Chinese customs

China 8 Comments

madeinchinaDuring my time at IBM China I remember being asked by the Chinese representation at IBM UK to come up with a list of things that I had come to observe in China. Here is that list, interesting if you’re planning to visit China, and interesting if you’re Chinese and want to see the sort of things foreigners might talk about. The list begins with my Chinese observations represented by numbers, and then continues in alphabetical order. I concluded with a summary of some of the more unique cultural identities of China.

  1. child policy.
  2. day weekend, though some companies only have 1 day.
  3. times a gift might be refused before they are accepted.
  4. is an unlucky number because it sounds like death ‘si’. Buildings may have no 4th floor.
  5. is associated with the five elements (water, wood, fire, earth and metal) in Chinese philosophy.
  6. conveys indirectly its homophony’s meaning – do everything smoothly.
  7. implies anger and abandon.
  8. is the luckiest number meaning ‘wealth’ and ‘prosper’. Phone numbers with many 8’s will cost a lot.
  9. sometimes means longevity and eternality.
  10. ‘shi’ in some parts of china, sound like 4 ‘si’ when pronounced, very confusing.
  • Address each other by an honorable title and/or their surname.
  • basketball and badminton are very popular.
  • beds are generally very hard.
  • beer is usually served warm!
  • cars are very expensive.
  • cars and bikes constantly beep their horns.
  • cars which flash their lights at you mean they are coming through! It doesn’t mean they are giving way to you.
  • Chinese tea, very healthy, often offered as a beverage when visiting friends.
  • Chinese wine is very strong and often enjoyed with meals.
  • clocks are never given as gifts as they are associated with funerals and death.
  • don’t give scissors, knives or other cutting utensils as they indicate the severing of relationships.
  • don’t have general practice doctor surgery’s and will go to the hospital if they have a cold.
  • drink boiled water as tap water is dirty.
  • drive on the right hand side of the road.
  • during a meal, bones etc.. are spat out on the table.
  • during a big meal, toasts are made every 5 minutes. This is a good way to build guanxi (relations) and show respect.
  • eat pudding at the same time as the main course.
  • English tea is called ‘milk tea’.
  • everyone can sing!
  • face is very important and will influence ones decisions and behaviour.
  • food is a common gift.
  • flowers are associated with funerals.
  • gifts are not usually wrapped and may not be opened immediately.
  • gifts, change, receipts etc.. are presented with two hands.
  • glasses are worn by most. Some people wear them for fashion, without lenses.
  • Guanxi (Connection or Relationship) – building relationships and trust is a big thing.
  • guys may openly touch or hug each other to express friendship. Women may hold hands while walking.
  • homes don’t have carpets, heating or ovens.
  • homes come in the form of high apartment blocks. Houses are rare and extremely expensive.
  • have ID cards which class people as country farmers or city people.
  • have woman’s day, children’s day, tomb sweeping day, national queuing day.
  • ‘have you eaten?’ – a conversation starter.
  • ‘huan ying guang ling’ – said to welcome you when entering shops. Becomes annoying after a while.
  • in winter, people wear coats indoors.
  • it is thought that foreigners wear deodorant because they smell.
  • ‘lao wai!’ or ‘wai guo ren!’ – get used to hearing people say this while pointing at you. It means foreigner.
  • less than 50% of the people speak the official language.
  • like to turn off lights etc.. to reduce electricity bills.
  • love Karaoke!
  • love Snoopy, Hello Kitty, and Mickey Mouse.
  • mah jong – everybody plays it.
  • mainland Chinese need a ‘visa/special passport’ to go to Hong Kong.
  • many people litter in the streets. The mentality is that littering gives street cleaners work.
  • many people have a short sleep during the day.
  • need permission to live or work in different cities.
  • oil – a lot of oil is used in cooking.
  • old people are proud of their age.
  • old people are fit. They love Tai Chi, singing and dancing.
  • people always bring back food from their travels.
  • people love eating food together to celebrate occasions. These meals can last for hours.
  • people make a lot of slurping and belching sounds during meals.
  • people are not so punctual, they are often late. This is usually due to traffic congestion.
  • people are very loud. It may seem like they are shouting during conversation.
  • people call elders ‘uncle’, ‘auntie’, and ‘shi fu’.
  • people love business cards!
  • people might look towards the ground when greeting someone.
  • people like to write blogs and read books.
  • public transport is the most common form of transport.
  • pushing and shoving seems normal.
  • queuing doesn’t exist!
  • rice, rice, rice.
  • red is lucky.
  • red envelopes are sent with money, rather than greeting cards.
  • sandals are often worn with socks!
  • seem to have medicine for everything!
  • seems that everything breaks due to poor quality.
  • seems people prefer to entertain in public places rather than in their homes.
  • share many dishes during a meal, rather than 1 plate each.
  • smoking, most guys smoke. Few woman smoke.
  • some homes employ an ‘ā yí’ to clean.
  • spicy food, they love it.
  • spitting, disgusting, but totally normal. It is considered a bodily function.
  • ‘stop, look and listen’ – non existent. Crossing the road is a matter of life or death.
  • the more you drink during a meal with friends, or in business, the more friendly you are considered.
  • the rice bowl is held close to the mouth while eating.
  • toilet paper – everybody carries some with them. Some restaurants give you some in a cute little gift box.
  • traffic can turn right, even on a red light.
  • traffic is crazy dangerous.
  • used toilet paper is thrown into bins next to the toilet.
  • washing up liquid – not always trusted. Washing up is often done using cold tap water, which is then used to flush toilets.
  • ‘xie xie guang lin’ – said when leaving shops to thank you for shopping.
  • you can haggle the price of anything!
  • you’ll usually find a ‘hole in the floor’ rather than an actual toilet.
  • you may well be offered a cigarette when meeting someone new.
  • you should eat well to show that you like the food. If your plate is empty more food will be given to you and you shouldn’t refuse it.


