Chinese Cultural Cues
Chinese cultural cues encompass a vast array of practices, traditions, and behaviors deeply rooted in history and philosophy. They reflect the values and social norms of Chinese society, shaped by Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Key aspects include the importance of harmony, respect for hierarchy, the concept of "face" (mianzi), and the significance of family and community. Non-verbal communication, such as subtle gestures and indirect speech, plays a crucial role. Understanding these cues is vital for effective communication and building relationships in a Chinese context. They influence social interactions, business dealings, and everyday life, making them integral to grasping the depth and richness of Chinese culture.
Cultural cues: don't give a clock as a gift
When selecting what gift to give for your Chinese friend's birthday, don't give them a clock as a gift! Though clocks are not offensive in Chinese culture, giving a clock as a gift sure is! This taboo arises from the fact that the phrases "giving you a clock" (sòngzhōng 送钟) and "attending your funeral" (sòngzhōng 送终) are homophones in Chinese. Therefore, the action of giving a clock carries a negative connotation and is a widely held cultural taboo. Today, especially among the elderly, it is regarded as a sign of bad luck or a curse.
In 1862, Queen Cixi of the Qing dynasty received an amazing, ornate clock as a gift from a French ambassador who was unaware of the cultural faux pas. To avoid bad luck, the Queen accepted the clock as a treasure, but immediately gave it away to one of her attending ministers.
Many cultural taboos in China arise from the attention that Chinese people give to homophones and puns. Probably the most well-known example of this is that Chinese people do not like things that are delineated by the number 4. Its pronunciation (sì) is almost the same as the word "dead" (死 sǐ) in Chinese, carrying suspicion that items marked by the number 4 will lead to an untimely death.
Luckily, the clock taboo only extends to stand-alone clocks, not all time-keeping instruments. If you were planning on gifting something that could be used to keep time, such as a mobile phone, computer, or even a wristwatch, feel free to carry on with no reservations, but make sure to steer well clear of any clocks!
Don’t wear a green hat
When you are packing for your next trip to China, go ahead and leave the green hat at home. If you walk around the streets of China wearing a green hat, you will be laughed at or stared at, and not just because you are a foreigner! Why, then, do Chinese people avoid wearing green hats when the color green has no cultural significance whatsoever? The answer is in the cultural connotation that green hats have in Chinese culture.
In China, the implication of wearing a green hat is that your spouse is stepping out of your marriage without your knowledge. In fact, "wearing a green hat" in Chinese means that your wife is cheating on you - extremely humiliating and a huge cultural taboo. The saying itself stems from an age-old anecdote.
In the past, there once was a couple living in a small village in China. The husband traveled a lot for business, while his wife stayed at home maintaining the house. Subsequently, the wife had an extramarital affair with a neighbor who sold fabrics for a living.
Their affair continued on for quite a while, and one day they were almost discovered by the unwitting husband. To keep their long-standing tryst a secret, the wife came up with an idea: she sewed a hat out of green fabric for her husband to wear anytime he traveled and told her lover that it was safe to come over anytime he saw her husband leaving in the green hat.
Shortly afterward, everyone in the village caught on to the wife's trick, except her husband, of course. Every time the poor cuckold walked down the street in his green hat, everyone who saw him laughed behind his back and snickered when they talked to him. Thus, the tradition of avoiding green hats has been passed down for generations in China, and still holds to this day!
Pack the red hat and you have nothing to worry about! Of course, there are other cultural taboos to be aware of, but those can be learned in time.
Cultural cues - go away
The best way to tour China is not only to visit its wonderful sites and numerous attractions but also to mingle with the locals and get to know Chinese culture. Learning some basic Mandarin Chinese phrases helps you to start a conversation while adding a level of depth to your China travels that no simple tour can offer!
However, what do you say and what do you do when you want to end a conversation? Or more to the point: How do you let a persistent conversation partner know that you are ready to move on? This phrase: 走开 - pronounced "Zǒu kāi,"（which means "go away" in English）is often used by Chinese people if they want someone to leave them alone or give them personal space.
