Customs and traditions of the Chinese People

In this section of web site we cover general customs, festivals (especially Chinese New Year), the calender, traditional weights and measures as well as traditional medicine (TCM) and attitudes to women.

teahouse, people, mahjong
Drinking tea and playing Mahjong in a park Copyright © Dreamstime see image license

Chinese people will appreciate knowledge and respect for their traditional customs even though some, as elsewhere in the world, are in decline. There are variations in tradition across China particularly within ethnic minorities who have their own distinct culture and so some of these customs are not universal.

Here is an assortment of topics organized in rough alphabetic order.


As a whole the Chinese people are restrained in showing affection in public. Maintaining eye contact is considered intrusive and a physical embrace is reserved for close relationships. Shaking hands is now commonly used for formal business meetings, it is something that Chinese expect to do with foreigners but it is not traditional. Since Covid19 the traditional bow has had a resurgence. Things you take for granted have only recently accepted in China, for instance clapping hands used to be used to drive out evil spirits not to show appreciation. Facial expressions are kept to a minimum and these characteristics have made foreigners use the term ‘inscrutable’ to describe the lack of apparent reaction. Often careful analysis of a conversation is needed to assess a person's true feelings. A highly respected quality in China is rěn which is roughly forbearance or putting up with things without protesting. Part of this has its roots in history, for a long time a whole family was punished for the crimes of one individual, ignorance was not a defense, so reticence in saying anything definite became natural. Losing one's temper is never a good idea, it is seen as a lack of self control and rarely yields a good result as the victim loses ‘face’ if they were to accept blame.

Spitting is a cultural tradition, it was considered unhealthy to swallow spittle and so spitting is something that still happens, particularly in rural areas. The Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping was admired for his ability to spit with unerring aim directly into a spittoon. Spitting was also considered a defense against demons, they don't like being spat at, so, strangely a passing funeral was a focus for spitting. In recent years the government has tried to reduce spitting in public with some success.

On the other hand blowing your nose is not considered pleasant in China. Chinese people will do this much more discretely than in the west. Reusable cotton handkerchiefs are considered particularly vile. Cigarette smoking is still prevalent and China has the unenviable position as the top tobacco consuming nation (2,400 billion cigarettes in 2019). Although there are bans on smoking in some public places and restaurants these are not always obeyed.

It is traditional to take a shower after work before going out in the evening, and also before bedtime. This reflects the often hot and humid climate and contrasts with the western habit of a morning shower.


It is quite common for conversation to immediately become much more personal than would be normal for westerners. While two westerners may still be talking about the weather, Chinese will be asking questions about your age, salary, marital status and health. Chinese are keen amateur doctors and will often interrogate you if you say you are feeling unwell and offer advice about treatment. However most Chinese will feel uncomfortable talking about politics, this topic should be reserved for people you know very well.

Huò cóng kǒu chū
The wrong words can bring disaster
Be careful what you say.
airport, people, queue
Queue for airport desk for Chinese New Year flights Copyright © Dreamstime see image license

Queuing in China

Traditionally queuing in line for services was unknown, everyone just barged forward. In the last few decades the culture of waiting in turn has become firmly established but not everywhere, it may still be necessary to push and shove, for example getting onto an already overcrowded bus!

Chinese Modesty

Many responses in conversation will display modesty and humility. The standard response to a thank you xiè xie in Chinese is to respond with no need to thank bù xiè and this attitude is very prevalent. A meal will be presented as a ‘poor table’ and a compliment will usually be refused. If you were to say You speak good English this will often be returned with a phrase such as not very good. This humility helps to reduce competitiveness and give positive relationships.

The long-standing nurturing of humility is a reason that democracy struggles to take root. To put yourself forward as a candidate suggest pride and ambition and not humility. The natural attitude is to expect people to be promoted on merit not by being ‘pushy’.

