Traditional and modern culture in China

Chinese Greeting Etiquette

问候礼仪: wènhòu lǐyí

In today’s Chinese language and culture class, you will study Chinese greeting etiquette for a variety of different situations – including popular modern and traditional greeting customs for business, everyday and special occasions. 

China, along with many other Asian countries such as Japan, is known as a culture of etiquette and politeness. While in the modern era some of these ancient traditions are in decline, being respectful and polite is still essential during business situations, when meeting new people and during special occasions or festivals. You don’t want to be that one person accidentally “celebrating” at a funeral or appearing insincere when meeting the in-laws at Chinese New Year!

Handshake

In the modern era, the handshake is the most common greeting used during formal meetings or international business situations. Just as in Western culture, you should use your right hand, stand when shaking hands, and be sincere – however, in China there are also additional customs adapted from the traditional local culture. 

Firstly, you should wait for your Chinese counterpart to initiate the handshake, thus indicating respect to them as the host. Rather than a firm grip, Chinese business people prefer a more gentle handshake which indicates mutual understanding rather than a desire to dominate. Additionally, you may cover the handshake with your left hand in a show of warmth and friendship, or add a slight bow to demonstrate respect.

Bow

While bowing is becoming less common in China compared to neighbouring Japan, it is still an important gesture of respect. Modern bows tend to be closer to a gentle nod of the head than a formal bow. 

Bowing is generally aimed at those more senior yourself, particularly to show respect and deference to elderly relatives. 

Additionally, a bow may be used to emphasise your appreciation when saying “thank you” or to show sincerity when making an apology. 

Fist and Palm Salute

A more classic Chinese greeting with a history of over 3000 years, the fist and palm salute is the most common gesture used in more informal social occasions, particularly family get-togethers, special occasions such as birthdays and during the Chinese new year. The fist and palm salute can therefore be interpreted as meaning “hello”, “good luck” or “congratulations”. Whereas in the West we express this through closeness and intimacy, for example a hug or kiss on the cheek, in China it is instead customary to maintain distance and show the fist and palm salute. 

To form the fist and palm salute, first form a fist with one hand then cover it with the other – clasping your hands together in front of you. Note that there are significant differences between men and women when forming the fist and palm salute. Men should use their right hand to form the fist, whereas women should use their left hand and cover it with their right.

The only exception is during Chinese funerals. As the fist and palm salute is generally considered a congratulatory or celebratory gesture, it would be inappropriate for such a sombre occasion. However, instead you should form the same greeting but with your hands the other way round – men should form a fist with their left hand and cover with the right, while women use their right hand to form the fist and cover with the left.

Fist and Palm Bow

An extension on the fist and palm salute, the fist and palm bow combines the salute with a bowing motion. This whole movement is known as 作揖 (zuòyī) and is more formal than the salute alone.

By combining with a bow, this greeting not only indicates celebration or congratulations, but also respect and humility. The most typical usage of the fist and palm bow is during the Chinese wedding ceremony, during which husband and wife declare their commitment to each other through 作揖.

Hold Fist Salute

Subtly different in appearance to the fist and palm salute, the hold fist salute has a completely different meaning and usage. Whereas the fist and palm salute is a more informal, congratulatory greeting, the hold fist salute instead indicates respect and humility towards teachers. 

The hold fist salute is most commonly used by martial arts students to kungfu masters. To form the hold fist salute, grasp your right hand into a fist and place the palm of your left hand firmly against it with all fingers pointing straight in a single plane. Keep your thumb tucked in to avoid suggesting arrogance.

Vocabulary

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