Chinese Etiquette


China calls itself a 礼仪之邦 (lǐ yí zhī bāng), nation of etiquette. And this belief is particularly entrenched among the people of Shandong Province, hometown of Confucius (551-479 BC) and Mencius (372-289 BC). The philosophy of Confucianism emphasizes morality and proper social relations. 礼 (lǐ), courtesy, therefore, plays an important role in daily life, and appears in many Chinese words, for example, 礼节 (lǐ jié), etiquette, 礼数 (lǐ shù), politeness, 礼教 (lǐ jiào), protocol, and 礼仪 (lǐ yí), propriety.


I hope you won’t feel overwhelmed or daunted by the many words related to etiquette. I just want to let you know that in China 讲礼貌 (jiǎng lǐ mào), being polite, is a tradition and custom, and sometimes too complicated for foreigners to follow. In ancient China, the custom was called 礼乐制度 (lǐ yuè zhì dù), the rite and music system, as a way of regime consolidation. Western Han Dynasty (202 BC – AD 9) scholar Dai Sheng compiled《礼记》(Lǐ Jì), the Book of Rites, to record the etiquette of the Han ethnic group before the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC).


Posture etiquettes mainly include various polite gestures and actions, for example, 让座 (ràng zuò), offering seats to other persons, 鞠躬 (jū gōng), bowing, and 跪拜, (guì bài), worship on bended knees. Together with some polite formulas, they can be summarized as 言谈举止 (yán tán jǔ zhǐ), speech and deportment.


A gentleman in China is known as 君子 (jūn zǐ), a man of virtue. The character 君 is composed of two radicals for “hand” and “mouth,” meaning that a person of refined upbringing should have proper manners of speech and deportment. However, there is a world of difference between 真君子 (zhēn jūn zǐ) , a real gentleman, and 伪君子 (wěi jūn zǐ), a hypocrite.


In China, the most fundamental etiquette is 打招呼 (dǎ zhāo hu), to offer greetings. The first phrase we learn in Chinese might be 你好 (nǐ hǎo), hello. In the old days of Beijing when people came across the acquaintances they usually asked “你吃了吗” (nǐ chī le ma?), “Have you eaten?” Some elderly locals still exchange such greetings today.


In China, people are seldom addressed as Ms. or Mr. instead, they prefer to use people’s titles and surname, for example, 王主任 (Wáng Zhǔ rèn), Director Wang. Otherwise, they would say 老师 (lǎo shī), teacher, as a substitute when a person (not necessarily with a teaching job) does not have a specific title. Such forms of address change according to the situation. For example, 师傅 (shī fu), master, a respectful appellative usually for the working class, is how you would address a taxi driver.


Various honorifics are used in Chinese. Let’s look at a few examples. 您 (nín), you, is often used in North China, especially when addressing a social superior or elder; sometimes, 咱们 (zán men) is different from 我们 (wǒ men), although in English both mean “we.” The former Chinese expression creates an intimate ethos between close friends. 贵 (guì), distinguished, is a formal prefix, for example, 贵公司 (guì gōng sī), your honored corporation. Another vivid example is 尊敬的 (zūn jìng de), respected, usually used in business, for example 尊敬的客人 (zūn jìng de kè rén), respected guests.


Expressions of modesty are commonly used in China. For example, a person receiving a friend visiting his home would be likely to say “欢迎光临寒舍” (huān yíng guāng lín hán shè), “welcome to my humble home,” or “都是粗茶淡饭” (dōu shì cū chá dàn fàn), “all here is humble fare.” But this does not mean that Chinese are hypocritical; it is rather the expression of Chinese-style good manners.


Now, let’s discuss some polite verbal expressions. When we ask for somebody’s help, we often say, 请(qǐng), please, or “麻烦一下” (má fan yí xià), “sorry to trouble you,” or “不好意思打扰一下” (bù hǎo yì si dǎ rǎo yí xià), “so sorry to bother you.” There is another formal expression 劳驾 (láo jià), excuse me, that is especially popular among Beijing residents. In summary, the most popular one is 请 (qǐng), please. If we ask a question, we could say “请问” (qǐng wèn), “excuse me, can I ask you a question?” We also say “请坐” (qǐng zuò), “please sit down,” and if we would like others to do as they wish we say “请便” (qǐng biàn), “please help yourself.”


Your answer, of course, would be “谢谢” (xiè xie), “thank you,” to which the response is “不客气” (bú kè qi), “you’re welcome,” or “不谢” (bú xiè), or “不用谢” (“bú yòng xiè”), “don’t mention it.” However, one thing I should mention is that if you are with your close friends or family members, you don’t say “thanks.” This is an overly formal expression among intimate persons, and would make them think that you are 见外 (jiàn wài), regarding others as outsiders, and look at you in surprise and say, “别见外” (bié jiàn wài), “just make yourself at home, meaning “you don’t have to act as if we were strangers.”


If a Chinese steps on other’s toes, they say “不好意思” (bù hǎo yì si), or “对不起” (duì bù qǐ), both mean “sorry.” The latter is more of an apology than the former.


Now, as I seem to have become a 礼仪老师 (lǐ yí lǎo shī), etiquette teacher, let’s stop here. Finally, let me politely wave to you and say, “再见” (zài jiàn), “goodbye!”