Historical attitude to sex has been to use metaphor and innuendo rather than direct reference. Symbolism is often used and so the hidden meaning of objects in paintings and gifts has to be taken into account (see our extensive section on symbolism). Overt sexual advances towards strangers is not acceptable in China.

Once married Chinese people tend to dress conservatively in restrained colors; while young, single people wear fashionable clothes. Sometimes the characteristic black hair of Chinese is bleached. A level of modesty is expected even on beaches, the Chinese do not have a tradition of naked bathing as nakedness is still a strong taboo. At temples of any religion tourists are expected to dress respectfully, at least covering the upper arms. There is a belief that exposing the navel to sunshine is beneficial to the health and so you may see men with a ‘Belly Bikini’ .

tea, people
Demonstrating the elaborate tea ceremony at the Du Fu Thatched Cottage Museum, Chengdu, Sichuan


To indicate deep respect and appreciation the Chinese may make the traditional gesture of cupping a fist with the other hand and bringing the hands towards the forehead while bowing the head gently. Originally deep veneration was practiced with the kowtow, bowing to the ground, although this is now only really practiced to display veneration to ancestors. Since Covid19 the bow has however made a bit of a resurgence.

A Chinese door god ( ménshén) is a Chinese decoration placed on each side of an entry to a temple, home, business, etc., to keep evil spirits from entering.

Color Symbolism

Colors play an important part in Chinese symbolism. White in China is used in funerals and mourning clothes - although this is actually undyed cloth rather than bleached white. Black is the color of darkness and evil and so this is generally avoided. Prisoners wore black and devils are depicted with black faces. Addiction to opium was termed ‘to be stained black’. Yellow/golden is the Imperial color and banned to ordinary people, only Imperial buildings could have yellow roof tiles. Red is considered the most auspicious color, it represents fire, power and good luck. So red is often used widely for festivals, marriages, paper to wrap gifts and paper-cuts. The association of colors has deep roots within the system of elemental principles that are still important in Feng Shui. The use of red by Communists helped retain red's popularity. Indeed for a brief time traffic lights were planned to use red for ‘go’ and green for ‘stop’ which would have caused some confusion. Blue was used on seals on the death of the Emperor. See our extensive guide to color symbolism for full details of all this.

Network of Connections

If you have been to China or carried out business there, you will know the importance of connections guān xì it means literally closed system or network. Having access to a network of people to whom you have a vague connection is important in all sorts of ways and so everyone builds up an extensive group who can offer preferential access to goods and services. They may get you into a theater, a university, a job or may be a discount on goods. Using connections is referred to in Chinese as zǒu hòu mén going by the back door. This process is not seen as unfair because everyone does it. There is strong competition to build a powerful network of connections. As a foreign visitor many people will want to add you to their network by giving you a lavish gift in the hope you can be of help to them in the future. Of particular value is a connection that might help procure of place at a good school or university (especially abroad).

shanghai, sky scrapers
Copyright Richard Wingfield, October 2017.

Sealing a deal in China

Anyone doing business in China must be aware that there is a long held belief that a verbal agreement is not necessarily binding. It has its origin is the Chinese philosophy to life, if a better opportunity comes along, it is correct to change course and accept it. To many westerners who try to live by ‘my word is my bond’ this can take a bit of getting used to. An apparent agreement to meet up or do some work or sign a contract may be indefinitely delayed. Chinese seek to avoid a definite decision as they like to leave themselves some leeway; there has always been a lack of certainty which is in harmony with the concept of yin and yang; there is no absolute right or wrong decision - just a currently best looking option. This is evident in the language, how many is expressed as many-few duō shǎo and distance as far-near yuǎn jìn. No malice is intended in a change of an apparent agreement, it is a different attitude and avoids being tied to commitments that no longer appeal.

