China’s charm school challenge

Posted by Martyn.

China’s government has initiated a charm offensive to try to teach its citizens good manners before the 2008 Olympics. Although China certainly does not have a monopoly on rude behavior, among the bad habits that the government is keen to eradicate before 2008 are spitting, blowing one’s nose onto the pavement, queue jumping and aggressive jostling, men lounging around half-naked in public, cooking on the street, urinating in public, eating loudly, not using napkins, throwing discarded meat bones on the table or floor, shouting into mobile phones anytime, anywhere, aggressive driving, poor personal hygiene and other socially unacceptable behaviour, as this article explains:

“Some people’s manners in China are atrocious, but you have to start somewhere,” said Yue-sai Kan, author of “Etiquette for the Modern Chinese.” “I think it’s great what the government is doing. I wish the New York City government would do this.” Among various initiatives in manners are televised courses, slogans, billboards and local contests.

China’s politeness push may be more challenging than elsewhere, however, in part because of the country’s history. After the communists took power in 1949, etiquette wasn’t just pushed aside, it was often actively rooted out, sociologists say. That was particularly true during the chaotic 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, when refinement was condemned as a ruling-class plot to inhibit people and keep them down.

TV talk shows, dramas and prime-time mini-spots provide lessons nationwide on everything from public fighting to the proper use of cellphones. Universities hold etiquette contests, slogans on village walls urge farmers to create a civilized society, and neighborhoods take part in “courteous community” competitions.

The behaviour of mainlanders has also been in the news recently. Last week, Hong Kong’s Ming Pao Daily newspaper reported that mainland visitors to HK Disneyland behaved appallingly, flouting rules, smoking cigarettes in restaurants and other nonsmoking areas, dropping litter, wandering around barefoot and allowing children to urinate everywhere. A mainland tourist at the theme park responded by saying that they had paid their money and can do what they want.

Referees at a world snooker tournament held in China last April were exasperated at the behaviour of some spectators, specifically the noisy outbursts and constant ringing of mobile phones. Also, in July, on an evening that China’s state press called a “night of shame,” the crowd at a China-Puerto Rica basketball game went crazy, throwing missiles and screaming insults after a Chinese player was fouled. The China Daily warned that this kind of atrocious behaviour could grow like a cancer and destroy the entire Olympics.

Is it arrogant for non-Chinese people to accuse the people here of rudeness just because they don’t conform to their own ideas of polite social behaviour? Is there an international standard for basic good manners? Does the government really need to use public campaigns to try and improve behaviour?

The Discussion: 71 Comments

Just a quick response before work…

While I think it is rude to condemn certain behaviors based on some cultural standards, I do believe, when it comes to health, that some behaviors are unacceptable. These include:

public urination/defecation
spitting indoors or on sidewalks

If you must do the above, at least do them in a drain.

As for the other issues, such as cell phone use and incessant talking during the competition, that will probably take some intensive education and the removal of cell phones from the competition venues.

September 18, 2005 @ 6:29 pm | Comment

Great point phs. That’s something that should be made a priority – especially in China with its mutant disease track record and habit of keeping quiet while the rest of the world drops down dead.

I rmember a co-worker during the height of SARS telling me that ‘now other countries have SARS victims, China will probably be next to get infected by the foreigners!’

RE rude behavior, whether it’s right or not for others to condemn rude behavior in China, the fact is that China’s govt believe that the behavior is bad enough to try and change things.

September 18, 2005 @ 6:48 pm | Comment

It’s good in many respects that some people are being taught basic manners, but it’s not fair to say that the Chinese as a people are “impolite”. You’ll find your share of public urination here in the US. Some manners are cultural, but I think some are just basic. It’s impolite to yell at inappropriate times.

China has its own manners that are, in my opinon, often lacking in Western countries. For example, modesty is valued highly, as can be seen with the response “哪里哪里” in response to a compliment. Also, there’s bowing when meeting someone.

September 18, 2005 @ 7:05 pm | Comment

I find it hard to believe that saying 那里 somehow makes the Chinese more keen on modesty than other cultures.

As for the rudeness… cultural relativism is all well and good, but some of China’s bad habits do need to be stamped out for health reasons. The spitting, for one. Endemic lung disease, anyone?

September 18, 2005 @ 7:37 pm | Comment

GOOD LUCK!!!!!!!!!!
Second- if the Chinese expect to invite the civilised world to their country, they have to be expected to behave in a civilised manner. Spitting and pissing everywhere is not civilised. They must also have this hammered into them as more and more are visiting other countries giving the natives their only contact with Chinese.

September 18, 2005 @ 8:17 pm | Comment

Is it arrogant for non-Chinese people to accuse the people here of rudeness just because they don’t conform to their own ideas of polite social behaviour?

Foreigners might not go around saying Chinese are rude, but they might wind up a tad cynical if they keep hearing about China’s 5000 years of refined spiritual civilization while watching them spitting in the streets and turning queues into free-for-alls.

September 18, 2005 @ 9:16 pm | Comment

Lake, there is public urination sometimes in the U.S., which is mostly confined to the homeless, the drunk and the mentally ill (sometimes all three).

In China, I have witnessed mothers letting their baby taking a s**t on a moving bus. I’m not saying the Chinese as a people are impolite; but I do think that the threshold for declaring certain things impolite moved up substantially in China – and I personally think this is a 20th century phenomenon in China. Whether its the Cultural Revolution and the damage to traditional Chinese values, or simply the fact that people had difficulty transitioning from rural farm living to urban dwelling, I don’t know.

As for 哪里哪里, we’ve got plenty of expressions like that, and its quite common for people to respond to a compliment with “stop it!”, “you’re too kind”, “it’s nothing really”, “I didn’t do anything”, “you’re making me blush”, etc. Modesty is prized in Western etiquette as well. And I’m not interested in fighting over who is more modest.

Clearly, in all modesty, its the Chinese. Westerners are never as modest. 😉

September 18, 2005 @ 9:30 pm | Comment

As far as I know in France it’s ok to urinate “behind a tree” – out of people’s view, etc., but doing that in the US can get you fined. I don’t think China should go that far.

