Chinese Etiquette: Key Concepts, Being Polite, Cultural Differences

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

    Arriving 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

Travelling to China by Robert ThompsonThe 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!

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12 thoughts on “Chinese Etiquette: Key Concepts, Being Polite, Cultural Differences

  1. I’ve really enjoyed reading this site. I visited China on a school trip in 2000 and loved it. However, being a group of unruly Scottish teenagers we weren’t taught a huge deal about the differences between our two cultures. I’ve learned a lot from your articles and, now I’m an adult, would love to return. Think the time might be right to begin saving for another trip! Thank you.

  2. Hello Robert,

    I prefer Rob for myself, but I just wanted to say I have been in China for about two years and have been learning Mandarin and about Chinese customs. I find your information to be EXTREMELY correct and just wanted to validate everything you have said. Furthermore, if you wanted to chat sometime or otherwise my email is robkerr2004@hotmail.com (I also use MSN). I been all around China and am currently in Changzhou, Jiangsu Province, just wondering where you are currently living.

    Drop me a line sometime,

    Great job on the guide!

  3. Thank you for posting this valuable information!

    I’m traveling to China later this month and I’m wondering if there are specific clothing requirements required for entering temples, eating out, etc? Are flip-flops okay?

    Also, I watched the Joy Luck Club many years ago and I remember that it was taboo for the American put salt on his dish – is this considered rude when eating out? Are there American customs that the Chinese would see as rude?

    THANK YOU!!!

  4. @Kirsten – While there are no specific requirements, it always put me off a bit when I would see tourists who looked like they just got off a 10-mile hike, or just woke up from the beach and are slopping around China and visiting the Buddhist temples. In general, China is fairly conservative, and while that doesn’t mean I am, I did try to to be respectful and match their customs as much as I could.

    Also, for open-toed anything, I wouldn’t do that. Think about the bathrooms and other nastiness that you might come in contact with. So get some good shoes.

    Great question about the salt and modifying food in China, I love that scene in the Joy Luck Club when the white dude says, “Oh, it’s okay! All this needs is a little soy sauce!” Dude you wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve seen this in real life. Don’t do this! Ever! In any country!

    It’s customary for the host or cook to criticize their cooking. They will say, “Oh, it’s no good — too salty”, or “Oh, it’s bad, I’m not a good cook.”

    It’s actually not bad or salty or wrong at all — it’s probably perfect, but again, as showing off is looked down upon in China, your hosts are just being humble and modest. This is a good trait, I wish more people were that way. So just take some of the dinner and say, “Oyo! Te bie hoa chi!” [oy-yo! tu-bee-ah how cheh!]

    Oyo = wow, or Oh my god!
    Te bie hao chi = This tastes so good!

    For your last question, you might read about cultural differences in China.

  5. I am so glad I found this site. My husband has been invited to go to Shanghai University to work with the art education students and I will be going along to take photos. Is there anywhere that it is inappropriate to take photos? I plan to ask before hand but want to be polite and not ask where it is truely off limits. Thanks!

  6. Good question. A lot of the dated guidebooks will tell you not to take photos of anything — no government buildings, no officials, officers, soldiers. This is probably good advice, but I have to say, I was never hassled and I took pictures of everything.

    The only place I would avoid taking pictures (for many reasons) is inside a Buddhist temple (or a “fu ta”), and remember not to point with your finger inside these temples, rather, use an open palm face up. Always enter a temple by stepping over the door entrance with your left foot (you’ll see that there is about a one-foot barrier that you need to step over, go in starting with you left foot.)

    Okay that was not your questions, but good advice nonetheless.

    Taking pictures of people, in general, well — here’s my theory — while in Yunnan, everyone got to point, stare, giggle, and take pictures of me, so I suppose it is okay to reciprocate.

    Just use good judgment, the worst that will happen is that they will tell you to stop.

  7. Adding Salt and Soya sauce is a taboo? I am not aware of this. We just add soya sauce to our food when we want to.

    Wait a minute!

