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7 Chinese Cultural Faux Pas to Avoid


Chinese culture has been around for a long, long time, so it’s hardly surprising that there are some deeply-rooted cultural faux pas’ (faux pases? faux’s pas? Damn you, France!). Some are easy to avoid and others require a bit more effort, but all are worth paying attention to, so here are seven cultural no-no’s to steer clear of.

1. Leaving your chopsticks (kuàizi, 筷子)  upright in your rice or noodle bowl while eating.

Do not, under any circumstances, do this! In many parts of China, offerings of food are made to the dead with chopsticks presented in this way, and upright chopsticks in food generally connote death, so it’s a pretty serious taboo. This is observed even more fervently in Japan, interestingly enough.

Fun side note, the English term “chopsticks” is thought to be derived from Chinese in an interesting way: kuài (筷) is a homonym for kuài (快), meaning fast or quick. So we’d call them “fast sticks” were it not for the term “chop chop”, which is itself derived from the Chinese “急急”  , pronounced in Cantonese as “gāpgāp” (jíjí in Mandarin), which Americans working with early Chinese immigrants misheard as “chop chop.”  

It’s thought that Americans misinterpreted 筷子 as 快子 and then applied another Chinese expression to give chopsticks their English name! Anyways, whatever you call them, don’t leave them upright in your food, or you’ll risk offending your hosts or friends.  

2. Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen

The classic “Three T’s” of must-avoid conversation topics.

These are very touchy subjects for most Mainlanders, though sensitivity varies. Obviously simply mentioning Taiwan or Tibet isn’t offensive (they’re sitting right there on the map, after all), but bringing them up as topics often leads to discussions that many find uncomfortable.

Besides that, it can bring opinions to the surface that might make you rethink relationships – even a free speech-lover like myself (my grandparents fled Nazi-occupied Austria, so I take my first amendment rights pretty seriously) has learned that it’s better to simply avoid these topics.

In my personal experience, the taboo nature of these topics tend to vary quite substantially from year to year. When I first arrived in China, for instance, there was a lot of tension with Tibet, so the topic was rarely discussed, but these days it’s not considered such a big deal.

It seems to depend on the headlines, essentially, but it might be best to play it safe by avoiding the 3 T’s wholesale.

3. Complimenting English/other language skills.

This is a bit more applicable in a business context, but is valid everywhere really. People trained and educated abroad generally dislike being complimented on their English skills, as it implies that there is nothing else worth complimenting.

It sounds a bit counterintuitive (after all, who doesn’t like some kind words now and then?), but it’s important to be subtle and conservative with your compliments in general.

It’s part of the larger Chinese cultural preference for indirectness, in which words that may sound kind can actually be interpreted as insulting (and vice versa!).

I’ve had many bosses and co-workers compliment my English, for instance, which is a bit silly since it’s my native language, and it took me a long time to realize that the subtext was often that they thought my Chinese skills weren’t up to snuff.

4. Giving a clock as a gift

I know, I know, you had that enormous grandfather clock stuffed into your carry-on bag and you were all excited to give it as a gift to your boss/host family/cousin/calligraphy teacher.

Unfortunately, this is a pretty serious faux pas for a number of interesting cultural and linguistic reasons. The giving of a clock carries the implication of time running out and thus death.

More compellingly though, the Chinese term for clock is zhōng  (钟, also used in a ton of other time-related contexts), which is a homonym for zhōng (终), meaning to end or finish, but often used as a sort of euphemism or shorthand for death.

Additionally, we’ve got the term sòng zhōng (送终), meaning to pay one’s respects to the dead OR to wish death or destruction upon someone.

Fair enough, but as you probably imagined it’s a dead-on (ha!) homonym for sòng zhōng (送钟)  , which utilizes the more common definition of sòng and means, “to give a clock as a gift.”

I think it’s really interesting when you have culture influencing language and language influencing culture/customs simultaneously. We really don’t have that in English very much, even though English also features tons of homonyms (I have a Chinese co-worker who is constantly bewildered by “share” and “Cher,” which is particularly odd since no one other than her has talked about Cher since approximately 1997…), so it’s definitely one of those uniquely Chinese quirky cultural-linguistic things that make the place and language so interesting.

5. Not deferring to people older or higher in rank than you.

Obviously this is something you should generally avoid everywhere in the world, but hierarchies and rank are taken much more seriously in China than in the West, and many Westerners fail to pay attention to the importance of acknowledging superiority. This applies in both business and personal contexts, as it’s considered very rude to address people without using some sort of formal title.

For managers or bosses, you’d put something like zǒng  (总, chief, leader or head),  lǎobǎn(老板, boss)  or jīnglǐ (经理, manager)  before their surname when addressing them. In personal situations, there’s a whole complicated system of nomenclature that varies from region to region and even family to family. It’s actually not that different from the US in a lot of ways - I call my Uncle Ronny “Uncle Ronny” but call his wife, my Aunt Linda, just “Linda” for some reason.  

Anyway, it’s common to address older sisters or female cousins as jiějie (姐姐)  and younger ones as mèimei(妹妹)  . Older males are gēgē  (哥哥, which you may recognize as part of gēmener (哥们儿)  , the closest Chinese equivalent to “bro”), while younger males are usually dìdi(弟弟)  . Uncles or other older men (often friends of parents) are shūshu (叔叔)  , while such women are often called āyí (阿姨)  as a term of address. 阿姨 is also the common term for a maid or cleaning lady - told you it’s complicated!

6. Giving (and receiving) things using only one hand. 

It may seem like a small thing, but making sure you give and receive things with two hands goes a long way toward demonstrating politeness as well as cultural sensitivity and awareness.

Using both hands shows that you’re interested in the person you’re dealing with and that you’re committed or serious about what you’re discussing and doing.

This comes up most often when exchanging business cards (míngpiàn, 名片)  , which, if your card is bilingual, should always be given with the Chinese side facing up, regardless of the recipient’s ability to read or understand English.

You should be careful to read the card first before putting it in your pocket or wallet, or, if you’re sitting at a table, leave the card on the table until your meeting or conversation has ended.

You might also notice that the cashier at the grocery store often hands you your change with two hands, even though your hands are full of all your groceries, it is still important to accept your change with two hands in most situations.

7. Boasting or bragging about yourself/accepting compliments 

While all cultures value modesty and humility, interpersonal relations in China take it to a whole other level. It’s considered quite rude, for instance, to simply accept a compliment (though this taboo is actually beginning to wane among younger generations of Chinese).

Instead, it’s common to say something like nàli, nàli (那里那里, “no, no”)  or bù huì ba (不会吧 “that’s not true”)  or a simple shì mǎ (是吗? “is it?”)  .

In that same vein, it’s very much frowned upon to openly brag or boast about yourself directly; you’ll almost never hear a Chinese person describing their own abilities or successes. It’s much more common to show off indirectly, letting actions (or expensive purchases) speak louder than words.

If you came here looking for the Chinese translation for “swag,” then, I’m afraid you’re out of luck, as there isn’t really a close equivalent, at least in common usage.

One way this indirect modesty gets manifested is in paying the check at a group dinner. Instead of simply arguing over the check as Westerners might, a clever Chinese patron may do something like pretend to go to the bathroom and instead go find the manager and pay for everyone. Shoving matches have been known to break out over this sort of thing!

Did I leave anything out? What’s the most surprising Chinese cultural faux-pas you’ve experienced or heard about? Let me know in the comments section below!