As for the cutting in lines, yeah, that needs to go, it’s way more annoying than a baby urinating in public (erm, never got one on the bus though). Same as people waiting in front of the subway door and trying to get in before the passengers can come out.

Also, we westerners are clearly way more modest than the Chinese =)

September 18, 2005 @ 11:16 pm | Comment

“Bowing when meeting someone?”


99 percent of the time, it’s more like, “crashing into someone and not giving a shit.”

Can someone explain to me, why most mainland Chinese walk like drunken two-year-olds? Why they never watch where they’re going?
Why they don’t give a shit who they crash into? Why they stagger around like they’re dizzy or drunk?

Sometimes I get the impression that back in the Cultural Revolution, they all went around slapping each other with Mao’s Little Red Book, all slapping each other and shouting “MAO! MAO!” And then someone would slap the next guy, and beat up the next guy….and it went on and on until the whole country became dizzy and disoriented and clumsy.

Sorry, any Chinese who don’t like what I said here? Well, that’s how you appear to the rest of the world. If you want more respect, then clean up your act and learn some decent manners. And throw away all of your idiotic “Sayings of Mao” which started so many of these problems.

September 19, 2005 @ 12:17 am | Comment

Oh and also, why do 90 percent of them eat like barnyard animals, chewing with their mouths wide open and making noises like pigs? And it’s not just the poor people from the countryside. I’ve seen (and heard the disgusting sounds of) this happening in expensive restaurants in major cities.

Did China EVER have decent table manners? What happened? Did the Communists order everyone to eat like pigs?

September 19, 2005 @ 12:21 am | Comment

“Pai dui” or “qing, houmain pai dui’ works wonders for me in getting people not to crowd in, in front of me.

This kind of discourtesy is worse than the “call of nature” since we have been doing that wherever for eons when necessary. But crowding in is volitional, and gives one person an unearned advantage over other people. That is one of the public traits of the Chinese masses I abhor the most.

September 19, 2005 @ 12:40 am | Comment

Hm, well at least at the Beijing Olympics, China can look forward to winning the Pissing Contest.

September 19, 2005 @ 12:51 am | Comment

Manners, when not taken to outrageous extremes, serve a public purpose. By instilling a code of conduct that discourages selfish acts at the expense of others, society as a whole benefits. Economists would term this avoiding “externalities.”

I have often heard said that the difference between Western and Chinese cultures is that Chinese people are much more willing to sacrifice personal advantage for the good of the group. From my personal perspective, that does seem true when it comes to sacrificing for the benefit of family or very close friends. But when it comes to society as a whole, I am less convinced.

When you see that lone pedestrian crossing against the traffic light and blocking a long line of cars to gain a few seconds, this argument about the willingness of Chinese to sacrifice for the public good seems less believable. How much of Beijing’s traffic problems are caused by this type of selfishness? Hard to say, but my guess is more than a little.

September 19, 2005 @ 12:54 am | Comment

While some standards of “manners” are culturally specfic, as noted above, some are based on simple hygenic principals (e.g. spitting), and to that end I am surprised that my pet peeve, public nose-picking, did not make the list. The fact that it disgusts me may simply be cultural, however it’s clearly an efficient means of spreading germs, and for that reason alone is an undesirable practice.

A lot of the things that annoy westerners are just vestiges of a pre-modern agricultural society, and vanish as Chinese move up the socio-economic ladder. But with so many still on the lower rungs, it’s hard to see how some of these habits can be modified very quickly, even in the major metropoli.

On the other hand, in another recent thread some of us were commenting on the speed of changes in public behavior, a reminder of how amazingly quickly Chinese can adapt to new ways. And I have certainly met many Shanghairen who were not only courteous, but downright gracious.

Also, to keep perspective, recall that inthe US, as recently as the 1920s, spittoons were still in use in places, and that smoking was permitted just about anywhere (including restaurants) until when – the late 70s or early 80s?

The thing that concerns me most about the Olympics is not so much the public manners of Beijingren, but the unsportsman-like behavior of Chinese fans. I believe this is related more to nationalism than to social etiquette, so it will be much harder to modify. I really worry that China could lose major international face if there is some ugly incident triggered by, say, a defeat by a Japanese team.

September 19, 2005 @ 1:04 am | Comment

Some backward parts of America used to have spittoons. Alright. If we want to improve China’s manners a bit, we can start by putting spittoons in public places. Then China will improve up to the level of the worst parts of America….

September 19, 2005 @ 1:34 am | Comment

Ivan, I’ve no need to contribute to this thread as you’re saying all there needs to be said.

September 19, 2005 @ 3:20 am | Comment


It wasn’t just “backward parts of America”. I believe that spittoons were fairly ubiquitous everywhere.

That being said, I agree with the general thrust of comments here. Line jumping angers me the most, and in my experience the Chinese do this without any pretense of deviance. I’m the sort of laowai that confronts them when I’m angered, and I’ve gotten nothing but looks of utter shock from those who had no idea what they did was wrong.

Just a point about manners. I’m an English teacher, and I find my students far better mannered than the ones I taught back in California. Even the naughtiest students ask politely if they may come into the classroom when late, and they’d never get up and leave the room to use the toilet without asking first.

Some other thoughts- I believe the Cultural Revolution explanation probably trumps all others. Upper-class traits such as refined manners were looked down upon in Mao’s fevered campaign, and the destruction of the intelligentsia during the Communist years rid China of its “upper class”. As someone noted, the nouveu riche in cities such as Shanghai do not appear to spit at much (in my experienc, at least) as those I live amongst here in Fujian Province.

