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China - Customs and Traditions

Chinese culture is rich in customs, traditions and superstitions. The extent to which these customs will be observed will vary between areas within Greater China and between Chinese communities throughout the world. Some traditions may no longer be observed apart from in small pockets of very traditionalist Chinese.

Basically China values the community and the US values the individual. If you achieve something in the US, it's because you were great. While in China, if you achieve something in China it's because the team, or family, or company is great. Everything you do gets attributed to the greater whole, while in America individual merits are celebrated.

In China, elders are traditionally treated with enormous respect and dignity while the young are cherished and nurtured. In America, the goal of the family is to encourage independence, particularly that of the children. Unlike the Chinese, older Americans seldom live with their children. Chinese people have different meanings to define friends. Just hanging out together time to time is not friendship. Friendship means lifelong friends who feel deeply obligated to give each other whatever help might seem required. Americans always call people they meet friends, so the definition of friends is general and different. There are work friends, playing friends, school friends and drinking friends.

As is well known, the Chinese like to save. They are always conservative when they are planning to spend money. It is different in the USA, where far fewer families are saving money for emergencies and education than their Chinese counterparts. Chinese people do not have the same concept of privacy as Americans do. They talk about topics such as ages, income or marital status, which Americans think is annoying and intrusive. Chinese people value education and career more than Americans, who in turn put more emphasis on good character and faith.

Colors and clothing


In Chinese culture there are three central colors: red, black and white.

Red, being the color of blood, symbolises the positive aspects of life such as happiness, wealth, fame etc. Red is always associated with good luck.

Black, being the color of feces is associated with dirt, sin, evil, disasters, sadness, cruelty and suffering among other negative things. Black signifies bad fortune and must not be worn during festivals, wedding celebrations etc. or used in home decoration. Black symbolises a lack of civilisation and backwardness. However, traditions associated with this color are quickly fading, and among the younger generations black can be frequently seen as a clothing color.

White symbolises the mother’s milk and is intermediate between red and black, balancing the two colors. It signifies moderation, purity, honesty and life, but is also used at funerals as it is believed it can harmonise all elements. It can be used in all rituals and ceremonies as it is essentially neutral. Other colors are classified according to their relative darkness and lightness and associated significance thereof.


There are no specific rules in Chinese custom governing dress. Traditional costumes are rarely worn and clothing is usually chosen for comfort or according to the fashion of the day.

Bright colours are preferred for clothing in Chinese culture, but the colour of one’s clothing is generally suited to the environment: for example manual workers and farmers will often wear dark colours because of the nature of their work. Some conventions are considered with regards to age: the elderly are not encouraged to ‘dress young’, for example t-shirts and jeans.

Speech and greeting conventions

Many western visitors to China have had a rude shock: Chinese conversations in public tend to be loud and highly audible- to western ears the conversationalists appear to be arguing. Arguments usually result not in especially loud speech, but in the use of curses and swear words, regardless of sex or age.

However, Chinese etiquette states that the best way to speak is softly and with one’s head slightly bowed. ‘Answering back’ to those older is considered ill-mannered: the advice of elders should be accepted. Children who answer back or swear are considered bad mannered and their parents are held responsible.

Chinese men speaking loud are not considered bad mannered: a woman speaking loudly is, and may have abuse and ridicule heaped upon herself.

The correct way of greeting a person is very important in Chinese culture: inappropriate greeting is considered very much undesirable. Among strangers, acquaintances or at formal occasions the greeting (in Mandarin) ‘Ni Hao’ (or ‘Nin Hao if much respect is meant) meaning, literally ‘you good?' is used. The phrase ‘Have you eaten?’ is used as a more familiar greeting and testifies to the centrality of food in Chinese culture. Chinese culture considers it impolite to meet someone and not ask him/her to eat: he/she may be hungry!

The traditional Chinese ‘handshake’ consists of interlocking the fingers of the hands and waving them up and down several times. This is today rarely used (except during festivals, weddings and birthdays of the elderly), and the western style handshake is ubiquitous among all but the very old or traditional. When greeting, a slight bow often accompanies the handshake, with the bow being deeper the more respect is being proffered to the person, for example an elderly person or someone of high social status.

The Chinese tend not to greet those close to them with greetings that may bear a negative slant such as ‘you’re looking sad’ or ‘you’re looking tired’: this is deemed improper. In formal contexts, or when addressing an elder or person with high status it is considered highly inappropriate and rude to address the person by their given name. They should be addressed according to their designation, for example ‘Mr Tang, Doctor Liu, Chairman Lee’ etc.

Business/name cards are ubiquitous in Chinese business and will almost always be exchanged upon meeting a stranger in such a context. The card should be held in both hands when offered to the other person: offering it with one hand is considered ill-mannered.

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Page last modified: 24-06-2021 18:01:08 ZULU