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China A to Z: Everything You Need to Know to Understand Chinese Customs and Culture

China A to Z: Everything You Need to Know to Understand Chinese Customs and Culture

by May-Lee Chai

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A practical and accessible guide to an ancient but rapidly changing culture—now revised and updated
Perfect for business, pleasure, or armchair travelers, China A to Z explains the customs, culture, and etiquette essential for any trip or for anyone wanting to understand this complex country. In one hundred brief, reader-friendly essays


A practical and accessible guide to an ancient but rapidly changing culture—now revised and updated
Perfect for business, pleasure, or armchair travelers, China A to Z explains the customs, culture, and etiquette essential for any trip or for anyone wanting to understand this complex country. In one hundred brief, reader-friendly essays alphabetized by subject, this  fully revised and updated edition provides a crash course in the etiquette and politics of contemporary China as well as the nation’s geography and venerable history. In it, readers will discover:
·        How the recently selected President and his advisors approach global relations
·        Why China is considered the fastest growing market for fashion and luxury goods
·        What you should bring when visiting a Chinese household
·        What’s hot in Chinese art
·        How recent scandals impact Chinese society
From architecture and body language to Confucianism and feng shui, China A to Z offers accessible and authoritative information about China.

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Penguin Publishing Group
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Since the first edition of China A to Z, China’s position in the world has grown more important. Economically, socially, culturally, and politically, China’s influence cannot be ignored. China now has the world’s second largest economy and is projected to overtake the United States for the number one spot by 2017. Once known for producing goods on the cheap, China is no longer the world’s sweatshop: the economic boom has helped the country to become the largest consumer market for many goods, ranging from fine art to automobiles, as well as the fastest growing market for luxury goods. As more Chinese tourists travel the world and more students from China choose to study abroad, the opportunities for social and cultural exchange are growing ever greater. At the same time, China and America disagree politically on almost every important issue, including human rights, global warming, investments in Africa and other parts of the developing world, how to handle crises from the Middle East to the South China Sea, and U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, a democracy and longtime U.S. ally that China considers to be a renegade province.

Despite these continuing disagreements and potential for conflict, China’s transformation into a powerful, modern nation is a historic feat that deserves the world’s attention. The growing economy has allowed hundreds of millions of people to enter the middle class, one of the fastest economic turnarounds in history. It’s a remarkable development, especially considering that just over fifty years ago, more than 40 million Chinese starved to death, some under Mao Zedong’s disastrous Great Leap Forward policies.

When the United States and China first reestablished diplomatic relations and Deng Xiaoping ushered in the “Open Door Policy” of economic reform in 1979, Chinese were still living under the “iron ricebowl” system. The old Communist system guaranteed everyone a (low-paying) job for life and government-approved housing. The society suffered under these laws: everyone was poor, consumer goods were rarely available and of questionable quality, births were restricted to one child per couple, and political rights were nonexistent. The unleashing of China’s economic power under Deng Xiaoping’s reforms allowed for some free enterprise and joint ventures with the world’s companies. The material quality of life in China improved rapidly, although the political system remained controlled by the Communist Party.

After the Open Door Policy of Deng (who was the paramount leader from 1979 to 1997), China’s next generation of leaders initiated and implemented more economic reforms, even permitting capitalists to join the Communist Party. So long as a person had connections—called guanxi in Chinese—to high officials, that person’s business could thrive. In fact, by 2012 China had the third highest number of billionaires in the world, behind the United States and Russia, and in 2013, China had more billionaires created by the stock market than the United States.

The next challenge for China’s leadership has been to transition the export-based economy based on cheap labor into a more mature form that promotes domestic consumption and innovation. Manufacturing has already shifted away from clothes and toys, and now China assembles the world’s smart phones, tablets, and personal computers. No longer content to make goods for other countries, China has invested heavily in its universities and research parks, hoping to spark a technological revolution on its own soil. And the effects have been tremendous: Chinese companies are developing green technology, from wind power to solar energy to batteries for electric cars; and entrepreneurs are launching their own social media sites and online shopping sites.

Once repressed under Mao, Chinese artists and writers have gained unprecedented audiences domestically and worldwide now that they, too, are encouraged to create. A Chinese novelist won the Nobel Prize in Literature for the first time in 2012. Investors have paid millions of dollars for traditional artists like Qi Baishi as well as contemporary art pieces. Chinese movie directors, actors, composers, and fashion designers are finding success at home and internationally, creating a period of cultural ferment unlike anything China has experienced since before the revolution of 1949 gave birth to the People’s Republic of China.

China’s growth has not gone unnoticed by the world. Tourists have made China the third most visited country in the world, record numbers of American students are now studying Mandarin, and many of China’s Asian neighbors are expressing concern about the rise of China in their backyard. In turn, China has become embroiled in territorial disputes across Asia from Japan to Vietnam to the Philippines. In 2013, the Pentagon issued a report officially accusing the Chinese government of waging a cyberespionage campaign on U.S. military, government, and business computer systems in order to gain valuable information.