The concept of conceding and yielding is neatly encapsulated in the character ràng and represents a key concept in Chinese relationships. Rather akin to avoiding losing face, a good communicator in China knows the appropriate time to stand firm and when to yield ground. With correct use of rang negotiations move towards agreement rather than confrontation. The application of rang can be subtle and complex, for example an Emperor would voluntarily give way to a usurper in the hope lives would be spared; similarly turning down a small gift may be appropriate as accepting it would require a larger gift to be given in return. A related concept is forbearance ( rěn), hiding displeasure is considered a virtue but this makes discovering true feelings more tricky.

Business cards should be printed in English and Chinese so these can be exchanged when meeting up. It is traditional to proffer a card (or any other gift) by holding it in both hands and not just one. Presenting money (often in envelopes) should also be made in both hands. This money should be split into pairs of denominations for good luck.

In many situations a tourist can negotiate a price for goods and services, the quoted price may be much higher than a native Chinese would be expected to pay. This is particularly true at market stalls where no price is displayed. Traders hope that visitors may be wealthy and quite happy to pay an inflated price.

Jiǎo tù sān kū
A crafty rabbit has three burrows
To succeed you must must have alternative options, in particular several ways of escape from danger.
Roughly equivalent to: There's more than one way to skin a cat.

English in China

The English language for many years has been seen as the essential passport to a good career. In cities you will find English on many shop signs and official notices. Chinese people may well be keen to develop their English with you. It is not however safe to assume that everyone at a police station or hospital can speak good English. In comparison most English speaking people’s ‘phrase-book’ Chinese is very poor. However if you travel into remote villages and small towns you may not be able to find anyone who speaks any English. In the last few years this tendency has reversed with less use of English on signs reflecting the wider knowledge of rudimentary Chinese among visitors.


The Chinese have a long standing tradition of maintaining their social standing, which has been very loosely translated as face miàn zi. In everyday life this means that taking criticism in front of other people ‘loses face’ 丢脸 diū liǎn and is not acceptable. A westerner who is used to immediately making a complaint has to go about it in a different way. Confronting someone with a problem in front of others will rarely work if it requires someone to admit they are at fault. The way to handle the situation is to avoid any public disgrace by negotiating quietly and in private, this often allows things to be put right. If this fails then an intermediary will often be able to find a compromise.

‘Face’ represents honor, social standing and appearance, so care is also taken in the style of clothes worn. There was a belief that the features of the face provides clues to personality, so may be that is why the word ‘face’ is used in this situation. Any transaction has to take place with this in mind. People who look and behave well will receive better service than those who do not. There is a long tradition of an individual’s behavior reflecting on the family and community, so getting poor grades at an examination reflects not just on the individual but also on the wider family. Moving on socially involves becoming familiar with those of higher social standing and establishing connections guān xì.

A common problem is when a young high flier is appointed as a manager. It is a loss of face to take orders from anyone younger than yourself. Similarly only people you know will offer any criticism and certainly not strangers.

Getting drunk is a severe loss of standing and it is therefore rare to see Chinese people very intoxicated with alcohol, but being ‘tipsy’ is fine.

rén bù dǎ liǎn
Better to hit a person than their reputation. Losing 'face' is a major consideration for Chinese people
Be diplomatic and tactful when being critical.
Roughly equivalent to: To err is human; to forgive divine.
Rén yaò liǎn, shù yaò pí
Keeping a good reputation is as essential as bark is to a tree
Reputation ('face') must be maintained at all costs.
shanghai, children
Copyright Richard Wingfield, October 2017.

