dynasty, and although much changed since the Cultural Revolution, remains at the heart of the Chinese Psyche today.


The Ming Dynasty achievements are now today the most visited heritages of China and include the classic structures of the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, the Temple of Heaven, and the mighty walls of Xian, as well as the tombs of the dynasty's Emperors.


Earlier examples of China’s few remaining ancient walled cities can be found at Pingyao and Nanjing, and many of China’s old settlements, such as Suzhou and Lijiang provide authentic windows into the lives and social fabric of classical imperial China.


However, the influences that truly underpin Chinese culture are the philosophies and thought which guided so much of its art, calligraphy and social structure, whose origins predate even the grandiose ambitions of the first Emperor.


The figure of Kong Qiu, later known as Kong Fu Tzu (Master Kong), anglicised as Confucius, towers over Chinese culture and the interpretation of his values has formed an incalculable influence upon almost every aspect of Chinese life since, even to the present day.


In Qufu, South of Beijing in Shandong Province, the birthplace of Confucius, born in 551 BC, is a vast historical site, second in size only to the Forbidden City, built around his original house, in which his belongings still remain to view today. 


The vast complex is part shrine, part museum and art gallery and is a great place to understand the man and his place in Chinese thought. One of his most influential followers, Mencius, also has a shrine nearby. 

The writings of Confucius, often mistakenly interpreted as a religion, are a philosophical archetype for a harmonious society and inspired by his interpretation of earlier ancient writings such as the I Ching (Book of Changes), upon which he worked extensively.


Essentially a humanist and moral ideal, his teachings focus upon the perfection of individuals within their family structure and their combined place in the wider social community which would later evolve into an ever more elaborate set of social forms and rituals.


Another important influence upon the roots of Chinese thinking is that of Taoism, named after the collection of short writings known as the Tao Te Ching, whose authorship is popularly, though probably mistakenly, attributed to Lao Tzu, an elusive figure thought to be a near contemporary of Confucius.


The Tao Te Ching is in part a political rejection of the ideals of Confucian social order, and part poetry, whose charmingly simple appeal for naturalness and mystical absorption through unspecified breathing and exercises, similar to yoga, into the flow (Qi) of life energy from which all matter emanates, is a profoundly interesting and subtle observation of the human condition.


Again, and in direct contradiction to the content of the work itself, Taoism is commonly mistaken as a religion, which it has certainly latterly become. The practical applications of inner understanding of the flow of natural form arising from the source of life is most obvious in the practices of Kung Fu and Tai Chi (Qi). 

The similarities with the mystical elements of Buddhism, which would later, during the second century BC, arrive from India are startling, and indeed the ‘living knowledge’ of practitioners of both would become fused into a cross-fertilised mystic school, whose legacy has survived as Zen Buddhism.


The profound influence of the import of early Buddhism into China is best observed at the Magao Caves, Yungang Grottoes, Longmen Caves, Dazu Caves and the Leshan Giant Buddha, while In Tibet, Buddhism arrived in the fifth century AD and gave rise to the remarkable Tibetan Buddhist culture visible in the Potala and grand monasteries of Lhasa and elsewhere.


The effect of all this mystical and philosophical exploration of successive Chinese dynasties is most evident in the country’s vast art treasury, much of which has been spread around the globe, but beautiful collections of beautiful and serene paintings, impossibly intricate sculpture and stunning pottery can be found in museums and galleries all over China.