Although it may seem a bit outdated, basic build orders are not to be underestimated! Thanks, GoodSpeed!
If China had any realistic means of booming, they would be an interesting civ. As they are now though, they're a slow civ without musks with no means of booming and no means of punishing economic play either. It doesn't take a genius to say that this is a recipe for failure. China's eco is weak, their semi-FF is slow, and prolonged colonial wars would be great for them if they had cav worth a damn which, sadly, they do not. They do have one thing going for them though:
China's fortress scaling is truly amazing. Even with a relatively shitty economy, their units' crazy cost-efficiency and strong shipments make for a very scary mass. A naked China FF that goes untouched is a scary build to face because of that. Generally a naked FF (think Spain) would run into eco trouble and have to push you in early fortress, but China is happy sitting back and massing, eventually reaching critical mass and pushing out with an amount of units that makes you think their eco is better than you thought it was.
But, semi-FF > FF, this isn't any less true against China. A cav semi against them forces them to send 9 pikes or face awkward amounts of idle villager time while you're both ageing up. A musk semi forces them to send 8 ckn or face the same problems, and a musk+huss semi will truly give them a headache. Most players don't know how to abuse the big window of opportunity China gives them when they FF, and therefore their FF will seem a lot stronger than it really is. China is slow and they dislike colonial age, so harassing them early is a no brainer.
Normally, to counter strong semi-FF play as China, you'd want to semi-FF yourself in order to have a strong defense but still reach that age that you love so much (fortress). The problem here is that China's semi-FF isn't very good. Why? Multiple reasons:
—There's only 1 way for them to boom and it's very inefficient. A semi-FF without at least some economic investment besides the market is weak.
—They have to send unit shipments to have any half decent army composition. A semi-FF generally doesn't get a lot of units out so it wants to focus on getting the exact right units out. China doesn't really have that option, except with a unit shipment to balance their composition. This is awkward because a unit shipment is about the last thing you want to be sending when semi-FFing.
—Their semi-FF is quite slow for a non-boom civ. A civ like Brit for example can semi-FF and reach fortress around the same time as China with a much, much better economy.
Don't underestimate China's colonial potential (that's not to say they're strong in colonial, but they aren't totally hopeless). Even without strong cav, after 2 of their unit shipments they have a decent mass, and their shipments arrive fast with the 2 TPs up. China has a choice after they've sent 2 of their military shipments. Their mass by that time is usually strong enough that it can be used for some kind of colonial timing, or they can use it to defend and age up. Often, the latter is the correct choice as reaching fortress unharmed as China is very tempting indeed. This would potentially be strong againts musk+huss semi-FFs. Against faster semi-FFs (pure cav or pure musk) it will often be too slow. Also note that against civs who like to stick with colonial, you need to make sure that you can even afford to age up. Something to remember as China is if you're in colonial age you're not looking to kill them, you're looking for ways to reach fortress unharmed, much like Dutch.
China's one way to boom other than the market is a build that's really not played in the current meta at all, and there's a good reason for that. It's slow and inefficient, relies on strong TPs, but it does get you a solid eco with the option to age. This doesn't sound amazing, but it is a way to boom which would make it worth it if only you ever got the time to pull it off. It involves a late northern refugees (age1 vill card) and 2 TPs early in order to support your desperate need for shipments. It's a style that relies on good scouting and good adaptation, for example a decision you'll have to make in early colonial is whether you can even afford to send your 6-8 vill card before you age up or are forced into no-eco fortress play.
Sadly though, naked FF with a unit shipment for defense remains China's only option in most match ups. There quite simply is nothing better in most cases.
The Chinese build
Always get an early TP up from the starting wood.
There's a trick that you can do on GP. If you take the middle TP and don't miss the first cart, since your first shipment will be 300w, you can actually wait for it before building the village. This will net you about 10 seconds idle TC time but it also means you don't have to gather 100w in early colonial and it will make you age up slightly faster than you would've otherwise. In that case,
From this, build another TP and a village (build that village with multiple vills to reduce idle TC time).
In all other cases,
(1) Northern refugees.