Family loyalty in China

There is great loyalty to the extended family in China respecting a continuous ancient tradition. The Confucian doctrine for respect for one's elders and betters still has deep resonance. For many loyalty to the family comes way ahead of friends. It is inappropriate to refer to people outside one's own age group too familiarly. The epithet lǎo old, venerable is used as a mark of respect and is traditionally used to address anyone slightly older. Deference to parents is more prevalent than in the west. Grandparents often have an active role in bringing up grandchildren while both parents are at work. The penal system used to punish the whole family if one member is convicted and this has led to solidarity among family members. Success or failure of one member is seen to reflect on the whole family not just the individual.

people, old people
Happy Granny

In China there was no concept of universal individual rights, the deeply entrenched attitude is that people are all different and they must live with the situation they find themselves in. It is for the family to look after their relatives and not the state. Turning to the state for help is a last resort when the family cannot help. People have responsibilities rather than rights, a responsibility to look after the elderly is the flip side to the right of the elderly to receive care.

Shù gāo qiān zhàng yè luò guī gēn
A tree may grow high, but its leaves always fall on its roots
People living far away will eventually comes back home.
Roughly equivalent to: Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
food, people
Chinese workers have lunch on a construction site, Chengdu Copyright © Dreamstime see image license

Food and Drink

At a dinner one person will usually pay for all the diners on the basis that it is that person's turn rather than try to divide equally or apportion accurately. It is polite to join in with offers to pay for everyone at the end of the meal, even though, if you are a guest this will be politely declined. A guest is seated at a table first and is usually is the most honored position to the left of the host.

Choosing dishes of food will take into account balance and medicinal value as well as smell and appearance. Meals are a social and friendly occasion for an extended family and not just a married couple as it is elsewhere. There are many traditions associated with food and especially formal banquets, for a full description see our main section all about Chinese food and traditions. A tip is only expected at posh establishments or where service has indeed been exceptional, they are not a standard addition to a bill.

Dali, Yunnan, shop
Dali street scene


Appropriate ceremony should be shown to guests. There is a strong tradition that a guest can do no wrong - they are never criticized. A guest should be offered everything they need, the guest should never need to ask for anything. They should always walk in front never behind. People should rise from their seats when a new guest arrives. Tea cups are held by both hands not just one, and the cups are offered cross-handed - the right-hand one given to guest on left. Tea is offered as a welcome to all guests at all times. When the guest actually drinks the tea it was considered a signal that the visit was at an end and so an invitation by the host to drink up the tea can be interpreted as a subtle suggestion it is time to leave.

Chinese Tea

Chinese tea is the drink of choice. Only on special occasions is alcohol taken. There are traditional tea-houses dotted over China, many in Sichuan, here friends can sit and chat for hours with an indefinite supply of tea. The protocol is to lift the lid of the teapot to request that it is refilled with hot water. When it has been recharged you serve all the other people at the table and yourself last.

Guizhou, miao, children
Chinese Miao children eating rice noodles in Miao Village, Xijiang, Kaili, Guizhou Copyright © Dreamstime see image license


In remote rural areas the sight of a foreigner with strange facial features: large noses, deep set eyes, strange colored hair may still stimulate interest and gawping. As all Chinese have black hair, another hair color was traditionally seen as ‘demonic’. In the 1980s when there were very few foreign travelers and so whole crowds would stand and ‘stare’ at the strange apparitions. It is best to try to ignore a sea of staring faces.

There has always been a welcoming friendliness to strangers. There is a famous saying ‘Within the four seas (the whole world) all are brothers’.

In the days of early contact in the Qing dynasty period foreigners were often described as Ocean devils: Yang guizi yáng guǐ zǐ or fān guǐ ‘barbarian devils’. Dutch people with red/orange hair were described as hóng máo red heads and associated with Buddhist demons who are portrayed with red or blue hair.

Foxes 狐狸 hú li

Foxes have an evil reputation in China. A demon takes the form of a fox and gets up to all sorts of evil. In addition the spirit of a fox can possess a man and cause him to get up to mischief. By custom a fox when it reaches fifty it can turn itself into a woman, and into a girl when a hundred years old. It would become a celestial fox at a thousand and so powerful it could bring down a dynasty (as in the famous legend of the Shang dynasty). Foxes are also associated with sensuality.

