Chinese Customs and Language Terms for Different Circumstances

It can be fun to learn about other cultures, including their languages and traditions. China is unique in that its customs date back millennia, but you can still see them practiced today.

When delving into a culture with such a long history, you’re sure to find a Chinese custom that piques your interest and sticks with you forever. Read on to discover six Chinese practices and language terms you may not know about.

New Year’s Greetings 

Chinese New Year is a festival celebrating the coming year, according to the Chinese Calendar. It originates from the myth of Nian, a beast that appears each holiday Eve to attack villagers. To scare the creature away, people would set off firecrackers and bang loud drums.

In both Mandarin and Cantonese, “Gōng xǐ fā cái” is a unique greeting only used during the Chinese New Year. Literally, it means “I wish that you will get rich” and conveys a hope for prosperity in the coming year. If you’re talking to strangers or acquaintances, you might say, “Xīn nián kuài lè,” which means “New Year happiness” in Mandarin.

A Traditional Toast 

If you’re in China drinking with friends, how can you make a toast? “Gānbēi,” means “dry your cup,” and when someone utters this phrase, it’s time to drink up. If you merely take a sip, people might regard you as impolite. “Suíyì,” which translates literally to “at random,” also means “cheers” and indicates each person can drink as much as they wish.

If you want to make a toast aimed at longevity and health, you’d want to say, “shēn tǐ jiàn kāng” or “cháng mìng bǎi suì!” Don’t drink? No worries! One Chinese custom claims, “yǐ chá dài jiǔ,” or “replace the wine with tea.”

I Love You

“I love you” in Mandarin directly translates to “Wǒ ài nǐ,” yet you won’t hear many young native speakers say it. This phrase is a major declaration of emotional commitment. Some might utter it at a wedding to a new life partner or on an anniversary. Instead, many people express their feelings by saying, “520,” or “wǔ èr líng,” because the phrase sounds very similar to “I love you.”

The number 520 isn’t the only one used to show emotions in this culture. “Wǔ sān líng,” or 530, stands for “I miss you.” People might say this to someone they’re thinking about. Other ways people in China express their love is “bào bào nǐ” and “qīn qīn nǐ.”

Good Fortune Oranges

Mandarin oranges, considered symbols of good fortune, are a staple fruit during Chinese New Year. When spoken in Mandarin, the word sounds similar to “wealth.” Plus, the fruit’s hue is said to symbolize gold. Exchanging oranges during a visit to one’s house is a form of respect.

This fruit makes for excellent gifts during this holiday. You’ll also see it as a decorative item nearly everywhere, including in homes, stores, offices and more. The mere presence of oranges is said to bless the building’s inhabitants and offer good fortune. Whether you’re hosting a Chinese New Year celebration or connecting with someone visiting from China, offering an orange is the perfect way to show goodwill and respect.

Winter Solstice Dumplings

Winter Solstice, also called “Dōngzhì,” falls between December 21 and 23 and typically lasts around a week. Families celebrate this holiday with reunions and eating rice dumplings. Nearly all restaurants will be overflowing with customers, and those who choose not to dine out will likely order delivery.

According to tradition, eating dumplings is said to commemorate Zhang Zhongjing, a medicine sage who lived from 150 to 219 A.D. He invented the food and would give it to individuals suffering from hunger and illness during winter. If you don’t eat dumplings on this holiday, your ears will supposedly get bitten off by the freezing wind.

Forever Roses

Just like in Western culture, people in China send roses to symbolize their love and commitment. In Chinese culture, however, the number of roses is equally as important as the gesture itself. Unlike in America, where we tend to send a half-dozen, dozen or 100 roses based on our budgets and the occasion, Chinese people send assortments only in the number nine.

Bouquets of nine, 99 or even 999 are the most special assortments. Why? Because nine is considered one of China’s most auspicious numbers. “Jiu,” or nine, represents longevity, eternity and the everlasting – so arrangements including the number nine represent eternal love.

Unique Chinese Customs and Language Terms

Are you planning a trip to China? Perhaps you simply love the culture and want to know more about it. Either way, learning about the country’s unique customs and language terms is a fun way to broaden your knowledge. The next time you’re planning a toast or want to tell your significant other how you feel, try one of the five traditions above.


Alyssa Abel is an education blogger with a special interest in study abroad, language learning and cultural education. Read more of her work for students and educators on her blog, Syllabusy, connect with her on Facebook or follow her on Twitter.