“Why do people in Beijing smoke cigarettes? So they can have a filter!” So goes the joke regarding Beijing China's infamous levels of pollution, but don't let negative pre-conceived notions of 1984 George Orwell-ian societies scare you away (even if they turn out to be true); with an open mind and minimal research you will find that there are beautiful and amazing adventures to be had while studying in the middle kingdom.
Realize that China is likely very different from your home in every conceivable way.
Be it government (overtly censorship-fueled communism), language (the world's oldest continual pictographic language) or culture, you should embrace these differences. Is the acquisition of unique, foreign, or different experiences not the very reason for traveling? With an open and educated mind you can have dialogs with the natives and perhaps learn they feel just as strongly as you about certain things. Maybe you will be invited to the local hangout, or perhaps be given the spark that creates a life-changing idea?
When engaging in dialogs with natives of a foreign culture, know that some topics are off limits.
In China, mind the “3 T's”: Tienanmen square, Taiwan, and Tibet. Do not engage in conversations about these things with strangers. Other topics are OK, but may seem odd to the Chinese that they puzzle you; questions such as “Why do your kids poop on the floor everywhere?”, “Why don't you dispose of rubbish and garbage somewhere besides the middle of crowded streets?”, and “Why doesn't the government fix derelict buildings instead of building new ones right in front of them?” will be met with answers like “Why wouldn't it be that way? It's always worked for us.”. These sorts of exchanges can actually help you reflect on your home culture and realize that what you once viewed as a superior method of doing something may likely be full of just as many logic-holes as the foreign way; you have just been raised in your's, as they have theirs, and so weren't able to notice until the mind-broadening experience of your travels. There in lies the beauty of different experiences, and China is about as different as it gets.
China is large and diverse, to the point you may not be able to experience it all.
Not only is China different from other countries, It's different from China! Owing to it's huge size and geographical diversity, you can find just about anything there if you know where to look. Slower paced city life in the subtropical South with gourmet food and the home of “Morning Tea” (Dim Sum or Zao Cha), four seasons and the hubbub of Beijing to the North, modern progressive culture mixes with coastal vibes along the eastern coast, and true rural living awaits you to the west where some people still have never seen a non-Chinese! Don't forget everywhere in between either: a vast desert, mountain ranges, karst peaks, and amazing flora and fauna are all waiting to be explored. Chances are that if you arrive somewhere looking for a specific thing, you'll find something equally as amazing that you didn't even know about. Case in point: the town of Deng Feng, home of the legendary Shaolin Temple (birthplace of martial arts and chan (zen) Buddhism) also has the world's oldest astral observatory, as well as a gigantic mountain filled national park containing ancient temples and a huge hanging plank bridge. China as a whole is like this; you need only go and wander with an open mind (and itinerary) to gain both cultural experiences and spontaneous adventure.
The final thing to keep in mind are just a bit of safety.
While China is every bit a third-world country masquerading as a first, you won't be in any extra danger that you wouldn't find at home, save for finances. Foreign currency is very desirable in China, and as such they will try to get it anyway possible. While pickpocketing happens, the most likely way you will lose your money is with ignorant purchases. Sellers will mark up their prices considerably when they see foreigners. Bargaining is de rigueur in Chinese culture, so get good at it. As most items are produced in China, they can be procured there for cheap, if you know how to go about it. Learn the going rate for the item you wish to purchase, and don't suggest to pay anything greater than 1/10 their asking price. Don't actually end up paying anything over 1/5. Do not cave in. If they will sell it to you, but then complain they are loosing money, rest easy; they would never sell anything at a loss. Finally, some stores have signs posted saying “no bargaining” and such. They mean it, please respect them.
If approached correctly, China is a land straight out of your travel fantasies: holistic medicines for all ailments, cultures not exposed to outsiders, remnants of civilizations from thousands upon thousands of years ago, secluded mountain temples, boisterous cities, seedy night markets where everything can be gotten and gotten cheap, natives with rumblings of liberation, and everything in between and so much more. China is one of those amazing places where you'll find things you had no idea you where looking for, until you stumble upon them. Cheap continental flights and well developed train systems mean travel is a snap; rent a whole sleeper car room with some friends and party it up on a 24 hour train ride, or fly from one state to another quickly. Either way, unknown adventures and learning experiences await you.