Macartney, Alexander, funeral
A traditional funeral procession led by a priest. Musicians are a normal part of the long procession. Women, dressed in un-dyed cloth 'white' sit in the wagon. Macau. Painted by the official artist to the Macartney British Embassy to China 1793-94. Image by William Alexander available under a Creative Commons License

Funerals in China

The Chinese have many rituals and customs concerning funerals. Everyone used to be buried not cremated as it was important to be interred intact due to ancient beliefs about the after-life. By contrast to Christian tradition white (or more strictly un-dyed cloth) not black is the color of mourning. The funeral procession to the place of burial would be long, noisy (with musicians and jugglers) and colorful. Strict protocol was enforced, with invitations sent out to people and gifts sent. But traditionally very young children were not given a funeral service at all - mainly due to high infant mortality.

People used to join many ‘societies’ whose sole purpose was to take part in the procession at the funeral. The annual subscriptions raised the money for the funeral. The processions could involve hundreds of people. Specially printed ‘paper money’ was strewn on the road. Paper replicas of everyday objects that the deceased enjoyed are ritually burned so that they can join the dead. Families have an ancestral burial plot and the names of the deceased are inscribed on the ancestral tablet. The date and exact place for burial was carefully determined by a Feng Shui practitioner. The period for mourning of parents was long - traditionally three years - and wearing white or fragments of white cloth was normal for this period. All work and study stalled during the period of mourning; having children or getting married were out of the question. On the death of the Emperor the whole nation went into long mourning with, for example, all marriages postponed. So if the Emperor became ill then there was a dash for couples to get quickly married.

Qingming, tomb, ancestor veneration
Food offerings placed on a grave at Qing Ming Festival Copyright © Dreamstime see image license


Personal birthdays have not been much celebrated in China, the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) was considered everybody's birthday. However once someone reaches sixty years old more fuss is made of each birthday as sixty is both a special number and considered entering revered old age. A baby's first month was celebrated with a special party when red eggs were given as present (an odd number for boys, even number for girls). Another special birthday is celebrating the first year of life. This zhuā zhōu is a big party for family and friends. Traditionally a range of gifts are laid out before the baby and whichever one the baby grasps indicates its future vocation. So pens, books, coins, jewelry, cookies, lipstick, sewing box are the sorts of item that could be chosen - so for example if the baby picks up a coin this predicts a future in finance. At Zhuazhou noodles are often eaten as they symbolize long life.


It is usual to bring the host a small gift if you are invited into a house. These are generally not opened until the guests have left. Gifts should be offered in both hands and this tradition applies to business cards as well. The importance of this ritual is made plain by the character which can mean both ceremony; ritual and gift. A birthday or wedding gift is usually wrapped in red paper for luck.

The Chinese language and culture leads itself to much symbolism. So when you give a gift in China you should be careful not to choose something with an unfortunate hidden meaning. Flowers are tricky, as they are normally associated with funerals and not joyous occasions. An example is a pear because sharing a pear fēn lí sounds the same as separate/divorce fēn lí. Gifts of belts and ties have the symbolism of betrothal and should only be given to very intimate friends. For similar linguistic reasons fans and umbrellas bring bad luck. shān for fan sounds like sǎn meaning scatter or fall apart as does sǎn meaning umbrella. A clock is an unlucky gift as it has the connotation of counting down the remaining life span. To give a clock sòng zhōng is written the same as pay last respects. As in the European tradition giving a knife is unlucky, the luck can be salvaged by the recipient giving back a token payment in return (so it is no longer purely a gift). Because four is such an unlucky number, it is not a good idea to give a set of four of anything. On the other hand eight is lucky, so groups of eight are fine.

Generally Chinese will find it odd to be given something old or secondhand. It is usually best to stick with wine, cigarettes or food. It is considered impolite not to give a gift in return or refuse to accept one.


