Living in China

So are Chinese people polite or not?

Three weeks ago a new Finn arrived to Guangzhou and started his few months in China. He said that it’s nice here because people are so polite and helpful. But I’m guessing that at some point he will get to the bottom of the culture shock and have not so nice things to say about Chinese. At least that’s how it usually happens with newcomers.

I can understand very well why he said that Chinese people are polite. They compliment your Chinese after hearing you say “Ni hao”, everyone wants to be your friend and get to know you.

Are these the same people who don’t bother to open their mouth behind the cash register and throw your change to the counter? Are these the same people who laugh at your bad tones? Or are these the same people who rush to take the last seat on the metro?

Chinese people can be very polite and extremely impolite at the same time. They ask about your private matters from finances to marital status. They will let you know if you are too fat for their clothes. But if you’re lucky, you can be treated to a nice cup of tea at the tea shop while brushing up your Mandarin.

A well known truth comes to my mind:

After spending a week in China, you can write a whole book about the country. After spending a month in China, you can write a really nice magazine article about it. After a few months, a blog post. And after a year, you can’t write anything, because you discover how little you actually know.

I could add that it becomes impossible to answer questions about China with a simple yes or no.

What do you think? Are Chinese people polite?


  • ordinary malaysian

    It really depends on what you mean by polite. To some people like the Chinese, asking about your job or marital status is not considered impolite. In fact to the Chinese, these are conversational questions. Not saying thank you – it depends. Between close friends and family members – the Chinese think that saying thank you means you are not really close to them. Family members and close friends don’t expect to be thanked. They understand. It is a cultural thing. Right or wrong is a question of perception. Of course the guy behind the counter throwing down change at you and not saying thank you – that appears to be rude even to the Chinese I had say.

  • c

    the chinese people in general are not always appreciative of things around them. total decadence in their culture.

    thenakedlistener Reply:

    I’m kind of with you on this score (and could’ve sworn you’re talking about Hongkongers more than about mainland Chinese in this respect). Sometimes it isn’t so much impoliteness as it is the other person being unappreciative.

    Jack Reply:

    I think it has to do with different views on accepted social etiquettes.
    These “accepted social conventions” are “constructs” created and shaped by generations of external/environmental pressure (eg. drought, war, famine..etc) and “organic behavioral growth” (it could form in the right time, in the right conditions – eg. internet etiquettes)

    As you mentioned, it is consider rude to ask about personal finance in western culture, or weight and age if you are women, and yet westerners would ask and talk about the most intimate details about their sex life openly – which to east asians especially Chinese – is consider extremely rude, vulgar and obscene. In some other culture, it is even consider decadent to even mention it.

    Another example I could point out is how Finns would go naked in Sauna – even amongst friends and family of opposite sex. It would be consider extremely inappropriate and obscene in many parts of the world (not just China) to do so, but different cultural values means its okay to do it in Finland. Is it wrong? Again, different cultural views points to different behaviors.

    My take on this is, as chinese saying go – “入境随俗” (When in Rome, do as the Romans do). There is no point in getting hung up on the difference and get aghast over it, because it only stops you from making friends and assimilating or forming even deeper understanding of the local culture.

    Let’s if I am hung up about talking about my sex life with my friends – I would be consider uptight, conservative, even “inexperience” (or a virgin!), secretive, snobbish, and maybe even arrogant (being too good to talk about it). It would stop me from making friends at a deeper personal level, or have a new appreciation of another aspect of the local culture.

    Sara, I must say, I have been living in the “west” for over 23 years now.
    I think its fair to say it would be the same if you take the same attitude in China, you won’t be able to make friends or build deeper relationship if you cannot get past those superficial cultural differences. Superficial because underneath all those “etiquettes”, we are all the same. We are all human.

    Sara Reply:

    Jack, I wouldn’t say that I’m having problems that makes it impossible for me to build deep relationships in China. Would you?

  • Jack

    C, I would disagree.
    I would say Chinese are even more appreciative of things around them then western culture. In the west, food, appliances, even friendships and relationships are regularly thrown away.

    Take food for example, westerners do not appreciate the animals that were slaughtered – the innards and majority of the parts are thrown away – while in China every part of the animal is appreciated and eaten. The animal is consider sacrificing their lives for your continual existance, that’s why no part of it should go wasted.

