10 fascinating Chinese customs

A different world to the Western bubble many of us have grown up in, China offers rich history, dazzling landscapes and a myriad of interesting customs that can't help but leave you intrigued and curious to learn more. Here are some of the best. 

By Saga team

Published 3 May 2024

Whilst grappling with chopsticks can be a bit tricky for the uninitiated on their first trip to China, try not to make the mistake of jabbing them into that succulent dumpling or bowl of rice. This is reminiscent of the placement of incense at a funeral – and is essentially an omen of death. 

Giving gifts is a big part of Chinese culture, but it’s also customary to refuse the first offer – sometimes even the second and third offer too. But don't allow yourself to become disheartened; refusal is simply a polite step on the road to acceptance. The same sort of thing happens with compliments. To accept too readily is seen as a sign of vanity. 

If you've never experienced what it feels like to be an A-list celebrity, you might just get your chance in China. It is not uncommon for Chinese groups and families to ask to pose for photos with Western tourists. Enjoy the attention while it lasts. 

Some men in China choose to grow their fingernails long or even just grow one fingernail particularly long as a symbol of wealth. After all, it's hard to toil all day doing manual labour when you might break a nail... 

Spitting, thought of as unbelievably rude in the Western world, is considered to be a normal part of life in some parts of China, where squeamishness about bodily functions just hasn't caught on. 

Although here in the West we covet a tan with its connotations of exotic holidays and a healthy, sun-kissed outdoorsy lifestyle, a pale complexion is much preferred in the East. So, face-kinis, a mask which can be worn on the beach, have become popular in some coastal regions. 

It is customary to remove any troublesome bits of food stuck in your teeth at the table after a meal. Just make sure you cover your toothpick activity with your other hand to keep up appearances. 

Of course, this is subjective, but even the most fearless foodie may find that some of the dishes in China have the ability to stretch their boundaries. From fish eyes to cow stomachs, and from chicken feet to grey-yolked century eggs, there are plenty of culinary treats that may take western tastebuds by surprise. There are some unexpected sweet combinations to try as well – western jellies are usually fruit flavoured, but one delicious Chinese dessert pairs almond-flavoured jelly with milk for a nutty, creamy concoction. Another reimagines yummy rice pudding into glutinous rice balls that hide a sweet black sesame centre.  

The Chinese language depends highly on tone to convey meaning, so you might hear plenty of conversations conducted at maximum volume on your trip – it's a wonderful way to immerse yourself in day-to-day life! 

Respect, reputation and dignity is of the utmost importance in China so avoid any overt display of emotion and remain calm and polite to stand the greatest chance of getting the result you are hoping for. 

Experience all these wonderful cultural differences for yourself on a holiday to China, or on a tour that stops off in this fascinating country.

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