Jul 19

How to greet properly in traditional Chinese style

Written by DJ on Saturday, July 19th, 2008 at 6:05 pm
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On July 18th, Beijing released a set of official Olympic and Paralympic posters and graphics. A sharp eyed reader quickly pointed out a mistake in one of the smiling face photos:

Can you identify the problem in this photo?

The actor in the photo is greeting by raising joined hands (作揖). However, the way he wrapped one hand over another is wrong. As the reader put it:

The act of 作揖 is to join hands at slightly raised height and push outwards. The exact manner in joining hands is highly important. If it is formed with the left hand wrapped around a fist formed by the right hand, then it is an auspicious greeting. The other way signals an inauspicious greeting. In the old days, when attending a funeral, the guest is supposed to greet with the inauspicious greeting.

Oops! Others commented that, after these traditional and elaborate greetings faded away in daily usages, such mistake is not uncommon nowadays in both domestic and international TV shows and movies. The most recent example is, you guessed it, Kung Fu Panda.

There is a lot more to the historical origin and variations of 作揖 that are meant for different settings and people. A Beijing tour guide pointed out in his/her blog one particular useful application of 作揖:

When faced with many guests in front of you, it is often impractical to greet them individually. One could instead join the hands, raise to the eye brow height, greet three times from left to right. This particular style is called “three head shakes of a jade dragon.”

Now you have it. Of course, when in doubt, just shake hands.

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24 Responses to “How to greet properly in traditional Chinese style”

  1. Buxi Says:

    Great story, DJ! I’ll have to remember that. Seems sort of odd that a jingxi performer would get that wrong though, you’d think that’d be a standard part of their training. Perhaps the people behind the photo just chose to flip it.

    I remember hearing about similar issues with the way of kimonos were tied in Japanese movies. (Memoirs of a Geisha?)

    Although your best advice is probably at the end… shake hands!

  2. FOARP Says:

    Wow . . . . I guess that mean you have to get used to Hollywood and everyone else getting your culture completely wrong for the next 60 years, like we the UK have had to . . . .

  3. DJ Says:


    Do tell. What are those UK culture items that are commonly misunderstood or practiced wrong?

  4. FOARP Says:

    Accent, class, history, everything . . .

  5. DJ Says:


    I realized that you might have read the line “… in TV shows and movies” as referring to only international ones. Actually, the comments in Tianya were mostly focused on pointing out that China’s domestic productions frequently got it wrong. I am going to edit the post so it is clear.

  6. Joel Says:

    i just told my wife about this post and she said, “Couldn’t the picture just be flipped?”

    So I wonder… maybe they did it right, but in processing/editing/copying the photo was reversed? I wouldn’t know how to tell.

  7. DJ Says:


    That’s a common reaction and likely a correct one as well. I am with Buxi in doubting an Opera actor would make such a rudimentary mistake. Too bad there wasn’t any background details (e.g., writings) in the photo to prove it one way or another. Nevertheless, someone somewhere in the chain made a mistake since this offending picture came straight from the official Beijing 2008 web site.

  8. chorasmian Says:

    After all, it is good to see this issue is brought up to young generation in China.

  9. Wukailong Says:

    @Joel: If you flip a glove in the fourth dimension, it fits your other hand. 🙂

  10. bianxiangbianqiao Says:

    The mistake is quite understandable. This greeting probably have not been used since 1949. It belonged to a different historical period, several generations ago. On my trips back to China I was surprised how many ancient customs and habits have come back after years of abscence. One example was setting of firecrackers at funerals. Another one was those “lucky” numbers (phone numbers etc.).

    I learned a few new rules in greeting too. My folks told me that if you need to vocally secure a young woman’s attention in the street, you should not call her ” 小姐(Miss?)” which was a dubious title. Instead, you should call her “美女” (beauty or hottie). In the United States, a guy calling a strange woman “hottie” could be accused of sexual harrassment.

  11. opersai Says:


    I think the reason you should not address someone 小姐(Miss) is because the title was too abused to be used to address prostitute who often disguised as waitress? or – commonly know as 三陪小姐. So, calling a lady a 小姐 should be taken that you are inferring that she is a whore. That probably will earn you a good slap on the face.

    Regarding calling ladies hottie (“美女”), I’m not sure, but I think you might be taken as playboy, 轻浮. I doubt you will leave them a good impression with that either. I think, I remember, my friends told me to address them as 姑娘, girl(?), lady(?) for young women, and call them 大妈,大婶 for older women.

  12. FOARP Says:

    @opersai, BXBQ – I was under the impression that it differs from region to region, in Nanjing and Shenzhen people had heard of this, but the majority of the women I knew still found nothing wrong with 小姐, and that is what I used.

  13. Buxi Says:

    It really depends on the context. In Nanjing, my theory is we have had enough Taiwanese businessman 台商 that 小姐 is fine in most “service” contexts.. restaurants, bars, whatever. Might be different in Beijing.