China is becoming more and more westernised and is more open than ever before. Whether this is deemed to be good or bad is an interesting topic for discussion. Although China is still very conservative and traditional in many respects, access to external knowledge, though restricted, and international education is propelling China into new realms of existence. China has only recently opened to the world and has adapted significantly. We are now, more than ever before, able to see and explore the real China. However, with such a large generation gap, it’s difficult to determine the true identity of China. This being said, some things are still very unique. Here’s a brief overview:


I’ve occasionally been warned, or sensed from one’s reaction or body language, that I may be at risk of losing face. Face is basically about maintaining honour, respect and reputation. It’s like pride except in China there’s a sense of absolute necessity to save or give face. One should pay special attention as to avoid losing face or causing the loss of face. There are four types:

1) Diu-mian-zi: this is when one’s actions or deeds have been exposed to people.
2) Gei-mian-zi: involves the giving of face to others through showing respect.
3) Liu-mian-zi: this is developed by avoiding mistakes and showing wisdom in action.
4) Jiang-mian-zi: this is when face is increased through others, i.e. someone complementing you to an associate.

I’ve experienced the saviour and gift of face in many ways. It’s not uncommon to be given wrong directions, not on purpose, but maybe because they are too embarrassed to admit that they do not know where the place actually is. It’s also wise to keep calm in authorities environments. If you get angry with an official, despite protocol, your request may well be rejected as to save face in front of fellow colleagues.


Behaviour is often dependant on who someone is. Confucianism is a system of behaviours and ethics that stress the obligations of people towards one another based upon their relationship. The basic tenets are based upon five different relationships:

1) Ruler and subject
2) Husband and wife
3) Parents and children
4) Brothers and sisters
5) Friend and friend

Confucianism stresses duty, sincerity, loyalty, honour, filial piety, respect for age and seniority.

Collectivism vs. Individualism

In general, the Chinese are a collective society with a need for group affiliation, whether to their family, school, work group, or country. Chinese are raised and educated to love their country. In order to maintain a sense of harmony, they will act with decorum at all times and will generally avoid causing someone else public embarrassment. However, the occasional public display of disagreement isn’t unheard of. These events can reveal both sides of the coin.

In collectivism, you see the collective nature of excited spectators thrive in their collective judgements. In individualism, those caught up in such public brawls temporally lose any sense of harmony as emotions and tempers rise in desperate bids to save or gain face. The dominant figure in these disputes is often the one who is more capable of demonstrating their superiority despite whether they are in fact right or wrong. Onlookers tend to side with the person who has greater public status or who is more locally native.

Generally though people are willing to subjugate their own feelings for the good of the group. This is often observed by the use of silence in meetings. If someone disagrees with what another person says, rather than disagree publicly, the person will remain quiet. This gives face to the other person, while speaking up would make both parties lose face.

Non-Verbal Communication

Non-verbal communication speaks volumes in China. Since the Chinese strive for harmony and are group dependent, they rely on facial expression, tone of voice and posture to tell them what someone feels. Frowning while someone is speaking is interpreted as a sign of disagreement. Therefore, most Chinese restrict external emotion aiming to maintain an impassive expression when speaking. This is something I witnessed during meetings. I often put this down to nervousness, though could often see quite comical withdrawal of expression.

It is considered disrespectful to stare into another person’s eyes. In crowded or confrontational situations I’ve noticed that people will avoid eye contact as to give themselves privacy or shield negative vibes. My most recent experience of this was being over charged. I confronted the salesman and said that he had charged me too much. As we were in public he looked to the ground and feigned incomprehension. Minutes later I watched as he charged a lower price to his next customer.

Guanxi (Connection or Relationship)

Guanxi is extremely important in China, it’s a way of life, and everyone uses it and depends upon it to get anything they need or want. It’s all about who you know and how much you’re, well to be straight, willing to kiss ass. I always get the feeling that should someone give me something, I owe them. Although this may not be written in concrete, guanxi should be respected as it works both ways. I never really play the guanxi game and am therefore somewhat distant from society. Living my way in China hasn’t helped me integrate into the local regime. I’m probably much worse off in connections, relationships and finance. This wouldn’t be good if I was Chinese, but it doesn’t make me change my ways. I may come across rude, cold or boring, but the good thing is, whether or not true, I’m always able to play the foreign card!

I think that my own morals sometimes cause me to do quite the opposite of guanxi. One of the first things I learned as a child was not to kiss ass. Whether guanxi is kiss or not, anything that merely resembles this notion seems to oppose my any would be good-hearted actions.

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There have been 8 comments so far... leave a comment!

  • 1, ellen.ltang, July 13th, 2010 at 7:10 pm

    Ha~ the number 1 to 10 list is really interesting. And as a Chinese person I totally agree to what u said. 😉

  • 2, Laura, July 16th, 2010 at 3:47 pm

    This is a great page and from my many experiences in China it’s all clear and true in every detail.
    Spot on!

  • 3, student scholarship, July 21st, 2010 at 1:07 am

    Keep up the good work, I like your writing.

  • 4, ultrasound technician, July 21st, 2010 at 9:00 am

    this post is very usefull thx!

  • 5, Dougles, July 30th, 2010 at 4:11 am



  • 6, GSX-R750 guy, August 13th, 2010 at 11:44 pm

    Excuse my french but, This post makes my mind spin at the speed of dark.

    Sent from my iPhone 4G

  • 7, pauls, September 6th, 2010 at 1:47 am

    nice post. thanks.

  • 8, zerodtkjoe, October 20th, 2010 at 9:42 am

    Thanks for the info

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