If you are traveling to China, living in China, have friends or family who just moved to China, or are going to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, here you can brush up on your Chinese etiquette (or better yet, send them the link!).
This a comprehensive guide written by an expatriate who has lived in China for over two years, complete with pictures, videos, “Insider Tips” (things you will never see in any book), and translations. Most important, it is current information from someone who learned by living it.
First and Foremost / Key Concepts to Understand Chinese Culture
- Relationships are deeply valued in Chinese culture. Guanxi or ‘relationship’ is an idea that is fundamental throughout society. Having friends, family, and business contacts to help you is very important.
- Face, or mianxi, losing face, saving face, and giving face are important concepts that should be taken into serious consideration at all times. An quick example of losing face would be to lose your temper in public.
- Being polite and courteous, or li. Chinese believe that proper etiquette preserves face.
- Keqi literally means, “guest” and “behavior”. It is most closely linked to being modest and humble. You’ll often times people says, “Bie keqi” (pron. “bee-ah kuh-chee”) which means “You’re so polite”, or “You needn’t be so polite.”
Respect in China
- It is important to show respect to elders (and everyone for that matter.) Although the Chinese do not use “thank you” in the same way or with the same frequency as some Westerners, you should always say “xie xie” (thank you) if someone does something for you (pours you a cup of tea, adds food to your bowl, offers you a pear, etc.) “Xie xie” roughly sounds like “shay shay”. Don’t worry about perfecting the accent, the sentiment is what counts.
- If you have Chinese family members who are older than you, always go out of your way to help and assist them (pulling out chairs, opening car doors, assisting them with steps, etc).
- Chinese people offer respect in a different way than Westerners. For example, a taxi driver is called a “shi fu”, or “master”. It is important to give face and respect to people who are working for you.
- Chinese to not use sarcasm as a form of communication. Sarcasic comments do not translate well and will lead to confusion. Also, Chinese people do not playfully attack each other’s character as some Westerners do. You would never pick on someone in a group, especially if they are your own family. If you have these squabbles back home, do not bring them to China.
“Wow, you’re fat!”
- The Chinese will comment on your appearance directly to your face. When you hear, “Oyo! Ni pang le!” (Wow, you’re fat!), it’s almost the sentiment as “Oh look, now you have a beard!” In other words, it is not meant to hurt anyone’s feelings, but more of an observation. Take it lightly, smile, and nod it off. Next time you see someone who has gained weight, you can return the phrase.
Chinese Asking “How much does it cost?”
- For Americans, it is considered impolite to ask someone’s salary, or ask how much you paid for something. In China, it isn’t. As a matter of fact, it is often times the focal point of the conversation, especially with gifts. “How much does that watch you’re wearing cost? How much do you make a month? How much is your rent? Thanks for this vase, how much was it?” (Then there is always the classic, “One week, you make how much money?”) This all goes back to having face. You can always dodge the question by saying, “Wang ji le!”, (“I forgot”) or “Wo bu zhidao,” (“I don’t know”) if you feel uncomfortable.
Cutting in Line
The Chinese government-operated television network, CCTV, is currently (9/2007) running “etiquette” ads. I guess they are trying to internationalize Chinese etiquette. It is likely that these ads are in preparation for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. So, they’re trying! However, on your next trip to China, you may:
- Get cut in line
- Get cut off in traffic
- Get bumped into (with no “excuse me”)
- See (and hear “haawk!”) people spit
- Breathe in hefty doses of second-hand cigarette smoke
- See people slurp or smack their food
- See babies doing their business on the sidewalk (with the loving assistance of their mothers)
- See people driving recklessly
- Hear someone call you “lao wai!”
If someone cuts you, tap them on the shoulder and say, “Bie cha dui,” (Don’t cut). Nine times out of ten they will go to the end of the line with no hard feelings.
Have more to add? Write them in the comments!