Know Before You Go: Chinese Customs

Travel | by Fred Shasta
Posted: July 18th, 2008 | Updated: September 4th, 2014 | Comments

Learning a little about Chinese customs gets you a long way in a country where tradition helps a billion-plus people navigate changing times. Chinese culture can be intimidating to many first-time visitors. And no wonder—China's 5,000-year old civilization has developed its own complex codes of etiquette and respect. But don't worry—with a little preparation, you can easily get a handle on the basic rules of the Chinese social code. And once you're in China, you'll find that people are generally more than happy to help you learn the ropes.

Greetings in China 

Get used to enthusiastic calls of "hello!" from Chinese eager to practice their English with a bona-fide laowai (foreigner). If you can reply with a friendly ni hao! (hello) you'll likely be told immediately that your Chinese is outstanding. Of course, this compliment is likely to be delivered in Chinese, but it hardly matters—the point is that learning and using the most basic Chinese phrase of greeting is a simple way to win a friendly smile and get off on the right foot.

Shaking hands has become a somewhat common greeting among urban Chinese men, but the aggressive American alpha-male power shake remains a rarity to be avoided. Handshakes are a fairly recent cultural import, and many Chinese are somewhat uncertain about the timing, pressure and length of a handshake. Unless you're absolutely sure you're among China's small but growing internationally savvy fashion-forward set, avoid the Euro-style cheek kiss, and take it easy with American-style backslaps and hugs.

A more common greeting, appropriate with both men and women, is a simple, sharp nod of the head or very slight bow. Generally, outside of international business contexts, it's best for men to avoid touching women, even in greeting, until clear ground rules have been established over time.

It's a great idea to bring a supply of name cards with you, even if you're not traveling on business, as a friendly name card exchange is a frequent part of a first-time meeting. As with money and other items, politeness requires that you hand your name card to your new acquaintance face up, using both hands. When recieving a business card, also use both hands, and look over the business card.

The Concept of Face in China 

The rules surrounding the giving, losing, saving and increasing of "face" may be the most anxiety-producing—and most poorly understood—aspect of Chinese culture. Without going into too much detail, "face" (most commonly called mianzi in Chinese) can translate roughly as "respect," with connotations of "honor" (in an old-world family sense) and "reputation." The best way to avoid causing a loss of face—or losing face yourself—is to avoid losing your temper in public. Control over one's emotions is considered a virtue, and to direct anger at another can easily cause a loss of face. If you find yourself in conflict with someone, keep a lid on your temper, don't get flustered, coolly stick to your guns and be prepared for the long haul—something as simple as an argument over RMB 10 cab fare can result in a bullheaded face off. Another aspect of face that may take some getting used to is the polite lie. Though "honesty is the best policy" in the West (at least we like to tell our kids so, hypocrites that we are), often, in China, one risks losing face with an admission of outright failure, and it's common for an excuse to be issued that is readily accepted to preserve face. Face management also arises in matters of acceptance and refusal. It's not polite, in many cases, to outright refuse something, resulting in what might be termed the "Chinese maybe," which isn't a direct yes or no, but is, rather, a chance for you to read into the situation and accept the face-saving option for yourself or grant it to someone else. Don't worry too much about face—you get a good deal of laowai leeway—but do be aware and willing to learn as you go without taking offense or leaping to judgment over cultural confusion.

Dining in China

Food and dining are at the center of Chinese cultural life, and as long as you keep a few simple rules in mind, you'll have an amazing time feasting on China's incredibly rich and diverse cuisine.

