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].

Customs in China today are more relaxed than in the past. Many women work outside of the home, and men sometimes do household chores. Eleanor Stanford wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: “Deference and obedience to elders is considered extremely important. There is a hierarchy that places older people above younger and men above women; this is reflected in social interaction. Chinese people are nonconfrontational. Saving face is of primary importance; appearing to be in the right or attempting to please someone is more important than honesty. It is considered rude to refuse a request even if one is unable to fulfill it. The fear of losing face is a concern that governs social interactions both large and insignificant; failure to perform a duty brings shame not just on the individual, but on the family and community as well. Individuality is often subsumed in the group identity. There is little privacy in the home or family, and housing shortages and cramped living quarters often exaggerate this situation. [Source: Eleanor Stanford, “Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner wrote in “CultureShock! China”:“Non-verbal cues in China are often more subtle than in the West. While individuals of course vary, Chinese on the whole are less comfortable with ‘wearing emotions on their sleeves’ than are Westerners. The smiles and frowns, surprise or anger, joy or incomprehension, will be there on their faces, but you may need to watch closely to catch it. This is particularly important for expatriates to be aware of in the case of frowns or incomprehension.” If “you say things that your new team-mates are upset by or simply don’t understand, it may very well be that no one will go out of their way to tell you. This may be part of the Chinese reputation for being inscrutable, but the truth is, no one is trying to hide anything; there is simply a cultural tendency in China toward measured response, at least in public. It is up to you to watch for those measured responses, and adjust your style as needed. [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 ;

Respect for Older People in China


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.

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: “ Chinese etiquette is not inaptly presented in one of their own tales, in which a visitor is represented as calling in his best robes, and seated in the reception room awaiting the arrival of his host. A rat which had been disporting itself upon the beams above, insinuating its nose into a jar of oil which was put there for safe keeping, frightened at the sudden instrusion of the caller, ran away, and in so doing upset the oil jar, which fell directly on the caller, striking him a severe blow, and ruining his elegant garments with the saturation of the oil. Just as the face of the guest was purple with rage at this disaster, the host entered, when the proper salutations were performed, after which the guest proceeded to explain the situation. “As I entered your honourable apartment, and seated myself under your honourable beam, I inadvertently terrified your honourable rat, which fled and upset your honourable oil jar upon my mean and insignificant clothing, which is the reason of my contemptible appearance in your honourable presence." [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

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."

Politeness in 19th Century China

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics” in 1894: “There are two quite different aspects in which the politeness of the Chinese, and of Oriental peoples generally may be viewed, the one of appreciation, the other of criticism. When we come to the Orient, and find the vast populations of the immense Asiatic continent so greatly our superiors in the art of lubricating the friction which is sure to arise in the intercourse of man with man, we are filled with that admiration which is the tribute of those who cannot do a thing, to those who can do it easily and well. The most bigoted critic of the Chinese is forced to admit that they have brought the practice of politeness to a pitch of perfection, which is not only unknown in Western lands, but previous to experience, is unthought of, and almost unimaginable. [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.]

“The rules of ceremony, we are reminded in the classics, are three hundred, and the rules of behaviour, three thousand. Under such a load as this, it would seem as if it were unreasonable to hope for the continuance of a race of human beings, but we very soon discover that the Chinese have contrived to make their ceremonies, as they have made their education, an instinct rather than an acquirement. The genius of this people has made the punctilio which in Occidental lands is relegated to the use of courts and to the intercourse of diplomatic life, a part of the routine of daily contact with others. We do not mean that in their everyday life the Chinese are bound by such an intricate and complex mass of rules as we have mentioned, but that the code, like a set of holiday clothes, is always to be put on when the occasion for it arises, which happens at certain junctures, the occurrence of which the Chinese recognize by an unerring instinct. On such occasions, not to know what to do, would be for a Chinese as ridiculous, as for an educated man in the Western land, not to be able to tell, on occasion, how many nine times nine are.

“The difficulty of Occidental appreciation of Chinese politeness, is that we have in mind such ideas as are embodied in the definition which affirms that “politeness is real kindness, kindly expressed." So it may be in the view of a civilization which has learned to regard the welfare of one as (theoretically) the welfare of all, but in China politeness is nothing of this sort. It is a ritual of technicalities, which like all technicalities, are important, not as the indices of a state of mind or of heart, but as individual parts of a complex "whole. The whole theory and practice of the Use of honorific terms so bewildering, not to say maddening to the Occidental, is simply that these expressions help to keep in view those fixed relations of graduated superiority, which are regarded as essential to the conservation of society. They also serve as lubricating fluids, as already remarked, to smooth human intercourse. Each antecedent has its consequent, and each consequent its antecedent, and when both antecedent and consequent are in the proper place, everything goes on well. It is like a game of chess in which the first party observes, “I move my insignificant King's pawn, two squares." To which his companion responds, “I move my humble King's pawn, in the same manner." His antagonist then announces, “I attack your honourable King's pawn, with my contemptible King's knight, to his King's bishop's third," and so on through the game. -The game is not affected by the employment of the adjectives, but just as the chess-player who should be unable to announce his next move would make himself ridiculous, by attempting what he does not understand, so the Chinese who should be ignorant of the proper ceremonial reply to any given move, is the laughing-stock of everyone, because in the case of the Chinese, the adjectives are the game itself, and not to know them, is to know nothing.

