Customs in China

Standing in Line

Customs in China are very different from those in the West; Understanding such customs is the key to successfully enjoy living and working in China

One of the most exciting things about traveling or living abroad is being able to experience a culture different from your own. Yet, cultural differences can also be very frustrating! As human beings we are products of our upbringing. At the same time, we are all certain that we are products of ‘nature’ – thus we think that our ideas and ways of doing things are ‘right’, even though they are simply habits that we have been taught and to which we have grown accustomed. The feeling that we are all ‘normal’ and that foreigners are ‘abnormal’ is common to all cultures. We are like cats who think that dogs are ‘odd’ for liking bones, instead of preferring milk as we do.

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Custom is something we put on, like a coat or a shoe. We adopt the customs that we are told are ‘best’ by our ancestors and our society, and we become so comfortable in them that we feel that we were born with them. Many cultural differences in custom are simply amusing or interesting, but those having to do with social behavior and politeness can be much more distressing as they go to the core of our feelings of esteem and self-respect. When in China, westerners may be surprised and astonished at how social behavior customs in China are very different from their own. Likewise, their Chinese hosts may feel unable to comprehend the behavior of their foreign visitors. Rest assured, however, that both Chinese and western society place a great deal of value and emphasis on polite social interaction. They do not, however, define it in precisely the same way.

In the west our parents, churches, and schools instruct us from an early age to treat strangers and friends alike. The Biblical golden rule “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is the example held up to the religious and non-religious alike. Many follow it because they want to be ‘good’. Others believe that if one expects to live in a society and be treated with kindness and decency, then logic demands that one must treat others with kindness and decency.

This translates into customs of opening doors for strangers, taking turns in traffic or at the store, waiting patiently in line and giving seats to women, the weak, and the elderly. Breaking the rules or laws of social behavior is viewed as an imposition upon the health, comfort, and safety of others. To avoid conflicts and promote social harmony, no one can be an ‘exception’ to the rules. The view is long-term: following the rules today will create a better environment for each of us now and in the future. Of course, many westerners do not abide by these rules, but they are generally viewed as anti-social and ill-bred by society at large.

Customs in China – What Is the Difference?

In China as in the west, social behavior is culturally and historically bound – and therefore the definition of ‘politeness’ is quite different. The teachings of Confucious have an important influence on societal mores in China. Confucious teaches that there are five major relationships; Ruler and subject, Father and son, Friend and friend, Husband and wife, and Brother and sister. Etiquette demands that these five relationships be respected above all others. Treating strangers as one would treat a friend, family member or someone to whom one is bound by familial or work associations is neither required nor expected.

Social customs in China that stress duty to family, colleagues, and friends often go above and beyond those of their western counterparts. Family members in China treat each other with a reverence and devotion that has become obsolete in many western countries. Children are given seats on crowded busses and in the subway (as opposed to adults or women as in the west). Business colleagues go to great lengths and spend large amounts of time with their clients to build relationships. Many Chinese will sacrifice their own interests for their friends to an extent seldom seen in the west.


Both over-populated and the result of a long, tumultuous and often unstable history, contemporary Chinese society is one in which competition (for space and resources) is fierce, and in which attention to immediate benefits dominate. Throughout much of the past, wise individuals had to act quickly and take every advantage to survive and to prosper. One can never be sure what tomorrow will bring, so making the most of one’s current situation is seen as prudent and responsible.

Customs in China can translate today into an almost playful attitude towards competition in some social situations such as waiting in line or bargaining for products. Getting there first and getting the best deal take precedence, and this is viewed as sensible and normal. Coming from a different cultural heritage, Westerners often misunderstand these situations and feel hurt or confused, when they would do better to simply jump in and compete with gusto and delight!

Two other Customs in China that affect social behavior in Chinese culture are ‘mianxi’ or ‘face’ and ‘li’ or ‘sacrifice’. Chinese are often surprised by westerners’ willingness to show emotion in public, and by the tendency of westerners to voice disagreements and acknowledge conflicts. While virtues in the west, these behaviors are impolite within Chinese society because preservation of ‘face’ and sacrificing to be courteous to those with whom you have relationships is valued above all. Most Chinese will restrain from imposing their emotions on others and will avoid confrontation in the name of social harmony.

There was once a dog who met a cat and with whom he wanted to be friends. The dog knew little about cats, but he had just been given a lovely bone by the town butcher, and he gave the cat his bone, hoping to win the cat’s friendship. The cat, preferring milk, was offended by the gift. The cat told all of his friends about the dog’s rudeness, and ever since, dogs and cats have been enemies – all because of a misunderstanding. What a pity! And what a useful lesson.

It is clear that good manners are an important part of both Chinese and western society. Different cultural views of appropriate social behavior, however, can often lead to frustration. Improving one’s cultural understanding not only mends hurt feelings, but leads to stronger and lasting friendships.