A Cultural Guide to China

Travelling to China conjures up visions of grand temples and monasteries, ancient fortresses and a bustling hive of people who have for centuries followed their culture and way of life. Integrating modern technology in their ancient ways, there are many western influences that have become woven into the Chinese ways, but at heart, the people still follow their old traditions. The cultural aspects of a visit to China is an absolute highlight - here is our guide of do’s and don’ts to ensure you enjoy a carefree trip.

When greeting it has become acceptable to shake hands but traditionally Chinese people wouldn’t normally touch. A bow or nod of the head in recognition of being introduced would be a sufficient acknowledgement. As a sign of respect, the introductions are from oldest to youngest naming each person by their full name and title. Chinese names start with their family name followed by their first name and it is not polite to call someone by their first name unless invited to do so. Hugging or the more European greeting of kissing on the cheek isn’t commonly done unless you’re catching up with an old friend who you know well. When being applauded - applaud back as a sign that you accept the gesture (this one takes some getting used to especially in the more corporate business environment).The Mandarin ‘nihao’ (pronounced like the words ‘knee’ and ‘how’ together as one word) means hello, and can be followed with ‘nihao ma?’ - meaning how are you? A great audio guide to useful phrases can be found here.

Body language may also be offensive especially if whistling or clicking your fingers to get attention - this is considered extremely rude. Not so for spitting in public, and with the severe pollution problems in cities like Beijing you’ll definitely hear the throat clearing and spitting as you wander the city where, blowing your nose into a tissue and returning this to your pocket, is considered very vulgar. Pointing is also done differently - using the whole hand and not the index finger. Don’t be offended if people wish to have a photo taken with you - this is quite common if you are very tall or have a body shape that is not common to the Chinese people; they will often come over and ask if you can be in their picture with them. With the volume of people in the cities it is common for people to stand closely together without much ‘personal space’.

Tipping is acceptable at western restaurants and places where tourists or foreigners are common but it’s not a common Chinese practice to tip. Instead, there is value in a gift - especially from your home country (these can be small items) and are appropriate for hosts and in business. A gift is never opened in front of the giver as a sign of respect, and it is common to refuse the gift a few times to show that it is valued. White is the colour of mourning so a gift should not be wrapped in white or black paper. Valuable gifts are reserved for valuable relationships; sharp objects don’t do well as gifts and definitely don’t give a clock or watch as this is will be seen as a sinister action as they represent funerals and death. Chinese find it difficult to say ‘no’ so they’ll likely say ‘maybe’ or ‘we’ll see’ to save face. It is considered very rude to force a person to say no - so much so that they may end the relationship as a result.

While you’re out on your travels, enjoy the many facets of the Chinese culture and don’t feel that you can’t communicate in case you offend. The Chinese are open, friendly people and welcome new experiences making it easy to make new friends and learn about their fascinating traits. With the basic do’s and don’ts - you’ll be prepared for those awkward moments and enjoy them all the more.

To see where you can experience the diverse Chinese culture, visit our China destination page.