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Holiday etiquette in China

| Words by Zoe Crane |

An etiquette guide on how to make friends and influence people in China, or why to never give a man green hat.

Never give a man a green hat

In China, modern etiquette originates from ancient Confucian teachings. Although a more filial rule, the Chinese go to great lengths to preserve face and social harmony. With a population of over 1.3 billion, any type of holiday through China will involve meeting people from a variety of backgrounds. Here is your guide to basic social customs.

Sounds like trouble

In Chinese culture there is an association between things that sound the same. The number eight, for example sounds similar to the word for prosperity in Chinese, making it one of the luckiest numbers. For the same reason it is extremely poor etiquette to give a gift of a clock in China, where the phrase “to give a clock” sounds similar to “to wish someone dead”. A similar faux-pas is to give a man a green hat. This phrase is similar to the word “cuckold”, so to do so implies his wife is cheating on him. If this is not your intended purpose, avoid verdant headwear altogether in China.

Meeting and greeting…

When meeting someone in China it is common to shake hands. Use only a light handshake with a woman and don’t hug or kiss as a greeting. In a group situation you may be applauded. The correct response is to applaud back. Other than shaking hands, Chinese greetings are more modest and formal. You may be asked questions that seem overly familiar or personal, such as whether you are married, how old you are, whether you have any children, or even how much you earn. Don’t be offended, it is an attempt to find common ground.

…And eating

Travellers enjoying a classic Chinese banquet

When it comes to banquets, knowing the basics goes a long way. While modern banquets are less formal than they once were, they can still be an etiquette minefield.

Wait to be seated as positions are very specific. The host will sit facing the door, with the guest of honour to his right. Don’t arrive early as this indicates that you are hungry. Dinner in China is usually served early at 6pm with lunch at noon.

The host will order dishes to share. As a foreign guest, you should be served first. Try a bit of everything as it would be embarrassing to the host if you do not. If you don’t want to eat something, just move it around your plate. If you really can’t bear something you are offered, claim to have an allergy. Leave some food on your plate at the end of the meal, as finishing everything implies there was not enough served.

You will always be given chopsticks to eat with. A fork is usually available if you really need one, but if you ask for one and one is not available, the host loses face. When using chopsticks don’t use them to point at anything, especially people, don’t stab your food with them and never lick them! Most importantly, don’t leave them sticking upright out of your rice bowl, as this is similar to how the Chinese burn incense for the dead.

While the Chinese don’t mind slurping soup and leaving bones on the table (not in your rice bowl), it is polite to eat with your mouth closed and hold your teacup with both hands.

Don’t linger after the meal as no one will leave until after the guest of honour. The host may signal it is time to go by stating that you must be tired. The host will wait until the guests have left the room to pay the bill. Even if you are the host, there will be objections over paying the bill and you will have to insist more than once.

Drinking

When at a banquet, the tradition is to toast on every sip of alcohol. The first toast is given by the host. It is polite for the guest of honour to then toast the host. If you “clink” glasses you should finish what is in your glass, otherwise drink as much as you like. You may be toasting with wine or beer, or you may be offered baijiu, a robust rough-grain alcohol.

The place for face

Locals in Xizhou Village

The tenet of saving face is central to Chinese culture and plays a part in every interaction. Becoming angry or emotional will cause a loss of face for both parties. If you encounter a problem, be friendly and smile, and ask for help to solve the problem. In China, saving face is more important than the truth, so ensuring no one is losing face will avoid frustrating situations.

Saying “no” also causes a loss of face. Instead, you are likely to be told “maybe” or “it is being considered”. You’ll need to read between the lines to ascertain if the answer is actually no. Always offer a way out, so a direct “no” is not necessary. Don’t heatedly disagree in a group situation. What passes for banter in the West may be seen as purposeful humiliation in China. If you need to turn down a request, do so in private. Friendly teasing, criticisms of a person or country are also face-losing situations, so these too are best avoided.

If you have caused a loss of face, apologise, even if you still think you are right. If you feel that the other party is trying to pull one over on you, try saying there must be a misunderstanding.

Receiving praise is acceptable, however it is rude to give and accept direct praise. If someone has done a good job, let them know, but don’t expect a thank you. Saying “Not at all” or “it was nothing” is the more common response. Be demonstrative with your flattery or even better, tell their boss about it. If you have a complaint it is also a good idea to go to the boss. The employee would rather hear it from them than directly from you in front of others.

A great way to defuse any awkwardness where loss of face might occur is to use laughter, whether in a disagreement, bargaining at the markets, or if you need to refuse a request. You’ll find the Chinese often laugh when feeling uncomfortable.

A helping hand

Pointing and beckoning with one finger is considered very rude, instead use an open hand. Don’t snap your fingers or whistle, and use both hands when passing anything.

Speaking

One of our travellers with her local guide in Xian

In China, pausing during speech is a sign of considered thought. It is considered very rude to interrupt, and this will cause a loss of face. Never put anyone on the spot, so ensure there is always a conversational escape route.

Not Speaking

In general terms, it is best to avoid conversations which involve national pride or contentious points in Chinese history. This could include China’s relationship with Japan, or the territories of Tibet or Taiwan. Avoid talking about religion, human rights or historical flash incidents like Tiananmen Square. Try also to avoid talking about the Cultural Revolution, this could bring up painful memories for many people in China.

If you do choose to discuss sensitive topics such as political opinions it can be really helpful to distance yourself from any opinions you raise. By claiming ignorance on a topic but discussing what other people might think about it, you will be more able to openly discuss sensitive issues.

Bargaining

Bargaining is part of the culture in China, and is expected at open air markets and some private shops, but international chains and department stores have set prices. The ever important notion of face is just as important when bargaining as any other interaction. Most importantly establish a cheerful affinity with the merchant, building a relationship always comes first in business in China. Never become angry or emotional but use smiling and laughter instead.

Modesty

The older generation in China are broadly conservative when it comes to displays of affection in public. Anything more than a kiss on the cheek or holding hands might cause embarrassment so is best avoided out of respect.

Smile

Local in Pingyao

Smiling is good etiquette no matter where you go, but it is used in China in more situations than in the West. Chinese will smile not just to show happiness or friendliness, but also if they feel embarrassed, curious or helpful. Smiling during an argument may seem rude form a Western standpoint, but in China it is a way of showing that you don’t want the argument to get personal. A smile in China can go a long way, so use it often.

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