Etiquette & Taboo in Chinese Culture

When it comes to taboo and etiquette in China, there’s good news and bad news for foreigners. The bad news is that China is a 5,000-year-old culture that has developed completely apart from Western civilization, so there are a lot of rules and habits that can be confusing and not at all intuitive to outsiders. But the good news is that with a little preparation, you can easily learn to make a good impression. Plus, the Chinese give foreigners, or lǎowài (老外; the term Chinese people call foreigners), a lot of leeway when it comes to local customs and are unlikely to be offended if you break any rules.


When considering manners, it’s important to note that “politeness” doesn’t have the same implication that it does in the West. In Chinese, kèqi (客气) means polite, but to be kèqi is not necessarily a good thing. Kèqì implies that by being polite, you are hiding your true feelings and keeping a formal distance from others. As Chinese people become closer friends, they drop the kèqì to the extent that it’s perfectly acceptable for good friends to make the most honest and critical remarks to each other. This is not considered rude, it’s a sign of trust. If the people at the next table in the restaurant sound like they’re having a huge fight, they’re not. Losing one’s temper in public would be shameful in China. Those people are just bantering, exchanging opinions, enjoying each other’s company, and not being overly kèqì. (In fact, after someone says “thank you” in China, the term for “you’re welcome” in Mandarin is bu kèqi, or “don’t be polite.”)


After a few days in China, you might be thinking, “Chinese manners? What a joke! Some guy just cut me in line, everyone’s yelling, and I can’t even count how many have spit on the sidewalk right next to me!” The reality is that many Chinese have a double standard when applying etiquette rules. They divide the world into two groups: people they know, and everyone else. They may practice impressive manners when it comes to their circle, but when dealing with strangers on the street, it’s every man for himself. Take China’s history: in a country that as recently as a generation ago was facing wars, famines, political repression, and countless other hardships, families survived by sticking together, which often meant being indifferent to the anonymous masses.  


Below, we’ve outlined some basic etiquette rules. Apart from helping you put your best face forward, they offer interesting insights into Chinese culture.

Losing & Saving Face

The concept of face has been extremely important in Chinese culture for a very long time. Though it’s quite difficult to translate, it basically means something along the lines of honor, prestige or reputation. So if you hear someone say “lose face” (diūliǎn;丢脸), it means they lost honor or, in layman’s terms, got embarrassed. On the other hand, saving face is what Chinese people do to avoid losing face or to keep from making a fool of themselves.


A boss can lose face when he makes a false statement in front of his subordinates, especially if one of his subordinates corrects him. However, this scenario is very unlikely since it’s understood in the unwritten social contract never to correct your superior and just keep your mouth shut to ensure he or she doesn’t lose face (unless of course it’s a life or death situation). Indeed, if you make your boss lose face, you’ll be in the hot seat!


One can also lose face if they lose their temper in public. If you see an open dispute, bystanders, cars and mopeds will stop immediately in their tracks to watch. After the quarrel is over, the ones involved will most certainly place their hands in their face and run off for losing face. You can also lose face if you get too drunk, trip while walking up the stairs, make a ridiculous comment or do something else humiliating. 


In regards to saving face, if the Chinese side in a business negotiation no longer wishes to pursue the deal, they may not tell you. In an attempt to save their own face, they may become increasingly inflexible and hard-nosed, forcing you to be the one to break off negotiations. This way they can avoid any blame for the failure.


In another attempt to save face, the Chinese avoid saying “no” as much as possible and instead opt for nonchalant phrases such as “unfortunately it’s not convenient” or “that may cost a little too much money” or “give me some time to think about it.” In this manner, both parties – the one making the invitation and the one declining the invitation – save face.


In the end the best way to behave in China is in a manner that allows you and the people around you to never lose face.


• There are a number of conversation topics that are best avoided by foreigners in China. Do not bring up the following issues:


Sino-Japanese relations. The two countries have been fighting or at odds for much of the 20th century and are constantly walking on thin ice, so never compare the two neighbors.


