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Do's and Don'ts in China

Foreigners at a local Chinese house

There will be quite a few differences between your culture and China's. This should help you to know what to do to be polite...

Greeting

  • Address grownups by an honorific title (family relationship or e.g. 'teacher': laoshi) or by the family name plus Mr. (xiansheng), Ms. (nvshi).
  • A handshake is the most common form of non-verbal greeting, or just a nod, though neither is necessary.
  • The oldest person is always greeted first as a sign of respect.

See more on Communicating in China.

Table Manners

  • When 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.
  • Bones and other inedibles: Do not put spit bones in your bowl or elsewhere. Use a tissue or hand to place them in the small plate provided — or observe how others deal with them.
  • Chopsticks: 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 table manners.

Giving and Receiving Gifts

  • Present and receive things with both hands.
  • Chinese people usually do not unwrap gifts when receiving 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 ask, "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.

General 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 China. 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.
  • 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.
  • Never write things in red ink. It symbolizes protest or severe criticism.
  • Punctuality is considered a virtue in China (though on average Chinese are 10 minutes late for engagements). Being on time shows respect for others. Chinese people show up a bit earlier to show their earnestness. Being on time for your tour or at any other time shows respect for the guide, and for fellow travelers
  • Public displays of affection are frowned upon. 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.

Regional Etiquette

In Tibetan Areas

Around Tibet, Jiuzhaiguo, etc.

  • 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 a lama's shadow.
  • In temples:
    Take off your hat, and don't point directly (if you want to indicate a statue and HAVE to use your hand, gesture 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.
    More on visiting temples>>

In Mosques:

  • Cover your arms to the elbow, and your legs above the knees as a minimum.
  • Keep gender separation: Don't shake hands with the opposite gender.
  • Wearing a scarf over the head is required for women.

On the Silk Road:

The Silk Road includes the Muslim areas of China's northwwest:

  • Don't bring non-halal items into a Muslim restaurant/home (our guide can help if you're unsure).
  • Avoid "sensitive" questions, e.g. relations between ethnic groups and the government.
  • Alcohol and cigarettes are usually not permitted: ask first.

Touring China for the First Time

Are you preparing to go to China for the first time? We can help you create your own trip so that China is not too much of a shock, and more of a pleasure. Learn more about our China tours.

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