China is a vibrant country with an incredibly diverse landscape and colorful culture, but there are some key things to avoid in China during your trip. As one of the most colorful cultures in the world, visiting China offers excitement and wonder. Adventurous travelers who want to see this strange and remarkable corner of the globe need to always be respectful of Chinese culture and the people.
In any corner of China, you will discover places whose name in itself evokes mystery, exoticism, or a deep historical burden. Chinese tourism is limitless, ranging from outstanding places, like the Great Wall or the Forbidden City, to other attractions such as the Silk Road. But with all this diverse mystery comes the unique Chinese customs that are vastly different from what we know in the West. Foreign tourists need to bear this in mind when they visit China so they get the most out of this wonderful country.
From strict table manners to respecting Chinese temple etiquette, we’ve compiled a list of the main don’ts while visiting China. Don’t get caught out in an embarrassing moment during your trip. Here are the top 9 things to avoid doing in China!
Table of Contents
Dining out in China is not just about tasting the incredible Chinese food but also the experience with good company. The Chinese enjoy communal dining from time to time. Dishes are placed in the middle of the table and everyone is encouraged to share all of the Chinese food.
And of course, chopsticks are the most widely used utensils across China, so you have to give them a try – even if you aren’t an expert! Just remember, there are some fundamental rules behind proper chopstick etiquette that you need to know before taking up your eating weapons.
- Don’t leave your chopsticks vertically in your food (like incense sticks). This symbolizes death and is considered bad luck because it’s similar to the ceremony that Chinese people use to pray for someone who has passed.
- Never point to people using your chopsticks. This is incredibly rude for Chinese people.
- Avoid tapping your chopsticks on the dish or bowl in China.
- Never use your own chopsticks to put food on your plate as this will have everybody else turning up their nose! Use the serving chopsticks or ladles provided to show proper table manners.
- Don’t place your chopsticks inside the bowl when you have finished. Instead, rest the chopsticks on top of the bowl.
Continuing on with dining etiquette in China, avoid tipping in places that also serve Chinese people. In fact, tipping, in general, is not a recognized custom across China. So don’t be alarmed when taxi drivers get confused and give you back the correct amount of change.
Just not tipping avoids any awkward exchanges between the locals. This is a tricky thing to get used to if you are from any Western country where tipping is an expected norm.
Talk about sensitive topics
China is an incredibly diverse country made up of several varying regions, like Tibet and Taiwan. While customs in each region differ, one thing is pretty guaranteed across the nation – the Chinese people are proud and don’t choose to discuss sensitive topics. So, to respect the locals, there are some things that you should avoid talking about, the main being:
Death is an ominous and very serious topic in Chinese culture. White also represents death, so avoid giving gifts with white paper or ribbon. This will be considered a bad omen. China’s troubled political past and religious conflicts can be a sore subject for some. Generally, the Chinese don’t want to discuss this in case of causing embarrassment to the State.
Conversations with foreigners about any of these three topics could make a Chinese person feel uncomfortable. So, unless you have good reason to, avoid discussing politically sensitive topics and other uncomfortable matters with the locals in China.
Chinese temple etiquette
The Far East is full of incredible temples. When you are in China, there are plenty of opportunities to visit Buddhist and Taoist temples. There are 55 minority groups in China, all with individual customs and traditions. Each uses objects and monuments for worship, symbolizing ancestors; most of the time these are strictly forbidden to be touched.
Photography in many of these temples is prohibited to protect the image of Buddha. Some places may allow you to take photographs but without a flash. Always ask your tour guide for more information so you don’t accidentally cause offense.
These religious sites are typically intricately decorated and incredibly peaceful. Even if you are of a different religion, foreign visitors must remain respectful at all times. Many of the temples ask for you to dress appropriately and cover knees and/or shoulders. You will also be asked to remove hats, sunglasses, and maybe even your shoes.
Other cultural points of things to avoid when in China are:
- Don’t photograph people, but, if you ask permission first, then they are usually forthcoming.
- Don’t touch anyone on the head. Tibetans believe God resides in your head, therefore this is extremely disrespectful.
- Don’t step on a lama’s shadow.
- Don’t walk between a person praying to the Buddha and the statue.
- Don’t point directly with one finger. If you want to indicate a statue, gesture with your palm up, fingers flat and together in the direction.
Cash or card
Even though China is a hugely developed country in some areas, other more remote corners are still lacking in technology and infrastructure. Therefore, it is important to not rely solely on your credit or debit card. In the Far East, cash is always king.
Even in the cities, you may have difficulties using a foreign card. Many Chinese people use mobile payments and favor the app called WeChat. This is the most popular chatting and payment app used in China. Foreigners can use this app with a multiple language interface.
However, you will also need to activate a Swapsy account before leaving home. The money transferred into WeChat must come from a Chinese bank account. Swapsy trades currency from PayPal/Zelle to WeChat, and vice versa.
Chinese toilet facilities look rather different from what westerners are used to. If you are particular about where and how you go about your daily business, then don’t forget to pack toilet paper in your day bags.
Most public restrooms in tourist attractions, supermarkets, restaurants, or on public transport are likely to be empty of toilet paper, or not stock it at all! If you do get to use toilet paper upon the throne, don’t flush it down as the plumbing systems in some regions will not be able to cope with this. Use the bin that is provided – this can be a sorry sight in some of the less well-maintained bathrooms across China.
Tap water in China
Tap water is not drinkable in China so don’t even try it. Tap water in China is unfiltered and not treated for being ingested. Though, the water is safe for washing, showering, and brushing your teeth. If you do drink tap water in China, you are likely to know about it pretty quickly with an upset stomach.
So what water can you drink in China? Travelers and locals alike are recommended to only drink bottled water which can be easily sourced. Many restaurants and tourist sites also provide gallon water dispensers.
China has recently implemented strict health codes. This means you can enjoy the stunning variety of delicious Chinese teas confidently knowing that the water is safe to drink. Ice should also be made from purified water, however, do check directly with the restaurant staff.
Proper Chinese Etiquette
When visiting China, there is a strict unwritten code that everyone lives by. As a tourist, you need to clue yourself up, proper Chinese etiquette prevents embarrassment and upholds respect for the locals.
Here are some top recommendations on things not to do in China in order to respect and keep in line with the complex Chinese culture:
- Don’t make close personal contact, such as hugging or kissing. Even shaking hands is a tricky one and needs carefully judging.
- Don’t take the first “Yes or No” literally. Meanings get blurred through translation.
- Don’t drink alcohol without offering a toast first. The default toast in China is ganbei, pronounced like: “gun bay”.
- Don’t accept food, drinks, or gifts without first politely refusing a few times. You cannot appear greedy.
- Don’t visit a Chinese person’s home without a gift. The gift is normally put to one side and opened after guests have left.
- Don’t use one hand to give or receive things. In China, it is polite to use both hands.
Here is one of the strangest things to avoid doing in China, and something that could lead to great embarrassment – don’t wear a green hat. Wearing a green hat in China translates to the general public that the wearer’s partner has been unfaithful to them. We did warn you that China was unique and quirky!
There are several ideas as to where this distinct symbol has come from. It is believed that during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368 CE), families of prostitutes were forced to wear green hats. And yet another thought line says that male brothel workers in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) wore green hats.
Regardless of the background to this one, everyone in China knows the meaning! And don’t worry, it’s limited purely to green hats. Other green accessories, clothing, or shoes are acceptable without any hidden messages being broadcasted.