September 19, 2005 @ 4:25 am | Comment

Some comments I would like to add:
1. I was in China for the first time in 1987 and then spent two entire years in the country from 1988 to 1990. When I compare the current “spitting-behaviour” to those days, I can only say it has already improved a lot. So let’s not despair !
2. Urinating in public places in my opinion is a plague every country has to deal with. I can not imagine any area with some density of bars, restaurants or disco’s, anywhere, that would not be subject to this behaviour.
3. As for the bowing: did I miss something ? Politeness when meeting somebody outside of any circumstance that could generate economic benefit: now there’s work left to be done …

I must agree with the mainstream thought of the above comments that a lot in Chinese behaviour leaves ample room for improvement. However, we should also take a hard look at our western, sometimes overcivilised, behaviour. I get shivers when I hear somebody complain again about those Chinese “slurping” (does that word exist at all ? English is not my native language, as you may have expected already) their noodles. Some methods just develop because they are the best way to do something, and eating a hot bowl of noodles definitely best can be done by simultaneously inhaling some air to cool the food in your mouth. I pitty the foreigners I see trying to eat those miantiao without making any noise: may their mouths burn like hell. Lest we forget: a lot of the Chinese behaviour, like spitting … is closely linked to their conception on being and remaining healthy. In that respect, getting rid of the waste of your body is not a wrong thing to do in itself. The thing is, when everybody starts doing that in packed spaces like Chinese cities, life just may become intolerable on everybody.

September 19, 2005 @ 5:30 am | Comment

Some excellent points here.

Slim, makes the point that nationalism and poor sportsmanship-inspired crowd behaviour should be considered different from bad manners/social etiquette. He’s right, I should have included that in the post (and would have done had I thought of it!).

I suppose we can make another distinction between poor social etiquette and poor hygeine.

September 19, 2005 @ 6:03 am | Comment

Also, I never thought too much about the riots after the China-Japan football match at the Worker’s Stadium a few months ago. I thought it was just an exception.

However, I was shocked at the China-Puerto Rico crowd behaviour.

For this reason, I’m not surprised that the govt are taking this seriously. If the crowd behaviour at the Puerto Rico basketball game was repeated several times at the Olympics then, as Slim also says above, that would lose China a lot of face.

What if, China is playing in the semi-final or final of some event and the referee makes a couple of poor decisions and China loses?

I don’t think there’s ever been that kind of atrotious crowd behaviour at an Olympics before. Is that right?

September 19, 2005 @ 6:08 am | Comment

no one mentioned sometimes people talked loudly in public?

i feel very embrassed when a group of chinese tourists play cards in a plane and make a lot of noise

here is my “theory”
1) i noticed those chinese who own their lands in history treat their land very very kind. you won’t see so much spiting from them
2) the lack of personal life. a lot of chinese don’t have much experience of owning personal space, and don’t know the importance of respecting others’ personal space

September 19, 2005 @ 6:54 am | Comment

Sorry, any Chinese who don’t like what I said here? Well, that’s how you appear to the rest of the world. If you want more respect, then clean up your act and learn some decent manners. And throw away all of your idiotic “Sayings of Mao” which started so many of these problems.

Posted by Ivan at September 19, 2005 12:17 AM


you and keir sound like two chinese Fen-Qing

wish you feel better now

September 19, 2005 @ 6:56 am | Comment

Try living in London. The Chinese are real sweeties compared to feral kids, drunken yobs at pub closing time, fights and arguments everywhere, widespread ‘gobbing’ as spitting is called in London etc etc. There is a difference between different perceptions of hygiene (ie spitting which is NOT considered rude in China, or tossing food on the floor) and in-your-face rudeness/selfishness, which London/NY and Paris at joint world champs at.

September 19, 2005 @ 7:22 am | Comment

Oh, and as for talking loudly, the loud braying of Americans tends to grate on European ears.

September 19, 2005 @ 7:35 am | Comment

Check out this site about a handbook called “Olympic Security English” that’s been distributed to Beijing police in order to equip them for their Olympic tasks:

September 19, 2005 @ 8:31 am | Comment

Well, all I can say is

a) Yeah, a lot of Chinese act like disgusting pigs
b) My Chinese girlfriend says “huh, well my parents and myself never behave like that.”
c) My Chinese girlfriend says “uck” when she heard about the baby on the bus story.
d) Didn’t you hear about how they had to install semi-outdoors urinals near bus-stops in London, because people were pissing all over the walls of the various buildings, damaging some historic edifices, while they waited to go home from the pub / club at night?
e) queue jumpers want their heals stamped on. They told me themselves.

September 19, 2005 @ 9:20 am | Comment

I love to discover those western habits that appear odd or impolite to Chinese.

For example, we bid our guests farewell from our doorway. We fail to escort them down the elevator/steps and out to the bus stop. How rude! 🙂

I think some Chinese find nose-blowing strange. Why would someone want to save their mucous, wrapping it up in a small cloth to take home in their pocket? How odd! Or perhaps blowing it on a special piece of clean, new paper, only to immediately throw the paper away!


September 19, 2005 @ 9:56 am | Comment

I don’t agree

September 19, 2005 @ 10:29 am | Comment

Do Not Try to Care Too Much About Other’s View of You

When you live in this world, you need to have self-confidence. What does self-confidence mean? It means you need to have your own principles, and not just follow what others say. You should believe that what you are doing is right, and not change your behavior/style so that others will “not look down on you”. If you have no self-confidence, no principles, then you will truly be “looked down upon” by others.

Indeed, modern people need to care about “being civilized”. What is “civilized”? “Civilized” is not infringing upon others’ welfare and interests. No matter what you do, as long as you do not infringe upon others’ interests and social order, then you cannot say whether it’s “civilized” or not. If you occasionally bare your belly on the streets, or take off your shoes in public, you did not infringe on others’ welfare, neither did you break social harmony, so there’s no point talking about “civilized” or not.

What is “civilized? Covering yourself with all the suits and ties and shiny shoes is, I think, a sign of un-civility. You are simply oppressing you own humanity and nature. According to Marx, civilization means being closer to nature, and releasing human nature. I think the entire human civilization should be moving toward that. I dont think any of the “bad” behaviors in China is really uncivilized. Wearing suits and ties in a hot day is really a sign of uncivility, a sign of oppressing humanity.

