photo by Jakob Montrasio
photo by Jakob Montrasio

Impressions about Chinese etiquette vary. Many envision a richly cultural country with traditions and customs celebrated for thousands of years. Though there remains a veil of this laying on top of modern day China, it is sometimes difficult to see. In fact, what most are exposed to upon initially stepping off the plane is a lot of what is generally considered quite rude in the West.

People spitting and littering on the street, men relieving their bladders just behind the bushes (or not behind anything, as is often the case), and a general disregard of the fine art that we call queuing are all common sights. At the dinner table it isn’t considered rude to noisily slurp or eat with your mouth open. Catch a bone? That’s what the floor’s for.

Cultural differences aside, there is a rather intricate etiquette system in China that has developed over millennia. And while mastery of its twists and turns may be out of reach for most foreigners; lest you wish to offend your hosts, it is a good idea to at least attempt to understand it.

Miànzi (面子) – Saving Face

You can be in China for years, paying close attention to this aspect of Chinese culture, feel you’re just beginning to understand it – and then realize you don’t at all. Face is a complicated system of shame and stature measurement. To “have” face is one of the most valued things, while to “lose” face is a cause of great anguish.

On its base-level, the Chinese concept of “face” is the same as it is in any culture. Where it tends to catch up many visitors (or even long-time expats) is in its subtle intricacies.

If the weasel of a salesman in the market sold you a craptastic pair of shoes that fell apart before you could walk out of the shop in them, your reaction may be to tear them a new posterior orifice, and rightfully so (as there’s no shortage of cheats in the markets). However, direct confrontation is rarely the right choice. It may feel counter-intuitive, but maintaining a jovial, no-accusatory attitude is much more likely to get you what you want.

Causing people to lose face can come in many forms – from the rather direct example above to a more subtle situation that goes completely unnoticed. Generally speaking foreigners are given a lot of leeway when it comes to this though, as Chinese presume that foreigners are unaware of their cultural norms, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to try and keep the concept of face in mind when dealing with Chinese.

Guānxi (关系) – You Are Who You Know

Directly translated guānxi means “relationship”, and it is basically how much “pull” you have in society. Again, life-long devotion to understanding Chinese culture may yield little in the way of truly understanding this very complicated piece of Chinese culture. That said, here’s our go at it.

About 2,500 years ago Confucius preached a system of morals and ethics designed to bring order to the then rather hedonistic and chaotic times. These rules have stuck around and have come a long way in defining guānxi. Confucius broke it down into five key relationships: ruler-subject, father-son, friend-friend, husband-wife and brother-sister. These are the core relationships and offer some insight as to who gets top say. The relationship that isn’t defined by this, but plays most heavily into guanxi is that of your “connections”.

It’s not who you are but who you know, definitely rings truer in China than many places. The ‘most qualified’ candidate has little to do with any selection process in China. From getting a new job to getting into university, much of it is dictated by the amount of guānxi you have. And while visitors will likely not need much knowledge of this culture point, long-term residents are sure to hit it full force — whether it be getting a driver’s license, getting a visa renewed, visiting a hospital, starting a business, or just getting the best seat in a restaurant.

Kèqì (客气) – Gesundheit!

Kèqì, or politeness, is another area where Chinese culture differs a bit from Western norms. It can be a bit off-putting and confusing to foreign visitors that “thanks” is not as casually or frequently said. In the West we tend to say ‘thank you’ for everything. You’ve just been given a cheque from Ed McMahon, “Thank you!”, you’ve just been given the change at the grocery store, “Thank you!” – it’s become an instinctive courtesy in English. For all its eagerness to osmosize Western culture, this bit hasn’t transferred over. It will often baffle a waitress or shop assistant when you thank them for something that is part of their job or ‘duty’.

As such, foreigners tend to hear the phrase “bú kèqì” quite a lot. This is the appropriate response to “xiè xie/thank you” but does not quite mean “you’re welcome.” Rather it translates more like “no need to be so polite.” This is particularly so between family members, where too much politeness can be seen as treating family in an overly formal way, which can be a sign of disrespect.

