Chinese Values, Customs and Beliefsby Lea Xu, Vice-President, Lotus Travel Inc.
“With time and patience, the mulberry leaf becomes a silk gown”
The Chinese take pride in their 5000 years of ancient history and long experience with creating important cornerstones for civilization. Just a few of the listed inventions that originate from China include: paper- making, gunpowder, silk, magnetic compass, abacus, ink, wheelbarrow, Chess, tea, paper money, seismograph, kites and umbrellas. By contrast, Chinese view the US as a relatively “new” country with little history of only 200 years.
Confucianism is part of the ancient tradition upon which Chinese culture is derived. There are four basic virtues considered the cornerstones of this philosophy and they focus on loyalty; respect for parents and elders; benevolence, and righteousness
“Learning is a treasure that will follow its owner everywhere”
Mandarin is the official language. In the many provinces where Mandarin is not spoken, people may speak one of four major dialects—Cantonese, Shanghainese, Fukinesese or Hakka. There is only one official written language and many of the characters have evolved from ancient pictographs. In the 1950’s the Chinese government simplified some 2,000 of the most commonly used characters in an effort to promote literacy. They also created a standard Romanized alphabetical system called pinyin for translating Chinese characters. One can be functionally literate with knowledge of about 1500 characters, although a well educated person would recognize 6000-8000 characters. In the last 60 years or so, Chinese literacy rate has changed from about 20% of the population to more than 80% of the country.
“A book holds a house of gold”
There is probably no accomplishment considered more esteemed than a high level of education. Education is most highly esteemed in Chinese society. This value can be traced to the Confucian concept that “he who excels in learning can be an official.” Students attend school six days per week and often study late into the night. They consider this their duty to show honor to the parents and family.
Courtesy and Gift Giving:
“Courtesy Demands Reciprocity”
China has a history of etiquette that is reflected in it’s history and stories. One such example is: Once upon a time, a man went on a long tour to visit his friend with a swan as a gift. But it escaped from the cage on the way and in his effort to catch it, he got hold of nothing but a feather. Instead of returning home, he continued his journey with the swan feather. When his friend received this unexpected gift, he was deeply moved by the story as well as the sincerity. And the saying 'the gift is nothing much, but ‘it's the thought that counts.' was spread far and wide.
As is said above, Chinese consider gifts as an important part to show courtesy. It is appropriate to give gifts on occasions such as festivals, birthday, wedding, or visiting a patient. If you are invited to a family party, small gifts like wine, tea, cigarettes, or candies are welcome. Also fruit, pastries, and flowers are a safe choice.
As with most cultures, it is polite and often expected that you thank the giver of the gift. Thank you notes, a phone call afterwards, or any other gesture of thanks is greatly appreciated in the Chinese culture as well.
What varies perhaps slightly is how the receiver reacts. Chinese tend to be humble about receiving a gift, repeatedly expressing how truly unnecessary the gift was immediately followed by sincere thanks. For those not accustomed to this type of exchange, it may feel awkward to have someone repeatedly inform you "you shouldn't have." It does make it difficult for some to interpret between a true, no you shouldn't have and one of politeness. But it all really has to do with the tone it is delivered and the context.
Depending on the family, birthdays can be celebrated in a variety of ways. Most Chinese these days celebrate the birthday as they are on the Western calendar; but some, especially the older generation, still mark their birthdays based on the Chinese calendar. Thus, the actual day changes from year to year. Some, even older traditions, celebrate everyone's birthday during Chinese New Year celebrations, which makes the 15-day celebration something important for everyone.
The first important event for the newly born baby is the one-month celebration. The child’s parents give gifts to the relatives and friends. The traditional and essential gift is red eggs. Red dyed eggs are chosen because they symbolize the changing process of life and their rounds shape is the symbol of a happy and harmonious life.
The red color means happiness in Chinese culture. Other foods such as cakes, chickens, ginger and hams are often given to the friends and relatives as gifts also. Gifts are given in even numbers. During the festivities, relatives and friends will give the child red envelopes with the money. In the evening, the child’s parents serve a rich feast at home or a restaurant to the guests attending the celebrations.
The Chinese count age starting from birth and consider how many Chinese New Year celebrations experiences as a marker of age. For example, baby born December 1, 2004 will be 2 years old in January 2006 because they will have crossed from 2004 to 2005 and from 2005 to 2006.
The biggest birthday is the sixtieth year. That is the year where both the animal and the element symbol are exactly the same as the year you were born. It is not uncommon at this celebration to give symbols of longevity and extended like, like miniature old trees showing the strength built over the passage of time. After this special celebration, a birthday celebration is held every ten years. It is the grown children of the elderly who celebrate their parents’ birthday to show deep respect and gratitude for them.
According to traditional customs, the parents are offered foods that have the symbolism of health and prosperity. On the birthday morning the father or mother will eat a bowl of noodles. In China long noodles symbolize longevity. Eggs are also among the best choices of food taken to others on this special occasion and symbolize harmony.
Colors and Numbers:
Red is considered a color of celebration and is considered lucky or fortunate. Pink and yellow typically mean prosperity. White, gray and black are funeral colors.
The Chinese concept of lucky numbers is similar to that of other cultures. The key to good or bad numbers in Cantonese is based on sound. For example, the number two (2) is fortunate, because it is similar to the sound (?) of “easy”; in Cantonese. Three (3) is associated with living. The number four sounds like “death” in Chinese. Sometimes buildings will skip a fourth floor altogether. Six represents good luck and can also reflect the six elements of nature,-- wind, mountains, rivers, lighting, moon and sun. Eight (8) is associated with “prosperity” and is desirable for all occasions. Nine (9) is associated with “eternal”. Originally it could only be used by the imperial family. The Forbidden City was designed with 9,999 rooms
Celebrations, Ceremonies & Dining
These are usually held in restaurants in private rooms, either for dinner or lunch. The head of the group typically enters the room first. At a formal dinner the main host and guest are seated facing each other, with the host with his back to the door and the main guest with facing the door. Usually guests are then seated in descending order of rank around the table. Guest should always wait to be guided to their places and should not sit until the main host and guest have done so. Banquets usually have for main course which include: (leng pen) cold dishes, (re chao) hot stir fries, (da cai) often a whole cooked fish which symbolizes abundance and (tang) soup. Serving of fruit signals the end of the meal. In China fruit is symbolic. Oranges symbolize happiness; apples symbolize peace, pomegranates symbolize fertility; peaches symbolize immortality.
Roast Peking Duck is a northern specialty and are often served with thin pancakes. In the Guangdong area, they specialize in “dim sum” which means “little hearts”. They are usually delicate rich-dough pastries filled with meats vegetables and shellfish. When dining, Chinese people often talk and eat at the same time, and think nothing of it. It is not rude at all and smoking is not considered taboo at the table. When going out with Chinese friends, they will typically try to pay the bill. They may go so far as to pay the bill on the way to the restroom or have a small fight about paying the bill. They consider this only polite to pay the bill when they have invited someone.