    Did you meant to say adding salt or soya sauce to the food on the table that is shared or to your own food? (note: I have not watched Joy Luck Club, so I am not clear what happened there.) If it is the former, you NEVER do that at ALL anywhere (unless it is your own dinner with your family, sometimes I forgot to use salt when cooking).

    We don’t use table salt. Salt is for cooking. It will be awkward if you ask for salt during meals. We mainly use soya sauce. If you insist, I would have not choice but to bring you the whole jar of salt from the kitchen (or I would put a little of it on a saucer plate for you).

    We have no concept of using salt shakers during meals. We have nice small bottles for soya sauce though.

    Enjoyed this page a lot. Good and accurate.

  8. This post is great. But I would like to share something different, it is just my personal opinion, and by no means it is to offend anyone.
    I think it is inappropriate to take photos of anything, although you might not be hassled or stopped. As a Chinese,to be respectful, personally I will not take a photo of officials, officers, soldiers, or just some one at the street. At least you will need to take the photo as a respectful far distance, not highlight someone…
    When you take photos of anything bad or sensitive, you might neglect the feelings of chinese passing by.

  9. I just want to add my two cents- I have never been to China, but am going very soon. I did, however, spend two solid weeks with 12 Chinese people in a course in the US and they took pictures of EVERYTHING. HUNDREDS and hundreds of pictures in 2 weeks.. so I don’t really think it is rude to take pictures there and I plan to

  10. I have to add a comment about the picture taking thing, being an expat in China…as Robert mentioned, they definitely giggle, stare, and take pictures of me and other foreigners without the LEAST reservation, so clearly they completely disregard my feelings about it. However, my Chinese friends are very surprised, when they are in public with us, at the attention given and neglect of feelings/space, so I suppose Chinese people would be sensitive to it if you walk up to them and start snapping photos….but just be aware that many Chinese do the same to expats.
    I live in a rather Westernized, touristy place, so some of this isn’t true where I live, but most of it I find COMPLETELY accurate and coincides with what I have observed.

  11. I hope you can help me with this issue. I am teaching English to my neighbor in a formal setting. She is Chinese, 66 years old. She was raised in Shanghai. She has been in the U.S. for less than 3 years. I am 37, American, and don’t speak Chinese other than, hello, goodbye, thank you, counting, and a few phrases.
    I have a difficult time communicating ‘no’ and getting the reaction I expect.

    My student/neighbor brought small gifts of food to class. Then the portions were bigger. Then they were brought to my apartment door. Then she bought American food from the store, or brought me food from her food shelf visits – stuff she would never eat, and sometimes she doesn’t know what is in the container. At first, I politely accepted, but when the gifts became too much and food I couldn’t eat (medical issue) I thanked her, but told her I did not want the food and she should stop bringing it. I reminded her that I am a volunteer and she should not feel obliged to pay me in any way. Most of the time, she brings food anyway.
    Also, she is hyper vigilant about anything I might need. She literally runs ahead of me to push the button for the elevator. She tries to carry my bags and will pull on them to take them away, even when she is carrying her own bags. In these situations, if I tell her to stop, she chuckles and does what she wants anyway. She pulls things out of my hands, will water my garden and trim my plants without asking, and push me ahead of her if we are going through a door. I’m literally being pushed around.
    I am not comfortable with my elder serving me or carrying bags for me. In my culture, younger people always help older people. If I let an elder carry their own bags, I might be considered rude. If I had an elder carry by bags I would be a thought of as a shame and disgrace. Young people must always offer assistance, but never aggressively.
    If thinks she sees me struggling with anything she jumps in, but sometimes she doesn’t understand what is happening and she causes trouble. This evening she tried to stop a bus for me that was not actually leaving. She scared the bus driver.

    Can you suggest a more effective way for me to communicate “no” or “stop” in these situations? Is there body language that I should use? Are there different words I should use?
    My last resort of making direct eye contact, staring her down and saying “NO” in an authoritative tone works, but I don’t know how that is interpreted in Chinese culture. I don’t want to cause shame, I just want her to stop. Any suggestions?

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