Etiquette, Habits and Traditions

Like all ancient societies, China is replete with etiquette, habits and traditions specific to its culture. Photo: China traditions

WASHINGTON, June 12, 2013—Like all ancient societies, China is replete with etiquette, habits and traditions specific to its culture.

A standard greeting for a casual encounter between Chinese acquaintances is “Have You Eaten Yet?” It epitomizes the importance of food to the Chinese. So we start this article with the dining etiquette.

At a banquet, it is acceptable to reach across other diners and help yourself to food so as to avoid bothering other people. This explains the advent of the Lazy Susan and the round banquet table because you should not prevent the other person from reaching for food. This way, everybody has equal access to delightful morsels. A proper and honorable host will use his chopstick to personally deliver delicacies into the bowl of the honored guest, although this practice has diminished somewhat with better understanding of healthier dining habits.

Chinese food dishes are usually pre-cut into bite sizes before they are served at the table. When an item is oversized, it is acceptable to take a bite of it then lay the remainder of the item on one’s plate or bowl for later consumption. When necessary, diners are allowed to use their hand and fingers at the banquet table. However, it is considered bad manners to hold the chopsticks while using a soup spoon to consume soup, and never insert the chopstick in a bowl of rice in the upright position.  It is symbolic of making sacrificial offerings to the dead.

At the Chinese New Year’s banquet, the last entree is usually a whole fish, with head and tail intact. The Chinese word for fish is phonetically synonymous with “plenty,” this way the Chinese hope to ensure that the coming year will not be found wanting from the beginning to the end. Sometimes poor people who can’t afford to buy fish will serve a wooden carved fish covered with sauce; guests of course would not embarrass the host and themselves by trying to taste that last course of the banquet.

When you encounter a large fish served with the head and tail intact, after consuming the flesh on the upper side, it is bad form to flip the fish over to reach the other side. You should use the chopstick or a spoon to break and remove the spine, so as to get at the rest of the fish. This practice is especially prevalent in the coastal regions.  The fish represents a boat, and flipping the fish symbolizes capsizing a boat, not an auspicious or desirable omen for the superstitious minded fishermen who depend on the sea for a living.

As a gift, food is always preferred over flowers. Food is more practical thus desirable, while flowers would only wilt and then be thrown away. A clock is taboo as a present for the Chinese. The word for “clock” sounds phonetically the same as the word for “end” so presenting a clock to a person symbolizes that you wish the individual’s time to run out. Fortunately, a watch does not suffer the same ignominy.

Red is the favorite color for the Chinese as it represents life and liveliness. On New Year’s Day, red clothing and red banners always abound in Chinese communities. Gifts of money are passed out in red envelopes on festive occasions and Chinese homes are often decorated with red doors and red tiled roofs.

The gold color represents royalty. Only the Emperor could wear the golden dragon robe in traditional Chinese culture. The phrase “Put on the golden robe” means a person has been installed as the Emperor, or has aspirations to become the Emperor. It also is the color of the precious metal, a very much desired item.

Green resembles the color of jade, which wards-off evil spirits, and jade is the preferred precious stone to the Chinese. It also is the color of evergreens, a symbol of long life that does not turn brown and fall to the ground.

White represents the bloodlessness of death, thus the color of mourning and is least desired. Sympathy money in white envelopes is given on occasions of bereavement. Birthday or other cards of well wishes are never sent with white envelopes and everyday letters are usually mailed in tan colored envelopes.

The number nine, with the same sound as the word for longevity, is favored over number four which is phonetically very similar to the word for death. The word for the “floor level” of a structure is the same as the word for a “building;” therefore the “fourth floor” literally translates into the “death building” or the morgue. This is the reason that Chinese hospitals do not have a fourth floor.

Chinese love books, but you will not find them reading books in a casino because “book” is phonetically synonymous with “loss.”  A Chinese gambler would be very upset if he finds a person reading a book behind his back, literally. Conversely, when you see a coffin passing by, it is time to buy lottery tickets; for, “coffin” sounds the same as “riches.”

Chinese tend to take history lessons to heart. “History does not repeat itself; stupid people repeat history because they didn’t take the time to learn from it.” In 200 BC, Liu Bang, the founder of the Han Dynasty, led his infantry heavy army against the nomads. He was trapped, besieged and humiliated at Bai Deng by the nomadic cavalry of Xiong Nu, and had to sue for peace with promises of annual tributes in women, silk, grain and gold.

For the next seventy years, Han Emperors continued the appeasement policy while they built up their cavalry. When they were ready, they attacked and drove the Xiong Nu out of Asia. The vanquished nomads retreated westward and eventually became the forefathers of Attila the Hun. As can be seen from this incident, Chinese long range plans may extend over a life time or longer.

Spring Festival is the most important holiday for the Chinese and many other Asian nations. It is the equivalent of the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s put together. The festival begins on the New Year’s Eve of the lunar calendar and lasts until the Lantern Festival on the fifteenth of the month.  Whenever possible, everyone tries to make it home to celebrate the holiday with the family. The book “Tales of the Dragon – The Book of Lore” has more specific details on traditional Chinese practices during the Spring Festival.

Faced with a problem, Westerners tend to prefer quick-fix fast food resolution, while Chinese usually take time to analyze the problem like a leisurely banquet before they settle on a solution. Westerners like things clear cut in black and white, while the Chinese favor different shades of gray so as to allow wriggle room. Westerners value individual freedom, while the Chinese would be more willing to sacrifice individualism for tranquility and the good of the majority.


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Tang Long

William Tang is a research analyst. Born in Taiwan, he is fluent in three dialects of Chinese and Spanish, plus survival level German and Japanese. He is a graduate of the Officers Advance Course at the General Political Warfare College, Taipei, Taiwan.

He lectures on Chinese history and culture and has two books in publication: “Tales of the Dragon – The Book of Lore,” an anthology of Chinese legends, fables, and historical anecdotes; and “Pets Only,” which recounts a pets operated eating establishment in northern Virginia. He lives with Shadow (Lab), Taz (Boxer) and Foxy Lady (Japanese Shiba Inu) in Fredericksburg, VA. He writes under the penname of TANG Long.

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