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One of the major challenges for tourists visiting China is the language. Most Chinese don't speak English much beyond "Hello". The Effective Language Learning Center classifies Mandarin and Cantonese as the most difficult languages for native English speakers. This means that you need not necessarily feel embarrassed about not knowing how to say something in Chinese.
You can instead use body language and hand signs. It is important to appreciate that body language in China differs a lot with the West. Body language and gestures form a vital component of the rich Chinese heritage and culture, and thus should not be overlooked when visiting China.
The Chinese, along with other Far Eastern nations are known for a lack of outward expression. (Our article on Chinese and Western Thought will help you understand why this is.) Therefore, understanding what little body language there is becomes doubly important.
It is vital to appreciate that China is a vast country and its cultural gestures and body language cannot be covered in a single article, but this should give you a quick start.
In China, when you are trying to communicate by pointing at someone, the acceptable way is using all fingers and not one finger which is considered rude. Chinese do not appreciate a one finger pointing at them as this is likely to be interpreted as that you despise them.
In Western Culture, when you touch your chest or heart, it implies me or I. In China however, if you intend to mean yourself, you touch your nose. In some western culture, touching your nose means you are pausing to think about a situation. It is important to be aware that touching someone else's nose is considered rude.
Many cultures in the world nod when agreeing, and this also happens in China.
In business Westerners shake hands to confirm the deal. This is not the case in China, where body contact is less, and agreement is not always so open.
In the event that you are agree with what someone is trying to tell you, you interlock your last fingers. This sign also signifies goodwill — a desire and commitment for the agreement to last.
You can also interlock little fingers with someone else to 'swear' a promise, but this is usually only done between very close friends, or informally.
A shake of the head works in China, as in the West, but many Chinese will show you their palm close to the body with a slight side-to-side wave to indicate negativity. This gesture is also useful for waving away troublesome hawkers, or indicating you don't want any more food, etc.
In the West, you would hold your hand out with your palm facing up and fingers touching each other then gently wave the fingers jointly to say come here.
In China you should hold your hand out with palm facing down and fingers rapidly waving to mean come here. However, this gesture is typically used when summoning kids, taxis, waiters, and the like.
To call an adult peer or someone in a senior position, you establish eye contact, then a slight bow would summon them to you politely. We have more on Etiquette in China.
To symbolize thank you in China, you let either palm rest on the fist of the other hand. In some parts of the country, this is followed by a slight bow.
If a waiter is serving you tea, coffee or any food, you tap your first two fingers on the table to show appreciation for their good service. At times, failure to do this may be interpreted to mean they didn't do well.
This must not be confused with wishing someone good fortune. If you do not know how to tell someone that you wish them well in their endeavors, you interlock your hands in-front of you as exemplified in this image.
While Chinese use the same hand gestures from one to five, numbers six to 10 are significantly different from the West.
These are very useful when bargaining, or saying how many of something you want. This is particularly useful as 1 and 7, 2 and 8, 4 and 10, and 6 and 9 sound similar in Chinese!
Many vendors will have a calculator on standby to display a proposed price offer. We have tips on how to bargain (which mostly only require body language) on our Shopping in China page.
Pointing to some Chinese characters or a map, with a 2-finger walking action, and a questioning shrug will get you most places (eventually).
Western tourists have even been known to wordlessly purchase train tickets at a station ticket window with just a piece of paper for writing destinations and gestures. If you're adventurous and determined you can get a long way in the Middle Kingdom before your Chinese language skills develop.
You may also get some phone-age extra help from The Top 10 Apps for China Travelers.
If you are planning a trip to China, contact us to have us design a customized tour for you.
For places to visit, best travel times, travel style options, and more, see ideas and suggestions from our travel specialists.