This phrase has the same brusque implication as its English counterparts, as in "go away" or "back off!" But sometimes, a situation warrants a more pressing command rather than just a light request - just be careful when you speak this Chinese phrase to your friends. You don't want to hurt anyone's feelings!
Chinese culture does not have the same mores about personal space or respecting others' privacy as many foreigners are used to and comfortable with, so at times you may feel crowded by an overbearing new friend. If a few gentle rebuffs don't seem to work, take your insistence up a notch to display your frustration and create a little more personal space.
By learning just a few other Chinese phrases and with a little cultural awareness about topics such as the meanings of numbers and current slang being used in China, you are ready to tackle any China adventure - from a Tibet trek to a Beijing cultural tour!
Cultural cues: numbers in China
Would you believe that there are more superstitions about numbers in Chinese culture than in Western culture? Do you personally believe that some numbers are lucky or unlucky? If you answered yes to these questions, you are certainly not alone!
Superstitions about numbers are common in many societies, and China is no exception. We have quite a few numbers with notable connotations, so when you interact with Chinese people, it is important to remember which numbers are "auspicious" and which are unlucky!
Often in China, red envelopes with small amounts of money are used by Chinese parents to "bribe" their children into positive behaviors, but how do they choose an amount? The answer comes from the phrase "我对你一百一!" (wǒ duì nǐ yī bǎi yī) in Mandarin Chinese, which means "I care for you so much!" The phrase literally says, "I am toward you one hundred and ten," so the obvious amount for the bribes is 110 RMB!
Other numbers go far beyond counting tools, or even word play antics, and are regarded as bearing a mystical supernatural power. The number four is the best example of this. In Chinese, the number 4 - pronounced Sì (四), is a homonym of the word for "death" (死 - sǐ), so many people go to great lengths to avoid using the number 4. For instance, when Chinese people choose a cell phone number, most will avoid choosing any string of numbers containing the number 4. The superstition is so prevalent that China Mobile, one of the largest cell service providers has taken to discounting phone numbers with the number 4 in them!
However, other numbers like 6, 8, 9 are quite welcome. Carrying meanings of blessing, fortune, and longevity, Chinese people will pay more to buy telephone numbers and car license plates with multiples of these "auspicious" numbers in the hopes that it will bring them good luck!
Another common saying using numbers is "你真是个二百五!" (nǐ zhēn shì gè èr bǎi wǔ) - literally, "you are really two hundred and fifty," meaning "you are stubborn, and you are a bull in a china shop!" In the same vein, "三八" (sān bā) literally means "three-eight," but is often used to describe a woman behaving frivolously and acting rudely. In English, one might say that these women "have a bee in their bonnet."
Before your visit to China, if you can grasp cultural mores and taboos, your time will be much more rich and your chances for cultural embarrassment minimized. So leave your worries and misunderstandings at home and come engage China!
Cultural cues: "You are so boring!"
Learning to communicate with Chinese people better is the best way to make the most of a China travel experience, but what phrases are most useful? Previously, we described an easy way to start a conversation, but what if you want to end a conversation that isn't going anywhere? Just remember these three syllables: ni, hao, fan.
This phrase in Chinese, "你好烦!” ("Nǐ hǎo fán!", pronounced "knee how fahn!") means "You are so boring!" and is widely used by Chinese people. Stiff and succinct, the phrase will not win you a new friend, but it may allow you to move on to a more fruitful conversation elsewhere, especially if the person talking to you is trying to sell you something! Using this phrase shows a general intolerance and lack of interest in the current activity and makes it clear that you do not want the other person to continue his or her behavior.
As with all of our cultural cues, we aim to give foreigners tools so they can communicate with Chinese people naturally. Some daily phrases are necessary and they can shorten the distance between foreigners and Chinese people. However, learning to use these tools properly is key, so first give this phrase a try on your guide and then quickly explain that you are just practicing! After that, see what responses you get when you use this bit of local jargon!