The Three “T’s” – Taiwan, Tibet and the events that took place at Tian’anmen Square on June 4, 1989. There’s a lot of national sentiment that can be aroused by the first two, and frankly many people don’t know much about the Tian’anmen Square incident due to China’s strict censorship.


The Falun Gong or religious and human rights in general.


The Cultural Revolution, or what someone’s family went through during any of Mao’s campaigns. Just like any country, there are liberals and conservatives, so it’s best just to keep politics out of it because the conversation can get heated quickly.


• Asking someone “How many children do you have?” There’s still a One Child Policy for most Chinese, and calling attention to it could make for awkward small talk.


• Punctuality is considered a virtue in China. Being on time shows respect for others.


• Always stand up or remain standing when being introduced.


• A handshake is the most common form of greeting. Unlike what you may have heard, Chinese people usually don’t bow when greeting someone. They also don’t hug or kiss on the cheek when meeting someone for the first time.


• The oldest person is always greeted first as a sign of respect.


• Use family names and appropriate titles until specifically invited by your Chinese host or colleagues to use their given names.


• Chinese family names are placed first with the given name (which usually has one or two syllables) coming last. So in the Chinese name Chén Ruì, Chén is the family name and Ruì is the given name.


• Amongst more casual acquaintances, a common greeting is “Have you eaten?” (Nǐ chīle ma? 你吃了吗?).


• Do not overreact when asked personal questions regarding marital status, family, age, job, or income. This is very common and is done to seek common ground, not to be nosy.

Body Language


• The Chinese dislike being touched by strangers. Do not touch, hug, lock arms, back slap or make any body contact unless you are good friends with that person.


• Clicking fingers or whistling is considered rude.


• Never put your feet on a desk or a chair or pass an object with your feet.


• To get the attention of a Chinese person, face the palm of your hand downward and move your fingers in a scratching motion. Never use your index finger to get anyone’s attention.


• Sticking your pinkie up is an ugly gesture, so avoid doing it. They also know all about the ol’ middle finger, so don’t flip the bird either. 


• In general, gifts are given at Chinese New Year, weddings, births and birthdays. Bringing a gift is also a good idea when you’re invited to someone’s home, and a small gift is expected when meeting a business acquaintance for the first time.


• Food and a nice basket of fruit make a great gift.


• Do not give scissors, knives or other sharp objects as they indicate that you want to cut off the relationship.


• Do not give clocks, handkerchiefs or straw sandals since they are associated with funerals and death.


• Do not wrap gifts in white, blue or black paper. Choose red, pink, or a colorful pattern.


• Never give gifts in groups of four since it’s an unlucky number. It’s better to give them in groups of eight since it’s the luckiest number.


• Always present gifts with two hands.


• Gifts are usually not opened immediately in front of the giver – but if you’re unsure, ask “Should I open it now?”


• The Chinese, especially older people, may try to refuse a gift several times before finally accepting it. Just smile and keep insisting that they accept it.

Visiting a Home

• Since Chinese people often live in small homes or apartments, many people prefer to entertain in public places rather than in their homes, especially when entertaining foreigners.


• If you are invited to their house, consider it a great honor. If you must turn down such an honor, explain the conflict in your schedule so that your actions are not taken as an insult and cause them to lose face.


• Arrive on time. Unlike in the West, when you’re invited to a dinner party at 19:00, the food is likely to be on the table at 19:00 sharp.


• Remove your shoes before entering the house. Your host may offer you a pair of house slippers when you arrive – try to wear them, even if they don’t fit perfectly.


• It’s always polite to bring a small gift for the host or hostess.


• In China, there is no such thing as “going Dutch.” If you are invited to dinner, your dinner will usually be paid for by the host. It’s considered polite to offer to pay, but if you actually do pay, it will embarrass your host.


• Learn to use chopsticks, period.


