In the U.S., we have our fair share of regional stereotypes: Southerners are friendly, New Yorkers are rude and impatient, Californians are laid back surfers, you know the drill. And, although some may think of China as a pretty uniform place, if you look closely you’ll see that it’s as diverse and divided as any Western country. Along with that, of course, come some pretty hilarious and interesting stereotypes.
We’ve written about Chinese stereotypes of foreigners before, but here are my six favorite Chinese stereotypes — of other Chinese people!
Northerners are Manly as Can Be
Just as in the U.S., perhaps the biggest cultural division in China is between north and south. With Northern China’s brutal winters and infamous pollution, northerners (usually known as dōng běi rén/东北人) are often regarded as more masculine than their southern cousins: larger in stature, heartier in constitution, and most of all having a higher alcohol tolerance are the main stereotypes I’ve heard, and these all have kernels of truth to them.
I had a boss from Changchun (长春) , which is way up by the border with North Korea, and the dude could throw back baijiu shots like no one I’ve ever seen (and I went to public school in the Midwest).
In my observations, they do also tend to be a bit bigger and broader than southerners, though that’s harder to pin down as there is now so much mobility and intermarriage between provinces.
Beijingers Love to Talk Politics
Beijingers are famous above all for their amazingly entertaining “er hua” (儿化) way of speaking, but if you’ve ever taken a cab in Beijing, you probably also remember how talkative and chatty the driver was. Beijingers in general, the stereotype goes, love to chat, particularly about “big” topics like politics, current events, etc. This may not seem unusual but it’s actually pretty rare to find people elsewhere in China that will ramble on (kǎn, 侃, lit. “to chat idly, to boast smoothly”) to complete strangers about these sorts of topics.
My personal Beijing experience really backs this up, and the drivers and locals I met would often finish their observations with a laugh and say, “wǒ men Běijīng rén tè bíe xǐ huan kǎn” (“我们北京人特别喜欢侃!” , “We Beijingers particularly like chatting!”, though it’s a bit tough to translate 侃 directly).
It’s actually pretty similar to how Washingtonians in the US tend consider themselves a bit more knowledgeable about politics and current affairs and love to bust out that knowledge at dinner parties, galas and progressively more disappointing football games.
Whether or not there’s any truth to this for both Washington and Beijing, the stereotype remains.
Shanghainese Women are Materialistic
Shanghai is China’s wealthiest city, but sometimes the wealth here is ostentatious to an extent that is, itself, ostentatious.
Here’s the thing though: in my experience, it’s not the Shanghainese women themselves who are materialistic, even though this stereotype is widespread. It’s the migrants from elsewhere in China (often referred to as wài dì ŕen (外地人, “other place people”) or more derisively as xiāng xià rén (乡下人, lit. “countryside/village people”)) who, wanting to fit into this stereotype, affect a strong sense of wealth and materialism.
The most ostentatious cars and apartments tend to belong to non-natives, for whom the wealth and spoils of the city are a relatively new phenomenon. People raised in Shanghai tend to have grown up around wealth and are often more subtle in showing it off.
In any event, it blows my mind that in a country where 50 years ago YOU COULDN’T OWN PRIVATE PROPERTY, there is a city known for producing some of the world’s most materialistic women... what a time to be alive.
Sichuan Women are China’s Beauty Queens
Sichuan (四川) is sort of the “heartland” of China, the equivalent of Ohio/Kentucky/Michigan in a John Cougar Mellencamp type of way.
Much as the Miss America pageant has been dominated by heartland ladies of late, Sichuanese women are renowned nationwide for their beauty. This is a tricky stereotype, because if you’re Sichuanese you might get held up to an unrealistic standard, but hey, it’s not hard to see why:
There’s even a term for them, là mèi zi (辣妹子) , which plays on the spicy (là/辣) food the region is known for. It’s almost as cheesy as referring to Latina women as “spicy hot!”, if you’re wondering.
Southerners Will Eat Pretty Much Anything
The somewhat offensive global stereotype of Chinese people as being willing to eat anything likely originates from southern China, namely Guangdong province, which produced the vast majority of immigrants to the West in the19th and early 20th centuries.
I can confirm though, Cantonese cuisine, especially the authentic stuff when you’re actually down in Guangdong, has some very bizarre ingredients, including staple dishes like hé yè zhēng tián jī (荷叶蒸田鸡) – steamed frog wrapped in lotus leaf (bonus points because frog in Chinese is literally “field chicken”).
The more offensive stereotype of Chinese as consumers of dog and cat meat is also a Guangdong phenomenon. While this does occur, it’s by no means widespread, and Guangdong natives are often the object of derision by other Chinese because of this stereotype, sort of like how Americans make fun of southerners for eating things like pickled pigs feet.
Wenzhounese are the Jews of China
For a fairly random city on the Zhejiang coast, Wenzhou (温州) has become amazingly wealthy. The theory is that because it’s pretty isolated (separated from other population centers by mountains), it was generally left alone by the central government, allowing the city to develop a very strong business and entrepreneurial culture.
This business savvy has led to the popular saying, “Wenzhounese are the Jews of the Orient” (dōng fāng de yóu tài rén/东方的犹太人) , which is pretty silly because who calls China “the Orient” anymore?
Anyway, this stereotype is pretty pervasive, and while it’s weird as hell to call a group “the Jews of ___” (they definitely don’t keep kosher in a city whose signature dish is “a piece of cake cooked with crab meat and pork”), there’s validity to the stereotype about business savvy: Wenzhou is often considered the birthplace of China’s private, capitalist economy, and the city’s residents were some of the first to take advantage of the new economic opportunities in the 1970’s.