rightWesterners have a hard time figuring out all the customs and formalities in China, especially because they are so different from the customs and formalities in other Asian countries. It is a mistake, for example, to assume that Chinese customs are like Japanese ones. The two countries are very different and Chinese will be quite insulted if you assume their culture is like Japanese culture.

When in doubt about unfamiliar customs simply watch what the Chinese people do. And don't worry too much. Westerners aren't expected to know all Chinese customs and if mistakes are made or a custom is forgotten it usually no big deal.

Primary Source: The Traveler's Guide to Asian Customs & Manners by Elizabeth Devine and Nancy L. Braganti. Also check Chinese Business Etiquette, Manners and Culture in the People’s Republic of China by Scott Seligman (Warner Books, 1999). International etiquette expert: Mary Kay Metcalf of Creative Marketing Alliance in New Jersey.


Good Websites and Sources: Kwintessential ; Oriental Style ; Etiquette and Protocol ; Common Customs of China : Gift Customs Chinatown Connection Chinatown Connection ; U.S. China Business Solutions ; Bad Manners article on the subject ; U.S.A. Today article ; Eating and Drinking Customs : Everyday Eating Customs ; Chinese Food Culture ; Drinking Customs ; How to use chopsticks ; Chinese Chopsticks Etiquette culture-4-travel ; Chinese Banquet Eitiquette ; Chinese Banquet

Greetings in China

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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."

Bowing, Touching, Clapping and Shaking Hands in China

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Thank you
Unlike Japanese, Chinese do not necessarily 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.

Respect for Older People in China

left Many codes of behavior revolve around young people showing respect to older people. Younger people are expected to defer to older people, let them speak first, sit down after them and not contradict them. Sometime when an older person enters a room, everyone stands. People are often introduced from oldest to youngest. Sometimes people go out their way to open doors for older people and not cross their legs in front of them.

When offering a book or paper to someone older than you, you should show respect by using two hands to present the object. On a crowded subway or bus, you should give up your seat to an elderly person.

Sometimes a comment based on age meant to be complimentary can turn out to be an insult. The New York Times described a businessmen who was meeting with some high-ranking government officials and told one them he was “probably too young to remember.” The comment was intended to be a compliment: that the official looked young for his age---but it was taken as insult---that the officials was not old enough to be treated with respect.

Chinese and Foreigners

Chinese often stare at foreigners. Sometimes children call out various things at them, particularly "Hello," shouted in an annoying way, and laowai, the most polite word for "foreigner." Chinese sometimes look over the shoulders of foreign tourist to see what they are reading. Sometimes they will even yank a book or a newspaper out of the tourist’s hand to get a closer look.

One Chinese tourist guide gave Chinese tourists the following advise when meeting foreigners: "Do not follow, encircle or stare at them when you meet. Refrain from pointing at their clothing in front of their faces or making frivolous remarks...if foreign guests take the initiative to make contact be courteous and poised. Do not be flustered and insult them by walking off immediately."

The same guide advised: "Refrain from asking foreign guests about age, salary, income, clothing costs and similar private matters...Do not accept gifts at will from foreign guests. When parting you should peel off your gloves and then proffer you hand. If you are parting from a female foreign guest and she does not proffer her hand first, it is also adequate to nod you head as a farewell greeting."

Gestures in China

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gesture for
a promise
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. Many people in the north, however, are not familiar with this gesture.

Displays of Affection in China

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

Chinese Embrace and Debate Hugging

Didi Kirsten Tatlow Source of the New York Times wrote: “Of all the changes to sweep China since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 — stock markets, private cars, fashion — one thing seemed not to have changed: No hugging. Chinese were physically reserved. That’s changing now. Recently, it seems like everyone is hugging. Friends are hugging. Family members are hugging. In hugging between Chinese and non-Chinese, it was non-Chinese who once foisted physical affection on the Chinese. Today it may be a Chinese initiating contact. The tables are turning. [Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow Source: Sinosphere Blog, New York Times, May 7, 2014 ^^]

“My children’s Chinese piano teacher hugged my Irish mother-in-law the first time she met her, last year. My mother-in-law was moved, but the Irish, like the English, aren’t really known for overt displays of physical affection, and the surprise was written on her face. Teachers are joining in. In Nanjing, the Liuhe District Experimental Elementary School began a class in emotional intelligence last fall, concerned that children lacked it and would thus be held back in the world, the newspaper Modern Express reported. The third graders’ homework: Hug your parents tonight. Sixty schools in the district now have emotional intelligence classes, the newspaper said. ^^