    Same goes with appliances – Chinese would rather fix a broken appliance for the 15th time than throwing it away. (Even Kelly Sandor from “talesfromhebei” would agree! :D)
    To the Chinese, western culture are wasteful and seems to be built on the “throw-away” culture (Capitalism at its finest! The “consumer culture” of “throwing-aways” to keep the economy going from collapse).

    And, to relationship. Average westerner have sexual relationships with different partners on average more than 10 times than East Asians in their life time; the divorce rate (from nationmaster dot com) in America is 4.95 (per 1000 people), even in Finland its 1.85, compare this to China’s 0.79, it is more than 2 TIMES more likely a marriage would end in divorce in Finland than in China, and more than 6 TIMES compare to America. Generally westerners are more easily to form a relationship (and “sleep around”) than East Asian. And they are also more prone to discontinue/dump a relationship than East Asian.

    To Quote Paul Newman: “We’re a throw-away society, aren’t we? We throw away everything. We never even try to fix things – we throw them away, we destroy things – appliances that break, old buildings because they’re old, we throw away relationships that aren’t exactly what we thought they’d be, we throw away wives, husbands, marriages.”

    Sara Reply:

    I would say that Finnish couples divorce too easily and Chinese couples proabably don’t divorce even if they should.

  • Jack

    Before you all ask where I get the number on “Average westerner have sexual relationships with different partners on average more than 10 times than East Asians in their life time” –

    “In 2008, a U.S. university study of international promiscuity found that Finnish people have had the largest number of sex partners in the industrialized world, British people having the largest number among big western industrial nations. The study measured one-night stands, attitudes to casual sex, and number of sexual partners.”

  • Barbara

    “…westerners would ask and talk about the most intimate details about their sex life openly – which to east asians especially Chinese – is consider extremely rude, vulgar and obscene.”
    Jack, seriously? I don’t know what kind of westerners you’ve met so far, but I ensure you that mostly foreigners don’t discuss details of their sex life, and this also depends on many things (who they are talking with – very good and trusted friends or strangers? is the conversation intimate but polite or rude and obscene?) . Some people do talk about this matters even with guys they don’t know well, but in many countries this would be also considered as vulgar or controvercial. Okay, I’m polish so maybe some people here would say that I’m not from the “west” (apparently only USA can be considered as a western country). But I was studying Fine Arts, the majority of my friends are artists and artists are said to be more “open”. Well, mostly they don’t widely discuss their sex life. I also lived in Portugal for a while, met people from all over the world (Spain, Italy, Greece, Germany, Brazil, Turkey…), also artists. Do you think that we had chats about sex? No. This doesn’t depend on nationality, it depends on a person.
    But funny thing is that Chinese I meet here in China ask me about intimate matters very often. When I tell them that they are being rude – they are so surprised and say “I thought that foreigners are more open”. They would never ask their chinese friends about their sex life cause it’s impolite but being rude to a foreigner is okay, right?

    Jack Reply:

    Barbara, I was replying to C, but since you brought it up, I will play.
    Yes, “westerner” (generally defined as ‘G7’ industrialized western european and north american), generally DO talk about their sex life, far too often. Since you are from Poland, which is “eastern part” of Europe (what used to be under the iron curtain), its generally far more conservative than western european countries, and the reason why your perception differs than mine.

    Also, I don’t mean “chat” as in strangers talking about detail of their sex life casually, but that does happen to me before, but generally, westerner are more open to talk about it amongst their friends where east asian would not as if its still a taboo.

    And the reason why Chinese you met would ask you about sex is because too many westerners talk about it openly, and sleep around that got westerner the “reputation”! :)

  • Barbara

    Just like Sara wrote in this post, “after one year you can’t write anything about China cause you discover how little you know”. There is 1,5 billion of people in China so I’d be stupid if I’d say “Chinese are like this or like that”. Still, the Chinese are ONLY 1/5 of world’s population. You say that you’ve been living abroad for 23 years and still you generalize… I’d advice you to travel to Ireland, then go to Mexico, then to Germany, Italy, Norway, then to Texas and Alasca in the US, then to Portugal, Czech Republic, Estonia, Peru, UK and Greece. Stay in each country at least for one year. Then tell me what the “west” is.
    But speaking of my own experience here:
    1. the Chinese waste a lot of food cause in restaurants they order more food that they can really eat. I’ve never seen this kind of situation in Europe simply because mostly we order one particular dish we want to eat and in restaurants the portions are normally big enough for one adult person.
    About the rspect to animal’s life and eating everything in China – after my conversations with chinese people, I highly doubt that nowadays these two things have much in common.
    2. Relationships and divorces. Totally don’t get what you mean by “(in the west) friendships and relationships are regularly thrown away” but… I’m 26 now and lived in Europe for most of my life, but I travelled a lot. In the so-called-west I’ve met maybe 5 people who were divorced and they all had serious reasons (like husband beating wife for example). Surprisingly, in China I’ve met lots of very young people (in their 20’s and early 30’s) who got givorced because they didn’t get along with their ex-husbands/ex-wifes.
    But I will not say that generally Chinese waste food and get divorced early because it would be rather silly, don’t you think?