For centuries the Confucian doctrine of social hierarchy has been taught and followed. In a group of westerners it is likely that they will feel they have equal status and decisions should be decided democratically with everyone having their say. Not so much in China, it is still expected for juniors to defer to seniors in conversation, waiting for a senior member to initiate topics for debate. Chinese will expect to deal with the ‘leader’ of a group of visitors and channel contact through them. The correct relationship based on status and age remains an important cultural principle.


Wǒ xíng wǒ sù
To continue in habitual ways
Stuck following old ways.
Hong Kong, bird, wildlife, hobby
Caged song birds in the Yuen Po Street Bird Garden at Kowloon, Hong Kong

Caged birds

There has been a long tradition of keeping caged birds in China. The birds were taken to a park every day and there they sang to the delight of the owner and all around. The tradition is under steep decline now other pets are affordable. Laughing thrushes (Garrulax canorus) huà méi and Mongolian larks (Melanocorypha mongolica) měnggǔ bǎilíng are two species that can sometimes be seen.


The best known form of Chinese exercise are the martial arts of which Taijiquan (Tai Chi) is the best known variety. Most of the tai chi moves are about grace and poise and not aggression. Martial arts used to be practiced widely in public parks in the morning. Nowadays it is mainly the older generation that keeps up the tradition. Gymnastics has also been popular in China; athletic acrobats delight audiences with their great balancing feats at circuses.

Chinese Opera

To many, the most characteristic Chinese art-form is Opera. Different regions have developed their own style (Beijing [Peking] and Kunqu are the best known versions). It is an art-form where movement, music, voice, humor and costume combine together to give a unique impression which has stimulated composers and playwrights the world over. See our opera section for a full description.


Although the operatic form predominates there are many traditional plays too. For many centuries street theater included shadow plays, where historical drama was played out using delicate puppets placed against a back-lit cloth.

Kite flying

Children and adults like to fly kites in parks and on hills whenever there is an adequate breeze. Chinese kite designs are many and varied with some hundreds of feet in length. They are particularly popular at the Chong Yang festival. See our kite section for all about them.

Board games

Many of the age-old games have their origin in China. ‘Go’ is a game of great age and taught students the basics of strategy. Mahjong is in essence like the card game of ‘rummy ’ but with tiles. Chinese Chess or Xiangqi can claim to be closer to the original game than the version played in the west.

Fa Shou Lou, good luck, new year, cartoon, deity
New year greeting Gong Xi Fa Cai


Gambling is probably the most widespread and popular of all ‘hobbies’. For centuries Chinese people have embraced the excitement from making a profit with a little gamble. The city of Macau has gambling as its main industry and it remains a popular destination.

In Chinese the even numbers 8, 2 and 6 are considered lucky. However, four is considered particularly unlucky as the sound is similar to that for death - differing only in tone. For this reason you might find a fourth floor or house number four is missing. In addition the number 9 can also be lucky. Chinese in general have a strong belief in lucky numbers and will pay a premium for a lucky number, of which 8 is considered the luckiest (and from this the widespread use of ‘888’ in China). For lots more on the traditions behind all this please see our numbers section.

Names in China

A group of children walking home from school in Pengzhou, Sichuan Copyright © Dreamstime see image license

In China the family name comes before the personal name. So Xi Jinping is Mr. Xi. When Chinese emigrated abroad some reversed the order to avoid confusion. They may also choose an English name in place of a Chinese name because this may be tricky for English people to pronounce correctly. The family name is called xìng and the given name míng . People who are not close friends or relations are addressed by surname only with a title ( zì) e.g. Mr. Wang, the title may be their job description. So Zhou Enlai was referred to as ‘Zhou zong li’ meaningZhou Premier. A less formal naming can be used among friends lǎo old; venerable to address older people and xiǎo young; small to address someone younger. Children may address strangers as 叔叔 shū shu uncle or 阿姨 ā yí aunt.