China’s unprecedented economic growth has also brought about increased social problems. China remains one of the most inequitable societies on earth—13 percent of the population earns less than $1.25 per day. Migrant workers are demanding more rights, including higher wages, benefits, and the right to live and educate their children in the cities where they work. Women’s rights activists have decried traditional values that have skewed the birth rate in favor of boys and that cause unmarried career women over the age of twenty-six to be labeled as “leftovers.” Dissidents like artist Ai Weiwei and lawyer-activist Chen Guangcheng have focused worldwide attention on corruption ranging from the lethal bypassing of safety regulations to the flaunting of laws by party officials . . . and have been punished by the government for their actions. Pollution from the rapid industrialization has reached catastrophic levels. The smog over Beijing reached twenty times levels considered safe for humans to breathe and created a diplomatic breach when the U.S. embassy refused to stop broadcasting the particulate levels on its @BeijingAir Twitter feed. The dismal yellow cloud could be seen from space, a vast miasma covering Northern China like a special effect in a terrifying sci-fi movie. And China’s growing car culture has caused China to hold another ignominious title as home to the world’s longest traffic jam: a sixty-two-mile standstill that lasted for a miserable twelve days on a stretch of highway outside Beijing.

Napoleon was perhaps the first Westerner to accurately assess China’s potential in the world, remarking, “Here lies a sleeping giant. Let him sleep, for when he wakes up, he will shock the world.” In the eighteenth century, China seemed dormant, a traditional culture experiencing economic stagnation, unwilling to adapt to a changing world. However, today it is clear that China has awakened. Whether the world will adapt to China’s rise peaceably or with increased belligerence remains to be seen.

I have been visiting China since 1985, six years after the United States and China reestablished diplomatic relations. My father, who was born in Shanghai, has been teaching about China for more than fifty years and has been returning nearly every year since the 1980s to witness the changes in the country of his birth. This new edition of China A to Z is a culmination of our experiences as China observers and scholars. We hope that these essays will provide readers with a basis for understanding the vast changes occurring in China and help them to benefit the most out of China’s rise—whether as tourists, students, businesspeople, or simply armchair travelers.

—May-lee Chai


Despite Chairman Mao’s best efforts to stamp out traditional beliefs during his decades of totalitarian control, many Chinese traditions have persisted, perhaps none more strongly than the Chinese belief in good luck. Numbers, certain alignments of days in a given year, the number of strokes in a written character, homonyms, proper feng shui—all can bring good luck. And since it seems auspicious to begin a book on such a note, we have decided to discuss some of the most visible signs of luck in China today, which are embodied by animals.

Foremost among these are the dragon. Dragons represent the Chinese nation, the emperor, and, at the popular level, grooms. Images adorned with dragons (the male) and phoenixes (the female) are commonly used as gifts for newlyweds as they represent wealth and prestige. Dragons are also believed to rule over the five elements that control one’s fate. There are dragons in water, including lakes, rivers, and the ocean. Dragons also live in the earth, and when angered—usually by corrupt officials—they cause earthquakes, a sign that a dynasty or a government is about to lose its Mandate of Heaven and be overthrown. Dragons can control fire, with its ability to both sustain and take human life. Other dragons rule the sky and clouds, proffering or withholding rain from farmers’ crops and even bearing augurs for the fate of battles. Finally, celestial (or heavenly) dragons have been thought to impart gifts to mankind, including the earliest form of the written Chinese language, supposedly given to the legendary emperor Fu Xi (c. 3000 BCE). In fact, in some versions of the legend, Fu Xi is half dragon, half man.

Real-Life Dragon Facts

Scientists have speculated that the Chinese concept of the dragon originated with the discovery of dinosaur fossils in northern China. These bones were locally called “dragon bones” and have been ground into powder for use in traditional medicines. “Dragon teeth,” which are also used to treat ailments, are believed to be fossilized ivory from prehistoric mastodons and latter-day elephants, which used to roam the land.

Some animals are good luck because their names in Mandarin sound very similar to lucky words. For example, images of bats adorn Chinese traditional art, architecture, embroidery, and porcelain. Far from being seen as the vampiric and frightening creatures of the night as in Western culture, bats are instead harbingers of wealth and prosperity, because their Chinese name, bian fu, sounds like the Mandarin words for “to become wealthy” (even though the written characters are completely different).

Similarly, fish are lucky because the pronunciation of their name, yü, sounds just like the word for “surplus” or “plenty.” Thus, images of fish are used to adorn everything from New Year’s cards to scroll paintings, and live fish tanks with bright goldfish in them can be found in the fronts of Chinese restaurants throughout the world, as all Chinese wish for an abundance rather than a scarcity of money.

Monkeys hold a special place in the Chinese imagination. While dragons represent power, monkeys are seen as clever creatures, and in fact, in China’s most famous folktale, translated by Arthur Waley quite simply as “Monkey” (also known as “Journey to the West”), the infamous, mischievous Monkey King represents the Chinese nation, and his monkey subjects the Chinese people. Myriad films, television series, puppet plays, operas, and books have been written about the adventures of the Monkey King, who is entrusted by the Jade Emperor in Heaven to aid a devout monk to bring Buddhism to China, aided by the goddess Guan Yin. The Monkey King fights but is never vanquished by many monsters, and he represents a spirit of adventure, mischief, cleverness, loyalty, martial arts prowess, and ultimately kindness—all qualities that the Chinese people value in themselves.

