right People like to hang out and socialize on the street, in courtyards or in open public spaces. Conversation is a major pastime and people enjoy joking around and teasing one another. Things are often done with the help of personal contacts. If you can't find someone with a service you need you find someone who does know such a person. Homes are open to family and friends. Brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles and aunts are frequent visitors.

Visiting the house of friends and relatives is an important part of social life in China. Guests often drop in unannounced and are invited to join the family for a meal. It is customary to bring a small gift when visiting. Friends often don’t knock when they visit, they just walk in. It is not usual for guests to spend the night. There is not an emphasis on privacy and calling ahead to let people know you are coming like there is in the United States. In poor villages sometimes seven people sleep together in a single room and parents have sex while their children are sleeping.

Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner wrote in “CultureShock! China”: Popular outing destinations are karaoke bars, sports halls with badminton nets or ping pong tables and bowling alleys. Groups of friends will often take day trips to nearby parks or tourist destinations for hikes, sightseeing or shopping expeditions. An important ingredient to any outing that requires travel is snacks. Almost immediately after getting on a train or bus in China, you will see everyone around you start unpacking and nibbling through an unending quantity of snack food. Most companies have annual outings. These are typically day trips to nearby destinations where a combination of skill building and sightseeing is undertaken. Companies that have had financial success will even take their entire office on longer trips, some as far away as Thailand. [Source: “CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]

Websites and Sources: Etiquette and Protocol ; Gift Customs: Chinatown Connection Chinatown Connection ; Eating and Drinking Customs: Chinese Food Culture ; Chinese Banquet Eitiquette ; Book:“Chinese Business Etiquette, Manners and Culture in the People’s Republic of China” by Scott Seligman (Warner Books, 1999). Book: Understanding the Chinese Personality ; Understanding Chinese Business Culture ; Status of Chinese People Blog ; Chinese Human Genome Diversity Project ; Opinions on Asian Fetish ; Essay on Humor, China and Japan ; . Book: One of the most enlightening books about China is “Chinese Lives” by Sang Ye and Zhang Xinxin, a series of interviews with ordinary Chinese talking very candidly about what matter to them.

Friendship and Socializing in China

While Chinese can be shy and suspicious they can also be very outgoing, generous, curious and genuinely friendly. Many enjoy speaking English with strangers or going out drinking and having a good time. A Sinologist with Warner Brothers told the Los Angeles Times: “Chinese people are very verbal, have vivid imaginations.” However, they generally don't invite people to their house, which is regarded as private place just or family members.

Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner wrote in “CultureShock! China”: In Chinese society, a friendship means more than knowing one another, it means that your lives and personal well-being have become intertwined. It is expected that if you have it within your means to help a friend achieve an aim, you will, while they will go out of their way to do the same for you. There is a subtle give and take that goes on, creating a mutual bond between friends in China. You are not truly a friend until you demonstrate an understanding of that. This is not something that is overtly requested or anticipated, but seems to be the flow of social fabric. Once you have reached a friendship on this level in China, it is for life. [Source: “CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]

Chinese like to do things in groups. They feel comfortable doing things with their friends and get a certain sense of security and reassurance from being with people like themselves. They tend to be absorbed in the group and their activities and could care less about what people outside their group think of them.

Chinese are also fond of having photographs taken of themselves with their friends and are particularly fond of having their picture taken in front of anything considered wacky, different or strange. Chinese on hiking trips seem to do more photo-taking than hiking. This is because Chinese treasure their friends and the memory of good times, and the value of an activity is often measured more in the bonding that takes place than with the activity itself, plus they get enjoyment from posing and looking at the photos later on. Photos without people in them are considered boring.

Singing, Dancing and Partying in China

Chinese like to party in one big group rather than breaking up into small groups and circulating like Westerners do at a cocktail party. When Chinese do divide into groups they tend to divide into separate groups of men and women. Taking turns singing is a popular activity, with one person playing the role of "emcee" and calling on the others to participate one by one. If you attend a party like this it is a good idea to have a song ready in the case you are called upon to sing. Chinese are not so comfortable with American-style cocktail partes. One executive with the Chinese computer compnay Lenovo told Time, “We stand there and talk to each their. That’s just not our style.”

