The panda is the mostly widely recognised symbol among foreigners to represent Chinese culture, followed by green tea and yin/yang, according to a survey released on Saturday.
The survey, conducted by the Beijing Institute of Culture Innovation and Communication, also found that the Chinese theory that humans are an integral part of nature; the concept of face, or mianzi; and the Dunhuang Cave Murals are not so readily associated with Chinese culture.
"It is interesting to find that foreigners have a very different understanding of Chinese culture from us," said Yu Dan, a professor of Chinese culture at Beijing Normal University and director of the Beijing Institute of Culture Innovation and Communication. "The Dunhuang Cave Murals are a marvelous example of traditional art that we are justly proud of, but foreigners know little about them.
"The harmony theory between man and nature, which is a fundamental of Chinese philosophy, is also little known among foreigners."
Yu views the survey as useful in providing intellectual guidance for China to "go out" and connect with the world.
The survey collected 2,407 questionnaires from the United States, United Kingdom, France, Australia, Japan and South Korea. Respondents were asked to rate their understanding of Chinese culture on a five-point scale from excellent to poor.
The results indicated that 13.3 per cent of respondents have a poor understanding of Chinese culture; 60.9 per cent had a fair understanding; 15.3 per cent a good understanding, 4.5 per cent very good; and 6 per cent an excellent understanding of Chinese culture.
Yu said the next move to promote Chinese culture should target the group that has a fair understanding, in that it represents nearly two-thirds of foreigners.
Researchers selected 18 symbols of Chinese culture, including Confucius, the panda, Beijing opera and kung fu.
South Korean and United States respondents scored highest, and French respondents scored lowest.
"People from various countries gain knowledge of China in different ways and for diverse reasons," Yu said. "South Korea is our neighbour and shares a similar traditional culture with China. In their daily life, they also have the mianzi concept. However, people in the US know about legendary female warrior Hua Mulan and green tea thanks to Hollywood movies."
While Japan and South Korea are both China's neighbours, their attitude toward Chinese culture varies.
"Japanese respondents generally hold a negative attitude, and South Koreans hold a comparatively positive attitude," Yu said.
She added that bilateral relations also affect foreigners' perception of Chinese culture.
Through the survey, we also found that foreigners in general are willing to learn about Chinese culture, Yu said.
What things generate associations?
The list of symbols recognised by foreigners as representing Chinese culture from the most widely recognised (top) to the least recognised:
2. Green tea
5. Yangtze River
6. Kung fu
7. Chinese ink painting
8. Hua Mulan
9. Peking Opera
10. Spring Festival
12. The Art of War by Sun Tzu
13. Chinese suit (Tangzhuang)
14. Li Bai
15. Filial piety
16. Dunhuang Cave Mural
17. Face (mianzi)
18. The theory of harmony between nature and human