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5 Chinese Culture Taboos List - Things to Avoid

While in China
The following list of Chinese cultural taboos has been compiled through nine
years of living in China, observing Chinese customs, and sometimes embarrassing
personal experiences. Like most deeply rooted ancient Chinese traditions, the
younger generation is paying less and less attention to these kinds of habits, but
foreigners living in China would still do well to avoid the following Chinese taboos.
Chinese Culture Taboo #1: Take credit for achievements One of the first things most foreigners in China learn about cultural
differences is the way to reply to compliments. In America if someone says you
have a nice car or keep up your yard well you would most likely say, "Thank you. I
have worked hard for it." To respond to a compliment like that in China would be
considered very prideful. It is almost like there are set rules for what is right to say
in certain situations. Say for example, you are visiting a friend who has recently
moved to a new house. When you enter you are expected to make some positive
remarks about his house. It is spacious. The lighting is good. It faces the
correct direction. No, it is small. The lighting is not very good, especially in the
afternoons. A lot of noise drifts up from the street. You are never supposed to
directly accept the praise. There is a Chinese phrase that is basically an all inclusive
"divert praise" conversation tool. That is "na li, na li". The direct English translation
is "Where, where?" Whenever people compliment my Chinese, and it doesn't take
much language prowess to draw compliments, I use this phrase and people know
that since I didn't say "Thank you" I must have been in China a while.
I heard of a story of a foreigner who complimented a Chinese woman by
telling her she was pretty. She had practiced a bit of English and knew how to
translate some Chinese phrases directly into English. So she said, "Where, where?"
The foreigner was quite taken aback, but assumed she just wanted a bit more
praise. He said, "Umm, uh, your face is quite attractive." By now she was blushing.
"Where, where?" This time the foreigner thought she was pretty presumptuous to
keep demanding more praise, but didn't want to offend her. "Well, your nose is quite
graceful and your eyes have a sparkle to them."" This time her whole face was
bright red as she stammered one more time, "Where?"
Chinese Culture Taboo #2: Showing the bottom of your shoes In China, people walk almost everywhere. Shoes tend to collect more dirt and
junk than in Western countries. Showing someone the bottom of your shoes is
considered very rude. It is rude even when it happens in natural situations such as
crossing your legs or putting your feet up on a coffee table. Like many rooted
customs, this is slowly changing .The younger generation would not get as upset if
this were to happen as an elderly person would. Also, when you enter someone's
house you are supposed to take off your shoes first. Most homes have a set of
"house shoes" for wearing inside and which they offer to guests. Although the
home owner might protest and tell you it is not necessary to take off your shoes,

you should do it anyway unless you are very close to the host. He is also being
polite by saying "no need, no need", but actually there is a need. When my family
first arrived in China, my father rode on the subway and crossed his legs in the seat.
The gentleman sitting next to him took out a pad and paper and wrote something
intently on it. Then he showed the paper to my father. It said, "The action which you
are taking is impolite." Needless to say, we think twice before crossing our legs in
public now!
Chinese Culture Taboo #3: Major on one food and skip the others The rights and wrongs of food etiquette could be an entire article in and of
themselves. I will briefly summarize the "dos" and "don'ts" here. Traditional Chinese
serve the bowls of guests. It is considered rude to help yourself to the food you
want when at someone's house. The proper way is to wait until the host serves your
bowl. Don't be afraid that you will go hungry because good hosts take it as their
personal mission to make sure your bowl is completely full all the time. Even after
you have eaten 3-4 bowls full of food they will continue to scoop it for you and say
"Don't be polite. Eat up. You haven't eaten anything yet." In the process they will
give you what they consider to be the very best food, which might or might not be
what you like.
In other less traditional homes, you might have freedom to serve some of
your own food. If you do, beware. Reaching across the table for another dish is a big
no no. So is using your chopsticks to pick out the meat or food from a dish you like
the best. If you do seem to eat one thing more than another, it is likely that they will
serve you more of that. My mother went to a guest's house where she was served a
kind of boiled greens. They weren't her favorite so she ate them first to save the
best for last. They saw saw her quickly eating them up and interpreted that to mean
she loved them. The hostess promptly got her bowl, went to the kitchen, and gave
her another scoop.
It is often advisable to leave a little bit of food left in your bowl or the host
might think you are still hungry and fill it up again. Then again, in some regions it is
considered very wasteful to leave any food. Sound complicated? It is. Accept a
dinner invitation at your own risk. No, in seriousness most Chinese know that
Westerners will not know all the rules or customs. They will give you some leeway,
but try to be sensitive and navigate the system as well as you can. Just like in the
States, do be gracious and rave over every good thing you eat. Cooks enjoy the
attention worldwide.
Chinese Culture Taboo #4: Hug a member of the opposite sex as a greeting
In the US, it is very common for guys to hug girls and vice-versa as a friendly
greeting. During my church fellowship time back in the States I can see guys and
girls hugging across the entire auditorium. In some areas of the South it feels weird
to offer your hand. Believe it or not, social customs in China are not the same as
America's South. If you are a guy and want to make a Chinese girl feel extremely
awkward and uncomfortable, offering a hug as a greeting is the way to go. She will
likely offer a nervous laugh and attempt to escape as soon as possible. I have seen

