China Vs the West: 5 Big Differences
Chinese culture and society has evolved over thousands of years and, as such, is one of the oldest civilizations on Earth. This long history and periods of isolation from the outside world means that Chinese culture has developed several unique aspects that often seem strange to outsiders, especially Westerners. To help out anyone thinking of coming to China for the first time, we’ve come up with 5 of the main differences between China and the West.
Values: Chinese culture, along with that of other Asian countries including Korea and Japan; is based on the teachings of Confucius, a Chinese philosopher living around 570BC. Confucianism focuses on the importance of respecting hierarchy and everything being in the right place. Therefore hierarchy is much more respected in China than in Western culture, an important concept to remember when conducting business in China.
The concept of face in China also springs from Confucianism and is the idea of giving respect to people. It is possible to both give and lose face. If you make someone lose face, it can mean the end of the relationship if you are not quick to repair the damage. It is possible to give face by paying someone a compliment either to their face or when talking about them with other people. You can cause someone to lose face in a myriad of different ways so always be careful what you say about someone, especially business partners.
Guanxi is another important part of Chinese culture. Guanxi is a similar concept to “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”, although it goes much deeper than that. It is based on the giving and receiving of favours which, if not kept in check, can end up in what may be considered bribery for services.
If you do not understand and respect the twin concepts of face and guanxi, you are unlikely to succeed in business in China.
New Year: Most people know that Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, does not fall on the 1st of January as New Year in other parts of the world. Chinese New Year is celebrated on the lunar calendar, meaning the date is different each year. Other than the date of Chinese New Year being different, there are several other aspects that differ between China and the West. For example, Chinese New Year is celebrated for several days and people usually get a 7 day holiday to go home and visit family. In this aspect, Chinese New Year is more similar to Christmas than the 1st January New Year.
Another difference between China and the West is that Chinese years are associated with animals. 2014 is the year of the horse, 2015 will be the year of the ram or goat. These animals are similar to the Western zodiac and many people believe that the animal associated with the year you are born dictates your personality. Moreover, if it is your birth animal’s year, it is usually considered a lucky year for you.
Chopsticks: Knives and forks are rarely seen on Chinese dinner tables; instead, spoons and chopsticks are the norm. Chopsticks have been around for over 4000 years, but didn’t start being used to eat with until much more recently. Originally the Chinese ate with knives, just as Westerners once did. However, cuisine evolved differently in the East where small, bite-sized morsels were favoured over large cuts of meat and whole vegetables, thus making chopsticks the perfect utensil. The change to chopsticks is also attributed to Confucius who said that “the honourable and upright man… allows no knives on his table”.
Manners: Chinese and Western people often appear to hold very different concepts of what is considered polite and good-mannered. In China, it is commonplace to ask how much someone earns or how much their house costs; something that is often considered rude, or avoided altogether, in Western cultures.
When eating, it is normal for the Chinese to make slurping sounds. While this is disconcerting for many foreigners at first, it is a way of giving face and showing you are enjoying the food.
Talking loudly in public places like restaurants, while often considered rude and inconsiderate in the West; is the norm in China. In fact, the Chinese believe that the louder the sound level in a restaurant, the better the food must be.
There are many other differences between Chinese and Western concepts of manners and etiquette, especially when it comes to business and dining. You can read more about these specific occasions in our blog about how to survive Chinese business dinners.
Dinner Time: In the West, each person usually has their own plate of food and rarely shares with others. In China, dishes are placed in the middle of the table and are communal. Friends and family often share out the best bits to other diners they want to show respect to. It is also commonplace in China to spit bones onto the plate or table, something that would be considered rude in the West.
Dinner etiquette can get very complicated in China. For example, you should always toast the most important person first and then work your way down the hierarchy. If it was a family meal, you would toast the oldest members first.
These are just a few of the apparent differences between China and the West and, while some may seem strange or uncivilized, they are all part of China’s distinct and refined culture. China’s culture is one of the oldest in the world making it fascinating, exciting, confusing and seemingly illogical all that the same time, the trick is to come with an open mind and embrace your experiences in the country with open arms.
If you want to know more about the differences between Chinese and Western culture, check out this cool infographic.