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10 Etiquette Tips for Visiting Shanghai

Gu tian Bridge, Shanghai
Gu tian Bridge, Shanghai | © hongsaya Limpakhom / Alamy Stock Photo
Picture of Jenna Farmer
Updated: 21 March 2019
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From proper etiquette for toasts, tipping and toilets to avoiding mortal offence with your gift-giving and chopstick placement, Culture Trip explains how to be the model of perfect manners on your next trip to Shanghai.

Choose gifts wisely

If you’re thinking of buying a gift for a local, there are a few things to avoid. While flowers are usually a safe bet, white and yellow ones, which are often used at funerals, are a no-no. Steer clear of clocks and watches, too, particularly for the elderly, as such items imply that your days are numbered. Finally, while umbrellas might be useful for the city’s not infrequent downpours, the Chinese word for umbrella (sǎn) is very similar to the word for breaking up (sàn), so brollies have negative connotations.

Flower shop at Jiangyin Road, Shanghai
© kpzfoto / Alamy Stock Photo

Never leave an empty plate

When dining with others in Shanghai, an empty plate can be interpreted as inferring that the host did not order enough food, which can be very embarrassing for them. This is less of a worry at fast-food joints and Western restaurants.

Be careful when placing your chopsticks

Sticking your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice may bring to mind certain funeral rituals for those around you – not a good idea. Also, be careful of tapping your bowl with them; this is seen as impolite. Instead, when eating out in Shanghai, place your chopsticks just to the right of the rice bowl before you eat and across the middle vertically after you finish.

Using chopsticks to eat noodles with egg
© suwinai sukanant / Alamy Stock Photo

Let your host pay for dinner

When chowing down with locals, you might want to split the bill. If dining as a guest, however, don’t even think about it – offering to do so will be seen as insulting to your host’s finances.

Embrace the lack of privacy

If there’s one thing that Chinese people are comfortable with, it’s the lack of privacy. Traditional squat toilets are often barely concealed by panelling, allowing users to chat away as they respond to the call of nature. Queuing is a non-existent concept here, too, so don’t be too surprised if locals don’t appear to acknowledge personal space, or shove past you to get on the Shanghai metro.

Always join in with a toast

Even if you’re not drinking, joining in with the many toasts (gan bei) of a meal is mandatory. The clink of your glass is important here, too: aim the lip of your glass to clink the bottom of theirs, as a nod to their superiority and status.

Friends toast during an outdoor lunch, Shanghai
© Martin Thomas Photography / Alamy Stock Photo

Expect to talk money

Money can often dominate Chinese conversation, so don’t let it phase you if you’re asked about your earnings. The country’s economic revival has driven many to embrace an attitude that equates success with wealth.

Bring an open mind to the dinner table

You’re likely to be served hot water when eating out, even if the weather is sweltering; the Chinese believe hot water to be very beneficial for your health. When dining in traditional restaurants, expect to order plenty of dishes for the table. And they’ll arrive when they’re ready, rather than adhering to a Western-style course system. Finally, unless you specifically request otherwise, rice is usually served last of all.

Steamed dumplings in steamer baskets
© frans lemmens / Alamy Stock Photo

Keep the change

Overall, tipping is not part of Chinese culture and could even be perceived as rudeness. That said, tipping has started to become common in the more Westernised Shanghai hotels and restaurants. Unsure what to do? Follow the example of your fellow diners and guests.

Don’t be offended by staring and pointing

For many of the older generation in particular, foreigners are still a noteworthy sight – don’t mistake staring and pointing for rudeness. Locals can sometimes be eager for the chance to practise their English, too, so you may be approached for a chat – or even a selfie.

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