this happen several times with unsuspecting foreigners. Meanwhile, they didn't
have any idea how uncomfortable the girl felt. As weird as that is, it might be even
more weird for a girl to initiate the hug. I have been in China for almost nine years
and can't recall seeing that happen. So if it hasn't happened yet, don't be the first
try. There doesn't always have to be a first for everything. So what is the
appropriate way to act when meeting someone or introducing yourself? If you are a
guy meeting a guy you can offer a warm handshake. It is not so common in China
still, but it will probably be accepted. However, it is more normal when meeting
someone to exchange verbal greetings, but not any physical contact. If you are
unsure what to do, a good rule of thumb is always to wait and see how the other
person responds. More than ninety percent of the time they won't offer their hand,
so you don't need to either.
Chinese Culture Taboo #5: Ask a member of the opposite sex his/her birth
date In the West, this is generally an innocent question. You could have a hundred
reasons for asking such as planning a party or event, preparing a gift, or simple
banter. In China, it could be much more than an innocent question and cause you a
load of trouble. Asking someone his birth date often signals a romantic interest.
Why? Traditionally China has complex rules for making the perfect match of
husband and wife. It is not necessarily based on interests, hobbies, or even love. It
is based on calculations by fortune tellers or feng shui specialists who have
professional careers in matchmaking. Parents will often submit the birth date (down
to the minute and second) of their child and their child's significant other. These
specialists are paid big bucks to somehow determine if they match and if the
marriage will be "lucky" or "prosperous." So if a guy asks a girl for her birth date it
could be interpreted as, "I am interested in marrying you and want to see if we are a
match." Again, this is not as important to the younger generation as the elder
generation. Many traditions like this are gradually waning in importance. But if you
want to avoid any confusion it is better to stick to safer topics. And if someone asks
you your birth date, watch out!


Foreigners are not expected to know all of these things the minute they step
off the plane and will be given great latitude, however your knowledge of what is
not acceptable can make your transition to life in China much smoother.

If you want someone to come to you, dont wave them over with an upturned
finger. This is impolite. Wave them over with your fingers turned down, as if
they were sweeping something toward you. The same motion is used when
hailing a cab.

When using a toothpick in public, cover your mouth with your hand.

When eating with a group, if there is a dish everyone is sharing (which is

customary), do not use your chopsticks or the spoon you are eating with to
dish your food. Use the serving spoon to dish into your bowl or plate and then
use your spoon or chopsticks to eat.

If someone gives you a present, its best not to open it in front of them.

When someone gives a business card to you, do not stick it in your hip
pocket. Also, dont stick it in your wallet and then put your wallet in your hip
pocket. You would be symbolically stating that you want to sit on them!
Putting a business card in your wallet and them placing the wallet in a front
pocket is no problem.

After eating a meal, never leave your chopsticks sticking up in the left-over
rice at the bottom of your bowl. This is what people do at shrines when
offering a meal to their ancestors' ghosts. Doing it in a restaurant would be a
terrible curse on the proprietor.
Sometimes funerals, weddings, or religious ceremonies will suddenly occupy
a whole street without warning. Even though theyre blocking your way, it's
not good to walk through such a gathering.

When you're just getting to know someone, and it begins to rain but they
don't have an umbrella, its bad luck to give them an umbrella to go home
with a sure omen that youll never see each other again.( the Chinese word
for umbrella-san-sounds like the word for to break apart.) This is
particularly important for dating couples the first few times they go out
together. If you like our new friend, take the time to escort him or her with
the umbrella out to the bus stop or taxi.

The following gifts and/or colors are associated with death and should not be
Clocks (giving a watch is okay)
Straw sandals
A stork or crane
Anything white, blue or black

Likewise, its best not to give a handkerchief as a present. Given that this is
something that is used to wipe away tears, a gift of this nature is perceived to
actually bring them some kind of bad fortune, IE) the cause for crying.
Believe it or not, finishing everything on your plate is NOT a good thing in
China. If you eat all of your meal, the Chinese will assume you did not receive
enough food and are still hungry.

