Foreign teachers and others interested in the topics of business and social etiquette in China should direct their attention to books dedicated solely to these subjects. Many excellent books are available for you to be prepared for living in China, including Chinese Business Etiquette by Scott D. Seligman. This article doesn’t intend to go over every feature of Chinese social etiquette and customs, but it will cover a few that foreigners will probably encounter in their first six months in China.
Lucky and Unlucky Numbers
Many Chinese believe success is the result of good fortune more than it is the result of hard work and self-sufficiency. Most people in China function from day-to-day with a view of an external locus of control (fate and fortune). In contrast, many people in Western countries function with an internal locus of control (success depends on our own hard work, talent, and determination). With this in mind, lucky and unlucky numbers hold even more importance in Chinese society.
The Chinese believe the numbers six and eight (especially eight) are very lucky numbers. To get an idea of how lucky the number eight is, one phone number with a string of eights (138-8888-8888) was selling in a city for 50,000 yuan (that’s $7,000 in the United States)!
Unlucky numbers include four and fourteen because in China the spoken words “to die” and these numbers sound very similar. In fact, the number fourteen is thought to be so unlucky that a floor number inside a recently built Guangzhou apartment complex was replaced with 13A.
It’s not uncommon to see a multitude of fortune tellers alongside the city’s main streets selling their unique insights into your future for the low, low price of twenty yuan. Most of the younger generation in China reject the importance of astrology in their daily lives, but oddly enough, a majority of college students reported that they would definitely consult an astrologer to select a “lucky wedding day” before getting married. Although, well-educated Chinese will dismiss such superstitious notions on an intellectual level, China is still very much a country that places a great deal of significance on the importance of fate and fortune.
You should always keep in mind specific cultural norms when choosing a gift, regardless of the occasion. Baskets of fruit, containers of cookies and candy, expensive tea, pastries, cigarettes, and bottles of good wine or high-grade bái jiǔ (an alcoholic drink distilled from sorghum) are some of the most common gifts presented in China.
The topic of gift-giving is somewhat related to the lucky number discussion above because odd numbers are generally thought to be unlucky. In China, there’s an old proverb, “Blessings come in pairs.” If we take this into account, then, gifts should be given in pairs or in a group of even numbers (except maybe four). For example, a dozen roses would go over very well, but a single red rose might be considered unlucky or insulting.
You should wrap your gifts in pretty, bright colors such as yellow, pink, or red. Don’t use black and/or white wrapping paper or bags as these colors are related to funerals. In addition, clocks and other time pieces are considered unsuitable gifts in China because the sounds for the characters used for “clock” and “funeral” or “death” are very similar.
During the Spring Festival (a popular celebration in China), it is good form to give a red envelope (hóng bāo) filled with money to the children of valued acquaintances, business associates, and close friends. What amount you give to the children will depend on the closeness of the relationship and the person’s status.
If you happen to get invited to a wedding reception, an appropriate gift to bring would be a red envelope containing a minimum of 200 yuan per person (maybe more if the relationship is especially close). Really close friends might decide to give an expensive gift or gifts (in an even number of items) instead of cash.
Have You Eaten?
Dinner invitations are especially meaningful and special in China, way more so than in Western countries. In China, it isn’t thought of or treated as just a social pleasantry. It is expected that the two people involved maintain an unspoken and strict “balance sheet” (referred to as bào) over time in regard to reciprocation of dinner invitations. This is important to guarantee a peaceful and long relationship.
Chinese coworkers might invite you to dinner to develop a budding relationship or befriend you, and they’ll expect you to reciprocate the invitation at some later date. In China, it is customary that the one who extends the invitation be responsible for paying the whole bill. Later, you should invite your coworker to dinner, then it will be your turn to cover the check. Make sure the dinner you pay for isn’t less or more expensive than the one you were invited to. It is considered extremely bad form to place a Chinese person in a position of obligation where they would be unwilling or unable to reciprocate in the future.
It is good manners to try sampling every dish presented before you. All meals are served in China “family style.” A large variety of dishes will be brought and placed on a lazy susan. The lazy susan is rotated to present the latest dish in front of the guest of honor; it’s customary to wait your turn until the guest of honor has sampled that dish. On the first go-around, you should only take a small amount of food from each serving dish. After everyone has the opportunity to sample every dish, you may help yourself to a second or even third helping. Just remember not to finish off the dish. It also best to leave a bit of food on your plate because to “clean your plate” in China means you are still famished and haven’t been served enough food.
It’s not considered impolite to pick your teeth at the table with a toothpick after finishing a meal as long as you remember to cover your mouth with the other hand. Should you need to blow your nose, turn your head away from the table or step a short distance away from the table.
