DOS AND DON’TS IN CHINA
According to ”CultureShock! China”: 1) Shake hands when introduced. 2) Be comfortable greeting people and being greeted with, “Have you eaten?” Do learn how to ‘give face’ and how to avoid making people ‘lose face’. 3) Politely ignore strangers, unless you want to invite interaction with them. 4) Reciprocate hospitality and acts of generosity. 5) Bring small gifts such as wine, chocolates or nice fruit when invited to someone’s home. 6) Be generous in praise and compliments. 7) Give appropriate token gifts for Chinese holidays like Mid-Autumn Festival. 8) Accept that ‘business is personal’ in China, and encourage friendly relations among staff and clients. [Source: ”CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]
1) Don’t take offense at invasive questions like how much money do you make or how much do you weigh; they are asked out of genuine naïve interest. 2) Don’t get annoyed about people staring or invading you personal space. 4) Don’t feel obligated to eat something you strongly dislike. You can politely push it around on your plate while continuing to eat other things. 5) Don’t be impatient with small talk — it is often a prelude to more important things. 6) Don’t interpret a token gift as implying anything.
7) Don’t wear white to a wedding; it is unlucky. 8) Don’t make a negative comment about China or raise sensitive issues such as religion or political issues. 8) Don’t accept anything more than a token gift without considering clearly what is being implicitly ‘asked for’ in return. 9) Don’t give a clock as a gift: it is considered unlucky. The Chinese for ‘to give a clock’ sounds the same as ‘to wish someone death’. 10) Don’t crumble to repeated offers of food or drink; if you decline more than three times, it will be accepted. 11) Don’t fail to offer someone food, drink or paying the bill multiple times as Chinese people may be declining so that they will not seem greedy. 12) Don't be surprised to see a man spitting openly or a child peeing through "split pants."
Websites and Sources: Etiquette and Protocol protocolprofessionals.com ; Gift Customs: Chinatown Connection Chinatown Connection ; Eating and Drinking Customs: Chinese Food Culture asiarecipe.com ; Chinese Banquet Eitiquette orientalfood.com ; Book:“Chinese Business Etiquette, Manners and Culture in the People’s Republic of China” by Scott Seligman (Warner Books, 1999).
Greetings in China
Greeting gesture In China it is rude to call someone by their first name unless you've known them since childhood. In work-related situations people address each other by their title; in social situations "Mr.," Mrs.," and "Miss" are used; at home people often refer to each other by nicknames or terms of kinship. Remember, in China, the family name is first.
Terms of kinship are often used for close non-relatives. A younger man often calls a man who is five years older than him "big brother" and someone who is considerably older "uncle." Chinese often address their friends as juniors and seniors even if they are just a few months younger or older. When a Chinese person asks someone their age they often do this so they know how to address the person.
Chinese sometimes don't smile or exchange greeting with strangers. Smiling or being friendly to someone you don't know well is sometimes considered rude and too familiar. When saying goodby it is considered appropriate to give a quick bow or nod to everyone present and go. Beijingers often say goodbye to one another by saying “Ju-i”, which is translated both as "Take it slow" and "as one desires." The Chinese are not big on drawn out goodbyes. After finishing a meal, they often get up, thank each other, say goodbye and leave abruptly. When the Chinese say farewell after a visit or journey together, they simply go; there is "no lingering, no swapping of addresses, no reminiscences, nothing sentimental."
In 1899, Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”:In this connection it is worth noting that the foreigner in China suffers from a chronic embarrassment as to how to address a Chinese. There is in the language no term answering to our Mister or Master, the nearest equivalent being the words Elder-born or Seignor (Hsien-shêng). The expression properly connotes a Teacher in reality or by courtesy, and although applied indiscriminately to blind men (even if they should be beggars) will not serve for general use. Honourific terms abound, but in the rural regions these are not in use, and are but dimly comprehensible. On the principle that “Within the four seas all are brethren,” it is the Chinese habit to assume the existence of a relationship, so that the passing stranger may appropriately call out to one whom he has never seen before: “Great elder-brother may I borrow your light and inquire whether this is the right road to Peking?” Should the person addressed be an old man, the title would be changed to Uncle or Grandfather. The fact that the term for an older uncle differs from that for a younger one, embarrasses the foreigner by forcing upon him a decision of the difficult question which one to use, for deciding which point he often has absolutely no data.” [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]
Touching, Shaking Hands and Bowing in China
These days shaking hands is a common greeting. People often touch each other. Same-sex hand holding is common and is a sign of friendship not being gay. However, physical contact between men and women in public is limited. Foreign men should not initiate such contact. Smiling is not necessarily a sign of happiness; it can be a display of worry or embarrassment.