  • Ibg

    I agree that the answer to this question depends on how you define “polite”, and this definition is going to vary across countries and cultures.

    I think China has a very well-defined etiquette system which does not really include being polite to strangers. However, if you were ever a guest at a Chinese person’s home you know that they pull out all the stops for you. chinese people might consider westerners “rude” for not anticipating their guest’s every need; on the other hand, westerners might consider Chinese people rude for not stopping what they are doing to help a stranger in public.

    Whether from Eastern or Western cultures, if we only hold to one rigid definition of politeness and apply it everywhere, then we will see rudeness all around when in cultures with different definitions.

  • Jack

    “Just like Sara wrote in this post, “after one year you can’t write anything about China cause you discover how little you know”. There is 1,5 billion of people in China so I’d be stupid if I’d say “Chinese are like this or like that”. Still, the Chinese are ONLY 1/5 of world’s population. You say that you’ve been living abroad for 23 years and still you generalize… I’d advice you to travel to Ireland, then go to Mexico, then to Germany, Italy, Norway, then to Texas and Alasca in the US, then to Portugal, Czech Republic, Estonia, Peru, UK and Greece. Stay in each country at least for one year. Then tell me what the “west” is.”

    I am no more generalizing than Sara or “generalizing” Chinese. So you do find it offensive if “I” generalize the west, but NOT to Chinese people right?
    So why is that most foreigners would be open to criticize Chinese by generalizing it but if I am to point out the irony of it, I would be offensive? I am merely pointing out the fact “politeness” and social etiquette is a relative thing.

    Also, the “west” you do define is a weird construct – Mexico? Czech Republic? Estonia? Peru?? FYI, these countries are generally NOT consider “west”. ;-)

    And for your information, I do travel extensively and lived in many of these countries (Western Europe, North America, Oceania where I live).

    About divorce, I think you are arguing emotionally without thinking. I did include statisitics didn’t I? – its a fact, in “western countries” divorce rate are far higher than in eastern country, at least 3-5 (300% ~ 500%) times higher. Your personal experience here is irrelevent I am sorry to say.

  • Jack

    Like I said before, the fact is in statistics – the western countries have far FAR higher rate of divorces than China. Your perception is irrelevent in the face of fact. Also, another reason why you have only met 5 people who are divorce in the west is because in the west (especially industralized countries) people get married much later than in developing countries (like China, where average age of marriage is something like 25). The average age people get married in industrialized western countries are 32+! So, very few people get married and thus even fewer get divorced in their 20s. I am in my early 30s, and I must say divorce is very VERY common (in the 30s~40s age group), there is a dozen divorcees in my office alone! ;)

  • c

    Hi Jack,
    thanks for bringing up the good points…about chinese not wasting anything. Westerners can choose to throw away and buy something new rather than tampering it over and over gain.

    Yes chinese can get rude and start asking another chinese person if they have sexual problems or are they still a ‘flower’ at a certain age. But they can’t deal with people having sex or being nude in public. lol. So it’s okay to check out other people’s sexual activities and think about it but be contradictive when a person is stark naked infront of them?

    i think that generalisation about westerners being more open about their sexual life – is not true. Just cos one country does it doesn’t mean another country in the West do it. Again it depends on the country’s culture…. such as germany’s and Great Britain.

    Jack Reply:

    East asian, especially Chinese, are very pragmatic people. If you have sexual problem, and they are asking, means they care. They want to help you solve a problem. Like a doctor to a patient if you will.

    On the other hand, if you expose yourself naked for no reason except for your own sexual fetish, it is viewed as obscene and decadent. As matter of fact, in MOST countries, there is obscenity laws in regard to exposing oneself in the public. It is called “Indecent exposure” and it is a criminal offense in most countries in the world. So unless you are a pervert, it is NOT okay to expose yourself or have sex in the public.

    Ibg Reply:

    In which countries is it “ok” to expose yourself and have sex in public??