There are relatively few family names in use and many assume there must be some distant family relationship among people with the same family name. For centuries, you were unable to be marry someone with the same family name for this reason. The Chinese have been called the ‘100 names’ Bǎijiāxìng after a classic text of the Song dynasty listing all the families, it actually had 504 names in the list and there are about 3,000 in use today. However some names are much more common that others, for example there are about 93 million Wangs (meaning ‘monarch, king’). In fact there are about 250 common family names in use. Names have a patchy regional distribution, so it is possible to guess which province someone comes from just based on their name.

Hong Kong, deity, marriage, Yue Lao
Yue Lao temple, Hong Kong. God of marriage.
marriage, tea, ceremony
Chinese marriage ceremony

On marriage the tradition is that the wife retains her family name, she does not take on her husband's surname. Indeed originally it is thought that a long time ago the family name was inherited from the mother not the father. Children can take either their mother's or father's name - but usually take the father's. With so few family names the selection of the given name is a matter of much importance, and it will often have some allusion to history or culture. Originally a great deal of ceremony and tradition was associated with finding the appropriate one. Yin-yang and the five elements are taken into account to achieve harmony and balance. Some families used the same poem over centuries to determine one character of the name, this allowed the relationship to anyone in the family to be easily worked out. The look and elemental balance of the Chinese character was taken into consideration. The choice is taken very seriously and some people make a living by helping parents choose the name. The same given name may be given to a boy or a girl although some names are usually gender specific [Zhi (will), Shan (mountain), Guo (country) for boys] and [Fang (scented), Xiang (scent), Lan (lotus), Shu (beauty) for girls]. A baby was often not named until a month of life and was given a temporary, sometimes derogatory, name for this short period following the tradition that demons would not attack a baby with such a nasty name – names such as pig manure and puppy were used. During their early childhood a ‘milk name’ would be used within the family, and this name would be used informally and affectionately throughout life. Mao Zedong had the nick name of Runzhi only used by close friends and seniors. When very large families were the norm, children would be generally referred to by their ordinal number within the family ‘third son’, ‘second daughter’.

It was also traditional for people to change their name during their lifetime, particularly after a significant life event and they often had multiple names used in different circumstances. People used a given nick-name hào and also an adult name zì given on reaching adulthood as well as the míng given name. An example of this is the poet went by the given name Su Shi as well as the literary name Su Song po meaning eastern slope; you will see both names in use in different contexts. The Republican leader Sun Yatsen went by a number of different names during his life and is known in China as Sun Zhongshan when the Republic was founded.

The names of emperors is even more complex as there are ‘temple names’, ‘reign names’ and ‘honorary names’ to consider as well as their given name (see our Imperial name section for details). Until the Ming dynasty, an emperor may rule under several reign names nián hào which he proclaimed during his reign. By the time of the Ming and Qing dynasties the ‘reign name’ and ‘emperor name’ became interchangeable so Emperor Yongle is a bit incorrect as Yongle is the name of the dynastic period not a person while Chengzu is his given name.


It is expected that you should take off your shoes when entering a private home. This is also the tradition in Japan and Korea.


The Chinese are generally a superstitious people. There was a traditional belief in demons, and that foxes could disguise themselves as people. This is not rooted in a particular religion. Ruined houses, dark corners and wide open spaces were considered unlucky places inhabited by demons. The spirit of someone wronged may well come back to haunt the perpetrator. Sometimes someone would commit suicide in the belief their spirit would come back to exact their revenge. There is a strong belief that the spirits of the ancestors look down on their living descendents and they can punish those that bring dishonor on the family. There are many superstitions associated with the old festivals, for instance it is considered unlucky to write a signature in red ink at the Spring Festival.

There are many ways to seek knowledge of future destiny. The Yi Jing or I Ching for fortune telling is the best known example. Temples offer a fortune telling service often by drawing lots or burning paper containing a question or tossing small blocks of wood.