Chinese love to sing. They sing in karaokes and singing rooms, bring portable karaokes to parks and beaches, ask guests to "sing-a-song" at parties, and watch entertainers and actors sing karaoke songs on television. Guests at parties and on bus trips are often asked to sing a song. Chinese generally are shyer about dancing than singing, whereas the reverse is true about many Westerners. Chinese children generally have few opportunities to dance when they grow up and feel awkward doing it, but they do a lot of singing in school and tend to regard it as a fun activity like recess or sports. Among Chinese adults karaoke is very popular. In parks, people often sit in groups of twenty or thirty and sing songs or put on plays or operas. Chinese singers with good voices of course are admired more than those with bad voices but even bad singers are applauded for their effort.

Discos are becoming increasingly popular in China. Men and women usually don't dance as couples. Friends usually dance in a group. Women often dance together and men sometimes dance with each other. Often you are more likely to see people of the same sex dancing together than people of the opposite sex. Sometimes men even slow dance together.

See Karaoke, Culture, Music

Social Customs in China

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Chinese generally don’t make compliments. When Westerners do the response is either denial, self deprecation or saying the opposite of the compliment is true. If you say a young girl is cute it is not unusual for Chinese to say she is ugly. If you say a meal is good, they will say something didn’t turn out right. According to Business Insider: “While it might seem strange to refuse a compliment, it is common to refuse compliments in China since accepting a compliment from the beginning can be seen as a sign of vanity. [Source: Talia Avakian, Business Insider, September 3, 2015]

Chinese consider it rude to look someone directly in the eye, cross your arms or legs, or have your hands in your pocket when you are speaking to someone. Chinese usually focus their eyes on the lower neck of the person they are talking to, stand very close to them, and try to avoid staring. Chinese also don't like it when Westerners point at people; wear strong colognes or perfumes; put their feet or sit on desks; don't use titles or show proper respect to elders and superiors; boast and offer their opinions to readily; want immediate answers; and show a lack of patience.

Chinese are very punctual. They are expected to arrive exactly on time for a party or a dinner engagement. Westerners are sometimes get caught unprepared with Chinese guests at their door or are chided for being late. It is also considered rude not to be patient and wait even when someone is really late. Showing up on time is regarded as an expression of respect to other people. In the rural areas these rules are less rigid as people are less tied to the clock and often more closely tied to immediate matters around them.

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics” in 1894: “In no circumstances is the Chinese indifference to the lapse of time more annoying to a foreigner than when the occasion is a mere social call. Such calls in Western lands are recognized as having certain limits, beyond which they must not be protracted. In China, however, there are no limits. As long as the host does not offer his guest accommodations for the night, the guest must keep on talking, though he be expiring with fatigue. In calling on foreigners the Chinese can by no possibility realize that there is an element of time, which is precious. They will sit by the hour together, offering few' or no observations of their own, and by no means offering to depart. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894. Smith (1845 -1932) was an American missionary who spent 54 years in China. In the 1920s, “Chinese Characteristics” was still the most widely read book on China among foreign residents there. He spent much of his time in Pangzhuang, a village in Shandong.]

For a long time he says nothing, and he can endure this for a period of time sufficient to wear out the patience of ten Europeans. Then when he opens his mouth, he realizes the truth of the adage which declares that "it is easy to go on the mountains to fight tigers, but to open your mouth and out with a thing — this is hard!" Happy is the foreigner situated like the late lamented Dr. Mackenzie, whp, finding that his incessant relays of Chinese guests, the friends “who come but never go," were squandering the time which belonged to his hospital work, was wont to say to them, '"' Sit down and make yourselves at home, I have urgent business, and must be excused." As yet more happy would he be, if he were able to imitate the naive terseness of a student of Chinese who having learned a few phrases, desired to experiment with t them on the teacher, and who accordingly filled him with stupefaction by remarking at the end of a lesson, “Open the door! Go!"

