China boasts an incredibly rich cultural heritage that spans thousands of years! Throughout its lengthy history, this vast country has developed a multitude of remarkable traditions and cultural practices. As a result, Chinese culture holds many unique aspects that set it apart from others.
Navigating the cultural norms and social etiquette of any country can be challenging, especially in a place like China! Nobody wants to commit a cultural faux pas, especially when some mistakes could be costlier than others.
So in that case, here’s a handy list of 20 do’s and don’ts for your trip to China!
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Table of Contents
Don’t Disrespect the Government!
Seeing vast crowds of angry citizens on our TV screens is pretty common in the West. The beauty of having freedom of speech is the right to protest and voice your discontent with an unjust and oppressive government.
It’s a liberty many of us take for granted, as you won’t have those same rights in China. If you have a gripe with the ruling communist party, past or present, this is NOT the time to make a political stand. The government doesn’t play around with this sort of thing. They’ll have no issue with making you “disappear”.
Don’t Place Chopsticks Upright in Rice
Something that might seem completely normal to us can be an ominous omen of death for locals!
Standing your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice is a symbol of death in Chinese culture. This act is typically reserved for funerals… so not very appropriate for daily life or the dinner table.
This superstition is believed so strongly that strangers will even approach you in restaurants to tell you not to do it! They might even be the restaurant owners themselves, as they won’t want to attract any negative juju into their place of business.
Want to learn more about superstition in China? Check out The 20 Strangest Chinese Superstitions.
Don’t Disrespect Chairman Mao
For most people outside of China, Chairman Mao Zedong, the Chinese communist revolutionary who established modern China as we know it today, is considered the most horrific dictator of all time. That title may be up for debate, but one thing is for sure, his policies resulted in the death of more people than Hitler, Stalin and Mousseline combined.
Despite that, his face features prominently across China to this day. On decorative murals, on souvenir plates and even the Chinese currency itself, Mao’s face is one that you can never truly escape.
In these parts, he is considered a national hero. His mausoleum stands right in the heart of the capital, Bejing. As such, any besmirching of his name will not be taken lightly.
Respect Your Elders and Authority
Chinese culture is deeply rooted in the principles of Confucianism. This ancient belief system places great value on family, honouring ancestors, and maintaining social order.
Showing respect to elders symbolizes your gratitude for their wisdom, experience, and contributions to your family and greater society. Authority figures are equally lauded for knowledge and guidance, as well as being seen as a crucial part of maintaining order and upholding moral standards within communities.
Thus, showing respect to these individuals is a crucial part of Chinese culture regardless of where you’re from.
Expect Personal Questions
Every culture has its own taboo topics. In the West, asking someone’s salary or their exact weight would be considered incredibly rude, yet in China, you will be asked about these outright!
There will be frequent comments about your appearance, your weight, your marital status and everything else that you would hate to discuss in public. Though it may be offensive to you, in China, it’s completely normal.
Let’s explore some of the quirkiest and most unusual superstitions that are prevalent in Chinese cultures and Chinese communities.
Respect Personal Space
Chinese people have a completely different concept of personal space compared to the West.
Where a European might greet you with a gentle embrace and perhaps a kiss on the cheek, a Chinese greeting would be anything but. A simple bow or nod of the head is all that is required. That may seem a little cold, yet even the act of hugging is rare between family members.
Yet, once you get to know each other, personal space becomes a thing of the past! After all, in a country of 1.4 billion people, it can get a little cramped at the best of times! As such, people will stand closer during conversations as their physical closeness signifies their trust, intimacy, and a strong connection with you.
Remember Their Point of View
It’s easy to forget that people in China are not able to access certain information that’s easily accessible to the rest of us. News articles and knowledge of controversial events are misleading or erased altogether. As far as the Chinese government is concerned, the Tiananmen Square incident and the annexation of Tibet simply never even happened.
Access to information on hot topics like Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong, and the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic is severely limited for locals. Thus, it’s important to consider the single-sided perspective many people have through no fault of their own.
It’s always a struggle trying to figure out how much you should tip when in a foreign country. Luckily in China, you don’t have to tip at all. Actually, it would be a bit of an insult if you did!
This method is meant to ensure that wages always remain fair, thus not having to rely on the kindness of strangers. On top of that, tipping could be seen as you trying to assert your dominance. For some, it would be like saying “I don’t think you earn enough money, so I guess I’ll have to help you.”
Bring Your Own Toilet Paper
While most points on this list focus on culture and etiquette, this could not be any more literal…and necessary. Chinese public toilets rarely come with their own toilet paper. Even if it was fortunate to have some, it might be a communal roll that you must grab a few sheets with before entering.
So, unless you want to be caught with your pants literally around your ankles, you best bring some with you at all times!