You say it’s not “civilized” for a man to bare his belly? Then what about those “low-cuts” jeans worn by American girls on the streets of American cities, where you can see half of their ass and their underwear? How come not only no one is trying to “reform” that? I think they are considered “stylish” these days! To be blunt, whatever Westerners do, we will call them “hip” and “stylish”. But if Chinese invent those same behavior, they’ll immediately be called “uncivilized”. If a westerner start to spit on the street, I bet the Chinese will say “Oh, how stylish and sexy that is!” And spitting will be very popular in China.

Whether you are civilized or not, you should have your own principles and standards, and not let others take the “microphone” and set their standards.

It’s been 30-years since China started economic reforms, how come Chinese are being less and less confident these days? If one day others say “black hair and yellow skin is a sign of uncivility”. Should we all dye our hair and change our skins, like Michael Jackson? What if one day a Nobel Prize winner comes out and say “Baring your belly and spitting on the streets are a sign of being closer to nature and something we should all strive for.” What will we Chinese do now? I think Chinese these years have lost their “spirit”, and have lost cultural self-esteem, and has given the microphone to others.

For Chinese, just live according to your own standards, and let others say whatever they want!

September 19, 2005 @ 10:46 am | Comment

What a thread! I was just thinking of opening an etiquette-prompting company in China. That must be a very challenging and rewarding job.

September 19, 2005 @ 11:11 am | Comment

Here in rigid Singapore, the mainlanders, (tourists or perm residents) spit, litter, queue jump and exhibit most of the above-mentioned ‘qualities’.
Nothing has changed. Nothing will changed. 5000 years of history degraded to manners worthy of a retard.

September 19, 2005 @ 11:35 am | Comment

In 1832, Mrs. Trollope voiced similar complaints about Americans in her book, “Domestic Manners of the Americans”.

“I hardly know any annoyance so deeply repugnant to English feelings, as the incessant, remorseless spitting of Americans. I feel that I owe my readers an apology for the repeated use of this, and several other odious words; but I cannot avoid them, without suffering the fidelity of description to escape me.”

“The total want of all the usual courtesies of the table, the voracious rapidity with which the viands were seized and devoured, the strange uncouth phrases and pronunciation; the loathsome spitting, from the contamination of which it was absolutely impossible to protect our dresses; the frightful manner of feeding with their knives, till the whole blade seemed to enter into the mouth; and the still more frightful manner of cleaning the teeth afterwards with a pocket knife, soon forced us to feel that we were not surrounded by the generals, colonels, and majors of the old world; and that the dinner hour was to be anything rather than an hour of enjoyment.”

“If the citizens of the United States were indeed the devoted patriots they call themselves, they would surely not thus encrust themselves in the hard, dry, stubborn persuasion, that they are the first and best of the human race, that nothing is to be learnt, but what they are able to teach, and that nothing is worth having, which they do not possess.”

September 19, 2005 @ 12:46 pm | Comment

That’s as may be shockeye but no one is arguing that others haven’t acted as badly as mainland Chinese people at some point in their history.

What argument or point are you trying to make by pointing out the behavior of American people almost 200 years ago?

Does that change the facts?

China is still in the dark ages when it comes to hygeine and manners. Everyday I see mainlanders walking around as if they completely alone on the planet. It’s just their way I suppose but the govt, judging from this article, feels that the people need some basic education in good manners otherwise China is going to lose face bigtime come 2008.

September 19, 2005 @ 1:00 pm | Comment

…and I wasn’t even thinking about the behavior of the crowds at olympic events.

If all that kicks off then it will be chaos.

September 19, 2005 @ 1:01 pm | Comment

ALthough I consider that, generally speaking, China will do a superb job at hosting the olympics. This event means a lot to China and I cannot see anything going badly wrong.

If I were Chinese, I wouldn’t like to be caught doing anything wrong during the games!

That would be real nasty.

September 19, 2005 @ 1:18 pm | Comment

My point? Every age has its prissy bitches?

September 19, 2005 @ 2:05 pm | Comment

Right, “behave or we’ll ship you out of town like Atlanta did with their homeless people.”

September 19, 2005 @ 3:03 pm | Comment

Lao Lu, you are so right. NYC is famous for “mystery moisture” on sidewalk.

September 19, 2005 @ 3:09 pm | Comment

A true story:
One evening my wife, her friend, and I were in a taxi which stopped just outside of a restaurant where we planned to dine. I notice about 4 Chinese men standing outside, and one of the men was taking a piss, and not bothering to hide his little brother. While in the taxi, I pointed out this scene to my wife and friend. They shouted, “Wo di! Wo di!”
Anyway, we stepped out of the cab onto the curb while the Chinese man continued to take his whizz. His bosom buddies immediately began with the cattle calls of hellos. I simply pointed at their pissing friend with his little brother in hand, and then I pointed at his little brother, and said, “Zhe shi tai xiao le!”
I thought my wife and her friend would die of laughter on the sidewalk. The Chinese men were visibly embarassed, and no more hellos.
We had a delightful dinner.

That’s all. Thank you!

September 19, 2005 @ 5:05 pm | Comment

Another Chinese etiquette mystery: the serial redialer. If I don’t answer the phone, and I am not at home, then calling again 30 seconds later makes no sense. However, if I AM at home, and I didn’t answer, do you think maybe I’m busy and you should wait a bit? I’ve eventually answered some of these harassing dialing addicts, and often the conversation goes something like:


Ni hao, wo shi ______.

Ni hao.

…… a, xianzai ni gan shenme?

They have nothing in particular to say. They just absolutely, positively, had to get me on the phone for no reason. Now people do this in other countries, but the repeat dialing?

I think Bingfeng has a good point about lack of personal space. That would also explain why the wealthy often have better manners (in most of the world). Of course, the wealthy are also the ones smoking in HK Disneyland’s non-smoking areas. Apparently their idea of personal space encompasses most of the planet.

