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Common Etiquette

Gift Giving

It's traditional to bring a gift when invited to someone's home. Usually fresh flowers or fruit are your best bet (the number eight is considered lucky, so eight apples or eight oranges is a good idea) or, of course, anything from home. The more expensive the gift, the more respectful, but don't go over the top or you'll embarrass your hosts, who may feel the need to bankrupt themselves to return your generosity. Don't be surprised when, if your gift is wrapped, it is placed somewhere prominent all evening and not unwrapped until after you leave (your hosts might look greedy and ungrateful if the gift were opened too hastily and in front of you). It is also courteous to bring something back from travelling, a token gift or something very simple is fine. But be sure to be fair with your gift-giving: don't give something nicer to the secretary in the office than to the dean of the college and don't give gifts to one group of students and not another. Often, it's better to give something that can be shared, like food.

Business Cards

It's a good idea to have these made up for yourself as soon as you have an address; it's cheap and easy to do almost everywhere in China. Get a friend to give you a Chinese name and get your name and address printed in Chinese on one side, English on the other (double-check the English spelling, there are almost always errors!). Get a lot made, as everyone will want one. Use both hands to give and accept business cards to show respect.

Guanxi (Connection or Relationship)

Guanxi is extremely important in China. The same concept applies in the Western world: you're looking for a job and so you write letters to some alumni from the university you went to, or your parents might call up an old friend; you use your guanxi, or contacts, to help you. In China, however, guanxi goes way beyond a simple means of aiding you in a job search; it is a way of life, and everyone uses it and depends upon it to get anything they need or want. If you're considering going to a college you'd better start showing a significant amount of deference to the dean of the department you'd like to enter. Gifts like imported fruit, or maybe a bottle of expensive brandy could help your cause as otherwise your chances are slim. This system of using guanxi is apparent in all aspects of life in China, from buying hard-to-come-by train tickets, to obtaining a foreign exit visa. Although the concept is similar to that of bribery or corruption, the Chinese say that it's the reality of how the system works, especially in a country of such a dense population.

Face

As in most Asian countries, face, or reputation, is a very important and complex feature of daily life. We may call it "pride" in the West, but we haven't developed the absolute necessity of "saving face" that exists in the East. In China, you will encounter this idea of "saving face" as well as having to "give face," on multiple levels.

Possible examples:

In the classroom a student who knows the answer to the question won't answer because she/he doesn't want her/his classmates to feel stupid. 

If you ask someone how to get to the museum, the person just pointed to the left because they were too embarrassed to admit that they had no idea where it really was. 

Be aware of face and its importance to the Chinese. In general, as a foreigner to whom face means comparatively little, you can afford to lose face more than the Chinese, so you can use this to your advantage.

Smoking

Men in China smoke. Smoking is used to break the ice and establish common ground upon which to build a relationship. Women however smoke comparatively less. If you are male, expect to be offered cigarettes in an attempt to develop a friendly relationship. If you smoke, offer cigarettes yourself as doing so will endear you to your new Chinese friends. Declining an offered cigarette isn't rude, as they will respect your decision, as long as you are gracious about it.

In recent years, however, smoking has been forbidden in many public places and as a result smoking is less prevalent than it used to be.

Banquets

If you're living in China you're bound to be invited to a banquet sooner or later, whether it is a welcome banquet, a goodbye banquet, a banquet to celebrate International Women's Day etc. The dress code tends to be casual as always in China, but try to look nice and don't wear shorts. Dishes will arrive in turn, starting with the lighter dishes and ending with the heavy, starchy dishes (rice, noodles, steamed buns) arrive later in the meal and in between there will be much toasting and downing of beer or, if you're really unlucky, rice wine (otherwise known as jet fuel). You should try eating small amounts from each dish and complimenting each in turn. Near the end of the meal you should declare yourself full, (chi bao le) and then give in to pressure to eat a little more. To say you're absolutely full, "hen bao". After several hours the banquet will end and everyone staggers home, as compared to Western culture, after dinner conversation tends to be kept at a minimum.

Sensitive Subjects

As in any other country, if, while conversing with a local he or she changes the subject, or feigns incomprehension, chances are the topic of your conversation isn't to their liking or even perhaps that the topic is forbidden. Don't push the matter either way or you may cause trouble for you and the person you're talking to. It's best not to initiate discussions concerning religion or politics in particular.