If you’re taking a break during the meal or if you’re finished with your meal, lay your chopsticks flat on top of your plate or rest the tapered ends on top of the caddy just to the right of your plate, if one is there. Very important: NEVER stand the chopsticks upright inside a bowl of rice! Why? Because this is reminiscent of the joss sticks the Chinese use to mourn their dead. If you do this with your chopsticks, it will be considered very, very insulting since it implies that you want your host or other guests at the table dead.
Alcoholic beverages are served during a formal dinner for toasting, not for quenching your thirst. Never drink the beverage until after the first toast has been made (usually by the highest ranking official or person at the dinner). After the toast, drink the entire serving (gān bēi), then extend your arm slightly forward while tilting the glass a little downward to show you have emptied your glass.
When you’re with the more traditional and refined Chinese, it is an important social courtesy for the lower ranking member of the two parties to toast his glass below that of the person’s he is toasting. The bigger the gap in social status, the more distance in height there should be between the lips of the glasses when they meet. This will give your Chinese host or colleague a respectable amount of face, thus allowing you to make a great impression on them.
Personal Space and Privacy
China is one of the world’s most populated countries with a little over 1.3 billion people all packed into a space that is just a bit smaller than the whole of the United States. It isn’t too surprising, then, that the Chinese hold different views about the appropriate social distance between two people. Not to mention the fact that the English word “privacy” doesn’t have a direct translation in Chinese. Personal space and privacy just isn’t thought of in the same terms by the Chinese as it is in Western countries.
While living in China, a foreigner might frequently be asked a large number of personal questions. Such questions could include, “What is your salary?” or “How old is your girlfriend?” It’s also not unusual to hear comments that sound unflattering to someone from the West but are perfectly acceptable in China. These comments might include “You’re looking a little fat,” or “You look a little too old, and you should shave off that beard.” These comments are not meant to be insulting or condescending. Instead, Chinese people will say them to show that they are interested in your well-being and in you as a person.
The Chinese place a lot of emphasis on protecting and caring for their family and very close friends. The exact opposite is true for anyone outside that intimate circle, which partially explains why there isn’t much in the way of charity organizations and social welfare in China. In fact, the Chinese are often confused by Western attitudes in this regard because it appears that we treat complete strangers better than our own family and friends.
As for public property, most Chinese don’t have much concern for it. One common saying in China says that you aren’t truly Chinese until you’ve had four bicycles stolen from you. Personal space and private property are highly valued and cared for, but community space and public areas don’t get this same treatment. The city streets and the inside of apartment buildings (particularly the stairwells) will often seem dirty and filled with debris.
Despite this disregard for public property, the Chinese still value social harmony above everything else. They believe that freedom and individual expression take a back-seat to the needs of the group as a whole. In general, Chinese people tend to be restrained in emotional expression and see little value in being direct or confrontational. As a result, they will avoid becoming involved in anything that isn’t related to personal or family business.
Affectionate Behavior in Public
It is generally considered inappropriate to be affectionate towards a member of the opposite sex in public; although, this is slowly changing among college students in major Chinese cities. Elderly couples may be seen holding hands during an evening walk together, but middle-aged and younger couples don’t usually engage in the same practice.
Perhaps somewhat perplexing to a Westerner, it isn’t uncommon to see two people of the same sex expressing affection towards each other. You might notice two male friends (usually teenagers) with their arms around the other’s shoulders or waist. In addition, you might see two girls or women (going across all age groups) holding hands while walking in public. For many Westerners, this sight does take a while to get used to because these behaviors are generally associated with homosexuality in our culture—but it doesn’t have that same meaning in China.
Brace yourself for this. If you’re highly valued where you’re employed, and you have to call in sick one day, you should probably expect getting visitors (such as from school personnel of varying statuses) bringing gifts like fruit or other food items. They usually only stay for about twenty or thirty minutes.
This might be difficult for many Westerners to wrap their head around since the last thing they want to do when they are sick is to have to get out of bed for guests. This is a common custom in China, though. This visit is meat to show you that there is concern for your well-being and respect, and you should be thankful and pleasant no matter how miserable you might be feeling due to your illness.
Business cards have more social meaning in China than they do in the West. Important people are expected to carry them somewhere on their person wherever they go and present them to others during introductions and greetings. If the school you work for doesn’t automatically give you name cards, ask if you can purchase them from the school or ask someone to take you to have them made.
It’s considered polite in China to receive and offer business cards with both hands. You should carefully grab each end of the card between your thumbs and index fingers and extend both of your arms, especially if you are receiving them from or offerin them to someone of higher social rank. When you receive a business card, take a moment to examine it before you put it away. That way, you can be sure to convey both respect and interest in the person who gave you the business card.
As mentioned earlier, this is just a small sample size of some of the many interesting customs and social nuances of China. Hopefully, you will have found this guide helpful for making life in China a little easier and less confusing.