Don't lose your temper. You can be form as long as you remain polite but to
lose one's temper is an absolute loss of face.
You can give away your used stuff but not as a gift, no matter how nice it is.

But dont worry, if you accidentally give an unlucky gift, the course can be set
straight if the receiver gives you a coin as a token payment then it
technically becomes a purchase instead of a present.

Remember when entering any home in China that you need to always take off
your shoes.

When sitting, do not point the bottoms of your feet to any person. Try to sit
cross-legged or tuck your legs underneath you.

Top 7 Taboos in China (Beginner)

Once you set foot on foreign soil, youll have to adapt to your new environs. Of course, there will be
the odd custom or two that youre not familiar with, but were here to help you avoid turning nave
behavior into a majorly bad faux pas. All you need is a little openness. After all, this is a global village
with many unique wonderful cultures.
But, along with native customs comes the sticky subject of taboos those things one should avoid at
all cost. You're probably already familiar with some cultural taboos; for example, in India, parts of
Africa and the Middle East, the traditional way to eat is with the hands, and eating with the left hand
is frowned upon because it is seen as unclean. In Thailand, the head is considered sacred, so even
patting a child on the head is not acceptable. In Korea, if you slap someone on the back who isn't a
family member or a good friend, you'll make them very uncomfortable. Every country has its own list
of no-nos, so what about in China? What are the taboos? Let's take a look.
1. Wearing a Green Hat is Bad News
Green hat in Chinese is "(l mozi)." Foreigners might think that a green hat is just like any
other hat, but not in China. In China, a "green hat" means that a man's wife has been unfaithful to
him. There is even a saying: the most horrible color for hat to a Chinese man is green.
Why does (l mozi) carry such a particular meaning in China? One story is that in ancient
China the wife of a merchant had an affair with a cloth seller. She made a green hat for her husband
to wear, and when the husband went out for business, the cloth seller would see the green hat and
know that he could meet his lover. Since that time, (l mozi) has been the symbol of a wife
betraying her husband. No wonder it is impossible to find a green hat in Chinese markets!
2. Never Say "(w b sh dngxi)"
You may be confused: arent (dng) and (x) the words for east and west? Thats true, but
when put together, these two words take on a new meaning: "thing." For example, you can say: I
bought some "(dngxi)" this morning at the supermarket. When talking about a person,
(dngxi) is rather insulting. An English equivalent of (w b sh dngxi) is something
similar to Im bad." Friends might jokingly ask you, "(n sh dngxi ma)? If you say,
"Yes," it means, "I'm a thing." But, if you say, "(w b sh dngxi)" then you are saying
you are bad.
3. Avoid Certain Numbers
Different cultures have different number associations. Many countries, for example, dislike the
number 13, considering it to be unlucky. Similarly, in China people often avoid the number 4 because
"(s)" sounds like "(s)," which means "death. Also, Chinese people use the number 250 to refer

to a person who is frivolous and thoughtless. Sometimes a tactless person who always makes a
spectacle is called 250. In this instance, 250 is not pronounced (r bi w sh) but ,
omitting the .
4. Don't Kiss to Greet!
Kissing a Chinese woman as a greeting will not only make her very embarrassed, but it will also
embarrass (and possibly anger) any Chinese men with her. Kissing or hugging as a greeting is quite
normal in the western world, but not in China. A warm handshake is enough! Doing it differently
could create a very tense interaction.
5. Don't ask, Why are you wearing the same clothes?
In China, not everyone takes a bath or changes their clothes every day. Although, many westerners
will not bathe every day, it is not considered a commonly accepted practice. In China it is different;
many people have the custom of wearing the same clothes a couple of days in a row. It is not always
possible or practical to change clothes and bathe daily. Some foreigners, at the sight of their
colleagues or friends wearing the same clothes a couple of days in a row, are very confused and
may ask, Why are you wearing the same clothes as yesterday? Just remember that this is not
considered polite and can cause embarrassment.
6. Vertical Chopsticks
Chopsticks "(kuizi)" are the tools Chinese people use to eat with, just as westerners use a
knife and fork. Some taboos around using chopsticks have gradually developed during the long
history of their use. For example, standing your chopsticks vertically in your bowl is seen by the
Chinese people as very bad table manners. Why? Vertical chopsticks look like burning incense.
Incense burning, is heavily associated with making offerings at graves or tombs for ones ancestors.
So, when you are invited to dinner at a Chinese home, put the chopsticks down parallel on the edge
of the bowl or on the table.
7. Never give a clock as a present
When youve been invited to a social event in China, its courtesy to bring a special gift for the host.
For this the options are nearly limitless: food, clothes, books etc. However, there are a few
exceptions. For example, in China, a clock "(zhng)" should never be given as a present.
In Chinese, clock "(zhng)" has the same pronunciation as death "(zhng)." To elaborate on
their similarities, "(sng zhng)" means to give a clock as a present and "(sngzhng)"
means to attend a funeral. Its easy to see how the two homophonic phrases are naturally connected
in the minds of the people and their culture and as such, "(sng zhng)" became taboo. At first,
people only refrained from sending clocks to the elderly, but later this became a standard practice
among all Chinese. At this point, you should be able to imagine the faux pas youd be committing by
sending a clock as a gift. Whether its your friends birthday, an officials promotion, a token for