Problems with 19th Century Chinese Politeness: Rigidity and Adherence to Rules

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: “At the same time, the rigidity of Chinese etiquette varies directly as the distance from the centres at which it is most essential, and when one gets among rustics, though there is the same appreciation of its necessity, there is by no means the familiarity with the detailed requirements, which is found in an urban population. But it must at the same time be admitted that there are very few Chinese who do not know the proper thing to be done at a given time, incomparably better than the most cultivated foreigner who, as compared with them, is a mere infant in arms; generally, unless he has had a long preliminary experience, filled with secret terror, lest he should make a wrong move, and thus betray the superficial nature of his knowledge. It is this evident and self-confessed incapacity to comply with the very alphabet of Chinese ceremonial politeness, which makes the educated classes of China look with such undisguised (and not unnatural) contempt, on the "Barbarians," who do not understand "the round and the square," and who, even when they have been made acquainted with the beauties of the usages of polite life, manifest such disdainful indifference, as well as such invincible ignorance.

“Politeness has been likened to an air-cushion. There is nothing in it, but it eases the jolts wonderfully. At the same time it is only fair to add that the politeness which the Chinese exercises to the foreigner (as well as much of that which he displays to his own people) is oftener prompted by a desire to show that he really understand the proper moves to be made, than by a wish to do that which will be agreeable to the wishes of his guest. He insists on making a fire, which you do not want, in order to steep a cup of tea for you, which you detest, and in sodoing, fills your eyes with smoke In the same manner the rural host, who thinks it is his duty to have the humble apartment in which you are to be lodged, swept and (figuratively) garnished, postpones this process until you have already arrived, and despite your entreaties to desist, he will not, though he put your eyes out with the dust of. ages which he raises. The Book of Rites teaches, perhaps, that a room shall be swept, and swept it shall be, whatever the agonies of the traveller in the process.

The same rule holds at feasts, those terrors of the uninitiated (and not seldom of the too initiated), where the zealous host is particular to pile on your plate the things that it is good for you to like, regardless of the fact that you do not want them, and cannot swallow a morsel of them. So much the worse for you, he seems to say, but of one thing he is sure, he will not be lacking in his part. No one shall be able to accuse him of not having made the proper moves at the proper times. If the foreigner does not know the game, that is his own affair, not that of the host.

Chinese Hospitality and Reciprocity

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Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics” in 1894: “Repeated references have been made to Chinese views on the subject of hospitality. This cannot he said to be a distinctively Chinese virtue, although there is so much intercommunication between friends. It is a dictum, as old as the ancient classics, that reciprocity involves giving and taking, and that in default of either, it is not real " reciprocity.'' In strict accordance with this rule, reciprocity in China is proverbially an exact science. "You give me an ox, and I must give you a horse in return. You honour me a foot, and I will honour you ten feet," (the account being still an open one at that point.) "One box comes, but another box must go in return." In cases of weddings and funerals, when, as we have seen, help is required from all directions, the practical instincts of the Chinese have led to a most accurate system of social book-keeping, by which it is always possible for each host to know Who contributed to the wedding or the funeral, and how much. When a wedding or a funeral occurs in that family, the contribution which the present host makes on that occasion will be strictly' gauged by the past. The proposition that whatsoever a man soweth that shall he also reap, is nowhere more exactly true than in regard to one's social debts in China. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

“In the struggle for existence, which comprises so large a part of the phenomena of Chinese life, social solidarity has much part. A man who is a member of a large family is in much less danger of losing his rights than a man who belongs to an insignificant family. The general principle is doubtless true of all lands and of all times,, but it has special applications in China. A large village, all the families of which belong to the same clan, having the same ancestral hall and the same grave-yard, is evidently more than a match for a village which is inferior in numbers, and the members of which are of various surnames, and are united by no other tie than that of contiguity of abode. There are many matters in which the interests of villages as such,, in distinction from those of the separate families of the village, may come into collision.

On how reciprocity operates in modern China, Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner wrote in ”CultureShock! China”: The kindly Chinese family living next to you shows up one evening en mass, explaining to you that Junior in the corner has been accepted to Harvard but is unable to get a visa. Since you are an American, they would appreciate it if you could pull some strings at the consulate to help him get a visa. He has applied once but has been declined. The future of their family is at stake. You think about how nice this family has been to you. They invited you over for Spring Festival dinner, shared their fireworks with you, and helped you the day you got locked out of your apartment. They bring treats like fragrant tea and special snacks by every other week. [Source: ”CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]

“Because relationships, or guanxi, is so prevalent in influencing outcomes in China it is difficult for Chinese people to understand that foreign country visa processes cannot be influenced through connections. Chances are if Junior was turned down for a visa once, he is unlikely to do any better a second time. Unless you are frank upfront, in a very constructive way, there will be expectations that you will be able to pull strings and get Junior a visa, which is highly unlikely. The family has been carefully building the relationship with you since you first moved in because they knew that they may need your support in this situation. The relationship is sincere, but they expect some kind of return. The best that you can do to help Junior is something which is within your control, like arrange for him to get an internship with your company if he is unable to find a way to get approval on his visa. You are demonstrating goodwill while keeping it to something reasonable and within your authority.

Confusion Over Yes and No

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?"

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.” ^^

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 September 2021

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