Feng shui with its sometimes weird rules is considered by some to be superstition, particularly when it advocates such things as the position of toilets or the placement of goldfish bowls. Feng shui is still important for choosing the location for graveyards and new buildings.


To many Westerners the Chinese have a relaxed attitude to timekeeping in common with other Asian cultures. A meeting set for a specific time should be regarded as a rough estimate. Lateness should not be seen as rudeness or laziness, it is just a less precise definition of time. When visiting friends it was traditional just to turn up at any time without warning. The Chinese way of telling the time is one of the most important skills to master.

Travel advice

It is best to avoid drinking cold water; mineral or hot water are less likely to harbor germs. This is one of the reasons for tea drinking - the boiling of the water kills off all pests and diseases as cold water is considered unhealthy. Although it is possible to travel to most places in China unescorted and without permits this is not true of Tibet and Xinjiang provinces.

travel, Shanghai, railway
Traveling to Shanghai

Time to travel

In terms of timing your travel to China, the climate needs to be taken into account, it is best to avoid southern China in high summer because of the high heat and humidity; conversely northern China can be surprisingly cold in winter. (See our climate section for full details). So in general spring and autumn are the best time to visit. It is also worth checking a Chinese calendar to avoid the busy times at Chinese festivals - especially Chinese New Year and National Golden Week.

Qiān shān wàn shuǐ
Many mountains and many rivers
A long and arduous journey.

Places to visit

There are a great many places to visit in China ranging from the bustling urban cities to the peace of mountains and deserts. Please see our visitor guide for information on the top attractions.

Shenzhen, people, food
Shenzhen vegetable market, Guangdong Copyright © Dreamstime see image license


Chinese are very welcoming of all young children, their faces will light up when they see a child and will show it a lot of affection. It is considered bad form to chastise children in public although this can be done in private.

It is traditional for a pregnant woman to go into strict confinement for a month before the baby is due. The mother will minimize exercise and eat healthily (ginger is considered particularly nutritious - also avoiding bananas and melons).


Public toilets are generally primitive and not very hygienic and so should be avoided, although there is major campaign to improve facilities. Large department stores and restaurant chains offer better facilities.

TCM, calligraphy
A range of traditional medicines with calligraphy extolling the virtues of TCM

Medical care

It is advisable to take out medical insurance cover so that you can receive good quality medical care, the public health system in China is very patchy and the language barrier can make receiving the correct treatment difficult. You will be expected to pay up front in cash for your care. A wide range of medicines are available from pharmacies in cities.

For minor ailments many Chinese use traditional medicine, and you might like to try this option; there are many shops all over China.

Crime in China

Travelers can be targeted by thieves so it is best to hide away any valuables as much as possible and wear a money belt. Remember to take photocopies of important documents in case they are lost or stolen. Women are rarely targeted but as anywhere else in the world it is best to follow sensible safety tips particularly if traveling alone.

The Public Security Bureau (PSB) provides the police force. Foreigners are probably best advised to consult their embassy for advice if a crime has been committed. 110 is the emergency service number, but you will need to speak good Chinese to be able to use it.

There is a new service aimed at foreign visitors staffed by foreign language speakers. The number is the easy to remember 12345 and is useful for any non-urgent query you may have.

Unwritten rules

Many visitors to China will have come across situations when they are told they have broken rules. One way to deal with this is to ask to see the ‘broken’ rule in writing. After some prognostication it may then be admitted that there are no printed rules and the visitor feels unfairly treated - how can I obey a rule I don't know about? But this is part of the Chinese way of doing things, the situation may crop up at a hotel, when traveling or dealing with officialdom. Rather than protest, it is best to fain ignorance of the rule and apologize, this may give room for the official to ‘generously’ avoid levying a fine or delaying things.


We hope this selection may help visitors to China, alerting you to some of the main distinctive and specific customs. This section would greatly benefit from your feedback and comments. Have we got it right? Have you an experience to share? If so, please let us know using our comment form.

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