    By the way, as an American, I can tell you that in the locker room at my gym in China, the woman are much more open about walking around nude while doing anything. In a U.S. gym locker room, women change quickly while hiding their bodies. (I think the Chinese way is healthier, btw)

    Am I trying to that this proves that Chinese people are “less modest”? No, of course not. Just that things are more complicated than they appear.

    PS- I have definitely seen people exposing themselves on the street in China….on two occasions during the years I have been here. not a common occurance to be sure, but it’s also not common in the U.S.

    Ibg Reply:

    The people are saw were clearly mentally ill, btw. I’m not trying to make the argument that this is normal or acceptable in China; however, it’s also not normal in the US.

    Ibg Reply:

    Jack- sorry, it seems I misread your argument and thought you were saying that it was ok to be nude in public in western countries. Upon re-reading, it seems that is not what you are saying.

    So, Sara, feel free to delete my comments.

  • c

    hi jack,

    well f__k that. if that’s okay, i guess i should show them the colour of my poo? what’s next? the colour of my urine? don’t make excuses for them. Please!!!

    Jack Reply:

    I don’t think they will ask you these kind of questions. The topic is about politeness – and, your argument seems very crass and speaks volumes about you.

    c Reply:

    You’re too serious. Lighten up. I was merely being sarcastic. Can’t handle it? lol. checking out ppl’s sexual problem is not polite. You make it seem so as if it’s the da way of the Chinese. If i have a problem – i’ll just see a urologist or a gyno lol. i don’t need them digging in my face about it. That is TRUELY NOT POLITE.

  • c


    i see a dutch couple doing that in another country.

    Ibg Reply:

    Good for you. And I’ve seen a chinese guy masturbating in the street in China.

    c Reply:

    Privacy is one thing, chinese are not aware of!

  • Sara

    There’s a saying in Finland: ” What you lack of, is what you talk about”. And there’s a lot of talk about one certain things above ;)

    This topic is about politeness so lets try to be a bit more polite! Okey?

  • 阿楓

    When people throw the money on the counter, I tell them that in China, we use two hands to politely exchange money. That is a part of Chinese culture. I had one guy turn bright red after telling him that. his co-workers laughed at him too. Poor guy.

  • Dsa

    It is quite normal in China to push in front of people when buying things or to getting onto the metro.  Spitting is also quite normal.  These things are often considered rude in many other countries. So what is rude to a foreigner is not neccessarily rude to a Chinese person.

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    You’re right and that’s what we should remember. Some things aren’t necessarily worse in China, they are just different to what we are used to.

  • Ihcnawleong

    I think the problem(pushing,spitting) should not be attributed as a part of our culture.I think it is caused by poverty,lack of education(civil,moral…) bad traffic and the huge population problems
    you know the population of Guangzhou is roughly 100 million people.The per capita GDP in Guangzhou is just 3900us dollar.The law and regime is faulty.Those make them don`t abide to the laws and make them know how to cheat. consequently,it make them have their own rule.If you have ever been in Taiwan,Hong Kong or Macau,you will not see the problem happened too frequently there.

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    I also think that education has a big part here. If you teach a kid to line up, then he/she will do it later on too if he/she sees that’s the way to queue. Chinese seems to be trying to do this more and more all the time, for example telling people to line up when going to the metro. It’s just people have been not lining up all their lives, and now changing the habit seems hard.

    For some things like telling directly if someone is fat or not, this seems to be part of the culture as this doesn’t include the same negative connotations as it does in the West. This might change at least in some areas when China gets more international and has more interactions with foreigners.

    Mac Jamie Reply:

    You are possibly misunderstanding their fat remarks. They are using the term fa fu le,which means to be comfortabky well off, from the appearance,its a compliment, meaning you look rosy and ruddy,plump,you must be doing well. pang is different.

  • BY

    呵呵 真是让我笑了 收起你们的优越感和貌似正确的偏见
    想跟中国谈民主谈人权 先谈谈西方国家自己的发展史
    评论中国你们从前不配 现在也不配 将来更不可能
    One sentence for you guys: “Never use your blue eyes to watch my black world!”

    John Reply:


    Andy Reply:


  • Alysa

    How true. They don’t know that it’s rude to call someone fat, and they keep their eyes glued to the phone instead of noticing there are people who could really use a seat on the subway. I think in some ways they can be really polite, like when you visit their home, they’ll give you slippers and offer you tea and what not, but in others, such as jumping in lines, asking how much you earn, and disrespecting staff such as waitresses they can be quite uncivillized.