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Know Before You Go

China's Cultural Do's and Don'ts

Containing the world’s largest population, China is home to 56 ethnic groups and has a rich cultural heritage spanning over 4,000 years since the Xia dynasty. The landscape is as diverse as the traditions of its people, with seven ecoregions and abundant repositories for wildlife in China. Some cultural practices may seem foreign to first-time visitors, and to be prepared, there are some general rules of etiquette when traveling to this remarkable country.

Here are some guidelines to follow during your stay in China:

GREETINGS

  • When addressing a Chinese person use an honorific title followed by their surname. These titles include Mr. (xiansheng), Ms. (nüshi), and age-related terms such as honorable young one (xiao) and honorable elder (lao). Chinese women keep the family names they were born with, even after marriage. With Chinese names, the family name (xing) comes first, followed by the given name (ming). Do not address a Chinese person by their given name unless they specifically tell you to do so. Though there are thousands of surnames in China, the 100 family names account for over 85 percent of the population.
  • Greet people with a polite ni hao. Chinese cuisine is at the heart of daily life and culture, and you may be asked “Have you eaten?” rather than “How are you?” Reply with a simple “yes” as this question is merely conventional.
  • Unlike in Japan were bowing is the norm, the most common way to greet others in China is with a handshake. As a sign of respect, elders are acknowledged first, given a gentle handshake and a slight nod. A Chinese person may cover the handshake with their left hand in an expression of warmth.
  • A Chinese person typically greets another with their eyes slightly lowered, as staring directly into a person’s eyes is considered disrespectful. Embracing or kissing in greeting or farewell is unusual.

CONVERSATIONS 

  • In China, “yes” does not always mean yes. When a person nods their head, they may be merely following what you are saying, not giving a definitive answer.
  • It is uncommon for a Chinese person to directly say “no” to a request. Preserving relationships is of the utmost importance, and to appear respectful, people often communicate “no” in a roundabout way. The solution is to review what has been discussed and understand what is expected—be precise and never leave anything open to interpretation. For example, rather than asking “Can you do this for me?”, ask “How will you do this for me and when will it be done?”
  • Try not to speak in euphemisms or slang, as you might be misunderstood.
  • Avoid discussing politics and religion.
  • If you try to speak a few Chinese words during your encounters, it will be recognized and appreciated.
  • Be patient. Raising your voice or showing anger or frustration may result in you being completely ignored.

PUBLIC CONDUCT

  • Many Chinese people avoid expressing emotion in public, so acting in a reserved manner is encouraged.
  • Pushing is expected in public areas, and respect for lines doesn’t necessarily exist.

EATING

  • When pouring and drinking tea, avoid setting the teapot down with the spout facing someone, as it is believed to give that person bad luck.
  • At a banquet, it is polite to sample all dishes offered to you and to leave a little food on your plate at the end of the meal to thank the host for their generosity.
  • Always lay your chopsticks across your dish rather than placing them in the bowl. After a person dies, their shrine often has a bowl of rice with two incense sticks stuck upright. If you stick your chopsticks in a rice bowl, it is like wishing death upon someone at the table! 
  • Do not tap your bowl with your chopsticks. People will tap their bowls in a restaurant if the food is taking too long. If you do this in someone’s home, you are insulting the cook.

Header Credit: Court Whelan

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