6 Chinese Hand Gestures You Can Learn Today
What’s the most insulting gesture you can think of?
Well, that probably depends on the culture. In fact, learning about body language and gestures is a necessary part of communicating fluently with native speakers.
That means there’s plenty of moves a Chinese person could make that would leave the unfamiliar traveler scratching their head.
Here you’ll find some common Chinese hand gestures, as well as a few you should avoid for the sake of manners.
- 1. Beckon with a down-turned palm
- 2. Place your chopsticks on top of your bowl
- 3. Present and accept gifts with both hands
- 4. Keep greetings formal
- 5. Stand up for a toast
- 6. Point to your nose
- Gestures to Avoid in Chinese
1. Beckon with a down-turned palm
Westerners will sometimes use their index finger to tell someone to “come here,” but that’s not how it’s done in many Chinese-speaking cultures.
To beckon someone, pull your fingers in a down-turned or sideways palm towards your body. This will almost look like a cat pawing at something.
This is a gesture mostly used among friends and young people. This motion wouldn’t be the best to use when communicating with your older native Chinese boss or superior. In a case like that, try to establish eye contact with the person and bow slightly. This is a much more formal beckoning gesture.
2. Place your chopsticks on top of your bowl
Instead of sticking your chopsticks into your dish bowl or laying them on a napkin when you’re done eating, it’s customary to place chopsticks that aren’t in use horizontally on top of your bowl.
In Chinese-speaking cultures (as well as several other Southeast Asian cultures) it’s a big no-no to stick your chopsticks upright into your rice while dining with others.
This mimics the appearance of funeral incense, and is considered a sort of “death” omen. Younger generations don’t mind as much—but doing this will still make one look a bit ignorant.
3. Present and accept gifts with both hands
When offered a gift, don’t snatch it up with one hand. Take the box or bag with both of your hands. Same goes for offering a gift—don’t offer it with just one hand, no matter how small the gift.
You should also do this when you accept or offer business cards. You want to make sure your potential business associate remembers you for the right reasons, so be sure to use both hands!
4. Keep greetings formal
Are you a big hugger? Sadly, this may not go over so well in China. Hugging, kissing cheeks, back-slapping or reaching out to touch a pin or tie before complimenting it are all major no-nos.
Nodding with a polite smile or shaking hands are preferred gestures when greeting someone, rather than friendly hugs.
Additionally, try to greet the oldest person first if you’re meeting a family or group of people. (Although, again, younger Chinese people don’t care so much about this.)
5. Stand up for a toast
When having beer or throwing back a shot during a Chinese toast, stand up or tap the table with your palm somewhat loudly while drinking.
This is considered a more participatory, social way of making a toast at a party or business venture. Make sure you toast everybody at the table before drinking, too!
While the default Chinese toast literally means “dry cup,” it’s used in the same way “Cheers!”: 干杯！(gān bēi!)
6. Point to your nose
In Western cultures, one will often touch their chest when referring to themselves. In China, you should point to your nose when referring to yourself.
Also, don’t touch someone else’s schnoz. It’s rude.
Of course, this may take some getting used to, because in places like Australia and New Zealand, this nose-touching gesture is a sort of wry one, while in the United States this may be seen as a gesture for thinking.
Ah, the diversity of body language.
Gestures to Avoid in Chinese
Here are some gestures you should stay away from so that you make the best possible impression on your Chinese friends and acquaintances:
- No finger-pointing. This is considered extremely rude. Equally as bad is using chopsticks or other cutlery to point at someone or something. Pointing is bad enough, but pointing at someone with dirty chopsticks is somewhat antagonizing.
- Keep your hands to yourself. Making big sweeping hand gestures while speaking should be avoided. Drawing so much attention to yourself is considered rude and a little obnoxious in China.
- No excessive touching. Public displays of affection are frowned upon, as is having your hands all over someone else. Don’t make out in front of a bunch of other people in China. (Actually, don’t do this anywhere.)
- Feet are made for walking (and that’s it). Feet are considered dirty in China, which isn’t so different from Western culture. Crossing your leg in someone’s direction, putting your feet on a table, showing the soles of your feet or gesturing at people with your feet is very rude in Chinese cultures.
- Don’t be late. Punctuality is very much valued in many Chinese-speaking regions. Being fashionably late is considered a bit tacky, so try to arrive on time to dates and meetings, however casual!
- Keep the tip. It’s considered rude and stuck-up to tip a waitress, cab driver or other service worker in China.
If you’d like to see Chinese hand gestures in action to help you really get a sense for them, try checking out some Chinese movies, TV shows or even music videos.
You may also want to try an immersive language learning program. FluentU, for instance, takes authentic Chinese videos and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
FluentU’s interactive subtitles can help you make sense of what you hear, and the contextual notes can provide additional cultural information. You can even learn more about Chinese gestures on the go with the FluentU app (for Android and iOS).
Even in a foreign language, everyone can understand the idea (and power) of body language. Human beings are so much more connected than we think!
Now get out there and impress all your Chinese friends with your newfound knowledge!