newlywed couples, or a housewarming gift, by giving a clock as a gift you would be in effect cursing

Chinese Taboo
Learn how to avoid common Chinese taboos.
Chinese Taboo Numbers:
Good things come in pairs so odd numbers are avoided for birthdays and weddings. However, to avoid
bad things happening in pairs, burials and giving gifts to the ill are not held on even numbered days.
Four the number four (, s) sounds like death (, s) so the number four is avoided particularly on
phone numbers, license plates and addresses. While addresses do contains fours, the rent is usually
less and apartments on the fourth floor are typically rented by foreigners.
Chinese Taboo at Work:

Shopkeepers may opt not to read a book at work because book (, sh) sounds like lose

(, sh). Shopkeepers who read may be afraid their businesses will suffer losses
When it comes to sweeping, shopkeepers are careful not to sweep toward the door, especially

during Chinese New Year, in case good fortune is swept out the front door.
Never turn over fish when you are with a fisherman as the motion symbolizes a boat capsizing.

Never offer a friend an umbrella because the word umbrella (, sn) sounds similar to (sn,
to break up) and the act is a sign that you will never see each other again.
Chinese Taboo Food:

Young children should not eat chicken feet as it is believed they might not be able to write well

when they start school. They may also be prone to get in fights like roosters.
Leaving food on ones plate, particularly grains of rice, will result in marriage to a spouse with

many pockmarks on his or her face or the person will have the wrath of the Thunder god.
Chopsticks should not be left standing straight up in a bowl of rice. This act is said to bring bad
luck to the restaurant owner as the chopsticks in rice look similar to incense placed in urns at
temples when meals are offered to ancestors.
Chinese Taboo - Gifts:
It is a Chinese taboo to give inauspicious gifts: Chinese Gifts to Avoid.

Since good things are believed to come in pairs, gifts given in pairs (except four) are best.

Do not wrap the gift in white as the colors represents sorrow and poverty.

If you give an unlucky gift on accident, the receiver can make it right by giving you a coin
which changes the gift to an item they symbolically purchased.

Chinese Taboo Holiday Taboos:

It is a Chinese taboo to share stories about death and dying and ghost stories during special occasions
and holidays.
Several holidays have their own special Chinese taboos.
Chinese New Year:

On the first day of Chinese New Year, inauspicious words cannot be spoken.
Examples include:





More Chinese New Year Taboos:

Nothing should be broken during Chinese New Year. When eating fish, diners must be careful to

not break any of the bones.

Nothing should be cut during Chinese New Year as ones life could be cut short. Noodles should

not be cut and haircuts should be avoided.

Sharp objects like scissors and knives are avoided during Chinese New Year.

All windows and doors in the home should be open on New Years Eve to send out the old year

and welcome the New Year.

All debts should be paid by Chinese New Year and nothing should be lent on New Years day;

otherwise, the person will be paying back debts all year.

Dont cry on New Years Day. If you do, it is said you will cry all year.

Dont wash your hair on Chinese New Year Day or you may wash away all your luck.

When preparing paper dragons for Chinese New Year, It is taboo for women who are
menstruating, people in mourning and babies to be near the dragons when the cloth is being pasted

to the dragons body.

More Chinese New Year Taboos
One long noodle is typically slurped on ones birthday, but revelers beware. The noodle should not be
bitten or cut as this could shorten ones life.
Fish (, y) is a must though it cant be finished so diners can ensure there is a surplus (,y) every


In the three months leading up to a couples wedding, they should avoid going to a funeral or
wake, another wedding, or visiting a woman who has just had a baby. If one of the couples parents
passes away before the wedding, the wedding must be postponed for 100 days or 1,000 days as

attending happy celebrations is considered disrespectful to the deceased.

