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The Top 10 Faux Pas to Avoid in China

Shaolin TempleChinese Temple

A trip to China can be exciting and eye-opening. Culture, manners, and social ideas might be quite different from your own. 

Here is a list of ten important points of etiquette. The list will help avoid faux pas to avoid offending Chinese inadvertently and to promote good contacts with the local Chinese people.

1) Don't Disrespect Homes or Temples

It is important to remove your shoes before entering many homes or temples. But it is an individual thing. Chinese follow different household customs. If they want you to remove your shoes, don't worry that your feet are less than presentable. Your hosts are probably more offended by shoes worn inside than by a hole in your socks. You can ask the host about whether you should remove your shoes since in many homes, people don't.

However, it is also rude to show the bottom of your feet or your soles to others. So when you sit and cross your legs, try to point your feet at a spot where there are no Chinese present. If they move around, you might need to keep moving your feet nimbly and quickly. Keep alert!

2) Don't Talk About Uncomfortable Topics

Unless you have a good reason, don't talk about death, or mention that someone died. Death is quite a serious and ominous topic to Chinese. The color white represents death, so avoid giving white things as gifts or wrapping gifts in white paper or ribbons.

Other things you shouldn't talk about are comparing China to Japan, or political and religious issues. Chinese people are often not comfortable discussing history or political incidents that may cause embarrassment to China with foreigners, as they see their history from a different perspective. Avoiding sensitive topics like this will keep your conversation positive and friendly.

3) Don't Expect Interpersonal Communications to Be the Same

Traveling to a foreign country can be an exercise in patience. Don't expect the locals you encounter to speak English. It might be a good idea to try to communicate in the language of the region you are visiting unless you make a lot of pronunciation mistakes and confuse or insult people.

Don't point at people or beckon with one finger when you are communicating with them. Instead, motion with the palm of your hand. 

4) Don't Touch People

The Chinese are less affectionately touchy feely, and hug and kiss much less than people from other cultures. When you meet a stranger, it might be best simply to greet verbally instead of trying to shake hands. This feels unnatural to most Chinese. When greeting, a slight nod is fine. Don't bow and never kiss or hug hello or goodbye, as personal contact is not that common.

In many areas of the country, due to tradition and religion, the head is considered more sacred. A touch could be considered disrespectful. So be aware of this, and don't pat people on the head or play with their hair unless you are sure of your standing with them. 

However, you'll find that personal space in public (especially on public transport) is quite uncommon — Chinese in crowds may be more pushy and crush up against others for a place in line or a seat

Both of these notions may go against your beliefs and what you are used to at home, where affection is much more readily displayed but personal space is more valued. Learning the nuances of behavior takes time.

5) Don't Stop Offering Gifts

If your travel to China includes meeting individuals, either for business or personal reasons, you might consider travelling with gifts you can hand out. Appropriate gifts at appropriate times may be useful in building relationships and make Chinese happy.

It isn't usually considered appropriate in China to refuse a gift that is offered. However, don't be offended and don't stop offering if a gift is refused at first. Generally it may require several offers before a gift is accepted, so that the receiver isn't seen as greedy. It is Chinese culture to refuse the first offer, to show restraint. Likewise, a gift might not be opened in your presence since it may lead to loss of face to open a gift in front of the giver.

However, remember that your gift may be viewed as a bribe, and it may make people feel indebted to you or be viewed in a negative way for these reasons. But in general, it will be okay if given in a friendly way.

6) Don't Offend with Your Gift

Be careful with the gifts you give. 

While gift baskets of flowers and fruit are common in the U.S., certain types of flowers and fruits are considered unlucky or inappropriate in China. It is best to avoid these altogether or learn about the special meanings of flowers and fruits to know what to give accurately. Don't give bad smelling flowers, and cut flowers should be avoided as well.

  • Varying regional cultures in China ascribe different meanings to certain colors. It is best to choose either yellow, pink, or red for gift wrapping. Avoid any dark colors or white since these are commonly associated with bad luck.
  • Avoid giving clocks also since they connote death to Chinese. 
  • Avoid giving umbrellas because the Chinese word for umbrellas, san sounds like the verb 'to split up'. 
  • On top of that, green hats are a taboo gift. This is because the phrase "to wear a green hat" (戴绿帽子  dài lǜ màozi) means 'to be cuckold by one's unfaithful wife'.
  • Don't give anything in fours since the Chinese word for four sounds like the word for death.
  • However gifts that come in sets of eight such as a set of eight tea cups or pieces of candy are considered a good omen, since eight is a lucky number. Eight sounds like the word fa that means 'wealth' or 'good fortune'.
  • When somebody offers you their business card or a gift, accept it with both hands. Also use two hands if you are offering your business card or gift to somebody else. This is seen as a sign of respect to the person you are meeting.

7) Don't Tip

Tipping is a practice that is not observed in China. Cab drivers, restaurant staff, and bellmen do not expect to be tipped and could even be offended if offered extra money. If not offended, they will be confused and try to give your money back. Not tipping avoids these awkward situations, even though it may take some getting used to if you are coming from a society where tipping is important.

The sole exception to this practice is a tour that is catered for foreign visitors. The individuals on these tours often depend upon tips for their income. Therefore, it is wise to budget for tipping guides and drivers as one would in most other places in the world.

8) Don't Try To Pay When Hosted by Chinese

Chinese diningDining Etiquette

If you are a foreigner new to them, Chinese are not quite sure what you'll do when they invite you to a meal. Among themselves, who the host is to be is clear from the situation. The elder or senior person will do the inviting and be the host.

It is considered rude if someone who isn't the host at the table starts ordering the food since the hosting person orders all the dishes and usually does so without asking people what they want. But since you are a foreigner, it would probably be ok for you to tell the host what you like or dislike. Then again, it might be considered quite rude. It depends on the situation and who you are with.

In China, restaurant bills are never shared. They don’t “go Dutch.” The person hosting might be embarrassed if you chip in. However, if you have asked people out yourself, it is expected that you pay for the entire bill.

9) Don't Forget Table Manners

chopsticks on a bowlPlace chopsticks like this on top of the bowl.

Don't ignore chopstick etiquette. Chinese have a lot of ideas about this. Chopsticks are for eating only. They are not to be used for gesturing to items or individuals. They are also not to be used as drumsticks or as playthings at someone's table.

Don't place chopsticks inside the bowl when finished or stick them in your hair. Instead, place the chopsticks on top of the bowl. Definitely don't stick your chopsticks straight up in your food. This is an ill omen representing death or a curse against them.

10) Don't Get Upset 

If somethings unexpected happens, which is likely to happen while you are traveling, don't get upset and make a scene, as this leads to the people you are dealing with losing face, leaving the situation even less likely to be resolved. The best way to deal with situations like this in China is to remain calm and patient, and ask for help from your guide in solving the issue at hand.

Let Us Help You Have a Wonderful Visit

Our experienced tour guides can teach you about relevant points of Chinese etiquette and culture and help you have a smooth and enjoyable trip. Consider touring with our guides especially if this is your first trip.

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They'll help you enjoy yourself, and you'll learn more about China and the Chinese than you might be able to learn on your own. This is valuable knowledge that you can apply on your next trip to China as a tourist or perhaps for serious business or employment.

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