Talking and Conversation in China


When meeting a foreigner Chinese usually ask the same questions and make the same comments: "Where are you from?" Where did you learn to use chopsticks?" What is favorite place in China?" It is not unusual for foreigners to get assaulted by 40 or 50 people all asking questions in English at once.Chinese often ask foreigners a lot of personal questions, especially about their families and marriage. If you are over 30 and single and are asked if your married it is best to lie and say yes, otherwise people will feel sorry for you. Not having a wife and children is considered unfortunate and even bad luck. Sometimes Chinese can be uncomfortably frank. It is not unusual for Chinese to make a comment on the beauty of large Western noses.

Westerners are advised to avoid conversations about politics and sex and refrain from making any comments that could be construed as a negative comment about China. Mainland China should be referred to as the "People's Republic of China." Don't confuse it with Taiwan or imply that Taiwan is not part of China. The Tibet issue is also quite sensitive. Other sensitive topics that are best to avoid are the Japanese, Tiananmen Square and religion. Don't make comments about Chinese customs: innocent observations can often be taken in a negative way. At teh same time expect uniformed comments about your home country and culture. Good, safe topics include food and family. For Chinese it is said, the purpose of conservation is to create a harmonious atmosphere.

Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner wrote in “CultureShock! China”: Chinese people on the whole are significantly more comfortable with silence than are Westerners, and tend to leave longer pauses in their conversations, often deliberately delaying responses to show respect to the speaker (i.e. “I must consider how I respond to such a thought-provoking question or comment.”) This fact probably explains more instances of Sino-foreign miscommunication than any other. From the Western perspective, the pregnant silence of a Chinese person politely considering a response may feel uncomfortable. [Source:“CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]

It is also worth noting that Chinese people, used to small and crowded spaces, tend to stand closer to other speakers than do Westerners. In terms of what the nonverbal communications experts call ‘olfactics’, it is worth noting that Chinese tend to judge cleanliness by sight more than by smell. We sniff armpits to see if a shirt can be worn again; Chinese peer closely for stains. So, be careful about judging that Chinese businessman you just met as slovenly because his suit smelled a little less than fresh; he may be thinking the same about you because your pants-cuffs had a small stain."

Asking Personal Questions in China

Peter Krasnopolsky wrote in the Global Times, “Living in Beijing I have managed to develop a relatively high level of tolerance to inquiries which many Westerners perceive as personal. I am now fine with strangers asking me about my salary, my age, my weight, my medical history, my girlfriend's age, when I plan to get married and a number of other nonsense questions, answers for which are usually reserved for the closest friends back home. Yet, the tactlessness of strangers gets to me the most when I am in the company of my Chinese girlfriend's 4-year old daughter from her first marriage. The curiosity must be driving these strangers mad, so that they go through extra effort to approach the four-year-old in a supermarket, a restaurant, or a park and ask her "Why don't you look like your Daddy?" Curiosity killed the cat. That's how I feel towards these curious characters.” [Source: Peter Krasnopolsky, Global Times, April 12, 2011]

“I shouldn't really blame Beijingers for their inquisitiveness. They don't live in a multi-ethnic society, such as the one many of us Westerners come from. Mixed couples are not a rule in New Jersey either, but we don't usually stare at them. Moreover, never would we question anybody in a family in which the kid looks explicitly different than one or both of the parents. In the West, we are quite familiar with concepts like divorce, second marriage, adoption and civil marriage. Never would we dare to ask a complete stranger, and especially his child, why one doesn't look like the other. After the first time I dropped 4-year-old Fenfen off at the kindergarten bus, the teacher asked her "Is that foreigner your father?" Not wanting to be bothered and probably still confused about the whole "father" concept, she just replied "yes." Similarly, whenever I am asked "Is that your daughter?" by my nosy neighbors, I reply affirmatively (while being equally confused about the whole notion of "fatherhood").”

“I wish this interest in my family stopped there, but it doesn't. Fortunately, some strangers are more tactful than others and would say, "She probably looks more like her mom, doesn't she?" - to which I just nod. Some ask me whether she understands Chinese; to them I suggest they should ask her. Then there are the naive ones, who would whisper to each other: "See, I told you mixed babies are beautiful!" To these I proudly smile in response, actually believing for a moment in my non-existent achievement. Still, the polite and cautious strangers are less frequent than the annoying and intrusive truth seekers.”