What I find about public manners in China is the intensity of it all; the cacophony of spitting and honking and shouting on cell phones and haranguing the foreigners or simply shouting at passersby with your automated megaphone about the marvelous sales you have or having gigantic speakers blasting Tatu on to the sidewalk at decibel levels equal to the sound of an airplane landing on your house and noodle slurping (yes that’s the right word) from every table around you (yes, it does keeps sauce from spraying on your clothes, I learned that the hard way) and… well, you get the idea.

Yes, many of these things occur in other parts of the world, and yes some things make perfect sense in the context of China… but when it is all committed simultaneously from every direction by millions of people? Words like “assault”, “assailed” and “attacked” come to mind. I know plenty of Chinese people who hate it too, and some of them do it themselves anyway!

Oh, and Simple Worker, besides the fact that you sound downright suspicious, there’s one simple retort to your central claim of:

For Chinese, just live according to your own standards, and let others say whatever they want!

That’s fine – but if you want us to visit for the Olympics, tourism or business, then you might want to be more accomodating. I’d ask no less of an American businessman hosting Chinese guests – greet them with a pack of Honghes, three jugs of baijiu and take them out for a luxurious banquet complete with prostitutes!

September 19, 2005 @ 5:42 pm | Comment

Haha, wonderful dave, absolutely wonderful.

You’ve just totally eclipsed my post with that comment mate. Great stuff.

You’re wasted in the States. You should do the right thing and get back here sharpish!

September 19, 2005 @ 6:10 pm | Comment

In all seriousness let me post this question, if one day, China replaces US as the number-one superpower in the world (not just economically, but culturally as well), and has millions of millions of immigrants coming to China every year. And if Chinese people pick their noses on the streets, be very loud, look very dirty, etc. Do you think the world will say “I like China, but Chinese peoples’ behaviors are so much worse and shoud be reformed”. Or do you think more people will instead try to emulate those behaviors and make them into the new trend and new fashion, and reform their own standards and value-system?

Low cut jeans showing your ass, shouting “Woo!Hoo!” in public, shaking your heads back and forth to your music from your iPOD on the subway, putting tatoos on your arms in public, etc etc. All these stuff are considered “fashionable” and “cool”. Why??? Do you really think there is a standard to judge what is “fashionable” and what is “uncivilized”? The ONLY reason, the ONLY reason those acts are considered fashionable and cool are because they are popularized by citizens of rich nations in the West, and the media helped shaped our value system, and make us believe they are fashionable and cool.

So if one day China has its own world-wide MTV, its own hollywood business, its own TIME magazine, its own global media/entertainment onsalught. Do you think it’ll be a shock if we can make spitting in public a world-wide “cool” behavior? I certainly think that is possible.

That is my point. Thank you.

September 19, 2005 @ 6:33 pm | Comment

Also, you’re right about Simple Worker, he’s posted under ‘Simple Worker’ and ‘I don’t agree’ on this thread and used a few other handles on older threads.

You’d better sort yourself out with a regular name pretty soon.

September 19, 2005 @ 6:33 pm | Comment

In all seriousness let me post this question, if one day, China replaces US as the number-one superpower in the world (not just economically, but culturally as well), and has millions of millions of immigrants coming to China every year. And if Chinese people pick their noses on the streets, be very loud, look very dirty, etc. Do you think the world will say “I like China, but Chinese peoples’ behaviors are so much worse and shoud be reformed”. Or do you think more people will instead try to emulate those behaviors and make them into the new trend and new fashion, and reform their own standards and value-system?

Low cut jeans showing your ass, shouting “Woo!Hoo!” in public, shaking your heads back and forth to your music from your iPOD on the subway, putting tatoos on your arms in public, etc etc. All these stuff are considered “fashionable” and “cool”. Why??? Do you really think there is a standard to judge what is “fashionable” and what is “uncivilized”? The ONLY reason, the ONLY reason those acts are considered fashionable and cool are because they are popularized by citizens of rich nations in the West, and the media helped shaped our value system, and make us believe they are fashionable and cool.

So if one day China has its own world-wide MTV, its own hollywood business, its own TIME magazine, its own global media/entertainment onsalught. Do you think it’ll be a shock if we can make spitting in public a world-wide “cool” behavior? I certainly think that is possible.

That is my point. Thank you.

BTW, why is that half of the time I try to post, it says “Your comment was denied for questionable content. If you think this was an error, send an email to Richard and I’ll get it fixed. ” But then if I post again, it works. Seems very random.

September 19, 2005 @ 6:36 pm | Comment

yea the only reason I tried to use different handles is because sometimes my post gets denied, and sometimes it gets through, and I can’t figure out a “rule” for it.

September 19, 2005 @ 6:38 pm | Comment


The questionable content message you refer to is designed to prevent spam. Certain keywords, including the name of a famous anti-impotent drug for example and a host of other stuff will deny comments.

September 19, 2005 @ 6:41 pm | Comment

No problem SW, but it always arouses suspicion when someone posts under multiple names. Anyway, names of commenters have nothing to do with the anti-spam software. Please keep your comments coming.

September 19, 2005 @ 6:48 pm | Comment

Come on, Westerners are so selfish compared to Chinese (and Japanese for that matter). If I am in a meeting with an American and there is only one cup of tea in the room, the American will take it completely naturally. It won’t even go through his spoilt baby boomer brain that he’s not the only person in the universe whose needs have to be gratified. (Europeans are generally better.) After all, the US/Western economic social and economic model is based on ‘me me me’. I broadly agree with it, but it’s often disgusting . Very atomistic, very splintered, just like Anglo-Saxon society.
And good point by Shanghai Slim. Absolutely right.

September 19, 2005 @ 7:01 pm | Comment

Simple Worker is right about China’s “global media/entertainment onslaught.” I mean, I’m already beginning to think everything on CCTV-9 is REALLY COOL!

Now I’m going to change into my Very Happy Minority costume and do a silly folk dance and praise the Communist Party. COOL!

September 19, 2005 @ 7:04 pm | Comment

Simple Worker, my point is that China manages to package so many things that are considered inappropriate into these family sized packages where you are inundated by all of these things at once.