    I still hear a lot of 服务员, and the occasional 同志 too.

  14. DJ Says:

    Oh well, 同志 (comrade) has now gained an alternative usage, probably only popular among the relatively young. It is now used by some to mean homosexuals.

  15. S.K. Cheung Says:

    To Buxi:
    people still call each other comrades in PRC?

  16. Buxi Says:


    Right, I’m aware of “tongzhi” as an alternative term for homosexual men… but it’s pretty clear by the context when that’s used. And it’s not used often.

    And yes, S.K.Cheung, people still call each other comrades in the PRC. Usually older generations that haven’t broken the habit formed after 5 decades. You have to realize everyone older than the age of 45 have that term deeply implanted in their minds.

    Oh, and members of the Communist Party remains very firm on calling other comrades, at least in a formal environment. Standard terminology in any Party document + newspaper, also.

  17. Chops Says:

    Seems “你吃饱了吗?” (Have you eaten?) is still used as a greeting among some Chinese, and the standard reply is always yes.

  18. Netizen Says:

    I think we don’t need to make a big fuss of this mistake or nonmistake. If opera professionals can’t differentiate it or don’t care to do so, our old-hundred-names should move on. Maybe this is social progress in making certain things simpler. Without someone making the first move to change, things won’t evolve by themselves.

  19. bianxiangbianqiao Says:

    I have heard young women being addressed as “美女” several times in shops by the shop attendants.

    S. K. Cheung,

    “Comrade” is perfectly acceptable in Beijing. I was addressed as a comrade on the bus by the conductor when she asked me to give up my seat to an elderly. “哎这位同志,请给老人让个座儿。”

    Like Opersai said, family relations such as “大妈,大婶” seemed to be the most common ways of addressing strangers, at least in BJ. I was called brother (“哥”, but not big brother “大哥”) several times in the street. It feels we are all a big family.

  20. Buxi Says:

    I agree, family/relation names are the most common for strangers.

    What do people in Beijing call older men? What’s the male equivalent to 大妈 and 大婶? I’m still used to 叔叔, but maybe 大爷?

  21. yo Says:

    I have a different take on the comrade greeting. Generally, it shouldn’t be used because it’s dated. My friend, an American, who was middle aged at the time wanted to call over some guy in his twenties. Because greetings in Chinese are attached to the person’s age (older sister, younger sister, etc etc) he didn’t know what to say. My friend couldn’t call him sir, and he didn’t want to call him something that he would use for someone younger. So he tried comrade, and he brought the house down!

    Also, I heard the term “comrade” means something else now 😉

  22. oldson Says:

    The only time I heard people use ‘comrade’ was in a joke – just like calling someone a ‘three leged chair’. Of course it can be used in serious/formal situations – try putting on a straight face in front of a crowd and asking which ‘tong zhi men’ will be brave enough to proudly serve their country.

    With regards to xiao jie – in resteraunts/shops one can politely say xiaojie without raising eyebrows. Everybody I know uses it but you must keep the context, tone of voice, and body language of the speaker in mind. If it was an average Chinese person or a ‘da bi zi’ speaking in a normal tone of voice while asking for assistance there is nothing wrong. Nothing is implied here.

    However, if you have the negative archetypal wannabe businessman/gangster (balding beer guted loudmouth middle aged man who drives a BMW with tinted windows and is followed around by underlings) then the situation would be different. A lot of times such uncultured individuals will use a ‘ruan ding zi’ (soft nail) to ‘da cao jing she’ (test the waters) and try to ‘pao niu’ (chase girls) and screw around with people. It is just like the word ‘fu wu’ (service). When training hotel employees to provide customer service to foreign guests they would always crack up when they had to ask ‘which services do you need?” (ni xu yao shenme fu wu?) or role play as a guest and ask ‘what services do you have? (ni you shenme fu wu ne?)

    These worlds all have a double connotation or ‘bian yi’ – it all depends on the social situation, the speaker/listeners and implied connotation. There are so many words that can be interpreted differently (the relationship between the speaker/listener and how proud the listener is)

    When I was first in China I learned that ‘lao ye men er’ could be used as an intimate term for elderly men. I accidently called on of the kung fu masters ‘lao ye mar’ and he never forgave me because it was meant for men older than him. I was just trying to show him that I respected him and considered him my friend but a lot of Chinese people over value face and can be quite anal about title usage. I was called many things while I was in China, some of which isn’t suitable for print, but I think American’s aren’t as uptight about titles and how we refer to each other. With some Chinese friends we could easily joke and comfortably use terms which would be rude if used in another way – like when I tried playing Fang Kong (C.S.) with friends we would shout and curse at each other but that is standard Chinese practice in wang ba’s and among players.

    Also, girls often call each other mei nu – just as guys can be harmlessly referred to as shuai ge

  23. Katirna Says:

    Hello there I am doing a report on China’ s customs and I would like to know if you can help me out on how to greet in China. If I were coming to China for the first time…what are the do’s and don’ts in greeting people in China?


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