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What Should I Know about Chinese Etiquette?

The entrance to a Chinatown.
Many tourists visit the Forbidden City in Beijing, China, each year.
Respect for the elderly is very important in China.
The People's Republic of China.
A sample of Cantonese, a language used in parts of China.
Article Details
  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Images By: Guillaume Baviere, Alexxich, Anja Disseldorp, Franck Thomasse, Vlad
  • Last Modified Date: 11 March 2014
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Many Asian cultures are famous for their complex etiquette, and China is no exception. Over centuries, the Chinese have developed a very complex system of etiquette which can sometimes be bewildering for foreigners. The most important thing to know about Chinese etiquette is that effort counts for a lot; as long as people are making a genuine effort to be courteous and polite, small transgressions may be forgiven or gently pointed out for future reference.

One of the underlying concepts in Chinese etiquette is the idea of “face,” or respect and reputation. Chinese people take their reputations very seriously, and interactions which appear to undermine someone's reputation should be avoided. For example, shouting at someone in a public place or trying to prove someone wrong in a mixed group will be perceived as offensive. Something which may seem like a mild slight to a foreigner could be perceived as highly inappropriate under the rules of Chinese etiquette if it undermined someone's position of respect.

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Chinese culture is also highly superstitious, and this plays a role in Chinese etiquette. As a general rule, odd numbers are considered unlucky, so people should avoid giving gifts in odd numbers, or inviting an odd number of people to a party. The number four is an exception to this rule, because it is a homophone for “death” in Chinese, and it is therefore considered unlucky. The colors black and white are inauspicious, while red is a fortunate color; presents should be wrapped in red, if possible, and red décor is a good idea for parties. Certain gifts are also taboo, such as clocks, which are associated with funerals.

The Chinese prefer to do business and make introductions through intermediaries, rather than meeting directly, at least at first. Businesspeople traveling in China should use the services of an intermediary connection to meet new contacts, and casual travelers should also seek out introductions through intermediaries, if possible. In all cases, when introductions are made, they are usually formal, starting with the most senior person present. People remain standing for introductions, and they may shake hands briefly, but they will not engage in other physical contact or express emotions.

As in many other cultures, formal honorific titles should be used unless someone indicates that a more casual form of address should be used. This is particularly the case with people who are older or senior in rank. Chinese etiquette frowns upon excessive physical contact, and displays of emotion; in particular, frowning while someone speaks is a sign of disagreement. Showing the soles of the feet or shoes is also considered impolite. Respect for the elderly is also very important. People will rise when an older person passes, and offer assistance with doors and parcels to people who are older as a mark of respect.

For those who are fortunate enough to be invited to a Chinese party or dinner, bringing a gift for the host is expected. Gifts should be modest, rather than flashy, and they should be presented in even numbers. At a dinner, people are expected to try everything and express interest in everything on the table. If a guest has not helped him or herself to something, the host will put it on the guest's plate.

Some particular rules surround the use of chopsticks. Chopsticks should never be used to point at people, and they should also not be licked or stuck upright into a dish. Passing foods to other people with chopsticks is considered taboo, and when chopsticks are used to pick food from a communal plate, the wide end of the chopsticks should be used, so that the part which touches the mouth does not come into contact with the food.

It is important to express thanks for services rendered and gifts in Chinese etiquette, and to be modest when being thanked. Modesty is a highly valued trait in many regions of China, and many of the rules of Chinese etiquette revolve around the concepts of modesty and “face.”

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