Generally speaking Chinese people strive for modesty or humbleness, and boasting or bragging will not win you any favours in China. Though it may not be rude to spit your recently defleshed chicken bones on the floor at a restaurant, arrogantly stating how far it went is. Go figure. The humble-brag, however, is a bit of an art form in China.

What’s In A Name?

Addressing people the proper way is made doubly hard by language barriers coupled with a complete reversal of how we look at names in English. In China the family name comes first – and though there are about 3,000 surnames in use, nearly a quarter of the country’s large population use ““, “Wáng” or “Zhào“. The second part of the name is the given name, of which there is usually much pride attached to. It is a parent-honouring tradition for the owner of a name to know precisely its meaning.

Unless you are on quite close terms with someone, it is best not to refer to them by their given name, but rather by their whole name. For example, unless you are good friends with a guy named Li Yaqin, you would not refer to him by either “Li” (surname) or “Yaqin” (given name); but rather call him ‘Lǐ Xiānshēng‘ or the complete ‘Li Yaqin’.


Though attitudes of physical interaction are changing quickly among China’s youth, traditional society still prevails. It’s no problem to shake someone’s hand when you meet them, but cross off “Embracing Chinese National” on your ‘must do’ list. A hug or kiss is reserved only for close friends and family members. Also note that you need not give that big, from-the-waist bow – though close in geography, China is very much not Japan. Nor is it Thailand, so lotus-bud hand thing will also leave your Chinese hosts feeling awkward and confused.

Public displays of affection are sometimes frowned upon between Chinese people, but as a foreigner most of the population will just assume you are like all the Hollywood DVDs they’ve seen that depict the characters as footloose and fancy free, doin’ it every chance they get – so not much need to worry about it — presuming it’s foreigner on foreigner action.

Should you get your romance on with a Chinese person, however, be sure to at least consider that the cultures are different. In a wide blanket statement, Chinese people are generally much more reserved than Westerners are used to. Guys, expect to do most of the groundwork with Chinese females, and girls, bet on being considered quite forward if you initiate things with a Chinese man. Also be aware the position you put your Chinese partner in if you break social norms and initiate affection in public. Of course your partner may not mind, but it is sure to get them a lot of possibly unwanted attention from looky-liu’s.

Yes Maybe No

A good rule of thumb in Chinese dealings is “Yes = Maybe, Maybe = No, and No is uncommon at best.” This goes back to ‘face‘. Here are some examples:

Yes = Maybe

Laowai: “I’m lost, can you help me find the train station.”

Chinese: “Yes”

Whether the person knows how to get to the train station or not, they will almost always say ‘yes’ as a way to show they want to help you. Also, to indicate that they don’t know something may cause them to lose face. This is an important thing to remember if asking directions, as you may be led down the wrong path in an effort to spare the seemingly helpful person from admitting they’ve not a clue.

Maybe = No

Laowai: “I like this style of shoe, but do you have it in size 11?”

Chinese: “Maybe”

Directly following this the salesperson will leave the shop and begin asking all adjoining shops if they’ve got the shoes for the mammoth of a foreigner in their store. Usually they’ll come back with a pained expression and an assortment of other shoes for you to try, all size 9 or less.

“No” is uncommon

It’s no coincidence that there is no Chinese word for “no”, only the rather open ended “not yes/búshì“. Chinese etiquette tends to be such that unless the circumstances are extreme you would generally not be so direct as to say “no”, and for comfort’s sake, you may wish to practice this too. Being direct is just not how communication is done in China, Chinese prefer to talk indirectly, or around the issue. This can seem frustrating and inefficient to outsiders, but in the reverse, English speakers are sometimes considered brutish for their forcefulness and lack of suave. Take it or leave it, it is what it is.

In the end, people are people – respect them and they’ll respect you – if they don’t, revel in the fact that you’re a better person and move on. Again, we here at Lost Laowai suggest that you not worry too much about etiquette. If you are well-mannered by Western standards, there’s a good chance that will carry over just fine in China. As for the differences, try to celebrate them as much as you can.


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