Finally, the twelve animal signs representing the years according to the ancient lunar calendar are traditionally believed to bestow upon babies born under their signs certain lucky qualities. According to legend, the Lord Buddha invited all the animals of the world to a banquet. The first twelve to arrive were rewarded when he named a year after each, in the order in which they appeared in his heavenly palace. The first in the twelve-year cycle is the rat. The rat’s lucky qualities include a survivor’s instincts and a way with money. Next comes the ox, whose steadfast nature allows ox children to plow through adversity and attain their goals. Tigers, known as King of the Forest because the markings on their foreheads resemble the Chinese character for “king,” are strong-willed and powerful, enabling them to succeed in life. Rabbits are refined, elegant creatures who will enjoy the comforts of life because their charm will allow them to get their way. Dragons of course are the embodiment of power and leadership potential. Snakes, unlike in Western culture, are seen as wise creatures whose intellect makes them formidable in all their endeavors. Horses are swift, strong, spirited animals, hard to tame, with wild hearts that will allow them to pursue exciting lives. It used to be considered bad luck for girls to be born in the Year of the Horse, but this is no longer the case. Sheep (also known as rams or goats, as the Chinese character represents all three animals) are artistic, charming, mercurial, stubborn creatures who pursue their path in life with refinement. Monkeys, as described above, are clever, mischievous, and much beloved by Chinese parents. Roosters are detail-oriented, verbal, perhaps a bit bossy, but they know they want to rule the roost and will do their best to succeed. Dogs are loyal, strong, and patient. And babies born in the Year of the Pig are sometimes considered the luckiest of all, as pigs represent wealth, an easygoing nature, and a life of abundance.


Perhaps nothing is as startling to both Chinese and foreign visitors alike as the rapid changes to the skyline of China’s cities. In its efforts to modernize its cities, the Chinese government has embarked on a redesign campaign that is unprecedented in world history. City planners estimated that 95 percent of Shanghai’s pre-1949 architecture was completely replaced by the time the Summer Olympics arrived in Beijing in 2008. Only the historic Bund on the Huangpu River (known as the Waitan in Chinese) and part of the French concession’s historic architecture were completely preserved. In Beijing, twenty-five thousand workers labored around the clock for years to build the new sports stadiums and Olympic village on the city’s northern border, while within the city, the historic hutongs—the winding alleyways lined with courtyard homes—were razed to make way for new highways, high-rises, and shopping centers.

As a result of the building boom, China consumed 55 percent of the world’s concrete and 36 percent of all steel produced in 2004. And there was more construction taking place in Beijing in 2005 alone than in the whole of Europe for the previous three years, according to the BBC.

A large number of the contracts for China’s new architecture are going to foreign firms, both a source of pride and a scandal within the country. Chinese architects are embittered that their own designs are considered inferior or at least less prestigious than the work of non-Chinese firms. For these foreign architects, “China is a land of dreams,” according to a New York Times Magazine report. The Swiss firm Herzog and de Meuron, hired to design the new Olympic Stadium (dubbed “the Bird’s Nest” by Beijing locals for its unusual scraggle of exposed beams), exults that China is a land without inhibitions when it comes to new building projects. The more radical, the more likely the government will approve the design in an effort to seem not only modern but cutting-edge, even avant-garde.

The new Shanghai Heritage Museum (designed by Xing Tonghe), shaped like an ancient bronze fifth-century BCE ding cooking pot, stands next to the neon-lighted Grand Theater, with its curved roof that evokes nothing so much as a skateboarding park (built by French firm Arte Charpentier and Associates). At first glance, the juxtapositions of style are rather dissonant. But when Shanghai natives are asked how they feel, they most commonly reply, “The two buildings show we are both traditional and modern, Chinese and international.”

Other projects are less enthusiastically received. While locals loved the “Bird’s Nest” stadium during the Olympics, its post-Olympics career has been less than illustrious, as attempts to turn it into a “snow park” with man-made ski slopes and a Segway racetrack have failed to make money. Locals are even less kind when referring to the National Grand Theater (designed by Paul Andreu) built in the late 1990s, dismissing it as “the egg” for its ovoid shape. Meanwhile the sinewy Beijing airport (designed by Lord Norman Foster) is thought to resemble a dragon’s body and thus is viewed positively.

Sometimes foreign firms’ efforts to evoke China’s past backfire. The China National Offshore Oil Corporation’s headquarters in Beijing was intended to resemble a Shang dynasty (3500 BCE) vessel, but alas, to locals it looked like a giant Western-style toilet bowl. A skyscraper in Shanghai designed by a Western firm (Kohn Pedersen Fox) was likewise panned when the architects decided to put a giant circle at the summit to relieve wind pressure. Local authorities nixed the design, which was for the Japanese-owned Mori Building Company, because they felt the circle evoked the Japanese flag. (The project went ahead after the architects changed the circle to a less-politically incorrect trapezoid.)