Unlike Japanese, Chinese generally do not bow to one another as a greeting, a parting gesture or an alternative to waving or saying "Hi." But they sometimes do. Bowing is generally reserved as a sign of respect for elders and ancestors, especially on on special holidays. When Chinese bow they make a fist with their right hand and hold it in the palm of the left at stomach level and bow slightly to deeply depending on how much respect they want to convey. In imperial times, visitors to the emperor were expected to drop to the floor and knock their foreheads on the floor nine times to show respect. Such kowtowing gestures are still displayed when Chinese worship at temples. Kowtowing is a powerful gesture reserved mainly for honoring the dead or offering deep respect at a temple. In the Cultural Revolution as a tool of humiliation against those who committed political crimes.”
The Chinese have traditionally not been big hand shakers but the custom is now widely practiced among men, especially when greeting Westerners and other foreigners. Sometimes Chinese shake for too long for Western tastes and have a limp rather than firm grip. A limp handshake is regarded as a gesture of humility and respect. When a Western man meets a Chinese person, especially a woman, he should wait for the other person to offers his or her hand first, before offering to shake hands. With Chinese, avoid, hugs, backslapping or touching other than a handshake. Sometimes when entering a school, a meeting or a banquet, Chinese clap as a greeting. It is customary to clap in return. A soft clap, with you hands horizontal to the floor is best. Introductions are usually made with a third party. It is considered unusual for a person to walk up to a stranger and introduce himself.
Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner wrote in “CultureShock! China”: Chinese people also tend on the whole to be a little more reserved than Westerners about physical contact. Handshakes are more common than hugs or kisses on the cheek, even among friends. Chinese people you have known a long time may enjoy the novelty of a Western hug, but it’s best to wait till you know people well. A back-slapping style is generally not well-received. Even handshakes among Chinese tend to be a little softer and more tentative than the Western equivalents — though you may well encounter Chinese who have heard that Westerners like firm handshakes, and may respond with all the best intentions by giving you a bone-crusher.” [Source:“CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]
Pushing and Not Waiting in Line in China
Chinese are notorious for bumping into each other, blocking doorways, littering, spitting in restaurants, smoking anywhere they please, letting doors slam in people's faces, stopping their cars wherever they want, shoving and pushing, walking in groups that take up the entire sidewalk, leaping into elevators, and generally not getting out of the way or watching where they are going.
Chinese are not big on waiting in lines. People often butt in line or try to bully their way to the front or use contacts to get special treatment. There is often a great deal of pushing and jostling around ticket booths and bank clerks, where "huddles" rather than lines tend to form. The Beijing Spiritual Civilization office launched “Learn to Queue Day” aimed at doing something about the mobs that developed around stopped buses and subways. The campaign employed teams of volunteers to teach riders how to wait in line at bus stops and let people get off subways before the begin crowding in.
Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner wrote in “CultureShock! China”: In crowd situations, with strangers toward whom they have no social obligations, Chinese can be, from the Western perspective, surprisingly loud, pushy and lacking in manners. The great Cambridge Sinologist Dr Joseph Needham wrote about what he called the Chinese ‘courtyard vision of the world’: inside the courtyards of their lives (at home, school or work), Chinese tend to be models of tact, care and attention. Outside the courtyard with strangers, there are generally no holds barred. If you want to get to a ticket window, get on a bus, make your way through a crowded entrance or otherwise negotiate in situations with large numbers of Chinese strangers, you too may need to sharpen your elbows. Many an expat has found a need to re-learn culturally appropriate ‘crowd manners’ once they returned home. [Source:“CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]
Chinese act pushy unconsciously. They don't have the same concept of personal space as Westerners. Chinese are used to crowds and pushing you way through a busy sidewalk or subway station is considered normal. If two people collide, a brief apology might be offered, then people continue with their business as if nothing happened. After years of long queues, Chinese people have learned to be ruthless about cutting in line. Zhou Xiaozheng, a sociology professor at Beijing University told the Los Angeles Times, “The whole society is impatient. President Hu Jintao said...we Chinese must be modest and cautious and avoid arrogance. Of course this means we’re none of these things.”
