In a past post, I discussed the importance of sociolinguistics – how culture ties into language – and to continue that conversation, I’d like to share culture guides for various countries around the world to help you make your travels and language learning that much more enjoyable.
I’ve partnered with Kuperard to create this series and I’m really excited to share a few cultural tidbits about different countries, starting with a country I’ve recently visited and a language that I’ve fairly recently learnt. Here are 9 interesting facts about Chinese culture.
General Facts About Chinese Culture
1 // Although the Han Chinese are the Majority, there are numerous minority races in China.
The Han Chinese make up a whopping 92% of the Chinese population, but there are 55 minority nationalities recognized by the Chinese government (which means there are likely more than just 55). Each of these minorities have their own customs, languages, dress, and religions. Some of these minorities include Tibetans, Mongolians, Tus, Yugurs, Yi, and Dai.
2 // Personal Questions Are Not Inappropriate But Familiarity Too Early On Is
When conversing with someone for the first time, don’t be caught off guard by personal questions about your marital status, your salary, your children, or your age. At the same time, don’t become too friendly with your Chinese acquaintances with things like hugging or back slapping too early on because it may cause them some discomfort.
3 // There is an entire etiquette that revolves around the proper use of chopsticks.
For example, some things that you shouldn’t do:
- Stick chopsticks upright in a bowl. It means you’re offering the rice to the deceased and can be offensive to your host.
- Stick your fingers in your mouth to remove something (like a bone), but instead use your chopsticks.
- Use a pair of chopsticks that are not the same length. This once again represents death as uneven boards were once used to make coffins.
- Chew on chopsticks.
- Play drums with your chopsticks.
- Dig through the food for the tastier pieces with your chopsticks. This is considered extremely poor etiquette.
You should, however:
- Use “public chopsticks” if they are available for serving yourself at a restaurant (but you can always use the reverse end of your chopsticks if they are not).
4 // Gifts will be refused at least once before the receiver will accept them.
In China, it is considered polite if the receiver of the gift refuses it at least once (and in some cases, three times). This practice has nothing to do with whether or not the gift is desired or not, so don’t take offense. It is custom for the gift giver to insist that the receiver take the gift.
It is also not typical for a gift to be opened in front of the giver, so don’t be surprised if the gift is put away to be opened later.
5 // Compliments aren’t usually accepted.
In China, accepting a compliment is seen as vain, so many Chinese tend to deflect compliments with responses like “na li, na li” which means “where? where?” Other responses might be along the lines of “not at all” or “it was nothing”.
6 // The “three T’s”
In China, there are three topics that are typically taboo to discuss: Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen Square. This isn’t to say that they aren’t discussed at all, especially when you really get to know people, but their topics that you would be better to stay away from.
7 // Losing Face
Understanding he concept of “face” – both maintaining it and losing it – can go a long way towards helping you better understand different social environments in China. This is very important and should be considered at all times. You can lose face (or cause someone else to lose face) by losing your temper, confronting someone, putting someone on the spot, or by failing to properly respect someone.
8 // Last Names Come First
When you are introduced to someone, it is likely that you will first hear their last name, followed by their first name. So, for example, in Chinese I would be Kennedy Shannon. Keep this in mind because Chinese tend to remain more formal than Westerners, especially in terms of address. It is polite to call someone by their last name and Mr., Miss., or Mrs. Sometimes, in lieu of the the aforementioned titles, job titles are used such as Manager Wang, CEO Zhang, or Teacher Li. It is also common for women to keep their maiden names.
9 // Greeting
Shaking hands is often seen as a customary way of meeting new acquaintances. It is also seen as polite (if not necessary) to stand whenever someone new walks into the room until you have been introduced and invited to sit once more (unless this person is very obviously your junior at a business meeting).
When presenting a business card, it is seen as polite to present it with both hands and when receiving a card, to accept it with both hands. Business cards are often not just reserved for business gatherings, but for many introductions.
Bonus Cultural Tips
- It is rude to point or indicate people/things with your index finger. Instead, use your open palm.
- The concept of personal space is not the same in China as in the West, so do not be surprised if you’re pushed while out and about or if you feel as though the person you are speaking with is too close to you.
- Red and gold are always safe colors when selecting gifts or wrapping papers. Black and white, not so much.
- It is uncommon for someone to tell you “no” outright. Instead they will deflect with responses such as “this is not convenient.”
- Chinese point to their nose to indicate “oneself”, not their chest like many Westerners are accustomed to.
- Laughing does not always indicate humor. It is sometimes a response to an uncomfortable situation.
- Always leave something on your plate at the end of the meal otherwise you may find that your host continues to serve you more food.
- When leaving, it is not unusual for your Chinese friends to accompany you all the way to your car (or other modes of transportation). At the least, they will walk you to the elevator or to the door.
This guide was assembled with the support of Culture Smart! China. The Culture Smart books by Kuperard publishers are a part of a series of nearly 100 titles. You can purchase the books on Amazon and learn more about the company here.
What about you? What are some fun cultural facts you’ve learnt about the places and languages that you’re studying? Leave me a note in the comments below!
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My name is Shannon Kennedy and I'm the language lover, traveler, and foodie behind Eurolinguiste. I'm also the Resident Polyglot at Drops and the Head Coach of the Fluent in 3 Months Challenge.