Note that this removes the possibility to send it later as a 5-8v card. You can still go for 300w if you definitely want to send a big vill card later, but this will make you age up later (5:10+) because without the above trick you do have to chop the extra 100w in early colonial, or find yourself housed at 10/10.
Putting 4 vills on the summer palace you will reach colonial around 4:50-5:00. If you don't have 2 TPs yet, chop for one during transition. Exception: when FFing against a potential rush.
During transition you already need to have made the decision to FF or not. A naked FF should not gather any wood (optionally for the second TP) but rather should go for the 1200-300. If you gather wood for a market as well as the TP you're going to run into food trouble as your 700g arrives.
Considering some civs can counter your predictable FF by rushing (the French bow+pike rush comes to mind) you need to scout actively and turn your build into a colonial start if you scout a rush that you can't hold with 1 shipment and mm. You should be able to switch most of your vills to wood on time and get a rax up while sending 8ckn 700w.
The naked FF 70%
(2) 700g (age up with confucian academy)
(3) Unit card to defend against their cav or musk (or both) semi-FF. In case of musk send 8 ckn, in case of cav send 9 pike, in case of musk+huss send 9 pike. Why 9 pike against musk+huss? Because that way you'll at least have protection for the 8 arqs that will pop out when you hit fortress.
(5+) Fortress shipments. Note that 1000w and 1000g are desirable if you can afford to send them without dying to pressure (China is often under pressure in early fortress).
Mostly you can afford to build a market and get the food/gold upgrades from 700w. If you're under a lot of pressure, skip this and use the wood only for rax, house and consulate. Consulate allies with Brits (possibly France first for 500w) allowing for that 9 musk shipment as well as 10% HP on your units. Keep chopping wood with a decent number of vills, China's units aren't very pop effective.
Your fortress composition is quite strong, so you can win even against civs with better economies than you. Don't feel pressured to kill France or Germans early (which isn't possible anyway), they have better ecos but you still outscale them somewhat in the long run. In match ups like those, simply try to keep your half of the map. They will run out of resources first and will have to be the one to get aggressive. But don't get me wrong, I'm not saying China wins these match ups if they reach fortress. It's still an uphill battle due to the difference in eco.
The colonial start 30%
China's colonial start gives them a decent number of options due to the amount of shipments they get. The problem is, still, that they don't really have any means to boom. Of course they have the market which you can use to buff your eco about 20%, but this takes an investment and you can't always afford it in early colonial.
If you can, definitely make sure you get all of the food and wood upgrades and the 50/50/50 one. Delay the gold ups until you age up. Still this isn't really a boom. Most civs have market upgrades plus a vill shipment, which makes the market ups stronger as well. China is slow to colonial and their best way of booming is a market. This means they have to either age up relatively quickly, or do something game-winning in colonial. Or they can go for mass villages + northern refugees. Viable? Possibly, but I have a hard time imagining a match up that would allow for such slow play. Turns out none of those 3 options is ideal, and this is the reason why naked FF is often China's only option.
You're going to want a market early. You can do this in transition at the cost of a later rax, or do it after the rax so that you can start a batch as soon as the 700w arrives. Which is the right choice depends on whether you need units early or not.
(3) 600w or (3) a unit shipment. Often a unit shipment is better in order to balance your composition, but 600w is better if you're not being pressured.
(4+) Unit shipments until you want to age up (then 700g, confucian academy).
Note that China's 1 rax mass + 2-3 unit shipments is not bad. It can break forward bases if your opponent invested in an early rush, and is hard to pressure. You can use this as a gateway to fortress, as explained before.
As for northern refugees if you went for the 300w start, it's a decent vill card if you have 4+ villages, but in reality this won't happen until later in the game unless you mass villages for the sake of the card which I don't think is worth it. Therefore, it can be a strong card to send in prolonged colonial games, but in case of a semi-FF you'd usually want to send eco cards in early colonial which, in this case, is not an option. This means the card will rarely (if ever) be worth it in colonial, but it is a way to prepare for the long term if you find yourself in a situation where that is necessary.
"When life give you incompetence, participate in the betting" - Jerom, winner of autumn betting, 2016
"but wer eyiu playig a gainst someone as magnificent as jerom? thats wha ti thogutb jerom is a beaaitful human being"- Mr_Bramboy