Chinese Etiquette

14 Oct

16 Essential Chinese Etiquette

A survival guide to having good manners with Chinese people in Taiwan

Knowing basic Chinese etiquette and customs is indispensable when traveling to Taiwan or China. From the simplest circumstances like knowing how to greet Chinese people, to more subtle situations like what color to use when writing someone’s name, you will find on this page some very fundamental Chinese etiquette.

Chinese Etiquette #1
Greeting People

Contrarily to what many foreigners think, you are not supposed to bow when greeting Chinese people. Shaking hands, smiling, and saying “hi” or “ni hao” is the most usual way to greet people in China or Taiwan. Use “nin hao” to greet older Chinese people.

Chinese Etiquette #2
Visiting a Chinese Home

  • Make sure you arrive on time.
  • Take off your shoes before entering your guest’s home.
  • Wear the slippers they offer you even if they are too small.
  • Offer a small gift to your host.
  • Receive objects (gifts, drinks, napkins) with both hands.
  • Compliment about something you like in the house.

Chinese Etiquette #3
Eating Out With Taiwanese – Table Manners

  • Wait for someone to tell you where to sit.
  • Let elders sit down first.
  • Don’t start eating as soon as the food gets on the table.
    The host usually tells people when to start eating.
  • Eat as much as you can to show you’re enjoying the food.
  • You should try everything that is offered to you.
  • Don’t take the last pieces from a serving tray.
  • Wait for your guest to offer a toast before drinking alcohol.
  • You can drink from your bowl.
  • You can use your hands to eat foods like chicken and shrimps.
  • You can use a toothpick at the table, but make sure you cover your mouth with your free hand.
  • Don’t get offended if people make noise or burp while eating.
  • Chinese people rarely split the bill at restaurants. Be ready to pay for the whole thing, or to have them pay for you.

IMPORTANT TIP: The best way to avoid making mistakes or “losing face” in front of your Chinese hosts is to observe what everybody else is doing and try to do like them.

Chinese Etiquette #4

Rule #1: Don’t plant your chopsticks in your rice so that they stand up. Chinese people think it looks like incense stuck in the ash of a censer. When you are not using them, or have to drink, or talk, you can leave them flat on the table. When you’re finished eating, place them flat on your bowl.
This is how you should place your chopsticks
when you’re finished eating.

“Public-Use Chopsticks”

Sometimes, an extra pair of chopsticks will be placed in the middle of the table. These chopsticks are called “gong kuai” or “public-use chopsticks”. You use them (for hygienic purpose) to take food from serving trays, and you place them back in the middle after using them.

How to Use Chopsticks Video

Chinese Etiquette #5
Chinese Gifts

Giving and receiving gifts is a complex Chinese etiquette that can be extremely confusing for foreigners. When should you give gifts to Chinese people? How should you receive them?

Gifts are given when visiting someone’s home, on major Chinese holidays like Chinese New Year, at weddings and for birthdays. Here are some points to remember about this important Chinese etiquette:

  • Always present your gift with both hands.
  • Fresh fruit are always appreciated, especially if they are in a nice box or basket.
  • Do not give the following objects: clocks, handkerchiefs, and sharp objects like scissors or knives.
  • Refuse the gift at least two times before accepting it.
  • Accept the gift only after the person has insisted a couple of times.
  • Always receive gifts with both hands.
  • Don’t open your gift in front of the person who gave it to you.

Chinese Etiquette #6
Red Envelopes

On special occasions like Chinese New Year and weddings, Chinese people give red envelopes filled with money instead of giving gifts. Chinese red envelopes are called “hong bao” in Mandarin Chinese. Red is the most auspicious color in Chinese. It represents good luck, success and prosperity.

On Chinese New Year, adults give red envelopes to children. As a foreigner, you are not expected to give red envelopes to anyone.

If you attend a wedding, you’ll have to give a red envelope with your name on it. Giving less than 1600NT$ per person is considered stingy. The number 4 is unlucky as it sounds like “death” in Mandarin Chinese, so don’t give any amount that has a 4 in it like 2400NT. Odd numbers are also bad. 8 is a lucky number, so it’s perfect if you give 1800NT! You can’t give coins, so don’t give 1888NT.

Chinese Etiquette #7
Why are Chinese people so curious?

Chinese people are very curious about foreigners and they’re not shy to ask questions. Even if it’s the first time you meet a Chinese person, don’t be surprised if that person asks you questions such as:

  • How old are you?
  • Which university did you attend?
  • Are you married? Are you planning to get married?
  • Where do you work? How much do you make?

