Chinese Culture and Tradition: All You Need to Know

China is a captivating country known for its rich heritage, cultural icons, and influence around the globe.

Let’s explore everything about Chinese culture and tradition, including some important practices that may help you when traveling or migrating to China.

Chinese Beliefs and Values

China is home to some of the world’s oldest civilizations. Many of its beliefs have been around for thousands of years! These include:
  • Confucianism – comes from the teachings of Chinese philosopher Confucius. Emphasizes personal ethics and virtue, morality, education, and achieving harmony through respect for the community.
  • Taoism –  revolves around the concept of tao (道 ), or “the way.” Encourages you to find your tao for a fulfilled life.
  • Buddhism – one of the world’s most widely practiced religions, with over 488 million followers around the world. Concentrates on leading a moral life and developing wisdom, self-awareness, mindfulness, compassion, and inner peace.


Chinese culture and tradition - Buddhism
Buddhism is an integral part of Chinese culture and tradition. Image source: Pexels

Ancestor Worship

In China, it’s common to see people give offerings and take part in ceremonies honoring their ancestors.

Many traditional Chinese homes have ancestral shrines where they place items such as black-and-white photos of their ancestors.

They also place ancestral tablets, which represent the spirits of deceased relatives.

Families usually burn incense sticks and pray at these altars to communicate with their ancestors and ask for guidance, forgiveness, and more.

On special occasions, they place offerings such as fruits and roasted meat.

China’s ancestor worship comes from the Confucian concept of filial piety, which focuses on respecting elders, honoring parents, and prioritizing family.

Chinese ancestral shrine
Ancestral shrines are common in traditional Chinese homes. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Feng Shui

Feng shui (风水) may be a familiar concept if you have experienced moving to a new home.
A large part of Chinese culture and tradition, feng shui involves arranging your space to encourage balance, harmony, good luck, and positive qi/chi (氣), or life force.
This concept stems from Taoism, particularly the idea that our homes reflect what’s happening inside us.
Essentially, feng shui involves behaviors and actions that promote a good environment and support well-being.
Some beliefs tied to feng shui include incorporating wood, placing furniture in twos, and making sure the bed doesn’t face the door.


Feng shui in Chinese culture and tradition
In Chinese culture and tradition, feng shui helps attract blessings into the home. Image source: Pexels

Chinese Customs and Traditions

Many Chinese customs and traditions combine traditional values with modern influences. Let’s dive into some of them.


Sincerity and Directness

Building relationships with Chinese locals requires a strong understanding of limao (礼貌), or politeness and courtesy.

Like other East Asian cultures, China uses honorifics and various terms for elders and superiors. For example, paternal grandfathers are called yeye (爷爷), while maternal counterparts are called waigong (外公).

Chinese people prefer clarity in establishing relationships. They often do away with courtesy words such as “please” and “thank you.”

Some locals may feel that these formalities establish distance, which may come across as insincere.

Chinese sincerity and directness
Chinese people tend to be straightforward in their conversations. Image source: Pexels


Exchanging Favors and Maintaining ‘Face’

China has a concept called guanxi (关系), which describes the exchange of favors when establishing a connection with another person. 
This is especially important during business or professional dealings.
Guanxi enforces mutual trust and binds all parties to reciprocate favors. Violating guanxi results in a loss of honor or your “face.”
As such, good guanxi is crucial in relationship building. This often leads to exclusive opportunities, too!


Chinese interactions
Interactions with Chinese people often involve reciprocity and maintaining “face.” Image source: Pexels

Gifts and Hongbao

When attending a Chinese gathering, you need to be mindful of their gift-giving traditions.
For example, the recipient may refuse three times before accepting. Don’t take offense and think that they don’t like your gift!
It’s also customary to give hongbao (红包), or “lucky money,” especially during the Chinese New Year or Spring Festival.
Hongbao, which is a small red envelope containing new bills, is given by the family’s elders to attract blessings in the coming year.


Good to Know:

  • Do NOT give clocks! The phrase “giving clock” in Chinese—song zhong (送钟)—sounds like “送终,” which means “looking after a dying person” or “burying a person.” Giving food is also associated with poverty.
  • Remember the right gift wrap colors: red for happy occasions; white or black for funerals; gold or silver for weddings. Do not use red ink for greeting cards.
  • Mind your numbers! The numbers 6 and 8 are good and lucky. Number 6 means everything will go smoothly, while number 8 means making a fortune. The number 4 should be avoided because it sounds like the Chinese word for death.
  • Receive gifts with both hands.
Chinese gift-giving and hongbao
Hongbao is a common gift, according to Chinese culture and tradition. Image source: Pexels


Tea-Tapping and Tipping

Serving and receiving tea is a big deal when having meals in China.
Chinese people have a “tea-tapping” culture, which you may notice while eating at a Chinese restaurant or visiting a Chinese friend.
During meals, hosts must constantly fill their guests’ teacups. Guests who have had their cups filled must tap the table in response.
Guests must discreetly tap their index and middle fingers on the table when being served tea. It should be spontaneous, like saying, “Bless you!” when someone sneezes.
When dining at a restaurant, think twice before tipping. Although it’s a common practice in most restaurants around the world, Chinese people may find tipping unnecessary or even impolite. 
Lastly, don’t forget to down your drink—or take a sip if you don’t feel like it—after saying ganbei (干杯) and clinking your glass for a toast.
Ganbei is the Chinese equivalent of “Cheers!” or “Bottoms up!” in English.


Chinese tea-tapping
Chinese culture has various dining customs involving tea and tipping in restaurants. Image source: Pexels

Chinese Social Etiquette

Culture shock is common for people visiting or moving to another country, but some Chinese customs may take some getting used to. Here are some do’s and dont’s to help you out:
  • Don’t place your chopsticks upright in a rice bowl. This represents a ritual for the dead.
  • It’s okay to burp! Burping shows that you are satisfied with the meal, which serves as a compliment to the chef.
  • Don’t point! Most communities consider pointing rude, especially if you’re in areas with a Tibetan population. The custom is to use your full hand with your palm facing up and your fingers flat.
  • Don’t be hasty when accepting compliments. Accepting a compliment from the start makes you look vain.


Tips for Learning Chinese Customs and Practices

  • Learn basic Chinese phrases. Mandarin is the largest of China’s dialect groups and the most widely spoken native language in the world. It’s best to learn basic phrases and greetings like nǐ hǎo (你好) for “hello” and xiè xiè (谢谢) for “thank you.”
  • Pay attention to nonverbal cues such as eye contact, facial expressions, and body language. These can convey different meanings in Chinese culture.
  • Show interest in Chinese culture and tradition. Chinese people are proud of their rich culture and history. Ask questions about festivals, popular dishes, entertainment, and other aspects of their culture.
  • Stay informed about current events and social issues in China.


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