Etiquette has always been first and foremost the realm of the well-off; they’re the only ones who can afford to pay someone to clean their soiled undergarments. Yes, I agree that some trends and fads, like iPods, are basically initiated by the wealthy, who live, rather lopsidedly, in one particular 1/8 of the globe. But etiquette and iPods are two different things.

The etiquette of China’s historical elites, those few who managed to get through the imperial examinations, may have had raging boozers into the night (who doesn’t), but I find it hard to believe that Emperor Qianlong would have shouted into his cellphone or blasted cantopop from the walls of the Forbidden City. The man had class – back when in China, class had a positive meaning. Where that idea went, well… there are history books for those answers too.

You seem to be saying that all of this can be dismissed as cultural imperialism, and I think that’s BS. Let’s dust off the Four Books and the Five Classics, shall we, and see what they say on etiquette?

From the Lĭ Jì 禮 記 Book 1, translated by James Legge in The Sacred Books of the East Vol. 27.

13. 54. Do not roll the rice into a ball; do not bolt down the various dishes; do not swill down (the soup). 55. Do not make a noise in eating; do not crunch the bones with the teeth; do not put back fish you have been eating; do not throw the bones to the dogs; do not snatch (at what you want). 56. Do not spread out the rice (to cool); do not use chopsticks in eating millet[3].

Hows them apples?

Now I’ll grant you that sometimes China should do things their own way and not listen to others; the above is a example of exactly how they should listen to themselves. The Mainland has to reacquaint itself with the grace and dignity of old China. Why they lost touch in the first place… well, there’s history books that answer that too.

Here’s another example, from Wikipedia:

In China during the Qing Dynasty, a golden spittoon would be among the numerous objects displayed in front of the Emperor at major ceremonies.

After China became a Communist state in 1949, the spittoon became much more prevalent: spittoons were placed at every conceivable public place, and were commonplace in homes as well. The mass introduction of spittoons was no doubt a public hygiene initiative, motivated by a desire to correct the once common Chinese practice of spitting onto the floor. The spittoons used in China were typically made of white porcelain, sometimes with traditional Chinese art painted onto the exterior.

Spittoons were used even during official functions by the political leaders of China; this eventually became a source of ridicule by the mass media outside the Communist state. As a response, the spittoons have largely been withdrawn from public spaces in China since the late 1980s.

Do you see where I’m going with this, SW? Do you wonder why you cherish so much the title “Simple Worker”? Have I painted a picture yet?

Trading one set of elites for another happens all the time, all I’m saying is make sure you’re trading up, not down.

Oh, and thanks for the compliment Martyn. When I wrote that I kept hearing Eric Idle saying:

Yes, you’re quite right, I’m fed up with being treated like a sheep, I mean what’s the point of going abroad if you’re just another tourist carted round in buses, surrounded by sweaty mindless oafs from Kettering and Boventry in their cloth caps and their cardigans and their transistor radios and their ‘Sunday Mirrors’, complaining about the tea, ‘Oh they don’t make it properly here do they not like at home’ stopping at Majorcan bodegas, selling fish and chips and Watney’s Red Barrel and calamares and two veg and sitting in their cotton sun frocks squirting Timothy White’s suncream all over their puffy raw swollen purulent flesh cos they ‘overdid it on the first day’! And being herded into endless Hotel Miramars and Bellevueses and Bontinentals with their modern international luxury roomettes and draft Red Barrel and swimmingpools full of fat German businessmen pretending they’re acrobats, forming pyramids and frightening the children and barging in the queues and if you’re not at your table spot on seven you miss the bowl of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup the first item on the menu of International Cuisine and every Thursday night the hotel is a bloody cabaret in the bar featuring a tiny emaciated dago with nine-inch hips and some bloated fat tart with her hair Brylcreemed down and a big arse presenting Flamenco for Foreigners. And adenoidal typists from Birmingham with flabby white legs and diarrhoea trying to pick up hairy bandy-legged wop waiters called Manuel and once a week there’s an excursion to the local Roman ruins to buy cherryade and melted ice cream and bleedin’ Watney’s Red Barrel, and one evening you visit the so-called typical restaurant with local colour and atmosphere and you sit next to a party of people from Rhyl who keeps singing ‘Torremolinos, Torremolinos’, and complaining about the food, ‘It’s so greasy here isn’t it!’ and you get cornered by some drunken greengrocer from Luton with an Instamatic and Dr Scholl sandals and Tuesday’s ‘Daily Express’ and he drones on and on and on about how Mr Smith should be running this country and how many languages Enoch Powell can speak and then he throws up all over the Cuba Libres.

September 19, 2005 @ 7:44 pm | Comment

Home Boy,

I had a similar incident last night and am now completely scarred for life. I had just had dinner with my friends and we said our goodbyes. They went one way and I went the other looking for a taxi. One of those red RMB1.60 Citroens were available. The chuzuche sign was lit, the driver was standing by the cab at the passenger side with the door open. So I walked briskly towards it – we ALL know how the locals love to snatch a taxi from under your nose even though they realise fair well that it was in fact YOU who saw it first or has been waiting in the rain for the past 20 minutes trying desperately to flag a taxi down. Aargh – taxigrabbers are probably my pet hates. I wish for all sorts of unrepeatable misfortunes and diseases to befall them.

But I digress. So I marched myself up to the taxi and realised too late that the cabbie was actually using the passenger door as a cover while taking a piss. He must’ve also saw me coming towards him too late and gave his d**k a furious shaking and stuffed it back in his pants. I’ve lived here for 3 years and I thought I’d seen everything but my jaw still hit the ground. I put my hands up and just walked off. I was so embarassed to be there but the taxi driver gave me a look like it was the most normal thing to do and probably half expected me to get in his taxi. I still feel sick to the stomach thinking about it.

The government can spend all it wants on infrastructure and other hardware, but they’re going to have to step up the ‘software reprogramming’ offensive if they’re counting on the people on bringing home a successful Olympics instead of the ridicule of the entire world.