Do not answer private questions if you don’t want to. I often tell Chinese people that I don’t want to talk about my personal life, especially when I’m asked about marriage or my job. It’s not because you’re in a Chinese culture that you have to compromise on your dignity. Self-respect first, Chinese etiquette second!

Chinese Etiquette #8
Respecting Elders

Elders have a very important place in Chinese society, and Chinese people will go to extreme lengths to show them respect. Always use “nin” (the polite “you” in Mandarin) when addressing elders.

You should still use common sense when dealing with those old folks. I’ve met lots of old Chinese guys who were abusing the “respect the elders” card a bit too much. They are not gods. They are still people. You don’t have to be extra polite or show more respect to people who aren’t nice with you, no matter what age they are.

Chinese Etiquette #9
Don’t write people’s name in red.

Even though red is a lucky color in Chinese society, you’re not supposed to write people’s name using that color. Why not? Because traditionally, the name of the deceased were painted in red on their gravestones.

Chinese Etiquette #10

Chinese people like to compliment. They’ll say “Wow! Your Chinese is very good!” after you’ve said ni hao. They’ll tell you that your country is the most beautiful in the world even though they’ve never been there, that you are so handsome or beautiful, that you look so young, that you have a perfect nose, that your skin is so white, that you can use chopsticks very well, even if you can’t use them properly…

Many foreigners see this kind of robotic flattery as devoid of sincerity, fake, even hypocrite. And that’s how I feel, too. The usual way to respond to it is to accept the compliment with humility and to give a compliment back. I take great pleasure in trying to find creative flattering remarks. My favorite one is “I really like your ears”. This phrase is always followed by an uncomfortable silence after I say it.

Chinese Etiquette #11
Business Cards

In western countries, business cards are usually exchanged for… well… business purposes! However, in Chinese society, they are routinely traded and serve as a mean of introduction even in the most average circumstances.

  • Always offer or receive a business card with both hands.
  • Have a quick look at the card before putting it away.
  • Don’t write on a business card.
  • Don’t place business cards in your rear (back) pocket.

Chinese Etiquette #12
Clothing and appearance

It’s not uncommon to see men walking around topless in western cities, but here it’s a total different story: Keep your T-shirt on, even if it’s 40 degrees outside!

At the beach, most Chinese girls don’t wear bikinis because dark skin isn’t appreciated in Chinese culture, so don’t be surprised if all the men stare at you if you wear one.

Apart from that, you should be fine wearing “normal” western attire.

Chinese Etiquette #13

Taiwan is not China! Somehow, people on this side of the Taiwan Strait have learned the concept of keeping their saliva in their mouths instead of spitting it out. The only occasion when spitting is “tolerated” in Taiwan is when chewing beetle nuts. Taiwanese men who chew beetle nuts usually spit the first mouthful of red juice in a plastic cup. Some will spit on the ground, but this is more common in the countryside.

Chinese Etiquette #14

Taiwanese don’t tip in bars, restaurants, or taxis and you are not expected to do it either. Of course, if you do decide to leave a tip, no one would object.

Chinese Etiquette #15
Public Display of Affection

Traditionally, showing affection in public isn’t accepted in Chinese society. But in modern Taiwan, most people have a relaxed attitude toward this issue. Walking around hand in hand is common. Holding each other by the waist on a bench at the park while having a romantic discussion is also all right (especially at night). However, flagrant french-kissing and touching is definitely inappropriate.

Chinese Etiquette #16
Losing Face

I’ve been living in Taiwan for ten years already and I still find it very difficult to understand the Chinese concept of “face”. So I’ll try to keep it very simple here and only give you the most important tips you’ll need to know in order to save your own face and to avoid making Chinese people lose theirs.

  • Avoid behaving in a way that will make someone embarrassed.
  • Don’t criticize someone in front of other people.
  • Don’t lose your temper even if you are in a very frustrating situation.
  • Don’t yell at people. Don’t show anger.
  • Don’t accept compliments too easily. Show some humility.
  • Don’t talk too much about your yourself.
  • Genuinely compliment others.

Finally, remember that Chinese people usually smile when they are angry or embarrassed. They’re not laughing at you. They’re simply doing their best to avoid a full-on confrontation and further complications.

What about Chinese superstitions? Taiwanese people are some of the most superstitious I’ve met in the world! Chinese society has been “controled” by tons of crazy superstitions for ages!

I wish you good luck in your dealings with Chinese people in Taiwan!

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