Thursday, November 17, 2011



In China, many customs are different from those known to us in the West. These include customs both of everyday life and of significant events such as weddings, births and deaths. On the customs unique to China in various domains the readers can read in the appropriate chapters in the book (such as on love, on family, on learning etc.) that introduce the relevant idioms. In the following can be found  those domains that do not find a place elsewhere.

Verbal Communication

When the Chinese talk to each other they often have to explain themselves further because the word they have used is a homonym of another word. Usually it is possible to understand the meaning from the context, but sometimes the context is not enough. In such a case, the speaker will show his meaning by drawing the character on the palm of his hand or in the air with the index finger or hand-held fan. In order to indicate the number one, the Chinese used to raise their thumb in a hand clenched into a fist, and not the index finger as is customary in the West.


Chinese people are expected to be modest. When they receive compliments, being well mannered, they tend to depreciate themselves. For example, if a Chinese man is told that his daughter is very beautiful, he will answer ()(li)()(li) , meaning literally: "where, where?" Likewise, when asked "How is your business going?" even if the business is flourishing the well-mannered answer will be: "so-so".


In traditional China presents were sent for various events. For the same event, several presents would be sent such as cooked food, fruits, glass tableware and silken cloth. The recipient would choose one or two items, and send back the rest with thanks to the giver. S.M. Pearlman, a Jewish merchant who visited China in the 19th century, tells in his book The Chinese that when Chinese people sent presents to Westerners in China, the latter, not familiar with the Chinese custom, would accept all the presents, not returning anything. The Chinese in return, unaware of the Westerners' different customs, would consider the latter uncivilized and greedy.

In present-day China, when a present is given, the giver is expected to hold it with both hands while giving it and the recipient is also expected to hold it with both hands. A business card is given in the same way. It is considered an offense to give a present or business card with only one hand, and especially not to give it with the right one. The giver of the present will say to the recipient that it is small and not enough to express his appreciation. The recipient will politely reply that he does not deserve it. 

Giving presents in China means giving "face". The gift may be trifling but choosing the appropriate present promises sufficient "face". Visiting a friend or relative empty-handed might prove very embarrassing both to the guest and to the host. It is no coincidence that the words "courtesy" and "present" in Chinese are represented by the same character-().

Business in China historically involves entertaining and gift-giving. A bribe – as a "present" to a government official, is usually offered clandestinely, but the recipient of a present will not consider it as a bribe as long as it is not too costly.

Through the present, whether a vase, a painted dish, an embroidered wallet or any other thing, the giver is sending a symbolic message. Using symbols replaces verbal messages and is considered more refined. The Chinese feel that, in such situations, using words is primitive. The recipient of the present studies it and then understands its significance.

Gift-wrappings have their own meaning and customs. The wrapping of a birthday or wedding present will be red; sometimes ornaments symbolizing wishes for a long life will be added. Wrapping a gift with a paper decorated with patterns of bats() and the character () indicates a wish for happiness. As already mentioned, () as the homonym of () (literally: happiness, good luck), means "happiness".[1]    

Writing dates, addresses and names

Unlike the custom prevalent in the West, in China it is customary to write the date in the following order: year, month and day. First the whole and then the parts are mentioned.

According to the same principle, addresses are written in the following order: state, city, street, building number and finally the name of the addressee. The latter is written with the family name preceding the given name. In the name Mao Zedong for example, Mao is the family name. Titles such as Mr., Mrs. and Dr. appear after the name. For example, (wáng)(xiān)(shēng) means Mr. Wang.


()(xiàng)(suí) ()

When entering a village, behave according to the local customs
When in Rome do as the Romans do.

The same idea is found in the proverb:
When arriving at a mountain, sing the songs of the local people
When in the mountains, cut down trees, when crossing the river take off your shoes. Everywhere you go, speak the local language. 
The Buddhist saints[1] invite Guan Yin (the Goddess of Mercy) – a few guests and many hosts
There are more hosts than guests.
Ten miles (about five kilometers) [away] the customs are different
In different places, there are different customs.
One who does not enter the mountain gate,[2] need not accept the monastery's discipline
Those who are not part of a group, do not have to act according to its rules.

[1] There are 18 Buddhist saints who reached nirvana.
[2] Entering the mountain's gate means "becoming a Buddhist monk".

[1] A detailed description of the Chinese symbols is presented in the chapter on symbols in the Chinese culture.

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