September 19, 2005 @ 7:53 pm | Comment


Was he pissing in the street, or in his own cab?

September 19, 2005 @ 8:30 pm | Comment

SW, if you have problems, you can also email me (I’m one of the guest bloggers right now) and I’ll try and post it for you. The anti-spam filter catches some weird things, and I have trouble figuring out the problems myself at times.

September 19, 2005 @ 8:42 pm | Comment

This is Richard, with his first comment in more than four days. SW, please forward any comments that won’t go through directly to me and I will correct the problem. Thanks.

Great thread, by the way – thanks Martyn.

September 19, 2005 @ 8:47 pm | Comment

Simple Worker wrote:

The ONLY reason, “the ONLY reason those acts are considered fashionable and cool are because they are popularized by citizens of rich nations in the West”

I really have to disagree with you on this. Sure, some courtesy and etiquette conventions are just local custom, but most of them are essentially based on either (1) hygenic/sanitation issues, or (2) showing regard or care for the welfare of other people.

Examples of the first reason include customs discouraging public urination/defecation, public nose picking, public nail clipping, open-mouth sneezing and littering.

Examples of etiquette customs based on the second factor include holding the door for someone behind you, not racing ahead of someone to grab a seat, not smoking while others are eating, or not disturbing people with shouting or loud music/noise.

If etiquette was, as you suggest, simply a matter of fashion dictated by the most influential society, I think we would see a much wider range of etiquette customs among differing societies, and throughout history.

However, to use an example in this thread, we can see that many “civilized” societies in different places and times have all discouraged public spitting. Why? Because there are clear health and hygeine issues related to spreading one’s saliva around public places, not simply because spitting for some reason became “fashionable” or “unfashionable” among social leaders.

September 19, 2005 @ 10:09 pm | Comment

Daily linklets 20th September

English in Hong Kong just ain’t that hot. The comparison is often made with Singapore. The difference is Hong Kongers are conent with Cantonese and the Government does not force English down people’s throats…and just as well given how badly the Gove…

September 19, 2005 @ 10:11 pm | Comment

Oh come on, SW is correct. The relative absence of spitting in other countries is simply because non-spitting has been popularised on American TV.

In the TV series, “Friends”, do you ever see anyone spitting? No. And obviously, that must be why spitting is unfashionable in America – because of popular TV shows. Isn’t that logical?

I’ll bet if Jennifer Aniston started spitting all over the place, then ALL American girls would start doing the same thing just to look cool……


September 19, 2005 @ 11:17 pm | Comment


from a distance he appeared to be pissing against the inside of the passenger door. But I think he was actually ‘hiding’, albeit very unsuccessfully, behind the door and taking a wizzle onto the road.

September 19, 2005 @ 11:50 pm | Comment

SW, I’ll concur with you on one thing at least. It is very annoying when Norteamericanos start shouting “Woo!” in order to demonstrate excitment.

I know it’s a cultural thing, and I do try not to be embarrassed by it, but it really does make me cringe. It’s lovely that you’re having fun, but you don’t need to prove it to everyone else. We’re not that bothered.

When see the American students out in town in particular, I often feel there’s a lot of peer pressure at work for people to be really demonstrative and show what a fun guy they are. It all seems a bit competitive.

September 20, 2005 @ 1:57 am | Comment

Interesting thread.

I’m particularly interested when people say that (as far as spitting and anti-social behavior are concerned) China is much better now than it used to be.

Can any long-term China residents confirm this?

Maybe it’s a little better in the big cities but out in the lower-ranking towns and cities, it’s still very prevalent. Especially up in th enortheast I believe where they still burn low-grade coal for heating. Once that grime and black dust gets down your throat I don’t think there’s any option about spitting it out.

September 20, 2005 @ 2:45 am | Comment

I would definitely like to give some support to Simple Worker, not because of his defending Chinese behaviour, but for urging us, westerners, to take a critical look at some of our behaviour. Where indeed is the difference between the uncovered belly-buttons (preferably with piercing) of so many too young girls and the uncovered belly of a middle-age chinese man trying to take a break from the constant heat ? I’ll grant the aesthetic aspect mostly doesn’t speak for the latter, but if we’re talking about acts that make sense, he is the winner. Btw, ever watched a western soccer game ? Try to find three seconds of footage without spitting, yet those guys earn millions.

As for Daves comment on the Li Ji, I think you are aware that literature was confined to a very small circle of literati, so I wonder if any commoner would have been aware of what was in there, let alone he would have had the luxury to abide by those rules.

September 20, 2005 @ 5:28 am | Comment

Lao Lu, I’m with you. I wonder if there is a Western version of The Book of Modisty?

Your critique of “I’m a Britney look-a-like pre-teen slut” fashion is spot-on.

It’s tacky, tasteless, and always evokes the worst aspects of our society, particularly vanity, shamelessness, and willingness to do anything for 15 minutes of fame.

A sure sign of the imminent fall of Western civilization, right Dave?

September 20, 2005 @ 3:44 pm | Comment

Lao Lu, you’re right, a commoner wouldn’t have the same awareness or access to etiquette historically. But that’s true of ANY civilization. Etiquette in Western countries has similarly been something that came out of wealth. That was the first thing I said in my last post, when I pointed out that not everybody could afford to hire maids or dry cleaning services.

But my point is that if we’re talking about etiquette in Chinese culture vs. etiquette in Western culture, then we need to look at comparable phenomenon, i.e. the Miss Manners stuff. This means comparing elites to elites. Simple Worker was saying that there are Western rules of etiquette and Chinese rules of etiquette, and what I’m saying is that both sets of rules were created by a wealthy minority over long periods of time each cultures history and they have far more in common than I think many people realize.