No one should sleep on the bridal bed after it has been installed and blessed. If the groom
must sleep on the bed before the wedding, he should not sleep alone as leaving one side of the bed
empty is considered a curse on the couples health. To avoid leaving half of the bed empty, the

groom should have a young boy, preferably born in the year of the dragon, accompany him in bed.
If a roast pig is given as part of the brides gift to the grooms family, the tail and ears should
not be broken. Doing so would mean the bride is not a virgin.
Fifth Lunar Month:
The fifth lunar month is considered an unlucky month. It is a Chinese taboo to dry blankets in the sun
and build houses during the fifth lunar month.
Hungry Ghost Festival:
The Hungry Ghost Festival is held during the seventh lunar month. In order to avoid seeing ghosts,
people should not go outside at night. Celebrations liked weddings are not held. Fishermen will not
launch new boats and many people opt to postpone their trips during the Hungry Ghost Month. Some
revelers avoid swimming as the souls of those who die by drowning are considered to be in the
greatest turmoil. Some people refuse to go swimming to lessen the chance of a run-in with wayward
Suggested Reading

Chinese New Years Taboos

Traditionally many taboos are associated with the New Year Festival, but in recent years some of them
have been discarded, especially among the modern urban populations in larger cities and the younger

New Year's Day Taboos

On the first day of the New Year the following taboos apply:

Medicine: It is a taboo for a person to brew herbal medicine or take medicine on the first day
of the lunar year, otherwise it is believed he or she will get ill for a whole year. In some places, after
the bell announcing the New Year at midnight New Year's Day, sickly people break their gallipots
(medicine pots) in the belief that this custom will drive the illness away in the coming year.

Re. New Year's breakfast: Porridge should not be eaten, because it is considered that only
poor people have porridge for breakfast, and people don't want to start the year poor as this is a
bad omen. Therefore people must have cooked rice for the first meal of the year, in the hope that the
family will be rich for the whole coming year. Besides, meat should not be eaten at this breakfast out
of respect for the (Buddhist) gods (who are believed to be against killing of animals), as all gods are
expected to be out meeting and wishing a happy New Year to each other.

People do not wash clothes on the first and second day, because these two days are
celebrated as the birthday of Shuishen (, the Water God).

Needle work should not be done. The use of knives and scissors is to be avoided for any
accident, whether harming a person or tool, is thought to lead to inauspicious things and the
depletion of wealth in the coming year.

A woman may not leave her house; otherwise she will be plagued with bad luck for the
entire coming year.

A married daughter is not allowed to visit the house of her parents, as this is believed
to bring bad luck to the parents, causing economic hardship for the family.

The act of sweeping on this day is associated with sweeping wealth away.

New Year Festival Season Taboos

During the New Year Festival season (from the 1st to 15th of the Lunar New Year) the following taboos

The cry of a child is believed to bring bad luck to the family, so parents do their best to keep
children from crying by whatever means possible.

Breaking tools or other equipment during this period is associated with a loss of wealth for
the coming year; therefore tradesmen and business people in general take great precautions to
prevent it.

A visit to the hospital during this period is believed to bring illness to the person in question
for the duration of coming year; therefore visits to the hospital are avoided, except in cases of
extreme emergency.

Theft: Do not let other people take objects, including money, from your pocket during the
Spring Festival, and take care not to have your pocket picked, as this is believed to portend your
whole wealth in the coming year being stolen.

Debt: Money should not be lent on New Years Day, and all debts have to be paid by New
Years Eve, and, if someone who owes you money, do not go to his or her home to demand it. Anyone
who does so it is said will be unlucky all the year.

The rice jar should not be allowed to become empty. This causes grave anxiety, as the
cessation of cooking during the New Year period is an ill omen.

Damaged clothes: Do not wear new clothes that are damaged. If kids especially wear such
clothes in the first lunar month, it is said to bring bad luck.

No killing. Killing in the Spring Festival should be avoided as blood is considered an ill omen,
which will cause misfortunes such as a knife wound, or a bloody disaster.

Do not wear white or black clothes as these two colors are associated with mourning

Welcoming the New Year: According to tradition, people must stay up late on New Years
Eve to welcome the New Year, and then to let off fire crackers and fireworks to scare off inauspicious
spirits and Nian, the New Year monster.

Hair must not be washed on the first day of the lunar year. In Chinese language, hair () has
the same pronunciation (and indeed is the same character) as fa in facai (), which means to
become wealthy. Therefore, it is seen as not a good thing to wash ones fortune away at the
beginning of the New Year