• Wait to be told where to sit. The guest of honor will be given a seat facing the door.


• The host begins eating first, and the host offers the first toast.


• Be prepared to make a small toast for all occasions.


• The first toast normally occurs during or after the first course, not before. After the next course, the guest should reciprocate.


• It is not necessary to always drain your glass after a toast, although a host should encourage it.


• You should try everything that is offered to you.


• Never eat the last morsel. Leave some food on your plate during each course to honor the generosity of your host. It is bad manners for a Chinese host to not keep refilling guests’ plates or teacups, and leaving food means you’re full and can’t possibly eat any more. (In the West, it’s the opposite; leaving food means you don’t like the taste and don’t want to eat any more of it.)


• Be observant to other people’s needs; if you want to pour yourself more tea, first ask if anyone else would like more. Serve them first, then fill your own cup.


• Do not be offended if a Chinese person makes slurping or belching sounds – it merely indicates that they are enjoying their meal.


• Never leave your chopsticks in a bowl of rice sticking upwards. Doing so wishes a bad curse on the proprietor since it resembles sticks of incense used at funerals and dead ancestors shines.

Business Etiquette

• As mentioned, punctuality is especially important in business. Being late is considered very rude and meetings always begin on time.


• Business cards are exchanged upon meeting, and they should be printed in English on one side and Chinese on the other.


• Be sure to use two hands when handing out or receiving a business card.


• Be prepared for the possibility of long meetings and lengthy negotiations with many delays.


• The Chinese will enter a meeting with the highest-ranking person entering first. They will assume the first member of your group to enter the room is the leader of your delegation.


• Seating is very important at a meeting. The host sits to the left of the most important guest.


• There may be periods of silence at a business meeting. As uncomfortable as it may seem, do not feel the need to break the silence.


• If the Chinese side no longer wishes to pursue the deal, they may not tell you. To save face, they may become increasingly inflexible and hard-nosed, forcing you to break off negotiations. In this way, they may avoid blame for the failure.


Lucky Numbers


2 (èr; 二) is a good number since the Chinese often use it to amplify the meaning of positive feelings like “double happiness.”


The character and sound of 3 (sān;三) is lucky because it looks and sounds like the word birth (shēng; 生).


6 is pronounced the same as “smooth” (liù; 溜) and “to flow” (liú; 流), and is therefore considered good for business. Therefore, you will see the number 6 at many business functions, and 666 (contrary to the West) is extremely lucky in China.


As in the West, 7 (qī;七) is important especially when dealing with relationships because it’s similar to the word together (qǐ; 起) and life (qì; 气).


8 (bā;八) is by far the luckiest number because it sounds similar to fortune (fā; 发). Many people like to use 8 in their telephone number or for pricing items, and it’s great to use for the time and date of special events. For example, the Beijing Olympic Games began on 8-8-2008 at 8 seconds and 8 minutes past 8:00 pm local time. In 2003, Sichuan Airlines acquired the phone number 028 8888 8888 at the cost of over 7 million RMB.


A good number to use for future relationships is 9 (jiŭ;九) since it phonetically sounds like long lasting or time (jiŭ;久). The pronunciation of the number 9 is also identical to the word for alcohol (jiŭ;酒), so if you see a bar with 9 in its name, it probably represents booze and not that they wish to build a future relationship with you.


Unlucky Numbers


0 (líng;零) is bad because it represents emptiness. Therefore, when giving money the traditional way in red envelopes, it’s best to give an amount that doesn’t end with zero. For example, it’d be better to give ¥88 instead of ¥90 even though you’d be giving them less money for two reasons: eight is a lucky number so it’s better to use it as much as possible and 90 ends in zero which is unlucky.


4 (sì;四) is the most unlucky number mainly because it sounds like the word death (sǐ; 死). It’s best to avoid using the number four whenever logically possible, and you won’t see it in many elevators.

  The number 4 is omitted in some Chinese buildings.


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