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Chinese Etiquette

Greeting

  • Address a person by an honorific title or by Mr., Mrs., or Miss plus the family name.
  • Handshake is the most common form of greeting.
  • The oldest person is always greeted first as a sign of respect.

Table Manners

  • Drinking a toast – tap the table twice, and stand up if it's more formal.
  • At a banquet or on formal occasions, it’s polite to sample all the dishes, and at the end of the meal you should leave a little on the plate to demonstrate the generosity of the host.
  • Do not put bones in your bowl. Place them in a small tray for that purpose, or you can first observe how other people do.
  • Under no circumstances should chopsticks be placed upright in your bowl. This symbolizes death. Nor should you tap your bowl with chopsticks. Learn more about Chinese host and guest customs.

Giving and Receiving Gifts

  • Present and receive things with both hands.
  • Chinese people usually do not unwrap the gifts when the receive them. It is considered polite in Chinese culture to open the gifts after you leave. When you receive a gift from Chinese people, do not open them unless they insist, or you may simply say, "Can I open it?"
  • When wrapping gifts, avoid using white or black wrapping paper, and avoid wrapping elaborately. Consider red or other festive colors.
  • Even numbers are considered good luck, with number four being the exception. It is appropriate to send one gift or send them in pairs.
  • It is inappropriate to send a clock or things to do with four as a gift, because they associate with funeral and death. Scissors or sharp things are not proper either, since they symbolize severing relations.
  • Small items like books, music CDs, perfumes, cigarettes and candies from your country are always well received.

Do's and Don'ts

  • Chinese people are just as proud of their country as visitors are of theirs, and probably more so. They can get a little irritated when customers favor them with criticisms of the country. They know that things are not perfect, and they also know that they, like other countries, are working hard to deal with problems of environment and population and so on. Discussions regarding politics, state leaders, recent history, and issues about Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet are still seen as sensitive.
  • Do not overreact when asked personal questions regarding marital status, family, age, job or income, because this is done to seek common ground.
  • Never write things in red ink. It symbolizes protest or severe criticism.
  • Punctuality is considered a virtue in China. Being on time shows respect for others. Chinese people tend to show up a bit earlier to show their earnestness. In the morning for tour departure or at any other time. It indicates a lack of respect for the guide, and for fellow travelers
  • Do not back slap, hug or put your arm around someone’s shoulder, which will make a Chinese feel uncomfortable, since they do not like to be touched by strangers. Of course you can do so if you are familiar with each other.
  • Keep calm when dealing with government officials if tense situations arise. Raising your voice or getting angry will help with nothing but creating a losing-face situation for all.
  • Public display of affection is frowned upon.

Regional Etiquette

Around Tibet, Jiuzhaiguo and areas with Tibetan population:

  • Don't photograph old folk without permission (which is likely to cost you – it's often assumed that a request to photograph them is an offer to pay – the same in some places on the Silk Road)
  • Don't step on the lama's shadow
  • In temples: take off your hat, don't point directly (if you want to indicate a statue and HAVE to use your hand, palm up, fingers flat and together in that direction
  • Don't dip your fingers in the yak butter lamps in the temple, to taste the butter (apart from being highly offensive, it's also a health risk)
  • Avoid walking between a person praying to the Buddha and the statue

In the Mosques:

  • Cover your arms to the elbow, and your legs above the knees as a minimum
  • Don't shake hands with the opposite gender
  • Wearing a scarf over the head is a courtesy, but not obligatory

Along the Silk Road (Kashgar, Urumqi etc):

  • Don't order pork in a muslim restaurant (guide can help identify muslim restaurants)
  • Avoid "sensitive" questions, eg relations between ethnic groups
  • Alcohol, cigarettes:  ask first and then behave in accordance with the answer (generally don't expect alcohol in a muslim restaurant)
  • In the Xinjiang province the prices are not over the top, so be reasonable when negotiating, rather than the harder bargaining of the eastern seaboard

Further Reading

  • How to Visit a Chinese Family (Properly)