Cultural Faux Pas to avoid in China

Moving to a new country is a stressful experience when everything goes well, let alone when anything goes wrong. The last thing you need to be worrying about when your head’s so full of other things is whether you’re accidently offending the people of your host nation. But when moving to nations like China (which have a very unique language, culture and social structure) offending someone unintentionally is really quite easy to do.

By learning what cultural faux pas to avoid you might just be able to make it through your first month in China without insulting anyone – So here are some of the top things to watch out for:   

 Conversation & Meeting

‘Face’ is an important concept in Chinese culture. Criticising or humiliating people causes them to lose face – something which should be avoided at all costs. If you have a tricky, private or embarrassing issue to raise with someone, do it privately.

In business situations, like meetings, you should stand up when other people enter the room. Business cards should be handed over using both hands, with the name facing towards the person you’re giving it to. Pointing at someone is considered insulting, so don’t point at anyone – unless you intend to insult them...

Punctuality is highly valued in China as it demonstrates respect – lateness on the other hand isn’t appreciated! Personal contact between a man and a woman who aren’t related should be kept very limited. Never address people by their first names, in China the surname comes before the first name.

Death might be a fact of life, but for the Chinese it should never be a topic of conversation. Death is not discussed in much of Chinese society, so bear in mind that references to the morbid topic are likely to be met with a grave silence!


Fans/umbrellas are two other seemingly innocent objects that you should never give as gifts in China. Giving one to a family member, friend or partner is thought to bring about a split between the giver and the receiver. Traditionally, brides presented their parents with a fan as a way of representing them leaving their family for their husband’s. 

In most countries a watch or clock is quite a nice gift to receive, but in China such a present is considered to be unlucky. One traditional belief is that when you give someone a clock you are counting down the minutes to their death.

Colour symbolism is quite a big part of Chinese culture, with certain colours generally viewed as auspicious or inauspicious. In China white is considered to be the colour of mourning and is consequently heavily associated with that taboo topic – death. Avoid wearing white (unless you’re going to a funeral) and don’t give white gifts as they’ll be viewed as a bad omen.


When dining the oldest person at the table should be served first. Showing respect to elders is a hugely important part of Chinese culture and should always be observed, no matter how hungry you are! If everyone around the table is of a similar age they should be served according to seniority.

Leaving chopsticks standing upright in rice is a big no-no as it means that you’re presenting a food offering for the dead. Although it might not be considered offensive in some Chinese households, you should always lay your chopsticks beside your bowl when you take a break from eating.

And lastly... You’re mum might have brought you up to eat everything on your plate but in some parts of China completely finishing a meal is a sign of bad manners as it implies that you weren’t given enough to eat!

By The Expat Hub, a top online stop for expatriate advice, support and information.