Common Customs of China
The Chinese are a lot more relaxed about some of their customs than other Asian cultures. As a waiguoren (Westerner), you’re not expected to necessarily understand various
customs, so you’ll be let off the hook to a large extent. It doesn’t hurt for the foreign barbarian to be a little civilized every now and then. Read on for advice on specific customs.
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 traveling – just a token gift 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 – they’ll find out, you can bet on it. Often, it’s better to give something that can be shared, like food.
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 spellings – 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. We have the same thing in the West: 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. So you’re considering going to graduate school? Well, then, you’d better start buttering up the dean of the department you’d like to enter. Hopefully, you
have enough money to buy him gifts of foreign cigarettes, imported fruit, or maybe a bottle of expensive brandy, because otherwise your chances are very 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. Don’t necessarily think of it as bribery or corruption or you’ll go insane – you might look at it as admitting the reality of how the system works, especially in a
country of such an impossibly dense population.
Be aware that the system of guanxi is the way to get by in China and you’re not going to change that alone. You may well get caught up in it yourself: why did that nice young woman give you a silk scarf yesterday, for example? Did she say something about wanting to study abroad? Then again, you really need a train ticket to Shanghai for next week; maybe that businessman you’ve been tutoring in English for free could
help you out? Be careful about developing guanxi in China, and remember that it works both ways.
As in most Asian countries, face is a very important and complex feature of daily life. We may call it “pride” in the West, but we don’t have as developed a
sense of the absolute necessity of “saving face” as in the East.
In China, you will encounter this idea of “saving face” as well as having to “give face,” on multiple levels. Maybe in the classroom the student in the back row who knows the answer to your question won’t answer because she doesn’t want her classmates to feel stupid. Maybe when you asked that old man how to get to the museum he just pointed to the left because he was too embarrassed to
admit that he had no idea where it really was.
Maybe the official at the Public Security Bureau won’t extend your visa because you lost your temper in front of him and his colleagues, and if he granted your request now it would look as if he’d given in to your threats. 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. Try to give face as often as possible – it will be appreciated.
Men in China smoke. Period. Smoking is good for business; how better to break the ice and establish common ground upon which to build a relationship than to exchange cigarettes? Women do not smoke; it is bad for them. Don’t
ask why smoking is good for men and bad for women, because in China it just IS, and if you want to start an anti-smoking or equal-smoking lobby on your own, good luck to you. If you are male, expect to be offered cigarettes as a preface to developing a friendly relationship. If you smoke, offer cigarettes yourself – doing so will endear you to your new Chinese friends; however, declining an offered cigarette isn’t a big deal 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.
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, a banquet to show off how rich you are in front of a foreigner, or for any semi-plausible excuse. It will probably start at 6pm and you shouldn’t be late.
Dress is 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) near
8pm. 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 to stagger yourself by eating a little from each dish and complimenting each in turn with something like, “This is delicious!” or, “I’ve never tasted such good fish!”
Exaggerate wildly – you cannot lay it on too thick. 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. Then say you’re REALLY full, “hen bao,” that you’ll never eat again, that you’ll be sick if you eat another mouthful, and so on.
Around eight, the banquet will end and everyone staggers home – there is no after-dinner chit-chat.
As in any other country, if, while conversing with a local, he or she suddenly clams up, changes the subject, or feigns incomprehension, you can bet you’ve stumbled onto a forbidden topic. Don’t push the matter or you may cause trouble for your Chinese friend as well as for yourself. It’s best not to initiate discussions of religion or politics in particular.