International critics tend to favor Western architectural designs over older Chinese ones, which often feature traditional tiled roofs with upswept eaves placed at the top of a modern skyscraper’s rectangular column. These critics dismiss such buildings as “big roof” or “big hat” designs. Cultural critics expressed alarm when Beijing’s city planners hired Albert Speer’s eponymous grandson to oversee the redesign of the city. Where the Chinese saw clear central lines and avenues that evoked Beijing’s imperial past, many in the West were reminded of Hitler’s penchant for the grandiose.

One of most surreal trends in architecture is the penchant for the nouveaux riches to imitate famous buildings and monuments from around the world and set them in their hometowns. Throughout China, there are multiple replicas of architecture both mundane and sublime, from Dutch hamlets and windmills to Orange County, Southern California, suburban tract houses to grandiose versions of Versailles and Monticello. Context matters little to the patrons: for example, the White House has been reincarnated as everything from a seafood restaurant to a local government office to a single family home, and the Eiffel Tower’s doppelganger can be found straddling a highway in Hebei Province.

Perhaps the changes to China’s cities can best be summed up by the thoughts of their residents.

In Chongqing, amid a sparkling new suburb of generic white rectangular skyscrapers built to house the growing population, a local guide who worked for the city government offered his opinions on all the changes to his city. To many foreign tourists’ eyes, the stilt houses built along Chongqing’s mountainous terrain and the ancient city wall (both of which were being demolished) were far more charming than the generic cinder-block-style housing projects now being erected. He disagreed heartily. “Chongqing is like that statue,” he said, pointing to a courtyard statue of a large-boned naked woman astride a lion. “A traditional face but riding the lion of modernity.”

On the other hand, a scholar from Nanjing University had a very different opinion when asked how he felt about China’s foray into the architectural wonderland. “We have a saying: ‘For ten years the government destroyed the countryside,’” he said, referring to Mao’s disastrous deforestation projects, communes, and neglect of public works like dams. “‘For the next ten years, the government is going to destroy the cities.’”


Since the age of the Roman Empire, Europeans have been fascinated by Chinese art—and have been willing to spend large sums of money to acquire it. From silks to porcelains to sculptures, art was a large part of China’s trade surplus throughout history. In the nineteenth century, when the Qing dynasty was particularly weak, foreigners made off with all manner of Chinese artwork, from scroll paintings to larger-than-life-size Buddhist statuary to entire walls painted with religious imagery, many of which became fixtures in museum collections around the world. Recently, though, China’s wealthy elite have been setting records in auction houses to “repatriate” lost treasures and return them to the Motherland. Wealthy Chinese investors looking for a relatively safe place for their money have been bidding on traditional and contemporary pieces, creating one of the hottest—and most robust—art markets in the world. In 2011, Chinese buyers spent $18.1 billion on art, surpassing the U.S. art market.

Chinese art encompasses a great diversity of forms, from traditional works painted on scrolls or fans, carved jade, lacquer and porcelain, to sculptures in stone, bronze, and wood to calligraphy and murals. A magnificent famille rose turquoise vase with an imperial seal on the base dating from the Qing dynasty sold for $14,332,650 in 2012 through Bonhams auction house. The most talked about sale of 2013 was a white Song dynasty porcelain bowl that the owners bought at a garage sale for $3 in New York, then sold for more than $2 million at auction.

The rise of China’s art market stands in stark contrast to other Asian countries’ rise, such as Japan. When Japanese businessmen and conglomerates began bidding on art with their newly acquired wealth in the 1980s, they made headlines for the record prices they were willing to pay for Western art, including the $39.9 million bid that made Van Gogh’s Sunflowers the world’s most expensive painting in 1987. Today’s Chinese art lovers are proving to spend even more. China’s elite thus far have preferred to bid on Chinese artworks rather than European masters, such as the record $67.1 million paid for twentieth-century master Qi Baishi’s watercolor Eagle Standing on Pine Tree, purchased in 2011 by a Hunan TV and broadcast executive, or the record $10 million paid for a Chinese contemporary work, Zhang Xiaogang’s Forever Lasting Love, a dystopian triptych depicting naked and emaciated figures.

The change in fate for Chinese arts might seen ironic considering that Red Guards set about destroying traditional art during the ten years of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), burning any paintings they could get their hands on and combing the countryside in groups to destroy traditional Buddhist artworks on mountainsides and in temples. However, the arts have always played an important cultural role in China, and the Maoist bias against traditional artwork has proven to be more a historical blip than a lasting cultural trend. As art scholar Dr. Ch’u Chai wrote in his bestselling book, The Changing Society of China, “Of all the expressions of Chinese civilization, it is Chinese art that has made the lasting contribution to the culture of the world.”

Watercolor or Ink Paintings

Known in Chinese as shan shui (literally “mountain and water” paintings), these works emphasize the brush skills of the artist rather than the ability to capture three-dimensional space on a sheet of paper or focus on religious symbolism as is prominent in much of Western art history. Landscape paintings have traditionally been more valued in Chinese history than figurative works or cityscapes. Shan shui are mounted either on a vertical scroll for hanging, or a horizontal scroll that is meant to be opened and viewed one arm-length at a time, emphasizing the intimate relationship between owner and painting.