On drivers and waiting in line in Shanghai, Andrew Field wrote: “At times it seems to be an all out battle for supremacy over the road with no quarter given. The "me first" mentality is very strong when it comes to driving etiquette or lack thereof. This in turn leads to far more accidents, which cause traffic delays ratcheting up levels of anxiety, leading to more fender-benders and so on in a vicious cycle. And people end up spending more time and money on the road and getting their cars fixed. But it is all worthwhile if one can shave that second off the road trip by cutting in front of another vehicle. This used to be true of lines here in China as well, such as the queues formed at a bank or a ticket counter. People have become far more polite about lining up since I first arrived in China in the 1980s. I suspect that over time, people in Shanghai will develop a more sophisticated sense of etiquette when it comes to driving. But who knows? Only time will tell.
Gestures and Staring in China
hesitation Chinese don’t gesture very much and regard a lot of hand movement as excessive. Winking and whistling are considered rude. Eye contact tends to be indirect. Both the thumbs up sign and tugging on the earlobe are signs of excellence. An outward pointing and raised pinky means you are nothing, poor quality or not very good at something.
Some Chinese point with their middle finger without realizing that it has a vulgar meaning in the West. Conversely, a thumb placed between the middle and index fingers (the "nose stealing" gesture) is on obscene gesture in some parts of China. Don't point or use your finger to beckon someone (this gesture is used for dogs). To get someone's attention and tell them to “come here” place your palm down and move your fingers towards you. This gesture is used with children, taxis or waiters but is considered very rude when directed at an older person. The most polite way to attract someone's attention is to make eye contact and bow slightly.
Holding your fist up is an obscene gesture in Hong Kong and some parts of southern China. Also in southern China, people say thank you by tapping two fingers on the table. This is often done when drinking tea to show gratitude for a refill. Many people in the north, however, are not familiar with this gesture.
The Chinese love to stare at foreigners and it is not unusual for a "staring squad" of a hundred people to gather around a tourist in rural towns where local people don't see many foreign visitors. Hairy arms and legs and red and blonde hair seem to be particularly fascinating and some Chinese like to touch or pluck the hairs to see if they are genuine. Staring back or getting angry is often counter-productive: it only attracts more attention.
Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner wrote in “CultureShock! China”: “A Chinese lady was heard making comment about the arm hair of a male Australian colleague. The commentary, without any malice intended, went something like this. She said, “Foreigners have very hairy arms, Chinese don’t. We think they have hairy arms because they are less evolved and more closely related to apes.” [Source: “CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]
Displays of Affection and Women Customs in China
Many Chinese women cover their mouth when the laugh. Traditionally, a woman that laughed too loud or openly was considered uncouth and ill bred. Many Chinese men look upon women smokers with disgust and consider smoking a very unladylike thing to do. Over the past couple decades smoking and drinking have increased dramatically among women.
Public displays of affection between members of the opposite sex’such as kissing, hugging and holding hands — are considered rude, while holding hands and hugging among members of the same sex are perfectly acceptable. Many university students and young people in their twenties have never kissed a member of the opposite sex and never even seen their parents kiss. Kissing is regarded as just one step shy of sex. French kissing is seen as some kind of exotic, forbidden experience. In secondary schools there are rules that state that students can not "touch, embrace or kiss."
Because there is little privacy at home and young lovers often can't afford a hotel, couples that do display their affection go to smooch behind trees at public parks, or inside bomb shelters built during the Cultural Revolution "for the coming war." After the discos close young lovers go to special bars and restaurants were they can make out. In some places it is not unusual to see couples kissing and embracing in public places around breakfast time.
"The Chinese." wrote Theroux, "were so desperate in their courtships that they went on tourists outing in order to hide and canoodle. Every holy mountain and famous pagoda had more than its share of motionless couples hugging and (sometimes) smooching...the Chinese do it standing up, usually behind a rock or a building, and they hug each other very tightly." See Sex and Kissing
Gift Giving in China
Chinese are not as big on gift-giving as Japanese but gifts can still be a big deal. It is polite to present a small gift when meeting a Chinese person or visiting their home. Gifts exchanged in business and social situations include fruit, pens, handkerchiefs, chocolates, whiskey, wine, Scotch, or pictures from your home country or city. Don’s give anything that is green. Green is a symbol of cuckoldry. Avoid white. It is associated with death and funerals. One should not give a clock — which to the Chinese symbolize death or the end of a relationship — as a gift. In Chinese, to “give a clock” sound like ‘seeing someone off to his end.” Don’t give a book because “giving a book" sound like “delivering defeat.” Don’t give an umbrella because doing so implies homonymously that the family of the gift receiver is going to be dispersed.
