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Chinese Etiquette — Do's and Don'ts in China

tourists and local outside old house in ChinaWhen meeting the locals in China, it's good to know what to do and what not to do.

China’s culture has developed differently from other countries’ for thousands of years. As a result, the culture is probably quite different from your own, so it’s worth reading some tips on how to be polite in China. This guide will help you navigate the do’s and don’ts of Chinese etiquette…

1.Greetings

Do

  1. Do address seniority by the family name followed by an honorific title (family relationship or e.g. 'teacher': laoshi /laow-shrr/), or Mr. (xiansheng /sshyen-shnng/) or Ms. (nvshi /nyoo-shrr/).
  2. Do address the eldest or most senior person first. This is done as a sign of respect to those in a more senior position.
  3. Do use ‘Nin hao’ (/neen-haow/ ‘you good’) )when addressing older people. This a more polite and formal way of saying ‘ni hao’ (/nee haow/).
  4. Do take off your shoes when entering someone’s home. This is extremely important and should be remembered whenever entering a person’s home.
  5. Do bring a small gift with you. When meeting someone for the first time in a planned setting, make sure to bring a small gift with you as a token of friendship.

Don’t

  1. Don’t bow. Bowing is not a custom in China is not done when greeting people.
  2. Don’t offer a firm handshake. Handshakes in China tend to be softer, and a firm handshake could be misconstrued as a sign of aggression.
  3. Don’t interrupt or try to talk over senior people. Social ranking is taken seriously in China, and is quite often tied to the age of a person. You should let whoever is older or most senior lead the conversation and try to avoid talking over them,

See more on Communicating in China.

2.Table Manners

instruction on using chopsticksOur guide can show you how to use chopsticks in Chinese way.

Do

  1. Do join in the toast. It’s very polite to join in on each toast and say the words “gan bei” (/gan bay/ ’dry cup’) before finishing your drink.
  2. Do sample everything. At dinner it is polite to sample each dish available and remark loudly that you enjoy the food.
  3. Do let elders sit down first. After this you should wait to be instructed where to sit.
  4. Do feel free to drink from the bowl or use your fingers to eat food like chicken and shrimp. Just make sure that this food is already on your own plate.

Don’t

  1. Don’t leave chopsticks stood upright in your food, like sticks of incense. This symbolizes death and should never be done.
  2. Don’t tap the bowl with your chopsticks or point them at other people. This is considered to be very rude and should be avoided.
  3. Don’t use your own chopsticks to take food from the dishes. Use the serving chopsticks or ladles provided.
  4. Don’t spit bones in your bowl or onto the floor. Use a tissue or hand to place them on the small plate provided – or observe how others deal with them.
  5. Don’t take the last pieces from a serving tray. This would show a lack of consideration for others. (Ask if everyone else is full first.)

Learn more about Chinese table manners.

3.Giving and Receiving Gifts

Giving and Receiving Gifts in China One of our staff members giving a gift to a customer

Do

  1. Do present gifts with both hands. This is considered polite in China, and likewise gifts should be received with both hands.
  2. Do refuse to accept the gift a couple of times before accepting it. Politely refusing before accepting the gift is usual in Chinese culture and this may be done several times. So don’t be discouraged when giving gifts.
  3. Do consider gifting fresh fruit or other produce. This is very polite in Chinese culture, particularly when presented in a nice box or basket.
  4. Do gift items from your home country. Things like cigarettes or alcohol from your home country (or from a nice Chinese brand) are always welcome and appreciated.

Don’t

  1. Don’t be too hasty to unwrap the gift. It is considered polite to open the gifts after you leave, unless directed to by the person presenting you with the gift.
  2. Don’t use white or black wrapping paper. Instead the gift should be wrapped in festive colours such as red.
  3. Don’t gift a clock or things to do with the number four. In Chinese culture the clock and the number four is associated with funerals and death. This is extremely impolite to gift to anyone. Likewise scissors or sharp objects are not proper either, as they symbolize the severing of relations.

See more on Chinese New Year Gift Giving Etiquette

4.General Do's and Don'ts

Do

  1. Do be on time. . Punctuality is important in China as it shows respect for others. Always be on time for engagements or try to show up a little earlier. (10 minutes is culturally an acceptable degree of lateness.)
  2. Do keep calm. The bureaucracy and lack of directness can become frustrating. Remember to remain calm at all times in order to save face for everyone.
  3. Do feel free to lavish praise. China has culture based on the concept of mianzi (/myen-dzuh/ ‘face’). It is polite to lavish praise on both the person you are speaking to and on China itself.

Don’t

  1. Don’t react negatively when asked personal questions regarding marital status, family, age, job or even income. This is done out of polite curiosity and serves as Chinese-style small talk.
  2. Don’t write things in red ink. It symbolizes protest or severe criticism and is very impolite.
  3. Don’t carry out public displays of affection. China is a reserved society and generally frowns upon excessive public displays of affection,. However, a hug with someone you know well is fine.
  4. Don’t get too touchy with others. Chinese tend to feel uncomfortable with a back slap, hug or arm around their shoulder, and they especially don’t like it from those they don’t know well. Save it for someone you have a good relationship with.

5.In Tibetan Areas

tibet Don't photograph people without permission in Tibet,Jiuzhaigou,etc.

Do

  1. Do walk clockwise when touring a temple or a monastery.
  2. Do donate a few yuan to religious beggars. This is considered an act of merit in Tibetan culture.
  3. Do take off your hat when entering temples. This is done as a sign of respect.

Don’t

  1. Don’t take photographs of people. Tibetans are reserved people and do not appreciate being photographed. However, depending on the situation you could if you ask permission first.
  2. Don’t touch a Tibetan on the head. Tibetans believe that God resides in your head and may be offended if you touch them here.
  3. Don’t walk between a person praying to the Buddha and the statue.
  4. Don’t dip your fingers in the yak butter lamps in the temples. You may be tempted to taste the butter, but this is highly offensive and also a health risk.
  5. Don’t point directly. If you want to indicate a statue and have to use your hand you should gesture palm up, fingers flat and together, in that direction.
  6. Don't step on a lama's shadow.

See more on How to Visit a Chinese Temple.

6.In Islamic areas (the Silk Road)

Do

  1. Do cover up when visiting a mosque. At a minimum you should cover your arms to the elbow and your legs to below the knees.
  2. Do keep gender separation in mosques. This is very important and you shouldn’t even shake hands with the opposite gender in a mosque.
  3. Do wear a scarf over your head in mosques if you’re a woman.

Don’t

  1. Don't bring non-halal items into a Muslim restaurant/home (our guide can help if you're unsure).
  2. Don’t ask "sensitive" questions, e.g. relations between ethnic groups and the government.
  3. Don’t assume alcohol and cigarettes are permitted. This is usually not the case and if you’re unsure you can ask first.

See more on Islam in China.

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