  • Refusing and accepting. It's polite to do both, as long as you do it right. A good rule of thumb: Politely decline an offer, whether it's an invitation to dine or a proffered chicken foot (or other delicacy you're not sure you want to try). You can decline up to three times; after that, accept and make the best of it, sipping that baijiu (see "Drink!" below) or nibbling that chicken wing.
  • Don't try to go Dutch or pay for your host. An invitation to dine is a big-time matter of "face." Hosts demonstrate their generosity by footing the bill; guests show appreciation by letting them.
  • Don't stick your chopsticks in your food or lay them across your plate. Just don't, okay?
  • Don't point your chopsticks at people while gesturing (try not to gesture too wildly in general, as a matter of fact).
  • Drink! "Ganbei!" means "bottoms up!" more or less, and you'll hear it at some point if you go out to eat with Chinese (men, mainly). It might involve the corrosively strong liquor known as baijiu, which is generally an acquired taste. Don't feel obliged to drain your cup—ladies get off especially easy on this one—but do pay respect to your host by taking at least a little sip.
  • Don't tip. Though tipping has taken root in some Western-oriented higher-end restaurants in big cities, it's generally unnecessary and even considered bad form.

Privacy and Personal Space in China

Don't expect too much of either one! Chinese society is primarily communal in its outlook, which can be a real source of friction with individualist-minded Westerners. Chinese people are, generally, comfortable thinking of themselves as just another member of the crowd, sometimes resulting in behaviors that Westerners can find rude, but really shouldn't. Prime examples include:
  • The Mad Crush to squeeze one way through a turnstile or doorway while a stream of people tries to head in the other direction;
  • The classic Stranger Stare. In big cities this isn't such an issue, but in parts of China where foreigners are few and far between, people will stare and hold it... and hold it... and hold it...
  • The Curious Crowd. If you're doing anything slightly out of the ordinary or attention-getting, expect a crowd to gather. This could include bargaining, attempting to speak Chinese, tying your shoe, playing with a baby or reading a book. Don't be alarmed if the crowd draws quite close, because...
  • Personal space? Forget it. Don't be surprised if there are three people in the elevator and they're all standing up against the door and one another. Likewise...
  • Lines? Queues? Not likely! Though you will find lines in certain circumstances (often organized by a guy with a bullhorn), left to their own devices, most Chinese will simply crowd toward the object of their desire. And lines, when they form, can be a bit more free-form than in the West, so watch out for cutters and don't be afraid to stand very close to the person in front of you.
  • Friendly—if uninvited—questions and conversation. It's not at all uncommon to be hailed with a hearty "hello!" in public by a stranger. Often, broken English conversation ensues. This is a great thing if you're trying to practice your Chinese—don't be afraid to turn the tables! (Be smart but not paranoid: sometimes the cute kid chatting you up is a scam artist, so avoid anything involving money).
  • English cornered! "English corner" is a tradition in China's educational system, one that freely transfers to parks, malls and restaurants. Be ready to help strangers practice. The best revenge? Make 'em teach you a little Mandarin!
If you're feeling crowded or pushed, try to maintain your cool and calmly find a bit of space for yourself (don't freak out or yell at someone—see "Face," above). The upside of the communal ethic is that, though there are pickpockets and scam artists afoot, generally the Chinese crowd is entirely harmless. 5. Gifts
Giving gifts shows appreciation and respect, and it's traditional to give a gift when invited to someone's home. Gift giving is often reciprocal, so it's a good idea to avoid too expensive a gift because the recipient may feel obliged to give an equally pricey gift, and they may worry about losing face if they can't afford it. By the same token, if you are given a gift, await the first opportunity to reciprocate, but don't outdo the gift-giver with a substantially more expensive gift or you may cause embarrassment. If you can, it's a great idea to bring a few unique presents from home with you—snacks, candies, chocolate, local-flavor souvenirs, wine or liquor all work well in most cases. If not, flowers and fresh fruits are excellent standbys that are readily available in most cases. If you're dealing with a group, food is an excellent choice, as it can be shared.

Visiting Someone's Home in China

When visiting someone's home, it is customary to remove your shoes at the door. Your host will provide slippers. If you're doing the inviting, the expectations are the same. As noted above, you should bring a gift, even if only a small token. When asked if you would like something—some tea, a drink, a cigarette, some snacks—it is considered polite to refuse at first (three times is recommended), then to accept upon the host's insistence. The old truism about avoiding certain subjects unless you really know someone well holds—bringing up religion and politics, especially regarding hot-button issues and those that have to do with China's national sense of "face" should be avoided. Your hosts will bring them up, no doubt, if they're interested in discussing them.

