Giving a general overview of Chinese culture to foreigners can be difficult because its scope is so large. In addition, regional variations in many beliefs and practices can be a source of fascinating conversation between two Chinese people of different ethnic groups. However, by giving a good, general overview you can entertain and educate a group of foreigners while helping them to avoid some common cultural mistakes when visiting or interacting with Chinese people.
Give a brief overview of Chinese history, mentioning that it dates back around 6,000 years. Many cultural faux pas date from very ancient times and are based on Taoism and numerology that are credited to the near-mythological Huang Di, or the Yellow Emperor.
Describe the importance of numerology in Chinese culture. Common mistakes include giving gifts in multiples of four. The Chinese word for the number four sounds very much like the word for death, thus giving someone something in multiples of four is tantamount to inviting death.
Introduce other cultural taboos, such as giving a lover shoes. Giving a lover shoes invites them to walk away. A gift of a clock, because of the similarity between the word for clock and the word for death, invites death into the life of the recipient.
Discuss numbers that are considered auspicious. Those include two, which is a symbol of unity and germination; five, which symbolizes the self; and eight, which symbolizes sudden prosperity and is commonly used in Chinese Buddhism and Taoism.
Discuss some common cultural practices that can cause inadvertent offense. One is the requirement that all business cards be presented to the recipient using two hands. Using one hand is considered a slight and an indication that the presenter doesn't respect the recipient. Although not as critical, it is important to use two hands when presenting anything to a recipient, including anything from a gift to a cup of tea. Another common practice in the west is to cross your legs. In China, this is considered a liberty that shows too much familiarity. In addition, presenting the soles of your shoes to others across from you indicates a lack of respect.
Present the history of Chinese science. Chinese medicine is a good starting point because it allows the introduction of the concept of the qi and yin and yang forces. Other Chinese advances include the earliest development of paper and the printing press and the invention of gunpowder.
Discuss the depth and complexity of different Chinese visual arts, including watercolors, jade and stone carvings and calligraphy. Use examples to help bring the textures to life.
Tell the audience about the many different spoken dialects. Although Mandarin is the official language, there are hundreds of other major dialects and thousands of minor regional dialects that use a shared system of writing.
Explore the different regional cuisines and how many of the recipes used by fine chefs have remained unchanged for hundreds of years. Depending on the audience, you could present the Chinese proverb that "Chinese will eat anything with four legs except the table."
Explain how Chinese culture has absorbed and adopted different religious traditions. Although Taoism is likely the oldest religion, Buddhism was absorbed and incorporated into Chinese religious traditions. Most Chinese temples mix both Buddhist and Taoist deities and practices. Confucian temples are more philosophical temples than temples for the worship of deities, and usually don't have icons from other religions.
Give a good overview of Chinese New Year. Chinese New Year is the largest holiday not only in China, but in most other Asian cultures. Chinese New Year is considered a breaking point through which people can leave bad luck in a previous year behind. It is a time when families gather, celebrate and feast. During Chinese New Year, it is customary to give red envelopes with money to children and in some cases to friends and other family members. Rules of numerology must be strictly followed and no denominations of four should ever be used (400, 4,000 or 40,000). Firecrackers bring good luck and scare away evil spirits and influences.
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Most Chinese people will be very forgiving of faux pas by foreigners. People understand that customs are different everywhere and may actually be really pleased to talk about customs and traditions in general Chinese culture and ones unique to a particular region.