Contrary to many myths, the calligraphy that appears on Chinese paintings is not necessarily describing the scene depicted. The graceful brushstrokes are considered an art form irrespective of the meaning of the text, and can showcase a classical poem, the calligrapher’s remarks, a sign of ownership of a famous painting, or an official edict. Calligraphy is not meant to be easy to read; in fact, some styles are illegible even to people literate in the traditional characters and classical grammar of the text. Connoisseurs appreciate the gradations in the ink, which reveal the great control of the calligrapher, the historic style of the calligraphy (there are innumerable scripts), and the delicate shape of the characters.

Contemporary Art

Since the reform period began after 1979, China’s contemporary artists have become some of the most daring in the world. For example, Zhang Huan covered himself in honey and allowed flies to converge upon his body in a show in Beijing, and in another performance piece, he lay naked on a block of ice as an exploration of the body and spiritual self. Other contemporary artists like to create a dialogue with the socialist realism themes of Mao-era art, such as Zhang Xiaogang’s famous paintings of dry-eyed families dressed in Mao suits and soberly staring straight at the viewer of the painting. Photographer Liu Bolin uses his art to critique the social problems associated with China’s rapid urbanization, and his method is unique. Liu covers himself in body paint so that he blends nearly perfectly into his backgrounds—from brick walls to buildings slated for demolition—then has assistants photograph him in place.

Perhaps the most famous of the contemporary artists is Ai Weiwei, whose conceptual work has explored themes of destruction and culture. In the 1990s, he took priceless Chinese urns and repainted them with logos for contemporary brands like Coca-Cola, and in one instance photographed himself simply dropping one urn and smashing it to smithereens. One of his most famous recent works is made of several million hand-painted sunflower seeds that museum visitors may walk through or lie in. He is also credited with co-designing the “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. After the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, Ai made an exhibit of plastic backpacks in honor of the more than five thousand schoolchildren killed when their schools collapsed. His continuing efforts to uncover the causes of their deaths (activists believe the schools were built with substandard materials and were not built to code) as well as other dissident activities have caused Ai to run into problems with the government. In 2011, he was beaten by the police in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, and later, he was detained for eighty-one days by the government. After being forbidden from leaving China, Ai set up cameras throughout his house, providing a “live feed” on his website and to his hundreds of thousands of followers online.

While most Chinese art, ancient or contemporary, has commanded good prices, largely due to the demand of Chinese buyers themselves, it is still possible for people to buy quality, original works. Most Chinese buyers are not necessarily art lovers per se, but are investors, so they focus on purchasing famous works as advised by auctioneers or financial planners. Visitors may still buy wonderful works of art by local artists who may not be famous or popular but are certainly talented and creative. While hotels often offer high-priced mass-produced works, visitors can find original, hidden treasures by visiting any of China’s schools for the arts, where students are often willing to sell their works to pay for their bills. Remember that Ai Weiwei was once such a starving artist when he lived in New York City in the 1980s. Who knows where the next Ai will come from?


Banquets are the single most important way that Chinese greet friends, business colleagues, diplomats, and even enemies. If it’s a truism that all the “real business” is done outside the boardroom, for example, in pubs in England, on golf courses and squash courts in America, or during after-work drinking binges in Japan, where potential partners and rivals can interact informally and size each other up, then in China this type of relationship-building is done with banquets.

As a result, whether you go to China as a student, a tourist, a businessperson, or a returning family member from overseas, you will experience a banquet.

They differ from Western banquets in that the tables are round, not rectangular, so there is no visible head or foot. That does not mean that seating is egalitarian. Traditionally, guests of honor were seated with their backs to the wall, the hosts (or most junior members of the host’s party) with their backs exposed to the door. The legend behind this is that once in Chinese history a devious king invited his rival to a banquet, supposedly in a bid for peace. While they were eating, an assassin stepped inside the room—unseen by the guest, who had his back to the door—and stabbed the unsuspecting guest to death. From that time onward, to show true friendship, the host must have his back to the door. (Naturally, among young people, families, and close friends, such formalities need not be observed.)

Banquets are often served in private rooms within larger restaurants. One, this affords privacy. Two, this helps the host save face in case a rival banquet at a nearby table should have fancier food. In fact, many junior executives prefer to pay extra for the private banquet rooms simply to avoid any possibility of getting into an expensive ordering rivalry with a neighboring table.

Banquets in the West generally follow a set pattern of dishes, with hors d’oeuvres first, followed by a salad, perhaps a soup, main courses, then a dessert. Chinese banquets will have different kinds of foods depending upon the region and the occasion. Expect that there will be many, many courses. Traditional hospitality requires that the guests be offered far more than they could possibly finish eating. Therefore, it is wise to eat a little of each course rather than heartily indulge or you might not make it to course twenty-seven.

Banquets also are generally served “family style,” in which platters are placed on a lazy Susan that rotates in the center of the round table rather than an individual plate of food being given to each diner.