“The other day me and Fenfen were taking a walk when some auntie ran ahead of us, stared profusely into the kid's face and loudly announced for the whole street to hear: "This is a Chinese girl!" Not wanting to disappoint her, I said: "You are very clever." Unfortunately, she took it as an invitation for a conversation and immediately asked the little girl: "Why don't you look like your father?" I was seeing red, but instead I took a deep breath and in my broken Chinese responded: "You look like a clever person, but in fact you are not." By the expression on her face I could see she understood what I meant.”

Uber: a Cure for Loneliness and a Way to Meet People in China

Zheping Huang wrote in Quartz: “When he drives his BMW 3 Series for Uber, Jasper Fu is not really there for the money. Once, when a wealthy lady angered him by accusing him of taking a longer route to earn a higher fare, he finished the ride on the app early, and drove her home for free. He earns 3,000 yuan ($469) a month by driving two hours a day on average — that’s just one tenth of the salary he earns as a sales manager.“I don’t like driving,” the 33-year-old with a pony tail, stud earrings, and a 108-bead Buddhist bracelet told me at a Shanghai cafe in early November, “but I like to talk to people.” [Source: Zheping Huang, Quartz, February 17, 2016]

“Fu is also known as “190 centimeters,” his nickname on WeChat, which refers to his height, a point of pride. A happily married Beijing man with a Shanghai wife, Fu splits his time equally between the two cities for his business and family. In his free time, he drives for Uber — not for extra income, he said, but to meet people. “Under no other circumstance can I find a stranger to talk with me for like 10 to 20 minutes,” he said. His Uber record so far is 12 hours in a row of driving, because he didn’t want to go home and be alone while his wife was working.

“Uber driver Tan, shares the same opinion. An employee at a state-owned company in his fifties from Shanghai, he told me he earns about 1,000 yuan a week by driving, a negligible amount compared to his 20,000 yuan monthly salary. “But he enjoys the “thrill” of meeting strangers and driving to a place he would never found on his own, he said. Tan has a regular work shift, so he said he drives whenever he feels like it, sometimes in the early morning or sometimes at midnight. He likes to talk to “elite” passengers who are mostly “white-collars, lawyers, and bosses,” getting to know about their lives and occupations as he takes them to their destinations in his Roewe750, a Chinese-made sedan.

How Uber Connects With Social Platforms to Create Friends

Zheping Huang wrote in Quartz: “On paper, Uber’s business in China looks like it is getting crushed by its Chinese rival. But Uber has carved out a special place in China. To many upper-class Chinese drivers like Fu, Uber acts more like a social platform than a ride-sharing app, connecting them to new friends. [Source: Zheping Huang, Quartz, February 17, 2016]

“Uber is filling an empty niche created in an upwardly-mobile generation that finds itself far from extended families, or with lots of time on their hands after retirement. Many of them have no siblings and few cousins because of China’s one-child policy, so few relatives their own age. And they sometimes find making new friends difficult — to many Chinese who are naturally quiet and restrained, striking up a conversation with a stranger at a club or a bar is not a comfortable habit. Nor is it common for upwardly mobile workers to take on shifts as a bartender or waiter in order to meet new friends, because those jobs are deemed inferior.

“But there’s no such stereotype for drivers — especially when you own the car yourself. Uber offers an intimate space for two people to chitchat for a few minutes without having to worry how to end the conversation nicely, or whether you have to meet again, unless you really want to. Uber drivers join WeChat groups with other Uber drivers, gossip online and meet up occasionally. There are more than 40 drivers in Fu’s group where they frequently share the fares they earn, traffic information, how to drive to earn the biggest bonus, and when to attend some of Uber’s promotional events. There are probably thousands of similar groups across China.

“Subtle differences in Uber and Didi’s apps play a role in Uber’s popularity for friend seekers. Didi, for example, requires passengers to input their destinations, and lets drivers pick which rides they want to take. Uber, meanwhile, assigns automatically rides to drivers. As a result, Uber tends to attract more hobbyist drivers who are less concerned with earning big fares on long-distance trips, and more interested in chatting with whoever is in the back seat. Fu has become a loyal Uber driver, after registering for the two apps at nearly the same time in March of 2014. “I gave up Didi only after one ride,” he told me.

