Etiquette and Customs While Visiting Beijing
Chinese culture is one of the oldest on the planet, so etiquette and customs are sometimes a complicated blend of old and new. Here's how to navigate Beijing without upsetting anyone.
Chinese culture is one of the oldest on the planet and the systems of etiquette and cultural traditions have evolved over centuries. They combine elements of old feudal customs, more modern communist era sensibilities, and influences from Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. The culture is largely based on respect - especially for elders - and relationships between individuals dictate the level of respect and decorum required.
Eating by the rules:
- Being invited to dine at a Chinese person's home is an immense honour that should not be refused. If you must turn it down, it is customary to explain why you cannot attend.
- Be punctual - lateness is considered disrespectful and rude.
- Remove your shoes and leave them outside, before you enter the house.
- Take a gift for your hostess.
- Wait to be seated.
- Eating well shows appreciation of the food and effort made by the host/hostess and is a compliment. Also, try to eat with chopsticks. Slurping and burping are also considered a compliment to the food.
- Wait for the host to start eating first, and to offer the first toast.
- Pay attention to others at the table.
- Never eat the last morsel in the serving dish.
- Never turn down food offered, it is considered rude to do that - take whatever is offered by the host.
- Never stick your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice, this is done at funerals and would be considered bad form.
- Most Chinese people will entertain at a restaurant rather than in their homes.
- Tipping is becoming more common at restaurants, and leaving a small tip is considered acceptable, especially for younger waiters.
- Many of the eating at home rules above apply where table manners are concerned.
Tip older waiters unless you're sure that they or the restaurant expect it.
- The "personal space" bubble of Chinese people is approximately under an arm's length away from the person in their circle.
- With strangers, the "personal distance" a Chinese person will give and expect could be around half a metre.
- Unless you're in a close personal relationship with the person, there is no casual touching as this is considered too personal.
- It is common for women who are friends to hold hands or link arms while walking.
What to do during meetings:
- In business contexts, which are always ruled by formal rules, the oldest person should be greeted first.
- Use a formal handshake when introduced.
- It is respectful to look down or at the ground when greeting someone, especially someone older.
- Always use honorific titles like Mr or Mrs as this is a sign of respect, and their surname.
- Bosses and senior people are allowed to be slightly late.
- Speak first, unless you are the oldest person in the group.
- Look an older person directly in the eye unless your relationship is a well-established one.
- Be late in business situations.
Women are expected to be the primary caregiver, raising the children, cooking, cleaning, and doing all the household chores. This is expected even if they work.
Whistle, snap your fingers, or sit shaking your legs - this is unacceptable behaviour from a woman.
There are rules and procedure around giving gifts to your Chinese friends - some of which may strike Westerners as both odd and inexplicable.
Birthday gifts were not always traditionally exchanged, but gifts were reserved for Chinese New Year, weddings and births; however, Western culture has stamped this ritual on modern Chinese culture. There are still some rules though around how to give, receive and not give gifts:
- Food is good and always a well-received gift.
- Gifts should be presented with both hands.
- It is suitable to refuse a gift as many as three times out of politeness, before it is accepted.
What gifts not to give:
- Sharp instruments like daggers, knives, and scissors are bad gifts to give as it indicates a cutting of ties with that person.
- Timepieces like clocks, handkerchiefs, flowers and some types of sandals (those made of straw) are funerary in their association and would be morbid gifts to give.
- Blue, black and white gift paper are no-nos. White is the colour of death and mourning, black has associations with young boys of the ancestral family lineage, and blue is associated with immortality.
- Don't give four of anything, as four is considered to be a bad luck number and this would be tantamount to wishing someone bad luck.
- Do not open the gift immediately when it is received (or given, if you are the giver).
- Never put your feet on the furniture, desk, or table.
- Never snap or click your fingers at someone as this is considered disrespectful. The same goes for whistling at them.
- Pointing with your index finger is considered to be blatantly rude.
- Never use your feet to move something as it is considered rude.
Strangely acceptable behaviours:
- It is acceptable to call a person to you by making a scratching "come hither" gesture with your finger, as long as you do not point.
- It is also acceptable to clear your throat and spit in public.
Lady selling embroidered goods in the market
Lastly, but quite importantly, negotiating:
Chinese people prefer non-forceful or direct communication, preferring always to be polite, rather than confrontational. Therefore, they will avoid saying 'no' directly to "save face" for both parties, and you may hear lots of "maybes" as a way of turning you down.
So, when negotiating in any situation remember these things:
- Decisions are made by the "head" (eldest or most powerful) in the group. You are expected to be patient and polite even if the outcome takes a long time to be reached.
- These negotiations are often done over dinner and while you are being entertained.
- You will be expected to drink and interact politely during the negotiations.
- There is a culture of bargaining however when transacting in places of commerce and open air markets - never pay the first price you are asked.
- You are expected to bargain good-naturedly until you've negotiated a price that is lower and acceptable to both parties.