What Are Chinese People Like?

Notions and Preconceptions About the People of China

It's hard to know what Chinese people are like without actually visiting the country. Having already spent a good chunk of life living in Japan and traveling around Asia, the preconceptions and ideas along the lines of "how different can they be?" were strong. Those ideas were shot down after being here only a short amount of time.

Some people unfairly generalize about Chinese people. The Chinese culture is vastly different from north to south and east to west, and there really is no such thing as "Chinese people" or "Chinese language." There are Han Chinese, the main ethnicity. There are 56 other ethnic groups that make up the population of China. There is Mandarin Chinese, which is the common language of China, and then there's practically a different dialect for every town and county in China.

Generalizations abound in the West about Chinese people. But northern Chinese also generalize about southern Chinese; Shanghainese generalize about people who come from outside Shanghai. Because of language differences, Asian cultures seem pronouncedly foreign. We all have preconceived notions about what it's going to be like when we get to China, but that all goes out the window once we actually live in a place and get to know it.

01 of 04

Chinese People Don't Have Siblings

© 2012 Sara Naumann, licensed to About.com.

The Chinese government's voluntary one-child policy program was put into effect in 1978; by 1980, the central government began to standardize the one-child policy nationwide. Anyone born before 1978 very likely has one or more siblings.

The policy is not intended to cover everyone equally and is meant more for the urban population. Farmers and China's ethnic minorities are allowed more than one child, especially if the first child is a girl. So if you travel to the countryside or into remote regions of China, you'll find families with more than one child.

The success of the policy has meant the overall decline in the Chinese birthrate. This has become a cause for alarm because there are fewer people in the workforce to take care of an aging population. Therefore, in late 2015 Chinese officials announced that the program would end. By 2016, all families were allowed to have two children. The subject of siblings is not taboo, and Chinese people are open to discussing it. 

02 of 04

Chinese People Are Rude

Mom & toddler girl looking at the Chinese lanterns.
Tang Ming Tung/Getty Images

One of the most noticeable things about walking down the streets in Shanghai is how loudly everyone speaks. Supposedly, the Americans are the loud ones. Watching two elderly ladies across the street one day in what looked like an amicable discussion, their decibel level suggested they must be angry with each other.

After studying Mandarin for a few months, it became clear that Chinese people are quite animated when speaking. When something in the story gets exciting or important, the volume is amplified.

Standing in line—a recent phenomenon and, in places like the line in a local pharmacy or the post office, a mere suggestion—is annoying if you're used to waiting in lines surrounded with personal space. Chinese people will push and shove up behind you or wedge their way in front of you just because you don't have your nose touching the back of the person in front of you. But that's the way it is; you have to stand your ground. It's nothing personal.

Regarding anti-spitting campaigns, they are commonplace—but so is spitting, unfortunately.

03 of 04

No One Speaks English

Signs in Hong Kong
Jim Hughes Photography, Inc./Getty Images

You'll be amazed at how much English is spoken in China. Reverse the situation, and you'll shake your head in shame. However, while English is widely spoken by Chinese people, the level of understanding it is varied. The tailor at the fabric market will know the simple vocabulary for making clothes but will very likely not be able to get into a detailed discussion of the Chinese education system. Speak slowly. Don't ask yes/any questions, because a lot of times the service industry people will just agree with you or say yes even if they haven't understood your request.

Taxi drivers don't generally speak English, and it's always good to have the address of your destination written in Chinese on paper. Street signs are written in English in big cities so you can navigate yourself.

04 of 04

Chinese People Speak "Chinese"

Old local women in Barkhor square, Lhasa, Tibet.
Matteo Colombo/Getty Images

Mainland China is generally understood to be populated by a majority of ethnic Han Chinese people and 56 different ethnic minorities. So when people think of the Chinese, they are probably referring to the Han majority without even knowing it. The 56 official ethnic minority peoples are scattered throughout China, but different groups are dominant in different places. For example, Tibet is home to Tibetan people, Yunnan Province is home to many Bai and Hui people, and Xinjiang Province is home to the Uigher people.

Each minority group has its own traditions and way of dressing. Visiting the areas where these people live gives the traveler a different perspective on travel in China.

Mandarin is the Chinese language people think about when they speak the language generally spoken in mainland China. Putonghua, as Mandarin Chinese is called in Mandarin Chinese, is the language taught in schools and used on television.

Thousands of dialects exist in China. Even in Shanghai, suburbanites speak a different dialect than the dominant Shanghainese (Shanghaihua), which is totally different from Mandarin Chinese. You might have heard Cantonese spoken in movies. That dialect and Hakka are used in Guangdong Province and Hong Kong.

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