Typical menus include a set of cold dishes to begin. These might be cold boiled and salted peanuts, crunchy jellyfish noodles, sliced vegetables like lotus root or greens, one-thousand-year-old eggs (which are not really that old but are hard-boiled and prepared in sauces so they become dark and translucent), flavored seeds, sliced cold meat, and local delicacies. The next courses will most likely involve hot foods. Nowadays the Chinese like to mix Western specialties with traditional dishes, so it’s not unusual to be served escargot sautéed in clarified butter as one course, then Chinese-style sea slug or giant prawns or lobster sashimi, then a series of beefsteaks. Raw salads have also come into vogue although once Chinese balked at eating anything uncooked. Most banquets include at least one soup, which is unlikely to be served at the beginning of the meal because soups are used to change the palate or else to finish a banquet so that one’s stomach is completely full. Little sweet cakes might also be served to change the palate in between courses. Their arrival does not signal the end of the meal by any means. Various kinds of tea also are used as palate cleansers. A whole fresh fish is considered essential for most banquets unless various other seafoods have already been served, such as whole crabs, whole prawns, eels, and so on. Fresh cold fruit generally signals the end of a banquet.

Most Expensive Banquet Dishes

Shark fin soup

Swallow’s nest pudding

Shark stomach

Abalone dishes

Peking duck

Exotic animals

Banquet Etiquette

Even if you really don’t feel like eating something, take a sample for your plate or rice bowl. As the guest, you will be expected to be served first or serve yourself first. If you don’t take a sample, your hosts will feel awkward and will not be able to take a sample either. Servers will come and replace dirty plates with clean ones so you can let the server simply take away something if you really don’t want to eat it.

Often your hosts will make a series of toasts. Hold your glass with both hands, one flat on the bottom, the other around the base of the cup. It’s not necessary to clink glasses as one does in the West. Simply raise it with a smile toward the person making the toast then to other senior officials then to the more junior members and take a sip. If you must make a toast, simply say something friendly, such as a thank-you to your hosts for their hospitality and the lovely meal or the beautiful city you are visiting or a generic remark about your appreciation for the friendliness of the Chinese people. No need to make a business pitch, such as “Here’s hoping you choose our company and we all become very prosperous.” Generic works best in these situations.

If you really don’t like alcohol or you have an ulcer, let your hosts know and you can make your toasts with bottled water or soda pop. Women are not expected to drink as much as men. You can touch the glass of alcohol to your lips without even drinking, in fact. If you are a man, try not to drink a lot with each toast as there may be many, many toasts, and getting drunk is a distinct possibility. Also, if you down your alcohol, this will put pressure on your hosts to do the same, and it might put them in an awkward situation. They might have a full day and night of work to attend to after the meal or a long commute or they may have to write up notes about the meal for their company. Don’t inadvertently turn a banquet into a drinking contest.

Sometimes your hosts will actually put food onto your plate or rice bowl. They are giving you the choicest bits and you should thank them. Make a pretense of eating, even if you don’t really want to. It’s a polite gesture. If you notice that someone’s plate is empty or he or she seems to like a particular dish, spin the lazy Susan slowly in that direction and urge the person to have some more. Your encouragement for others to eat more is considered polite.

Banquets will end rather abruptly. Don’t expect any serious business to have been discussed. The banquet is a formality, a requirement of being a gracious host. It’s not the place where decisions are made. However, your behavior will be observed, and your trustworthiness as a human being also judged.

Banquet Nightmares

Most Chinese do not yet have any understanding of the Western concept of “being on a diet.” After one hundred fifty years of war and political struggles, the Chinese associate being too thin with being unhealthy. Most Chinese are proud to put on a little girth. (Unfortunately, China now has the second highest obesity rate in the world, behind the United States, so attitudes at some point will have to change as unhealthy eating patterns brought upon by new prosperity will lead to health problems. However, that day has not yet come for most Chinese.)

But if you are on a diet and you are at a banquet, there are some things you can do to keep from blowing your diet at every meal. First, let your hosts know you have certain food “allergies” or food “restrictions.” Blame your doctor. Your Chinese hosts don’t want to kill you even though they might be serving you an extremely high-cholesterol meal and you have heart disease. A very effective means of saving their face and your diet is to take what is offered, eat (or pretend to eat) a tiny bit, and then say, “Oh, this is so delicious, but I mustn’t eat more. My doctor absolutely forbids it. But I just wanted a little taste.” Your hosts will feel that they have given you a secret pleasure but they won’t insist you eat more of something dangerous to your health.

How to Avoid Eating Unbearable Things

Another situation might arise where you are served something you just frankly cannot bear to eat. It might be those fried eels with their little faces staring up at you from your rice bowl. Or fresh young quails on a stick that appear to have been fried in oil while still alive, judging by the death grimaces on their faces. Or maybe snake just isn’t your thing. Here being a foreigner comes in handy. You can feign chopstick incompetence. If they put something on your plate and you can’t bear it, move those chopsticks like crazy but just drop that stuff before it ever reaches your mouth. Your hosts will be so embarrassed for you, you will become truly invisible. If perchance your hosts should send a server from the restaurant your way to assist you, simply whisper to the server to please take your plate away. The server won’t lose face—he or she didn’t order this food, after all. Thus, it’s a culturally safe way to get rid of something you just don’t want to put into your mouth.

A banquet is not a good time to lecture your hosts about what you consider appropriate to eat. For example, you may find shark fin soup personally offensive. But until you know your hosts extremely well and you can all talk about personal matters with ease, denouncing the Chinese practice of eating shark fin soup midbanquet is not going to help anyone. It’s too late to save the shark, it will embarrass your hosts, and your behavior will most likely be read as immature as opposed to rational and convincing.

