Gap Year

An Introduction to Social Customs in China

Andrew Dunkle

After graduating with a degree in Art History, Andrew decided to teach English in Taiwan. He grew up in Australia and has studied abroad in Italy.

China is such a huge and socially diverse country that any attempt to generalize its social customs here would be folly. An acceptable custom in Shanghai may be completely offensive in Xian. Nonetheless, my experiences traveling in China (and living in Taiwan) have given me the opportunity to observe a number of important customs. If you are thinking about studying, volunteering, or teaching in China, then advanced knowledge of these customs will definitely come in handy. I welcome any feedback or additional observations about living in China in the comments below.

Now then, lets make some blatant generalizations:

  • In China, family names come first, then given names. For example, my English name would be ordered Dunkle Kenneth Andrew.
  • Spitting. Traditional custom holds that it is unhealthy to swallow phlegm. Be prepared to see people spit and spit often.
  • Loud conversations, even to the point of yelling at each other, will probably be one of the first things you'll notice in China. Don't assume people are angry or upset, it is just how business is done.
  • Pushing, shoving, and jumping queues. You will experience this a lot at train and bus stations. It's every last man, women, and child for themselves!
  • Little regard for the law. This includes (among other things) driving extremely recklessly, smoking in non-smoking areas, and the absurd availability of copyrighted material and knockoff goods.
  • Always remove your shoes when entering a Chinese household. This custom is strictly enforced, and one reason why you may want to quickly buy a pair of slippers to easily take on and off
  • Never write someone's name in red. For obvious reasons the color is synonymous with blood, and it is considered a bad omen. Many new teachers make this mistake when grading students' homework.
  • The number 4 is considered unlucky. This is because the pronunciation for the word "4" (si, pronounced with a sharp falling tone) is very similar to the pronunciation of the word "death" (si, this time pronounced with a rising tone). For this reason some buildings will omit labeling the fourth floor, preferring to skip from three to five instead!

Chinese Eating Habits

One important area of Chinese culture that deserves special attention is eating habits. If you are invited out to a meal by your boss or host family, it would be wise to follow some of these tips:

  • Don't stick your chopsticks directly into your rice or dish. Doing so is a symbolic gesture of wishing death to all at the table! Lay them flat to the side of your plate instead.
  • Concerning the consumption of alcohol, the Chinese have many unique games and traditions that you should try to follow. First, never fill your own glass. If you want to drink fill your neighbors glass and then allow them to fill yours. Also avoid drinking alone. Drinking alcohol is a social activity that involves cheering those around you. Make eye contact, raise your glass and yell out, "gan bei!" It literally means dry glass so bottoms up! Luckily, alcohol (including beer) is usually served in small glasses, but after an hour of this you will certainly feel the full effects!
  • Chinese will order a lot of food when dining out so come prepared to walk away a little heavier. It is very common to order large dishes and share them around the table. Enjoy the meal, but don't worry too much about finishing everything. In China it is considered a sign of prosperity to order more food than you actually need.
  • When a dish is passed to you try to refuse it two or three times before accepting. This may seem silly, but you display modesty and humility by not immediately accepting the dish.
  • Occasionally serve food to those around you before serving yourself.
  • Water and other cold beverages are rarely served during dinner. Chinese prefer to drink hot tea or soup. Soda and juices are considered a dessert and will be served after the main meal.
  • The bill will always go to whoever hosted the event. It is still considered polite to 'offer' to pay, so put up a good fight before accepting.

As with most travel advice, you should take these comments with a grain of salt. China is a surprisingly diverse country so it is impossible to claim that what I have said here applies everywhere. You can only count on one thing once you arrive in China -- confusion!