Chinese Customs

There are many habits and customs that are particular to China and Chinese people.  Because of the powerful influence that China as exerted on neighboring cultures, some of these customs are echoed in other Asian peoples- including Japanese and Korean.  The following observations are not listed in any particular order.


Unlike Westerners, Chinese people do not usually greet people who they have not been introduced to or are not familiar with. It would seem odd if a person would offer a "Hi" or "Hello" when passing on the street.  It is also standard practice to have a name card or business card to give to people when introduced.   Handshakes are not customary among Chinese for first meetings.
Conversation topics for people newly acquainted also differ from that of English speakers.   It is not impolite to ask about a person's job, annual salary, marital/dating status, or age.  In fact, these issues which Westerners may find uncomfortable are very typical.  On the other hand, questions about family tend to be deflected or avoided.

Gift Giving

Giving gifts and treating people to dinner is a common practice, especially during festival days.  When if a gift is given, it should be offered with two hands.   Any gift offered with two hands should always be received with two hands.   Even such a trivial matter of giving a name card should, to be perfectly polite, be given and received in this manner.  While this isn't a strict practice and in more informal settings can be overkill, in polite company or formal settings this detail should not be overlooked.
Chinese people are big on treating people to dinner.  It is common for a person to take a friend to dinner or lunch, just as in many Western cultures.  Chinese people often vie to be the one to pay the bill.  Chinese also invite other people or families to their residence to eat quite often. 


Rice or noodles are served with virtually every meal.  For breakfast, Chinese people generally eat congee (over-boiled rice), fresh bread from a local bakery, or a leftover rice dish.  You won't see bacon, eggs, and toast or cold cereal.  At lunch a Chinese person generally eats a single rice or noodle dish themselves.  In some areas boxes of rice with vegetables, bbq pork, chicken or duck, etc. is very popular.   Dinner is a family affar.  In Chinese dinners, all the dishes are placed on a center table.  Each person is given a bowl of soup .   After the soup is finished, the bowl is filled with rice and everyone takes what they want from the dishes on the table.  Other than hot tea, beverages are generally not served with a meal.

When one is invited to a person's residence they should 1) eat at least two bowls of rice 2) eat all the rice in a bowl 3)  eat some of each dish.   Burping or slurping soup, actions which are considered impolite in Western culture, are part of Chinese eating and are generally interpreted as complimentary signs.
There is also a special eating custom among Chinese called "drinking tea".   While tea is served with the meal, the phrase can be misleading as the central activity is not drinking tea but rather eating dim sum.   

Dim sum is Chinese specialty foods served from early in the morning (as early as 6am) until around noon.  It is mostly breads, meats and vegetables wrapped in pastry noodles, and other foods that can be picked up individual for a plate.  At a tea house where dim sum is served, the patrons sit around a large table and are served tea.   Hot water is also provided to wash the plates, bowls, and eating utensils (chopsticks and a ladle-like spoon.)  In some restaurants different dishes are carted around and patrons can pick and choose what they want from the cart.  As with dinner, dishes are shared among all persons in the group.  In other places a list of the different dishes are provided and customers can tick what dishes and the quantities desired.  While "drinking tea" a group socializes.

Family Relations and Names

Although Chinese embraces the concept of of equality between man and women, traditionally Chinese families have followed patriarchal lines.  The Chinese extended family tends to be more significant in life than that of Western cultures, and thusly the different relationships are further distinguished than they are in English.  When speaking for siblings, Chinese people almost always refer to them in respect to being older brothers and older sisters or younger brothers and younger sisters.  The same differentiation occurs among aunts, uncles, cousins etc.  Chinese relatives are even further divided by paternal relatives and maternal relatives.  Grandparents, uncles, aunts, in-laws etc. on the father's side have different tittles than grandparents, uncles, aunts, in-laws etc. on the mother's side.

Chinese names are given in the reverse of Western names.  The surname is said first, and then the given name.  For example, Bruce Lee's name rendered in Yale Cantonese romanization is  /Leih/ /Siu/ \Luhng\.  /Leih/ (Lee) is his surname and spoken first.  The given name (Little Dragon) is spoken secondly.  Professional, social, and family tittles always follow the name as well.  The titles Doctor, Master, Professor, or Teacher would follow the surname or full name.  Dr. Wong would be Huang Yi Sheng (Huang Doctor- Mandarin pinyin).  Master Man Fa Kwok would be Gwok Mahn -Fa- /Si/ /Fu/ (Yale Cantonese romanization.)  Likewise Xiansheng (Mr.) and Taitai (Mrs.) are said after the surname.

Familial terms can also be added to the surname of someone not related to impute to them a special closeness or relationship to the speaker.  Little children are often told to address elders as "older brother" "older sister" "aunt" or "uncle".  In this case the family title can either be used alone, or be added to a person's surname.  (If a person is known by an English name the title is said after the person's given name.  For example, Michael gege <older brother>)

Colors and Symbols

In Chinese culture, there symbols have a different significance than in European based cultures.  The color red is one of good luck and prosperity.  Gold is the imperial color.  White is the color of death (and is the color traditionally worn at funerals).  Black symbolizes misfortune.

The Concept of Face

The concept of "saving face" or "losing face" originates from China.  This is a complicated subject and not easily set down as a rule or principle.  Certain behaviors or actions are done in an effort to save face or to not cause another to lose face.  For example, a person might tell you "maybe", or agree to something they fully intend not to do in order to avoid completely rejecting a request or proposal, which would cause one to lose face.  Often, "face" is given or lost in accordance to rules of etiquette or respect.  Therefore it is important to follow customs and understand polite behavior in order to avoid causing someone else to lose "face".  Always accept a gift when offered (this principle does not extend to bribery), even if you normally refuse the gift.  Always attend formal functions when invited, and bring a gift.

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