When traveling to China, understanding Chinese etiquette and customs are essential for putting your best foot forward. Chinese culture is a rich culture that has evolved over thousands of years, and it’s probably quite different from your own.
Especially as a first-time visitor to China, the main advice is to be tolerant and patient. After all, you are a visitor to a foreign culture. Keep in mind that it’s only when you show respect to Chinese etiquette and customs, that you’ll experience the true warmth of Chinese people.
Chinese etiquette tips
Want to make sure you start off on the right foot? These 10 tips on Chinese etiquette will shed light on China’s many unspoken rules, so you’ll end up gaining, not losing, face.
Chinese etiquette tip #1: don’t bow, just say ‘ni hao’
An introduction is the first step to creating a good first impression.
Unlike what many foreigners think, Chinese etiquette does not include bowing when greeting Chinese people. A simple, soft handshake, a smile, and a friendly ‘hi’ or ‘ni hao’ (or ‘nin hao’ to greet older Chinese people) will often suffice.
When addressing Chinese people, address the eldest or most senior person first. Also, address the newly-met people with their honorific title and family name. In China, names are written with the surname (family name) first and the given name second. Take the famous basketball player Yao Ming, for instance. Yao is his family name, and Ming is his given name. You should, therefore, address him as Mr. Yao.
Keep in mind that the level of spoken English in China is widely variable and will often depend on where you are. Even in major tourist cities, such as Guilin or Beijing, there’s no guarantee you’ll encounter any locals speaking English, except for your tour guide or hotel reception staff. Also, many Chinese who do speak a little English are often shy of doing so for fear of embarrassment.
Chinese etiquette tip #2: cover up to blend in
Nowadays, Western fashion trends are just as popular in China as they are in the US and Europe. This makes it much easier for the fashion of foreign travelers to blend in. However, the Chinese wardrobe still differs from a Western one in many ways.
Are you stressing about what to pack for your tour of China? Most of the clothing you’ll see around are probably quite similar to what you’re used to. If you want to blend in, though, lean towards more conservative clothing and avoid showing off too much skin.
Chinese etiquette tip #3: being a good guest in China
It’s becoming increasingly popular for foreigners to be invited into Chinese homes, even as a business associate. Being invited to a Chinese family’s home can be a wonderful and warm experience, one you won’t encounter on any standard tour of China. Chinese people are known to be very welcoming, and they will feel like part of the family.
When you’re invited to a Chinese family’s home, make sure you arrive on time. Offer your host a small gift, and give them a compliment about something you like in the house. It’s customary to take off your shoes before entering your host’s home. In some cases, the host may give you a pair of slippers. The polite thing to do is to accept the slippers and wear them even if they are too small or too large.
Chinese etiquette tip #4: don’t be too shy to try
A Chinese dinner table is a lively place, full of conversation and delicious exotic food. When invited over for dinner, either at a Chinese family’s home or in a restaurant, the best way to ensure that you are abiding by Chinese etiquette is to observe what everybody else is doing and try to do the same.
Wait for someone to tell you where to sit. Mostly, the guest is the first one to be seated by the host, followed by the seniors, and then the juniors. The host often starts eating first and offers the first toast, so wait before you start eating until the host tells you to do so.
Be sure to eat plenty of food to show you’re enjoying it, and don’t be too shy to try everything that is offered to you. Don’t finish off the whole dish, but leave a small amount of food on your plate or serving tray. It shows good manners and tells the cook that (s)he has prepared enough food.
In China, it’s customary to eat foods like chicken and shrimps with your hands and to drink from your bowl. Using chopsticks would be appreciated, and our guides can show you how to use them. But if you’re feeling unsure, do not hesitate to ask for cutlery. No Chinese host would want you going hungry!
When you do eat with chopsticks, make sure you don’t stick them upright in a bowl of rice. When you’re not using your chopsticks, leave them flat on the table, or when you’re finished eating, place them flat on top of your bowl.
Chinese etiquette tip #5: the gift of giving
Giving and receiving gifts can be a confusing matter for foreigners, and the Chinese etiquette around it is quite complex. Gifts are usually given when visiting someone’s home, when being invited for dinner, on major Chinese holidays, at a wedding, or at a birthday party.
Here are a couple of things to remember when presenting or receiving a gift in China:
- Present or receive your gift with both hands to show respect.
- Refuse a gift at least two or three times before accepting it.
- Do not open your gift in front of the person who gave it to you. It is polite to open the gifts after you leave unless your counterpart asks you to open the gift immediately.
- Following Chinese etiquette, these items are not suitable for gifts in China: clocks, handkerchiefs, umbrellas straw sandals, anything that resembles a stork or a crane. These items are associated with separation, death, or bad luck. Also, don’t give any sharp objects, like scissors or knives, as these could imply cutting off the relationship.
- Gifts from your home country are always welcome and appreciated. Chinese people also like to receive fruit and other produce, especially when presented in a nice box or basket. However, do not give your Chinese counterpart a pear, as it’s associated with separation in China.
Chinese etiquette tip #6: Chinese curiosity
For foreigners, Chinese people may come across as being very curious. Chinese people aren’t afraid to ask personal questions, even if you’ve just met. So, don’t be surprised to be asked things like your age, your education, your work, or your marital status during your first conversation. You do not have to answer these private questions if you don’t want to. Just explain to them that you don’t wish to talk about your personal life.
When you’re out and about, you may encounter some curious looks, or even seemingly random shouts of “hello”. Sometimes these shouts are coming from a vendor, wanting to sell you something. Sometimes it’s from someone who’s trying to communicate with a non-Chinese, but because it’s coming from behind or in passing it may come across as cheeky. Nevertheless, these shouts of “hello” are usually a friendly gesture, and in most cases the only way Chinese people know how to get a foreigner’s attention.
Chinese etiquette tip #7: respect the elders
Respecting elders is deeply ingrained in Chinese culture. When addressing elders, Chinese etiquette involves using the word “nin”, which is the polite version of the word “you” in Mandarin. The elders almost always come first in Chinese society. You greet them first in a meeting, and they get seated first at dinner.
Chinese etiquette tip #8: flattery will get you somewhere
We all like a compliment, don’t we? Chinese people do as well. Don’t be surprised if they say your Chinese is very good, even if all you said was “ni hao”, or if they tell you that your country is the most beautiful country in the world, even if they’ve never set foot in it themselves.
For some, these kinds of almost robotic compliments may come across as fake, or even hypocritical. China has a culture based on the concept of face. Therefore, it’s polite to give compliments to the person you are talking to. The appropriate response to a compliment is a modest one, something in the line of “you’re too kind”, or “you flatter me”, and then give a compliment back.
Chinese etiquette tip #9: the concept of face
The concept of face in Chinese culture is a very complex one and it’s easy for a foreign traveler to unknowingly cause an embarrassing situation. Although, it’s often assumed and accepted that a foreigner does not mean to cause someone to lose face, it’s still better to try and avoid uncomfortable situations for you or your Chinese counterparts. Here’s how you do that:
- Avoid behaving in a way that may make someone feel embarrassed or uncomfortable.
- Do not criticize someone in front of other people.
- Do not lose your temper, yell at people, or show anger in public.
- Do not talk too much about yourself and do not interrupt someone in the middle of a conversation.
Chinese etiquette tip #10: enjoy warm and welcoming China!
Immerse yourself in the warm and welcoming world of the local Chinese. As a guest in China, you will receive special treatment, and your hosts will go above and beyond to make sure you will have a good time.
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