Travel Tips

Social and Cultural Customs

Table Manners

Chinese people are usually gracious hosts and generally informal, but there are a few things that westerners should know about Chinese table manners to avoid social mishaps.

Wait for your host to indicate the seating order at table. When food arrives at the table wait for the host to motion towards the food or serve the main guest before helping yourself. Do not tap your chopsticks on your bowl as this is considered rude and impatient and is associated with beggars trying to attract attention. Avoid sticking your (Woman eating bowl of rice) Woman eating a bowl of rice. chopsticks upright in your rice bowl as this evokes the sticks of incense placed next to graves. It is the norm to pick up your rice bowl and shovel rice into your mouth with your chopsticks. When helping yourself to items from a common dish take the piece of food closest to you. Do not fill your bowl completely, but take one or two items at a time. It is polite to try a little bit of everything. When serving tea, make sure to have the teapot’s spout pointing towards an empty place or yourself, as to point it towards anyone is considered rude. After a meal, it is acceptable to use a toothpick at the table, but you should cover your mouth with your hand while doing so.


In China tipping is not part of the culture – it is a society where everything is fiercely negotiated and haggling is the norm. In restaurants, servers may be embarrassed by the offer of a tip and refuse or have been forbidden to take it. However, in a large city like Beijing which sees many foreigners, some guides, drivers and bellboys have become familiar with the western custom of tipping and expect travelers to tip them. Some restaurants will now add a service charge to the bill.

Social Etiquette

(Greeting - “Happy New Year”) Greeting - “Happy New Year”.

People greet each other by bowing or nodding in China. Wait for the other person to offer their hand in a handshake. When meeting new people, formal introductions are the norm. When addressing people use their title and surname. Wait for them to suggest that you call them by their first name. Acknowledge the oldest person first.

In the US we frequently pat a friend on the shoulder or hug. In China you should avoid physical contact and especially avoid touching a woman in public. Keep your gestures small and avoid pointing at anyone.

If you are invited to a Chinese person’s home it is customary to bring a gift. Depending on the occasion and your relationship with your host, you could take chocolates, cookies, fruit (except pears, because the word in Mandarin sounds like “leaving”) or alcohol. Items associated with death include clocks, straw sandals and the color white, so these do not make good gifts. Punctuality is considered important, so try to arrive on time or slightly early.

When drinking people say “ganbei” (dry cup) and it is customary to tilt your glass after drinking to show the other guests that you have taken a drink.

(Giving a business card the Chinese way with two hands) Giving a business card the Chinese way
(with two hands).

Give and accept business cards with both hands. It is usual for Chinese people to take time making business decisions, so it is considered crass to show your impatience during this process. Do not discuss business over a meal. If you invite people for a meal, you need to make sure that their drivers are also fed.

When asking someone out on a date it is the norm to do so in private to avoid embarrassment.

Clothing Etiquette

In most settings in China people are expected to dress relatively soberly. (During the 2008 Olympics Beijing residents were reminded to wear no more than three colors together.) Women dressed in revealing clothes or with a lot of bare skin draw negative attention. When in a business setting avoid jeans and casual clothing. Women should dress conservatively. Large urban centers like Beijing are more western in their clothing styles than smaller rural areas.

Chinese Toilets

It can be a big surprise when you first walk into a Chinese bathroom and see a row of squat toilets. Public toilets often are a hole in the ground with no partitions between holes. There is usually a fee for using the public toilets and be sure to carry your own toilet paper. You cannot put toilet paper in squat toilets, there is usually a garbage can nearby. There are some western style toilets in hotels and restaurants (especially places like McDonalds).

Social Taboos

Avoid touching people. Chinese people do not enjoy being touched by strangers.

Public displays of affection are frowned on. Sex is not usually discussed in public.

During the Spring Festival, at Chinese New Year, and especially on the first day of the first lunar month, there are a number of taboos. It is considered inauspicious to break anything, or exhibit any negative behavior. People avoid using any sharp tools, such as scissors or knives to avoid cutting their luck. Similarly no-one sweeps their home on the first day so as to not sweep away good fortune.