China has a strong cultural tradition that dictates many things in daily life. For tourists and visitors to China, its important to recognize some of these traditions and etiquette if you want to gain and keep the goodwill of your Chinese friends or hosts. Even if you don’t remember all of the proper Chinese etiquette and manners, if your host sees you are attempting to follow Chinese customs you will gain respect in their eyes. When visiting a Chinese home or having a Chinese guest there are several things you should expect and do as a host.
Green Tea and Other Drinks
If you visit a Chinese home you will inevitably be offered a cup of hot green tea or water as required by etiquette. Some Chinese hosts may offer Western guests soda, coffee or other beverages, but this is less common. You do not need to drink the green tea, a small sip to show appreciation is enough to satisfy Chinese etiquette. If you drink all of it or even half of the green tea, your host will fill it back up. If you insist you don’t want anymore tea they will offer you water or another beverage instead, sometimes quite forcefully. So if you don’t want any green tea just accept a cup and let it be.
If you have a Chinese guest, make sure you have some type of drink ready as required by etiquette. Green tea is best and can be bought cheaply at most corner stores in China, it is also supplied free at all but the cheapest hotels. Hot water is a good substitute for guests if you don’t have green tea. Remember not to offer cold water unless it’s asked for, most people in China believes that hot water is healthier and will cool you down faster than cold water.
Most Chinese homes will have at least one bowl of nuts, candies, fruits or other snack foods on the table ready for guests to munch on. To gain face or status the home owner will sometimes have expensive chocolates and nuts to show off their generosity to visitors. If you are hosting Chinese guests whether in China or in your own country they will expect to see a variety of snack foods when they visit.
By Chinese etiquette this snack food unlike the green tea, is supposed to be eaten. If you refuse to eat any of the food the host will be insulted and feel that you are showing disdain towards their hospitality. The best option even if you’re not hungry is to eat a few pieces of the snack food and thank your Chinese host. If you’re the host and you do not have any snack foods available for your guest, they will feel that you don’t consider them friends and don’t want them visiting.
Look Around Your Home
Privacy isn’t a big concern in mainland China, an invitation to visit a person’s home is seen as an open invitation to explore the entire house. When you’re visiting a Chinese home you may be shown all of the rooms including the bedrooms. If you invite them to your home they may wander into rooms you would rather keep private.
The more Westernized Chinese will ask permission before they explore, but older Chinese or people from rural areas may not see a problem in wandering around your home. A polite request to not walk into your bedroom is acceptable and you shouldn’t hesitate to let a more traditional visitor know which rooms are off limits.
Eating With Friends
When eating at a restaurant leaving a bit of food in the bowl or on the plate is the proper etiquette, it shows that there was enough food and you’re full.
When eating at a Chinese home you want to do the opposite. By eating all the food offered by your Chinese host, you show that you appreciate their food and raise their status. The more you eat the more honour you give your host. You don’t have to clear the table of food, but if you eat too slowly or seem to be eating very little your Chinese host will likely tell you to eat more and put food on your plate.
The worst thing you can do as a guest is to eat mostly rice. By Chinese custom eating mostly rice is telling the cook you don’t like their cooking. So when having a meal be sure to try a little of everything and compliment the food. If there is one or two foods you really don’t like you don’t have to eat them, simply claim you’re allergic to the dish or it upsets your stomach. Saying you don’t like some food while not a breach of etiquette is considered impolite.
Knowing these simple rules won’t let you waltz through Chinese culture and society, but they will help you avoid some easy mistakes. Chinese don’t expect you to understand their culture and etiquette perfectly, but showing a minimum of understanding will make things easier for you as a guest or host.
Dan Clarke is a travel writer, who has spent the last 6 years living and traveling in China. To learn more about China, please visit his website, Living and Working in China.