China is composed of 56 ethnic groups, the largest being Han Chinese which account for over 90% of the population. To ensure that the various ethnic groups live together peacefully, the government introduced a series of policies to ensure the equality and unity of each group, give regional autonomy to ethnic minorities and promote respect for the faith and customs of ethnic groups.

China's language is officially Mandarin or Putonghua as the Chinese call it. About 70 percent of the population speaks Mandarin, but the country is awash with other dialects and their variants. Of the seven major strains, Cantonese is the one most likely to be spoken.

Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism lead religious thought in China, with all three entwined in popular Chinese belief. Islam is probably the next largest identifiable religion in China, followed by Christianity.

Chinese culture has made one of the greatest artistic contributions to humankind. Sadly however, much of its ancient art treasures were destroyed in times of civil war, invasion and natural disasters. The last 200 years of Chinese history have seen tremendous social, political and economic upheaval, including the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s an d 70s. Despite the turmoil the Chinese have undergone, you will be pleasantly surprised to see their energy and optimism as they look toward the future and modernism.

Chinese cuisine encompassed a number of different styles. They are distinctive from each other based on the flavors, ingredients and methods of cooking.

Szechuan or Sichuan originated in the Sichuan Province of southwestern China. It is known for its bold flavors and spiciness. Prominent ingredients include garlic, chili peppers, Sichuan peppercorns, Facing Heaven peppers, peanuts, sesame paste and ginger.

Anhui cuisine comes from the Huangshan Mountains region in China. It uses a wide variety of local herbs and vegetables, particularly bamboo and mushrooms.

Shandong or Lu cooking was once an important part of the imperial cuisine. It features seafood as a main ingredient. Typical dishes include braised abalone, braised trepang, and sweet and sour carp.

Fujian cuisine employs mushrooms and bamboo shoots, along with seafood and other ingredients. Slicing techniques are important in this cuisine. Fujian cooking techniques include braising, stewing, steaming and boiling, frequently creating broth or soup.

Jiangsu or Su (Cai) cuisine is popular in the lower areas of the Yangtze River. Typical dishes include Jinling salted dried duck, crystal meat (pork heels in a bright, brown sauce), clear crab shell meatballs (pork meatballs in crab shell powder) and "Farewell My Concubine" (soft-shelled turtle stewed with chicken, mushrooms and wine).

Cantonese cuisine is one of the most well-known worldwide. It includes dim sum, which features a number of small dishes prepared using traditional cooking methods such as frying, steaming, stewing and baking.

Hunan cuisine is known for its hot, spicy flavor. A wide variety of ingredients are stewed, fried, pot-roasted, braised, or smoked to create Huhnan dishes.

Zhejiang cuisine comes from the Zhejiang region. The dishes typically have a fresh, soft flavor and a mellow fragrance. There are four main styles: Hangzhou, featuring bamboo shoots; Shaoxing, favoring poultry and freshwater fish; Ningbo, focusing on seafood; and Shanghai, a combination of styles and famous for dim sum.

This is just a sample of the variety of cuisines you'll enjoy in China. Other treats to look for are hairy crab, a highly sought-after delicacy in Shanghai, and Peking Duck, famed throughout the world.

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