Posted by: Sam Olsen | August 8, 2011

Manners shmanners Face

Google ‘Chinese manners’ and you will find a bewildering array of results. One such page records that “China is known as a state of etiquette and ceremonies”; another breaks down manners into a series of sub-titles like “Women are Queens at First”, “Do not Drink to Lose Control”, and “Crying at Physical Pain”. What is clear is that formality is BIG in China, and getting it right is important – nay, vital – to success there, so we hear.

Generally, the Chinese we have met have been very polite, but in, as you can imagine, slightly different ways. For instance, if they see you at a door they will hold it open for you. But we are yet to see a Chinese person look behind them when walking through a doorway to see if they need to hold it open for someone. When you enter a shop, one sales assistant will say hello, but when you leave, all of them will say goodbye. The most obvious difference though is in handing things over. We still haven’t worked out the micro-etiquette, but for the most part every time you give someone something (or receive an item) you do it with two hands and look squarely at the person. It does though seem acceptable to hand over money when buying things with just one hand, and to receive coins with just one hand; yet receiving change in notes seems to be two hands. Hmm, will have to keep observing.

The UK is known for its drinking etiquette  amongst sociologists (e.g. getting rounds in – see Kate Fox’s Watching the English), and so is China. One example we have heard a lot about, although not yet sampled, is that of drinking baiju. It is described as “a clear drink usually distilled from sorghum, although sometimes other grains may be used; baijiu varieties produced in southern China are typically made from glutinous rice, while those from northern China are generally made of sorghum, wheat, barley, millet, or occasionally Job’s tears [What on earth are these??]. It is generally about 80 to 120 proof, or 40-60% alcohol by volume (ABV).” Apparently business deals are generally initiated/signed off alongside banquets where huge amounts of baiju is drunk, toast after toast being the main channel. One of us is very much looking forward to this tradition. A Chinese pal tells us that men (for it is men that do the drinking) sometimes hire women to stand near them to help them dispose of the baiju as it gets too much. “What happens then if you don’t drink?” “Ah, well, you don’t do business. It is loss of face you see.”

And it is face that seems to be the biggest issue when it comes to manners. It’s probable that most of you have an understanding of what face is, it roughly equates to prestige or honour. although in China it has a far broader meaning than that. A Chinese scholar discusses it thus: “Interesting as the Chinese physiological face is, the psychological face makes a still more fascinating study. It is not a


face that can be washed or shaved, but a face that can be “granted” and “lost” and “fought for” and “presented as a gift.” Here we arrive at the most curious point of Chinese social psychology. Abstract and intangible, it is yet the most delicate standard by which Chinese social intercourse is regulated.” All manners and etiquette seem to revolve around face in some way or another – although again we are waiting to test this out with much more Chinese study – which is slightly different to the West.

A final note of interest is that the English expressions “losing/saving face” actually come from the Chinese, and were coined by Westerners living in China in the 19th century as they too got to grips with understanding Chinese manners and etiquette.









  1. Like the choice of photo!

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