“Most friends I’ve asked say the change is due to exposure to the West, especially huggy North America. But other Asian nations — even formal Japan — may also be involved, according to a recent article in China Daily headlined "Students Use Hugs to Ease Tensions". It described "hugging activities" between a group of Japanese studying in Beijing and Chinese passers-by, in which the students hugged about 200 Chinese in an effort to warm feelings between people of the two nations sparring over territory in the East China Sea. The initiator, Watanabe Kohei, said, "The Chinese were a bit shy in giving hugs," but friendly. ^^

“Not everyone is joining in. Hugging is still not appropriate in a professional context — unless everyone is drunk. The website eDiplomat is probably right to advise foreign diplomats not to hug their Chinese counterparts. "The Chinese dislike being touched by strangers," it warns. "Do not touch, hug, lock arms, back slap or make any body contact." In a post titled "Why We Chinese Don’t Hug," the blogger Zhuhai Ah Long attributed the reluctance to sexual frisson. Hug a member of the opposite sex, and, "What if ripples start undulating in the girl’s heart?" Plus, he said, Chinese prefer quality to quantity. "We want each time that members of the opposite sex touch to be a thrill," he wrote. "If we’re hugging all day long, hugging people who shouldn’t be hugged, then the thrill will evaporate, and that’s just a waste." ^^

“In 2003, Lu Ming, a Chinese author based in the United States, wrote a book titled "Chinese Lack Hugs." "Back then people really hugged very little, even in families," he wrote in an email. "I cannot remember being hugged by my father and mother." "That’s changed now, and I think it’s good," he said. "We can use body culture to overcome Chinese people’s tradition of reserve. Limbs are also a language and a form of contact. A sincere hug makes people feel warm and comforts them." ^^

“Mr. Lu attributes the change to increasing international contact, the media, Chinese living overseas and reading foreign literature. He made a point of hugging his mother and sisters when he visited China. "When my mother was still living and in good health, I would hug her, and she was very moved. And my sisters would say, ‘You are already Westernized,’ but they liked it. Life is very short, and you don’t know when you will see someone again." ^^

“Arriving in Berlin from China recently, I watched as two generations of Chinese hugged at the airport, a younger couple greeting an older couple who had been on my flight. The older couple appeared to be the young woman’s parents. Mother and daughter hugged. That wasn’t too surprising. Women are huggier than men, everywhere. But then the young man stepped up to the older man and hugged him. And the older man hugged him back, stiffly, but smiling.” ^^

Social Customs in China

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gesture for
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.

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.

Talking and Conversation in China

right 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.

People 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. 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.

Confusion Over Yes and No

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As is true with many Asian people, the Chinese will do anything they can to save face and make foreign visitors happy even if it means misleading them. Instead of telling you the unpleasant truth they would rather tell you what you want to hear. In the mid-1990s, a bank in Jinan informed their tellers to stop using "I don't know" and 90 other "uncivilized sentences."

Chinese consider it rude to say "no" directly. They often say something like "maybe," "I am busy," or even "yes" when they really mean "no," or convey a no answer in way that foreigners don't understand. This behavior sometimes causes confusion with Westerners who like a yes-or-no answer, and who tend to believe there is a possibility of a "yes" unless they are told "no" straight out. Chinese consider it rude, kind of mean and too direct to say "no."

A typical confused situation goes something like this. A Westerner takes his car to a Chinese mechanic to have it fixed. He asks will it be ready tomorrow. The mechanic says "yes" because he doesn't want to be rude and say no. The Westerners shows up the next and is angry because his car isn't ready. The mechanic doesn't understand why he is angry: the day before he was only trying to be polite and telling the Westerner what he wanted to hear. The Westerner should have asked, "When will my car be ready?"

Gift Giving in China

right Chinese are not as big on gift-giving as Japanese. Nevertheless it is polite to present a small gift when meeting a Chinese person. 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 ss 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.

The recipient of a gift should make sure to 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.

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.

Singing, Dancing and Partying Customs in China

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.

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.

See Karaoke, Culture, Music

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.

Home Customs in China

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.

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.

Eating and Drinking Customs

See Separate Section

Health Customs

See Health

Cleanliness and Bath Etiquette

See Beauty and Hygiene

Business Customs

See Economics.

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,

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 June 2015

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