For those calling China home, it can be easy to think you’ve figured it all out. Many of us reach a plateau in understanding Chinese culture, leaving little room for new ideas regarding a country with depth unlike any other. Don’t overestimate yourself.
You have the ability to be absolutely and utterly wrong. You’ve lost count of situations that have gone sideways, and when reading situations and having conversations in a foreign culture, whether you’re visiting China for the first time or are a seasoned expat with years of living in the East, you’ve recognized the struggle of communication. But other times, you’ve walked away with total confidence, unconscious only to your own obliviousness. Don’t let it happen again.
We were fortunate enough to speak with two local psychologists who specialize in Kinesics, the study of body language and nonverbal behavior otherwise known as body language. Vincent Chen has masters degree from the Chinese Academy of Science in Beijing and King, a masters student at Peking University, has a counselor’s certificate from Zhong Da Training School. With their help we were able to shed light on a few oddities that might have caught your eye at one point or another. Get to know these 20 new ways to read your surroundings by studying Chinese body language.
Facial expressions are seen as a direct link to our emotions and can be found in almost all mammals and even in many animal species. Out of all components of nonverbal communication, facial expressions are considered to be the most universal and there is debate as to whether they are actually genetic. There is a lot of evidence that suggests this is the case and may also be why a person who is born without sight instinctively smiles when expressing their happiness. Regardless of these facts, there are undoubtedly a handful of Chinese facial expressions that are distinct from other cultures.
This facial expression has its roots in Chinese Opera and is characterized by squinted eyes, a tight, raised lower lip and a lowered brow. Tied in with the outward pointing thumb this displays authority and confidence, possibly even bragging rights. Seen as a negative gesture and common among elders and Laobans, this gesture begs one’s worship.
When it comes to the traditional rules of attraction in Western culture, they do not apply in China. In fact, they appear to be all together different. When a Chinese woman is confronted by someone of attraction, often a natural reaction is to turn away from the handsome subject and direct her eyes downward avoiding eye-contact. If conversation cannot be avoided, the mother of all gestures is then employed.
For our purposes, we’ll call this fanning. With a long history of use in China, it is the equivalent of female peacocking; traditionally seen in Beijing Opera, film and television. This is displayed when a woman masks the lower portion of her face from her potential lover using a fan. In modern days, this is simply done using a hand to hide a few squeamish giggles and is representative of the woman’s timid nature.
A DIRECT SIGNAL
Quite possibly, gestures are the most dangerous of all components of body language. With little crossover among cultures, giving a thumbs up in the wrong place could land you in an embarrassing or even dangerous situation. The thing about gestures that makes them unique is our innate ability to use them in place of words. This is very true in China.
If you’ve ever been stuck at home or in a hotel without wi-fi, chances are that you have seen a Beijing Opera once or twice on television. This is perhaps the best example of Chinese gesturing, and the cultural powerhouse has been woven into the architecture of life here. One or two aren’t found anywhere else, due in part to the country’s long and culture-rich history combined with a somewhat isolated society.
This infamous gesture usually indicates foul-play is at hand and that someone has been caught red-handed. With different versions created by different personalities, this gesture typically involves a hand raised, partially covering the face while stroking an eyebrow or two. As though someone could hide their feelings of guilt behind their hand, this pose displays an understanding of one’s faults and discomfort in dealing with them.
Being a very comical Asian posture, this pose stems, once again from Chinese Opera. Although not typically seen, it can be found within your more intimate or personal relationships in China. Displayed only when extremely disappointed or dumbfounded (perhaps jokingly), this gesture is all about the slumped over shoulders synchronized with a sudden paralysis of the jaw muscles and eyelids. This is the equivalent of the more recently famous “facepalm” found in the West.
READING THE SCULPTURE
Posture displays character
A person’s posture is understood to be a reflection of their characteristics, and depending on their current situation, it is representative of mood. Many types of posture can be seen by simply hitting the streets of Dongguan or in local shopping malls. A person’s posture changes the least out of all gestures and can be a good tell as to what that person might be like. As cruel as it sounds to judge a book by its cover in this way, it is thought to be reflective of reality. China is filled with people from all walks of life and because of this, it is easy to see a variety of postures just about everywhere you go.