Be Wary of Scammers
An issue that plights travellers across the globe, scammers are also in full force along the streets of China, particularly in the major cities.
Overly eager approaches of “Hello, where are you from?” can often lead to you being manipulated and tricked into overpaying for a service or being stuck in a difficult situation where money is the only solution. Common tricks are invitations to overpriced teahouses and local shows.
Use some common sense, don’t trust people’s invitations at face value, and keep your wits about you.
Don’t Expect Western Toilets
Picture a “third world” bathroom, what do you see? You might picture excrement-covered walls closed in around a muck-filled hole… well, that’s pretty much what it’s like.
In all seriousness, toilets in China, for the most part, are just holes in the ground. Affectionately called squatty potties, the idea is to squat while you do your business. For people who were raised with a blessed throne to sit upon, this can be quite a shock and takes a while to get the positioning right.
But wait, it gets worse. Most of the public toilets that you’ll find dotted amongst the hutongs and alleyways DO NOT have separate stalls. You will quite literally be squatting while looking up to 10 other individuals square in the eye as you do your business. This is one that I never, and will never get used to!
Don’t Expect to Hear English
For the uninitiated, China can be a very difficult country to traverse due to the severe lack of English. Many older individuals will not know a single word, and most signs will feature Chinese characters only.
Of course, nobody expects you to be fluent in Mandarin before you’ve even arrived, but you should be prepared with all the necessary information you need and know exactly how to find it. This could include addresses, names and basic phrases. If you find yourself lost in translation, you could be in a lot of trouble.
Don’t Make Anyone Lose Face
Chinese culture is rooted in honour, respect and harmony in its societies. Therefore, maintaining those factors, or, saving one’s “face”, plays a big role in an individual’s social standing and overall reputation.
Actions that might cause someone to lose face, like public criticism or humiliation, are an instant way to anger one and all. It could even be as simple as questioning someone’s ideas or opinions in a public setting. Always keep others’ perspective in mind.
Always Bring a Gift To Someone’s Home…
It’s not uncommon in Chinese culture to exchange gifts among individuals. Whether it’s bringing a bottle of wine to dinner or handing a basket of fresh oranges during Spring Festival, bringing something along will always make a huge gesture.
…But Don’t Bring These
That being said, there are some items which you should NEVER give to someone. Those include clocks – which signify death, umbrellas – which suggest you want a relationship to end, or green hats – which signify a man’s wife cheating on him.
Don’t Drink Tap Water
A nice and simple rule to follow. Water in China is flooded with pollutants and natural contaminants. As such, tap water should be avoided at all times, even when boiled.
Thankfully, locals are aware of the necessity of drinkable water (hot water cures everything after all) as there will be water available pretty much everywhere. Whether it’s an office water cooler or free bottles in the back of taxis, water is a necessity not lost on the Chinese.
Don’t Use Unlicensed Transportation Services
There’s a surprising number of unlicensed transport on offer in and around China’s major sites. From coaches ferrying to and from famous attractions to night-time cabbies looking to make a quick kuai, there are a myriad of vehicles willing to take you on a wild unpredictable ride.
Being unlicensed, there’s a far greater risk in dealing with them. Though it could be a simple case of price-jacking, safety is also a major question.
Don’t Get “Yes” and “No” Mixed Up
Two small words can cause an untold amount of confusion. Technically speaking, there is no direct translation for the words “Yes” and “No” – in Chinese, you’d respond with “is” or “isn’t”.
That aside, the way we responded to the questions are different. For example, if you were to ask “This isn’t the right restaurant, is it?” they might respond with “yes”… so which is it? They’re actually agreeing with your negative statement. So don’t get confused, who knows where that might lead you.
Always Haggle In Markets
Haggling can be pretty awkward for many of us, yet in China, it’s looked at completely differently.
First of all, it’s seen as more of a social interaction than a business transaction. Bargaining shows a level of mutual respect between buyer and seller. Rarely are there any bitter feelings or aggressive tactics. It’s almost like appreciating the art of haggling!
Another simple reason is that it’s all part of the market culture. Everyone is trying to get the best deal! And you better believe people will be trying to get every penny they can from every clueless foreigner.
Don’t Rely on Your Cards
You might be surprised to know that when it comes to commerce and service industries, China is actually way ahead of the game!
Credit cards and cash in general have pretty much become obsolete. Absolutely everything in China can be paid via the unique QR codes each vendor has. Even street vendors selling sweet potatoes have their own codes!
These payments are made over WeChat, China’s main social media app. Sadly, you’ll need a Chinese number and a bank account, so no luck there. However, for the time being, cash still works.
Thank You for Reading! Check Out These Other Helpful Links!
Thank you so much for reading 20 Things To Do and NOT to Do in China! Check out these other helpful articles!