Typically a gift is refused a number of times before it is accepted. even if it is something the recipient strongly desires. It t is customary in China for a gift to be initially refused when it is first offered. The etiquette is supposed to be that the gift is refused three times, but it doesn’t always happen that way.
The recipient of a gift should accept it with two hands and shower the gift giver with thanks, smiles and compliments. When receiving a gift don't open it immediately unless requested to do so. In China, gifts are meant to be opened in private but sometimes they are opened not long after being given and when this happens the gift giver is delighted if you seem genuinely happy with the gift. Don't give to much attention to an object when visiting someone' house. The host may feel obligated to give it to you. In business and politics, there is a fuzzy line between gift giving and corruption. The issue becomes even more complicated when factoring in the fact that refusing a gift is considered very rude.
Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner wrote in “CultureShock! China”: Chinese are very generous toward people that they aim to build relationships with. It is customary for people who first meet you in a business setting to give you a small gift, as a token of their good intent. People who view you as a mentor or seek your support will also give you a gift. For example, in China when someone receives a promotion, a raise or a significant business win, they invite the people that played a role in that success out to a meal. Gifts are typically given to guests at meetings, receptions and banquets. Usually, they are given in a bag with other materials. [Source: “CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]
"It is common to give gifts during different holidays and special occasions. During Chinese New Year, you should give red envelopes with a token amount of money to children, as well as to people who provide you service and support throughout the year, like your housekeeper, driver or doorman. During Mid-Autumn Festival, it is customary to give moon cakes. When someone has a new house, a fruit basket signifies wishes for good luck."
Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics” in 1894: “To be so able to determine what is the proper thing to be done when Orientals offer presents, is in itself a science, and perhaps as much so in China as in other countries. Some things must not be accepted at all, while others must not be altogether refused, and there is generally a broad debatable land, in regard to which a foreigner can be sure of nothing except that, left to his own judgment, he will almost infallibly do the wrong thing. In general, offers of presents are to be suspected, especially those which are in any particular extraordinary. Of this class are those which are tendered on the occasion of the birth of a son, in reference to which the classical dictum "I fear the Greeks, even bearing gifts," is universally and perennially appropriate. There is always something behind such an offer, and, as the homely Chinese says of a rat dragging a shovel, the “larger end is the one that is behind," or in other words, what is (virtually) required in return is much greater than what is given.” [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]
Home Customs in China
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. Most Chinese are happy to have tourists visit their home although they often embarrassed by their basic living conditions. Their best food and liquor are usually reserved for guests. House guests are expect to bring a present. A bottle of imported whiskey or wine is usually a safe gift.
Unlike Japanese and Koreans, Chinese usually keep their shoes on when entering a house. More and more, though, Chinese are leaving their shoes at the door Japanese style. Unlike Japanese and Koreans, who spend a lot of time sitting on the floor, Chinese prefer chairs. Chairs were reportedly introduced the Mongols around 700 years ago. The first Chinese to sit in chair were noblemen who wanted to be higher than the people around them to show their superior position over the people they ruled. The preference for chairs goes hand in hand with wearing shoes in the house. Japanese and Koreans don't want to sit on a floor dirtied by people's shoes but if you sit in a chair it doesn't make as much difference if the floor has a little dirt on it.
Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner wrote in “CultureShock! China”: It is a great honour to be invited to someone’s home in China. Most Chinese entertain in restaurants rather than at home. This stems from the fact that until recently, many homes were small government-issued flats, oftentimes sectioned off from larger houses and shared by multiple families. It is only in the last few decades “with a government focused on transitioning people to modern housing, and with the ability to purchase better space to live in afforded by an increase in discretionary income, that Chinese people have had homes that they were proud to share with guests. When invited to a home, be sure and bring a small gift [See Above]. Be punctual, when told dinner will start at 7:00 pm, that means the food will be ready to eat at that time. After the meal, stay alert to signals that the visit is over. Most Chinese come, eat and leave with precision.” [Source: “CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]
Image Sources: 1) Citizens poster, University of Washington; 2) Gift box, Waxmen Associaties; 3) Gestures, Gothenberg University; 4) Poster for helping elderly, Landberger; 5) Men sharing a joke, Beifan.com
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