If you are in a more informal situation, such as on a tour, let your guide know about food preferences early on, such as vegetarianism or allergies. If something unpleasant comes up later on the tour, which you didn’t anticipate, you can always bring up that you have a “restricted diet.” One family friend of ours was served Peking duck at every single lunch and dinner banquet he attended on a three-week tour of China. As a result, he never wants to eat it again as long as he lives. If you find a similar pattern happening to you, tell your guide that you need to vary your diet and your doctor will be upset if you eat Peking duck at every meal because it is very rich. Ask for some blander food—such as fresh greens or a fish—and say something like “Peking duck is a wonderful luxury but my doctor warned me I must stay away from duck. I’ll enjoy watching everyone else eat it, but I’m afraid I must make this special request. Sorry to trouble you.” This way you save your guide’s face—you’re not blaming him or her for ordering the same damn food at every meal, or accusing the guide of trying to ratchet up the price or, who knows, help out a restaurant owner/secret partner by bringing a tour group to the restaurant then consistently ordering the most expensive thing on the menu. All of these are possibilities, but no point in bringing them up. Politeness and an appeal to your own health issues will most likely get you the food you want.

True Health Concerns

Finally, if you have severe allergies, naturally you should tell your hosts first and foremost before any meal. They will gladly accommodate you and tell the chef to prepare special dishes just for you. The Chinese want a banquet to leave a good impression. Even friends of ours with life-threatening peanut allergies, diabetes, shellfish allergies, MSG reactions, and such have gone to China and had many enjoyable banquets. Just let your hosts know any special dietary requirements in advance.


Bargaining is an art form much beloved by the Chinese. However, there is a common misconception in the West that bargaining is simply about getting a cheaper price. No. Bargaining to the Chinese is like seduction to the French. The process is as important as the actual end result.

First and foremost, bargaining is about establishing a relationship between yourself and the merchant. The merchant is not your adversary and should not be treated as such. The merchant is the object of your seduction. Try to find a common ground. If you are Asian, emphasize common roots. “Can you give a special deal to a fellow Chinese (or a traveling Korean, a Japanese who loves China, etc.)?” If you are not, emphasize the distance you have traveled. “I’ve come all this way to see China. Such a wonderful country! Is there any way you can give me a special price?” Flatter the merchant. Suggest options, such as, “Can you call your supervisor?” Not all salespeople are allowed to make price reductions themselves so do not say this in an insulting way but try to emphasize that you understand this salesperson would of course like nothing better than to give you a deal, as he or she is such a nice person, but of course you understand a salesperson must consult with a boss.

Watch how other people bargain. Make more than one trip if you can to the stall, stand, or store that you are visiting to show your interest, but like a good flirt, you play hard to get and act as though you cannot make up your mind about the item you wish to purchase. See if the merchant will make a first move and offer you a discount.

Then there’s the more proletarian but ever effective, “If I buy more than one, can I get a discount?” Again, you are showing your love for the merchant’s product and respect for his or her business instincts.

In big department stores, bargaining is generally not permitted. However, you can ask salesclerks if there are any sales and they will be glad to point out that merchandise to you. In fact, many Chinese department stores have myriad promotions going on at any given time—including free gifts with purchases (such as a freshwater pearl), scratch-type lotto tickets, discounts on other merchandise if you buy a certain amount of goods in the store, and even free digital photos of yourself (or rather, your head transposed onto a model’s body).

In large cities, some groups of Chinese bargain hunters have now taken to using the Internet to plot how to mob certain showrooms at a certain time to demand a group discount. This is not bargaining per se but bullying and not recommended for non-Chinese to participate in.


Beijing, formerly known as Peking, is the capital of China and perhaps China’s most famous city. Because of the 2008 Summer Olympics games, the city experienced a massive influx of government cash so that it became China’s showcase to the world. As soon as the International Olympic Committee announced Beijing as its choice in 2001 for the 2008 games, the government announced a new goal: that each resident of the city would learn one hundred English phrases. Construction of the massive and impressively modern Olympic facilities began soon after. As a result, such architectural wonders as those dubbed “the Bird’s Nest” (the National Stadium) and “the Water Cube” (the National Aquatics Center) have been keenly debated in popular and architectural journals around the world for their avant-garde designs. Today the Water Cube is the family friendly “Happy Magic Water Cube” water park, featuring such standards as a wave pool, “lazy river,” and thirteen water slides, whereas the “Bird’s Nest” stadium struggles to find a purpose at all. Perhaps this seems an unexciting fate for the once-vaunted projects, which cost an estimated $51 million and $480 million respectively to build, but such is the nature of contemporary Beijing, where the sublime and the mundane routinely rub shoulders.