“Uber can help with creative friend hunting, business leads, and give you insight into your fellow citizens, Fu believes. For example, he uses Uber to find tennis partners. Signing on Uber’s driver app right after he plays at a court, he is likely to pick up another player, he explained. In this way, he met a man from Portugal who works in the financial industry in Shanghai. They chatted during the ride, friended each other on WeChat, and met up for tennis. “His [tennis] skill is as good as mine,” Fu said, “but his English is even more terrible than mine.”

The Stranger and the Chinese Moral Imagination

Seth Faison wrote in “South of the Clouds”: “In China, the sharp divide of insider and outsider dominates other distinctions. The insider, no matter how he fails, is accepted and welcomed in the fold. The outsider, regardless of character or achievement, is not to be trusted.”

Haiyan Lee of Stanford University wrote: “My book “The Stranger and the Chinese Moral Imagination” by Stanford University Press...investigates the modern Chinese moral imagination through the figure of the stranger. Strangers are outsiders who come into our communities and stay with us, bringing alien manners and values with them and never quite renouncing their mobility. They are a threat to a community’s peace and order, but they also promise change and renewal. In modern China, the stranger has been a ubiquitous figure that tests the moral limits of a society known for the primacy of consanguinity and familiarity. [Source: Haiyan Lee of Stanford University December 2014]

“This book employs the concepts of kinship sociality and stranger sociality to map out the moral dilemmas and responses set in motion by the coming of strangers. It surveys the Chinese moral landscape by following the itineraries of several groups of strangers—foreigners in China, peasant migrants in cities, bourgeois intellectuals in exile, disenfranchised class enemies, unattached women, animals on the edge of human society, and apparitions in a secular age—across a range of narrative and visual genres from the late imperial period to the new millennium. It makes a twofold argument: that the pervasive sense of moral crisis in contemporary China has roots in both the Confucian and socialist pasts, and that imaginative literature is the best training ground for coping with the quintessential condition of modernity in which strangers are routinely thrown together.

Table of Contents: Introduction: Talking to Strangers— Fear and Hope in China Strangers: A Group Biography, Lei Feng vs. Levinas: A Morality Play Strangers: A Reading Guide. Part I) Alien Kind: Chapter 1) The Benighted and the Enchanted—The Chinese Sphinx and the Prevaricating Intellectual, The Subaltern Goddess and the Crusading Party, The Homespun Priest and the Pilgrimaging Ethnographer, The Taiwanese Ghost and the Revenant Daytrippers. Chapter 2) Animals Are Us—Anthropomorphism and Zoomorphism, The Bare Life of Animals. Animal Totemism, Why Animals?

Part II. Fictive Kin: Chapter 3) The Power and Pollution of the Stranger Woman—Fu Caiyun/Sai Jinhua: the Courtesan Who Saves the Empire, Zhenzhen: the Spy Who Refuses to Go Home, Nixi/Mrs. Samson: the Widow Who Never Was a Wife, Li Guoxiang: the Cadre Who Terrorizes a Town From Parvenu to Pariah. Chapter 4) The Country and the City—Civility, Governmentality, and the Making of Ruralites and Urbanites, To Be a Gentleman Maids, Tenants, and the Comedies of Stranger Sociality.

Part III. Friends and Foes: Chapter 5) The Enemy Within Class Racism and the Logic of Displacement— The Water Dungeon and Socialist Horror, The Rent Collection Courtyard and the Law of History The Maoist Political. Chapter 6) Foreign Devils— “Foreign Devils” and the Unmaking of Tianxia, Cosmopolitan Peasants in Devils on the Doorstep, Cosmopolitan Nannies in Nannies for Foreigners To Be a Foreigner. Conclusion: Literature and the Veil of Ignorance

Image Sources: 1) Losing Face, from some blog; 2) drawings from Citizens posters. University of Washington; 3) photgraphs, ; Liu Bolin, China’s Invisible Man artist, Global Times Chinese: ; You Tube

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2021

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