China is home to the world’s longest continuous civilization. A phenomenal country steeped in proud history with a unique and nuanced culture that commands respect from visitors across the glove. It’s no wonder then, that in 2010, some 575,000 British nationals visited mainland China.
In addition to this this, the Chinese are some of the warmest and most polite people you’ll meet, so before heading off to the land of the rising sun, here are a few cultural pointers to take onboard in order to make it a safe and successful trip – without inadvertently offending anyone along the way.
Like all great civilizations, the Chinese have a deep love for food. There are a few simple etiquette rules that should be observed however. When eating out, chopsticks and spoons will obviously be your tools of choice but when using them, you shouldn’t point them directly at people, nor be overly expressive with your hands. Additionally, never stick them standing upright in your bowl – apparently this can cause offence as it reminds some people of the incense burned at funerals.
The Chinese are a communal people and will often put on huge spreads of tasty food for everyone to help themselves to. Remember that if you serve someone with your own chopsticks, use the wider ends (that don’t go into your mouth) to serve the food. You may notice that Chinese people take food directly with their own chopsticks on occasion, but this will be because they are eating with friends, family or intimate acquaintances.
Also, expect your host to over order on the food front and put on a generous spread; this is the natural way for the Chinese to show their hospitality as well as ‘save face’ – more on this below.
In Chinese custom it is the inviter who will generally insist on paying for the meal. It is polite to make an effort to pay, but your host will put up strong resistance. If you notice that other people seem to argue loudly after a meal then fear not, they’re simply fighting for the right to pay. Again this is about ‘face’, similar to western pride but really it is more about Chinese courtesy, politeness and honour – nothing to get worried about!
Etiquette in General
Vigorous hand shaking or overt hugs and kisses should be avoided when greeting other people, it’s much more appropriate to offer a simple, sharp nod of the head or even a modest bow. When visiting someone’s home, it is always customary to remove your shoes at the door where your host will garner you with slippers. If you’re doing the inviting, the expectations are the same. Additionally, offering small gestures and gifts are polite in Chinese society, so it might be a good idea to turn up with a prezzie!
Everyone who knows anyone that’s been to China will have been told about the spitting. Swallowing phlegm is traditionally viewed as being bad for the body in China so the population make no bones about expunging it from their systems, as and where they like. Attitudes to this habit are changing however, thanks to anti-spitting campaigns in the larger cities such as Shanghai where the act has now become far less common. That said, attitudes to smoking are very lapse and Chinese men smoke vociferously. Fine if you smoke, but if not it can be difficult to find safe haven.
It’s always best, nay essential to ask for permission before taking any photos, especially in ethnic areas or governmentally sensitive spots. Some senior citizens believe being photographed by a stranger is unlucky, so as always respect your elders and resist the urge. Chinese society has, and always will have huge emphasis on a lasting respect for age; you should always defer to the elderly and be extra polite to anyone older than you. A sentiment I think we all practice anyway, but be extra aware when on Chinese soil.
All foreign nationals over the age of 16 must carry their passport at all times. You must register your place of residence with the local Public Security Bureau within 24 hours of arrival, and if you stay in a hotel, registration is done on your behalf as part of the check-in process. Police may carry out random checks and with an unfamiliar face, you’d do well to stick by this rule.
So there you have it – relax, these tips aren’t meant to frighten you off or make you worry about visiting China, consider them mere offerings to help put your best foot forward as you venture into the unknown.