Beijing is a fascinating city that has been at the center of some of history’s most important events. The most visible ancient architectural wonders date from the last dynasty, the Qing (1644–1911), when the Manchus who ruled China left their distinctive cultural aesthetics on the city. In addition to the Forbidden City, where the various emperors traditionally lived, the imperial family’s pleasure palaces remain as well, including the Summer Palace, with its multicolored, exquisitely painted buildings, lush grounds, and perhaps most impressive of all, Marble Boat, which the Empress Dowager Cixi famously built using the funds supposedly earmarked to build a real navy for China in the late nineteenth century. Prince Gong’s Mansion, the garden palace of one of the princes from the reign of Emperor Xianfeng (1851–62) is every bit as opulent as Versailles, with its lakes, swans, halls, and private opera house (with daily performances for visitors), as well as mysterious life-prolonging feng shui symbols like the bat-shaped pond, the Longevity Pavilion, and calligraphy carved into stone. Domestic tourists from as far away as the Burma border flock to this exotic palace, so it is also a fabulous place to people watch, as Han Chinese and ethnic minority tourists far outnumber Westerners.

For even older historical sites, one can visit the Ming dynasty (1388–1643) Drum Tower or the many altars of the Temple of Heaven, which also has the famed Echo Wall, where a word whispered at one end of the curved wall can be heard at the other end.

Even older yet, the Mongol-built Beihai Park, which is believed to have been the original location of Kublai Khan’s palace, now holds many historical treasures including the White Dagoba—built for a seventeenth-century visit by the then Dalai Lama—and the famed Nine Dragons Screen, a symbol of imperial power.

Because Beijing was the capital of China under Mongol, Han, and Manchu rule (three different ethnicities), the city’s diversity is present in its architectural history. It is likewise very obviously diverse in the present. There are mosques, Daoist temples, Buddhist temples, Christian churches, and of course the most famous landmarks of Communist Party power.

The Great Hall of the People, located on the western side of Tiananmen Square, is where the National People’s Congress meets. Also off Tiananmen, Mao’s portrait still hangs on the Gate of Heavenly Peace, where Mao first proclaimed the birth of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949. And Chairman Mao himself is still available for viewing, as his mausoleum is located on the southern end of Tiananmen.

For those interested in contemporary politics, the vast Tiananmen Square, where pro-democracy demonstrators lived, danced, and were driven away at gunpoint in 1989, is fully open to the public. Today, however, families are more apt to be flying kites, riding bicycles, or taking pictures in front of Mao’s portrait than staging political protests and the square is well guarded by soldiers and plainclothes policemen.

Of course, Beijing is also a very modern city replete with dance clubs, jazz clubs, bars, world-class restaurants, art museums, galleries, shopping malls, glittering five-star hotels, Western and Beijing opera houses, and all the other hallmarks of contemporary urban society. However, it would be a shame to visit Beijing without investigating some of the city’s remaining hutongs—mazelike alleys with courtyard homes that represent the nonimperial, pre–Communist Party Beijing, the true essence of Beijing’s residents. Most of the hutongs have been razed to make way for businesses and high-rise apartment buildings, but near the Forbidden City, a historical zone has been created to preserve some of Beijing’s most famous indigenous architecture.

Bo Xilai Scandal

The scandal that brought down one of the Chinese Communist Party’s fastest-rising stars sounds like a plot straight out of a James Bond movie: a British businessman gets too close to one of China’s most elite power couples and ends up dead, his body cremated within twenty-four hours, while his family in England is told that he’d died of a heart attack after a night of heavy drinking. Friends are surprised as the man was a teetotaler. Then, the police chief of Chongqing, a metropolitan area of 30 million, seeks refuge at the U.S. consulate in Chengdu and provides shocking information—that the Brit was murdered by the jealous wife of the party secretary (chief) of Chongqing, a leader who was on the fast track to becoming one of the inner circle of the Communist Party. This 2012 case exposed the vast network of connections underlying the so-called Red Princelings, the grown children of Communist Party elites.

The players in question revolved around Bo Xilai (pronounced “Boh She-Lye”), who at the time was considered a “progressive” political leader in China, one of the twenty-five members of the all-powerful Politburo of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. Bo came from a distinguished, well-known family whose father had been Deng Xiaoping’s right-hand man with the title of vice premier of China. As party secretary of the megacity of Chongqing, Bo was known as a reformer, fighting for the common people, constructing subsidized housing for the tens of thousands of low-income workers in the city. He also led a campaign to crack down on organized crime, a rarely discussed but pervasive problem in China. He ordered his police chief, Wang Lijun, to investigate and arrest hundreds of corrupt party officials and businessmen. Many ended up being tried and executed. Rumors spread that he wasn’t just hunting criminals, but using his authority to crack down on anyone who threatened his authority. Still, he had widespread support among the people of Chongqing.

Bo encouraged a new spirit of civic-mindedness to counter the pervasive materialism in China and led massive public sing-alongs of Mao-era songs, reviving nationalistic sentiments. He claimed he wanted to rebuild a new China after Mao’s model—that is, a more equitable, socialist model—and was widely expected to succeed Hu Jintao as China’s next leader in 2013.

Meet the Author

MAY-LEE CHAI is the author of five books, including The Girl from Purple Mountain (coauthored with her father, Winberg Chai). She has a master's degree from Yale University in East Asian studies and has studied and worked in China.
WINBERG CHAI was born in Shanghai. He received his Ph.D. from New York University and is the author of more than twenty books on China. When not teaching in the United States, he lectures frequently in China.

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