Chinese Manners in Daily Life

China is known as a state of etiquette and ceremonies. Many proverbs have been passed down from generation to generation such as “civility costs nothing” or “courtesy demands reciprocity” and so on. Take the example of an interesting short story. Once upon a time, a man went on a long tour to visit his friend with a swan as a gift. But the swan escaped from the cage on the way and in his effort to catch it, he got hold of nothing but a feather. Instead of returning home, he continued his journey with the swan feather. When his friend received this unexpected gift, he was deeply moved by the story as well as sincerity. And the saying “the gift is nothing valued, but it’s the thought that counts” was spread far and wide.

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The traditional Chinese ‘handshake’ consists of interlocking the fingers of the hands and waving them up and down several times. This tradition has a history of more than 2,000 years and nowadays it is rarely used (except during festivals, weddings and birthdays of the elderly). And western style shaking hands is more popular and appropriate on some formal occasions.

The correct way of greeting a person is very important in Chinese culture. Among strangers, acquaintances or at formal occasions the greeting (in Mandarin) ‘Ni Hao’ (or ‘Nin Hao if much respect is meant) ,with the meaning of ‘how are you’, is used. In Chinese culture, the question ‘Have you eaten?’ or ‘Where have you been?’ is the equivalent to ‘How are you?’ in western countries. It’s just a superficial inquiry that does not require a literal-minded, detailed answer. You can simply answer, ‘yes’, even if you haven’t actually eaten or simply smile and say ‘thank you’. You may make general inquiries about the health of another’s family, such as “are all in your family well?” During a meal, expressing enthusiasm about the food you are eating is a welcome, and usually expected, topic of conversation.

When greeting, a slight bow often accompanies the handshake, with the bow being deeper the more respect is being proffered to the person, for example an elderly person or someone of high social status. It is common social practice to introduce the junior to the senior, or the familiar to the unfamiliar.

When you start to talk with a stranger, the topics such as weather, food, or hobbies may be good ice-breakers. To a man, a chat about current affairs, sports, stock market or his job can usually go on smoothly. Similar to western customs, you should be careful to ask a lady private questions. However , relaxing talks about her job or family life will never put you in trouble. She is usually glad to offer you some advice on how to cook Chinese food or get accustomed to local life.

Welcomed Topics of Conversation:

Chinese scenery, landmarks,  weather, climate, and geography in China, your travels in other countries, your positive experiences traveling in China,  Chinese art, and so on.

Chinese men speaking loudly are not considered bad mannered. A woman speaking loudly may have abuse and ridicule heaped upon herself.

Chinese consider gifts as an important part to show courtesy. It is appropriate to give gifts on occasions such as festival, birthday, wedding, or visitng a patient. If you are invited to a family party, small gifts like wine, tea, cigarettes, or candies are welcomed. Also fruit, pastries, and flowers are safe choices. As to the other things, you should pay a little attention to the cultural differences. Contrary to westerners, odd numbers are thought by Chinese to be unlucky. So wedding gifts and birthday gifts are always sent in pairs for the old saying goes that blessings always come in pairs. Though four is an even number, it reads like death in Chinese thus it’s avoid. And a gift of clock sounds like attending other’s funeral so it is a taboo.

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