Chinese traditions are myriad and diverse. They range from simple ways of interacting to holidays and celebrations. There are special colors for occasions and phrases and foods. These are just a few things to be aware of when traveling in China and building relationships.
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The Teachings of Confucius
Many aspects of Chinese culture and tradition can be understood through Confucius. He was a scholar and philosopher who lived over 2500 years ago and whose writings shaped much of East Asian thinking to come. He did not write fortune cookie fortunes.
Two things Confucius taught was family devotion and an ordered society. The idea is that your family made you who you are today, so you owe them your honor and respect. It also means everyone has a part to play in this world.
Since these are two core beliefs of Confucius, showing proper respect for people is very important. Oddly, this may or may not include manners from folks when in public, but when interacting with people, the idea is that it is important to show some kind of gratitude and some form of humility.
One way of displaying this kind “respect” is by trying to pay for the meal whenever they go out to eat with a friend. Check out this funny video of two friends arguing over who gets to pay for the bill. Funny enough, even with the exaggerations, the techniques are pretty accurate, all the way up to fighting! No one gets hurt, at least intentionally, but it can get loud and there may be some shoving involved. And all of this to show who has the better notion of “respect” of the other! It’s definitely for show.
If you would like some more knowledge about just simple daily life, this course, Essential Chinese for Travellers, covers a huge amount you might want to prepare yourself with if you happen to be planning a trip to China. It goes over a ton of details about life in China and what to expect.
The Traditions of Chinese New Year
The holiday with most traditions attached to it is Chinese New Year.
Chinese New Year, also called Chūn Jié or Spring Festival, is the biggest holiday and most festive time in China. The entire country (including industries!) shut down for nearly a month. People decorate their homes with red papers that have blessings or poems on them. They give gifts of money in red envelopes and stack mandarin oranges and sweets near shrines or memorials. The whole family gathers to eat a huge meal, typically with fish, on New Year’s Eve. They light firecrackers and make as much noise as possible to usher in the next lunar year.
Each of these traditions has a purpose to them. Red is considered a lucky color and so people wear red and dress their kids in red. The papers with the blessings and poems, as well as the envelopes, are red for the same reason.
Children go to the elders of the family, sometimes knocking their head on the ground in a kowtow and then then are given envelopes with money. The grown children of the grandparents bring red envelopes back for their parents.
When gifts of money are given there are rules for the amount to give. Round numbers are good, of course, but so are the numbers 5, 6, 9, and especially 8, which sounds similar to “prosperity”. People avoid the number 4, even avoiding giving gifts in sets of 4, because the Chinese for 4 sounds very similar to the word for “death”. Giving such a gift implies, whether intended or not, a wish of death for the person receiving the gift. Not a good thing to convey at the start of a new year, at all.
The foods eaten are also traditional and hold meaning, too.
Mandarin oranges are sweet and almost gold in color. These are all important things in Chinese thinking. Sweetness is a hope for the coming year. Gold is a symbol of prosperity.
The names of the foods are important. The word for mandarin oranges sound similar to the word “luck”. Fish sounds exactly the same as a word for “abundance”, so people will not eat all the fish (abundance), symbolizing their leaving some abundance (fish) for the coming year. The traditional name of the “year cake” sounds like the words “the year is higher”, wishing those that eat the sweet, chewy confection a higher and better year than the last.
When eating their rice, kids are taught to never stick their chopsticks in a bowl and leave them sticking up. That looks too much like an offering made at a grave or shrine, and is considered rude. Especially around older folks and family and at New Year.
Firecrackers also have deep meaning. The loud noise is believed to ward off bad luck, specifically a creature that was believed to come and claim people around the time of the turn of the year, killing the defenseless and weak. The loud bangs of the firecrackers and bright bursts of lights that accompany the New Year celebrations were said to frighten the beast away. When people saw each other the next day or soon after, they would congratulate their surviving of the monster’s passing them by. This is one reason the holiday is called “Passing the Year” (Guò Nián) and also why people say “Congratulations” (Gōngxī) when they see their friends have made it to live another year. It is a hope of greater things to come, and leaving the trials of the old year behind.
These are just a few of the many traditions in China. If you’d like to learn more about China and its language, there are a couple beginning classes here on Udemy that are perfect for folks thinking about taking the plunge into picking up Mandarin.
How to Speak Chinese covers a lot of basic knowledge, like greetings and cultural ideas of importance surrounding numbers and Chinese New Year.
Mandarin Lessons is a more traditional style of class, like a typical language learning course covering self expression and simple conversation.
Both are pretty highly rated and cheap, with How to Speak Chinese being the great price of free. They should both prove excellent introductions to learning more Mandarin.