5 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Chinese Culture

Pinned above my desk: Mao-era propaganda, communist hat and "cute" stuff

Pinned above my desk: Mao-era propaganda, communist hat and “cute” stuff

Today is the National Day of the People’s Republic of China ( 国庆节), celebrated every year to commemorate the founding of the PRC on October 1, 1949 by Mao Zedong.

Last year, we were in Shenyang and I was looking forward to experiencing the public holiday—Chinese are pretty nationalist, surely that day had to matter… right?

Well, not much was going on in Shenyang. Apparently, even though the public holiday is celebrated across China, Beijing is the place to be. And if you’re not one of the brave and lucky souls to somehow score a standing-room-only spot on Tiananmen Square, you stay home and watch the government-organized Beijing celebrations on TV.

Indeed, during the “Golden Week” (a a semi-annual 7-day national holiday, there is another one around Chinese New Year), people tend to make long-distance family visits instead of waving red flags.

So in honour of the Chinese members of the family (namely Feng and… half of Mark?), here are five things you probably didn’t know about Chinese culture!

Common products are super “ke ai”

Japanese say “kawaii”, Chinese say “ke ai” (可爱), but the result is the same: a fondness for “adorable” somewhat childish stuff. This translates into common products featuring cute characters and patterns—Chinglish optional. Clothing, food, electronics, cutlery, bedding, toiletry, office and school supplies… nothing is plain. That’s probably why I eat with Hello Kitty chopsticks, put my soap in a Timmy-and-Tammy box, stock my French creams in a My Melody vanity case, plug my USB in a panda adapter… and yes, I shopped in China last year, why?!

Hello Kitty, Winnie the Pooh,  Bad Badtz-Maru (a pinguin), Chococat, Little Twin Stars (angel-like characters) and Doraemon (a robotic cat) are always a hit, like most Sanrio creations (this is a Japanese company that specializes in “cute” characters). Last fall, when we were in China, I also noted Paul Franck’s Julius the Monkey was also popular, as well as Kipling’s monkey zipper.

It’s not that most Chinese are obsessed with the “ke ai” concept, but even if you’re just looking for plain coat hangers, tissues or new bed sheets, you may end up with cute characters because that’s what is available… so roll with it!

Food is medicine, medicine is food

Many cultures associate overall health levels with food consumption. For instance, it’s widely admitted that raw carrots are probably healthier than a jar of Nutella, or so I’ve been told.

North Americans love fad diets, such as low-carb, no gluten, paleo, etc. while French like to rely on old wives’ tales, such as “soup make you grow taller” and “eating carrots make you polite” (I love carrots and I still say “fuck you”, don’t believe that one!). Chinese take eating and drinking to a whole new level, and see food as the basis of good health, with concepts strongly related to traditional Chinese medicine.

Food is divided into five natures: cold, cool, neutral, warm and hot. When a person continually eats one type of food, it creates an imbalance in their body, and affects their immune system. One of the keys in Chinese medicine is to bring back the body to “neutral.”  For instance, when it’s rainy, you need food that absorb dampness, such as corn, white beans and onion. In summer, you cool down with watermelon and cucumber and in winter you warm up the body with beef or shrimps.

The bottom line is, my mother-in-law was not happy when I declined to eat boiled ribs and fish eyes when I was pregnant.

In China, eating is also the number one social activity. Imagine having your Jewish grand-mother feeding you Sunday lunch after a fast-breaking Ramadan meal—multiply amounts of food by eight and that’s how much there is on the table with Chinese guests. Chinese banquet-style dinners are a lengthy and complicated affair where, like in Fight Club, there are many unspoken rules. Don’t bother learning them all—you will break them at one point or another, anyway. Just keep some white rice in your bowl, eat whatever is deposited on top, toast saying 干杯, lit up a cigarette and eat some more. Repeat for a few hours.

In doubt, just protect it

Chinese don’t usually wrap gifts, which I find funny considering they tend to cover everything else. They don’t like things to get dirty or used, so they wrap, pack and cover. There is often a sheet on the couch, the remote is wrapped into plastic, feet are covered with socks when wearing sandals, etc. Products are sometime left in the original packaging for years!

I’m always amazed by how thrifty and practical Chinese can be, all that while enjoying shopping and having good money-management skills. It’s fascinating.

Chinese language is a treat for masochists

On the positive side, there are no masculine/feminine/plural and no conjugations—you simply say “yesterday, I go to school with my female friend” and “tomorrow, I leave”.

However, on the downside… where should I start?

You need to master at least 2,000 characters to be able to read a common newspaper such as the 人民日报. Grammar, especially the structure of sentences, can feel extremely weird to most Westerners. For instance, you would say “I yesterday at the supermarket with friends go shop.” There are still two ways to write characters: simplified (used in mainland China) and non-simplified (used in Hong Kong, Taiwan and many Chinese communities overseas). There are thousands of homophones so you often have to guess based on context and clarify which written character you mean by giving a word or phrase it is found in.

Oh, and once you master Mandarin, you can’t even chat freely with 1.2 billion people—there are about 60 mutually unintelligible dialects.



About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. Yes! The hot/cold foods! I have a French friend who didn’t even believe that eating/drinking certain things can alleviate a cold (or aggravate—for example eating oily food will make your throat feel worse), so I didn’t even go into hot/cold even though it would have been interesting to share.

      • Oh, some commonly known things like drinking enough liquid and clear soup. Nothing creamy or oily. No dairy, which would thicken your phlegm. Things that I followed just because my mom told me so, but later when I went to college I remember having a sore throat and eating lo mein and my throat felt terrible afterwards.

        • Dairy tastes terrible when I’m sick… and I usually love dairy! Chinese broths can be very comforting when you have a sore throat, I agree.

  2. I really love the whole kawaii / ke ai thing actually. I totally get Hello Kitty and all things cutesy! I definitely can’t imagine that fish eyes would be very good for you if you were pregnant!

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