As for exposed belly buttons and low rider jeans, my point is that these are fashion trends, not etiquette which is a different animal. Traditional Western rules of decorum would say that midriffs and belly button rings are vulgar – modernity has introduced the idea of challenging the traditional as repressive, damaging, etc. etc. leading to fashion getting all confrontational about “what is vulgar anyway?” I personally don’t see anything wrong with piercings, but all the ass shaking and stuff Simple Worker points out is essentially going against the grain of traditional ideas of appropriateness for women, sexuality and dress. I’d point out it goes against these traditional ideas in BOTH the Western and Chinese case. Simple Worker seemed to suggest that it was the Western world that had the ass shaking and the Chinese world had “nice girls”. My point is that both cultures have both things, and that both cultures have a traditional elite-born code of conduct that would, like Simple Worker, decry the ass shaking and applaud the “good girl” who didn’t flaunt her sexuality.

I’d like to suggest that there might be a double standard at work here, which I’ll illustrate this way:

1) Take one human being.
2) Dress with exposed midriff/arms/shins/lower thigh/face/hair.
3) Ask yourself if it matters whether its a man or a woman.

Lao Lu, you say there’s a difference between a young girl with an exposed belly button and a man rolling up his shirt to escape the heat. I don’t think that’s necessarily true; alot of young women I know wear less clothes in summer for the same reason: its freakin’ hot outside. If this gets some guys all worked up, I don’t see how thats the girls problem, responsibility or mistake.

September 20, 2005 @ 9:46 pm | Comment

I appreciate your comments, Dave, but I think I didn’t get my point home. The gist of what I was trying to say may have been lost in the comparison I was making with the bare-belly-button girls, which I agree with you was maybe not that suitable for the purpose. What I wanted to stress is that that chinese guy rolling up his shirt is making a lot of sense, from a functional point of view: he has a problem (he feels too hot) and he is solving it (he finds a way to cool down by baring his belly). What in my opinion etiquette is doing -generally speaking- is imposing a view where aesthetics often takes the upperhand of functionality and that, I feel, can lead to aberrations in culture.
This is what I think we nowadays often see happen in Western culture. I often see behaviour where etiquette has become the goal in itself and is no longer the means of smoothening out obvious disturbing human behaviour.

I think a lot of the Chinese behaviour shows the kind of “sense” I have been referring to, I would say even spitting as an act in itself fits within this pattern of sense as it is a way of getting rid of something that better does not remain in your body. Etiquette’s role in this process should be to set out the lines how far “functional” behaviour can go before becoming a burden on the social environment. And I think a lot among us in the Western “civilized” world are drawing those lines far too narrow.

September 21, 2005 @ 12:49 pm | Comment

I see the shirt rolling up as equivalent to the working man’s exposed ass crack that is so well known in the U.S. (and lives on in most of the world). Yeah, that stuff is functional.

Screaming in your phone, honking, spitting right at other peoples feet as if they aren’t there, picking your nose… these are matters of public health. If I see a guys exposed belly, it won’t hurt me. But these other things can have physical and psychological negative effects.

Of course etiquette goes beyond the practical. As I said, it was invented by rich people, who often have alot of free time on their hands. My point before was that Chinese etiquette is what Chinese rich people came up with. Meaning that rolled up t-shirts and spitting and shouting on your phone would be, should such a 农民老板 be transported into Qianlong’s court, totally crass.

By stressing functionality, you’re taking the side of against the elites. Fine with me. My point to Simple Worker was that he confused the issues; he was calling the rolled up shirt and spitting Chinese etiquette, which it most certainly is not. Etiquette would most likely be a unifying factor between Chinese and Western elites, not the other way around. Of course it can be taken too far; but having eaten in a 版面餐丁, I can tell you that it can go too far the other way too.

September 22, 2005 @ 1:47 pm | Comment

One more brief thought. It’s been my personal observation the westerners behave worse when they are in China than they would dare to when at home.

September 22, 2005 @ 8:07 pm | Comment

That’s an easy one 9. For good or for ill, it’s because Westerners can get away with murder.

September 22, 2005 @ 8:10 pm | Comment

Not just in China. Hong Kong’s expats can be just as bad. Singapore’s seem a bit more reserved, probably because they don’t fancy being caned.

September 22, 2005 @ 9:05 pm | Comment

Just a quick note about public urination: it’s esthetically unpleasant, no question, but it’s not a sanitation problem–urine is aseptic.

Spitting, coughing, hacking, blowing one’s nose onto the sidewalk, etc. on the other hand, is a major pathway for the spread of all kinds of bacteria and viruses, including TB in China and should definitely be aggressively discouraged. But it has little to do with local or even international standards of etiquette, IMHO.

December 20, 2005 @ 6:43 am | Comment

I’ve lived in China for over fifteen years. Whenever nature calls, I always piss my pants so as not to piss on public property. And I always wipe my nose on my sleeve when I can’t find a bedsheet. When eating chicken, I always stick the bones in my ears as not to mess up the table. Sometimes I have a battery operated drill so that I can srill holes in the bones, string them onto a piece of fishing line, and wear them around my neck. No messy table here. Usually as most of you know, in common restaurants, patrons normally through the first cup of tea on the floor or out the door. I usually rinse my hair with it.

I’ve seen many foreigners come and go in China. Usually they come with excess baggage, a hidden agenda, or a mind fixed in cement.

I once heard a fascinating story from a man, a foreigner, who grew up on the streets of Chengdu. He said this simple yet profound thing.

If one lives in China a year, one can write a book. If one lives in China five years, one can write a newspaper or magazine article. If one lives in China ten years, one can write a paragraph. If one lives in China fifteen years, one can write a sentence. If one lives in China, tweny years, one can write a word. If one lives in China twenty-five years or more, one is speechless.

Like your namesake:

Ivan you’re terrible.

January 9, 2006 @ 2:17 am | Comment

In my opinion, behaviors such as spitting and public urination/defecation must be eliminted because they are unsanitary and could spread disease. I don’t think any amount of slogans, advertisements, or education campaigns is enough to stop it though. The provincial and city governments in China need to enact strict punishments like caning or fines for those behaviors. I believe that if it worked in Singapore, it will work in China as well.

January 12, 2006 @ 1:03 pm | Comment

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