Photo-taking can be an interesting subject in China and this gesture is proof of that. Found in abundance among popular tourist destinations, shopping malls, gag-inducing art installments and bathrooms alike; the scoliosis pose holds a powerful grip on China’s youth. Characterized by a slightly tilted head with a downward facing shoulder, those conveying this gesture appear to be leaning against their egos. To summarize its meaning, this gesture is saying: “I’m so damn cute, there’s simply no possible way to fit one more person into this camera frame.”
Originating again from Chinese Opera and Mao era propaganda posters, this gesture screams China. Characterized by having straight posture, shoulders drawn back giving way an open chest and arm extended into the future. This says, “I’m confident, humble and ready to face any super villains that come my way.”
Common among more confident younger generations, it’s not seen in the body language of elders because it is reserved for people of wealth. Although this gesture is rarely used off-stage, its elements, those of its raised brow and pursed-lipped facial features, can be employed for other purposes. Like many power poses in the West, if this pose is held for a short while (for example: before a meeting or job interview), it has been shown to have the capacity to boost confidence levels dramatically and could mean the difference between success and failure.
When it comes to the ultimate power pose, stick a foot out and place your hands on your hips. The chest is barreled out showing strength, but the abdomen is left vulnerable to attack as if to say, “you can attack If you like, but it won’t end well for you.” Consulting with psychologist Peter King, we learned that the only way to take a more powerful stance is to stick out the finger to point, often a no no, unless of course, you are in charge.
Looking a bit miserable and broken, this gesture is made famous by young and old alike but particularly the middle aged. The body position is characterized by a taco-shaped posture and hands rested on the hips to match the weepy eyes and long face. It says, “I’ve been working 14 hours straight and now I’m waiting for my bus to get home.” According to psychologist Vincent, “historically this body language originated amongst hard-laboring farmers who spent their days hunched over in the rice fields. It simply shows that the person is super tired physically.”
THE DO’S AND DON’TS
This gesture is often found in contemporary Chinese body language, it has historically been the way to refer to oneself. It is a question of where the soul or essence of a person resides. With the introduction of foreign films and television in China, this gesture is slowly phasing out for its Western counterpart of pointing to the heart. Although it’s still common among certain communities in China, you’ll likely be understood by using either.
According to some people in China, touching someone else’s head, especially a child’s, is believed to have lifelong effects and is therefore considered impolite. The head is the window to the soul. Touching someone here, especially a child could be a problem for some people. Especially if this child grows up lacking intelligence, as our psychologists put it, then the blame could be put directly on you. On the contrary, being invited by someone to touch their child’s head could be seen as a sign of respect and or trust.
When calling someone over to meet with you, it’s considered very rude to use a palm up single digit gesture. Once again, this is related to the accusatory nature of using a gesture representative of arrogance and is likened to calling one’s dog. Instead, extend your arm out facing the palm of your hand down and raise all four fingers up into your palm.
When in the seated position during social engagements, it’s best not to cross your leg over the knee pointing your dirty foot in someone else’s direction. Like most gestures, the reason behind this is related to singling an individual out. These gestures may be taken as being accusatory and should be avoided in most situations, especially when in the company of superiors or women.
While a slap on the back or a kiss on the cheek may be signs of affection or respect in some places, there is little understanding of physical contact among acquaintances, friends and even family members in China. These types of gestures are usually met with a noticeable amount of uneasiness. Although personal space might not be an issue while waiting in a queue, when in social settings, Chinese prefer a larger degree of physical space. Restricting yourself to a handshake when greeting others is recommended instead.
When unsure how to express your gratitude toward someone without words, cover your right fist, the fighting fist, with your left hand and put it to your chest. This should be the go-to gesture. Especially used during the Holiday season, it represents wishing others good fortune and can be used in just about any situation when thanking someone for their good deeds.
As a foreigner living in China, it’s not uncommon to find yourself in a staring match with curious locals. However, holding direct eye contact for extended periods of time can be considered aggressive behavior depending on the context. In considering the situation of lingering eye contact from a young Chinese on the foreigner, extended stares usually come simply from a place of curiosity and should not be taken as a sign of disrespect or hostility.
Although, this gesture could perhaps be found in many parts of the world, it is definitely representative of an augmented poses found in a rural council meeting in the Chinese countryside, characterized by a raised hand with palm and fingers facing upward. In China the upward facing palm is a common gesture of confidence and determination and it can come in a few different iterations.
Photos by W Studio.