Shopping in China

China has a great tradition of bargaining, though the advent of brand-name stores and malls is taking some of the fun—and savings—out of shopping. Still, there are countless markets throughout China selling almost everything under the sun, so come ready to haggle like you've never haggled before. It's expected. We recommend starting at about 10-20% of the offered price, letting them work you up to half off, then "giving up" and walking away—chances are, you'll be pursued and given a good deal in the end. Treat it like a game, have fun and don't get worked up. 8. Smoking & Spitting Chinese men smoke. A lot. Expect it. And expect expectoration: Chinese traditional medicine holds that swallowing phlegm is bad for the body and that it's better to get it out—so people do. That said, in big cities like Shanghai and Beijing, spitting has become far less common than in years past, as cultural attitudes change and city governments wage anti-spitting campaigns. As for smoking, most hotels and many restaurants provide non-smoking areas and, as in the West, the awareness of smoking's negative effects on health are beginning to change people's habits. And if you're a smoker, well, welcome to tobacco heaven. Just be wary of purchasing cheap Western brand-name smokes off the street—they could well be fakes.

Age in China

China's Confucian and Taoist roots put huge premium on age, and "filial piety" remains a key virtue in Chinese society. Of course, much has changed, and the number of patriarchs heading huge clans has dwindled under the one-child policy, but you should always defer to the elderly and be extra polite to anyone older than you. Start with the variation on ni hao that signifies recognition of rank: nin hao.

Dating in China

Dating can be tricky enough without cross-cultural complications. Of course, most visitors visiting China on vacation aren't looking for love, but it's always a good idea to have an understanding of a culture's attitudes towards love and marriage, lest face be lost and hearts broken. Many visitors note that relationships between Chinese and non-Chinese run overwhelmingly in one direction: Western men with Chinese women. Whatever the reasons for the imbalance, many can be traced to traditional Chinese attitudes toward relationships—attitudes which still hold sway today, though the many members of the younger generation are adopting less traditional and more "modern" views. Traditionally, the family is sacrosanct in China, and for centuries children have been taught to honor the decisions of their parents as a matter of filial duty. In the realm of relationships, this traditionally meant arranged marriages that often had more to do with social status and financial success than they had to do with love. Even today, many parents work with matchmakers to pair their single children with an appropriate mate. For visiting men, this can mean that flirtation can be taken far more seriously than might be intended, and a "date" can quickly turn into an invitation to meet the parents, who are likely to be interested in what the presumed prospective suitor might have to offer the family. Again, attitudes are changing rapidly in today's China, but unless a guy is willing to get deeper into Chinese family culture fast, he's advised to be careful when it comes to going out with that nice Chinese girl—it's all too easy for cultural signals to get lost in translation and for things to get awkward. As for women, many find that Chinese men are reluctant when it comes to dating. There are many theories as to why, but the fact that China is a strongly patriarchal culture in which men have long worn the proverbial pants may have more than a little to do with it. In the context of traditional Chinese society, many self-confident and assertive Western women may come on a bit too strong or be too vocal and opinionated for more old-fashioned tastes. That said, it's not at all uncommon to see a Chinese man with a Western woman—it's just far less common than the reverse.

Don't Make Assumptions!

We're adding an all-important 11th rule because, contrary to old-fashioned (but, sadly, enduring) stereotypes of China being a conformist mass culture, today's China is a diverse nation featuring 56 recognized ethnic minorities in addition to the majority Han, not to mention a society experiencing far-reaching social changes as the booming economy drives a broad push to modernize. What flies in on the high Tibetan Plateau may not go over so well in steamy Guangzhou. Sophisticate Shanghai urbanites won't give a foreigner a second glance, while nearby Anhui villagers might follow the same foreigner en masse, staring and trying out their "hellos!" You might enjoy a cold carry-in beer at a street-side Sichuan joint, only to be asked to leave if you try the same stunt at a Muslim hand-pulled noodle establishment. Finally—relax. You'll find that individual Chinese are among the friendliest and most polite people you're likely to meet, and with a little patience, perseverance and openness, you'll have a brilliant time in the People's Republic.
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