Are you wondering why Chinese people drink hot water, and do a bunch of other strange things?
If you don’t travel very much, then you probably have the vague idea that other cultures are a little different.
Living in your home country, you’ll probably be exposed to people from China and might notice a few small oddities in what they do and eat.
But that’s completely different to what you’ll experience when you actually spend time in China. There, you’ll see behavior that seems downright bizarre and completely inexplicable.
So, having lived and worked in China, I’ve put together a list of some of the most commonly asked questions about these quirks.
Jump to the question that intrigues you most, or read them all!
Why do Chinese people drink hot water?
In Western countries, it’s often the mark of a good restaurant, host, or café to have refrigerated water available for people to drink or to consume during meals.
But in China, this custom is completely reversed.
Chinese people believe that drinking cold water is unhealthy. They prefer to drink hot or warm water pretty much year-round.
This has to do with Chinese medicine.
In traditional Chinese medicine, the human body is made up of two elements and energies known as yin and yang. For good health, these elements must exist in balance.
In this system, when the body becomes too yang or too yin, illness is the natural result.
The best way to get rid of the extra yin or yang energy is by consuming foods or drinks with the opposite energy.
Hot water is a yin drink, so it naturally balances out too much yang energy and restores good health.
This custom has existed since around 4 BC, so clearly there are some benefits to it!
In all corners of China, you’ll see people carry insulated drink bottles wherever they go. Some are see-through and you’ll see all sorts of fancy tea and flavor enhancers floating inside.
It can take some getting used to if you’re from a Western country though, where cold water is the norm.
Why do Chinese people spit?
In China, spitting in the street, in the shops, and even on public transport (usually in trash cans) is considered normal.
On the other hand, to Western people this is pretty much the height of bad manners!
There are no clear reasons why Chinese people spit.
Some say it’s because it’s healthier, some prefer to get the bad taste out of their mouth, while others just like to clear their throat.
In any case, it’s a custom that has stuck and won’t go away.
If you think it’s a little strange, consider this – Chinese people think that sneezing into a tissue and putting it back in your pocket like a treasure is really odd too!
This is one of those customs you just need to ignore.
When you’re walking around Chinese cities, watch your feet at all times to make sure you don’t slip in any puddles.
And remember that your personal space should still be respected. So, if someone spits at or near you or your belongings, you have the right to be angry and complain.
Why do Chinese people wear face masks?
Chinese people were wearing face masks way before coronavirus was a thing.
When Chinese people aren’t feeling well, they’ll wear a mask to stop the illness spreading. It also helps protect them from getting germs from other people.
Having your own car is a bit of a luxury in China. That’s why it’s not unusual to see people wearing masks on public transport.
They’re still needing to get things done, but don’t want to get any sicker. So wearing a mask is helping to protect their immune system.
In some of China’s more polluted cities, you’ll see people wearing face masks to protect themselves from the dirty air.
Air pollution can also irritate existing ailments like colds and infections. Because of this, the locals do everything they can to screen out these harmful toxins.
Another purpose for the mask is related more to women. Pale, porcelain-like skin is very popular in China.
So, if they’re going to have a day at the beach, locals might wear a face mask called a facekini to prevent tanning.
If you ever get the chance to visit China, you might get to see a facekini at one of the popular beaches.
Why do Chinese people paint trees white?
In China, you will often see trees in the city with their trunks painted white and bound together with rope.
This looks very strange, but it’s actually very practical.
There’s a common story that this was a practice implemented by Chairman Mao to encourage uniform growth.
But in reality, it’s an age-old practice first used by Chinese arborists to protect the plants from pests and changing weather.
The white paint keeps out the pests and insulates the trees against the cold.
Why do Chinese people buy foreign baby formula?
There has been a huge increase in the amount of foreign baby formula bought in China.
Sales have gone up enormously in recent years, and it isn’t an uncommon sight to see women in pharmacies taking whole shelves of formula.
The problem started in 2008 when six infants died and hundreds of thousands got sick after drinking formula containing melamine.
Chinese people haven’t forgotten this, and combined with the perceived higher quality of overseas brands, sales of foreign baby formula keeps skyrocketing.
Another reason is the abolishment of the one-child policy.
Because people in China can now safely and legally have more than one child, the birth rate has risen markedly. For example, in 2015, it rose by 7.9 percent.
Another reason for the popularity of baby formula is the rapid industrialization of the country.
Mothers in China now expect to go back to work early, which means that their children must go on formula.
Long-term breastfeeding is also uncommon among many Chinese women, who believe that breast milk is of low quality.
Why do Chinese people use chopsticks?
If you’ve grown up in a Western country, you’ll probably have trouble using chopsticks.
They’re fiddly, hard to control, and half the food tends to end up in your lap at first.
But on the other hand, you’ll see very young children in China using chopsticks with casual ease and picking up everything without a single spill.
Chopsticks have been a part of Chinese culture since 1,200 BC.
Back then, they were used more for cooking and it wasn’t until around 400 AD that they were shortened and used to eat.
The appeal of chopsticks was probably deepened because of their connection to Confucius, one of the most important figures in Chinese history.
He stated that chopsticks were better for eating because they had blunt ends.
According to him, this spared their users images of the slaughterhouse which had preceded the arrival of the meat on the bowl and made for a better meal.
(If you’re interested in Chinese history, check out my review of the best Chinese history books here.)
Wherever you go in China, you can probably get a spoon to eat with if you really have trouble.
But this is a custom you should really try to adapt to. Keep practicing with the chopsticks – you’ll get there with some work!
Why do Chinese men have one long fingernail?
One thing you will probably gawk at while you’re in China is the sight of men with long fingernails, or just one long fingernail.
This is a custom that looks very strange to foreigners, but it actually has a clear purpose.
Having one long fingernail is a sign that you have a lot of money.
After all, you can’t really do manual labor with long fingernails, so men in particular use this as a sign of wealth and class.
Why do Chinese people refill teacups?
When you’re drinking tea with people in China, they will always refill your cup before you finish.
This often means that you end up drinking so much tea that you’re ready to burst!
This is actually a way to honor other people and if you refill someone else’s cup, you’re showing them a great deal of respect.
So, the next time you’re at the table, look around and see who needs more tea.
Never refill your own first, instead start with the person with the highest status at the table and pour your own tea last.
This conveys strong, positive messages to everyone else at the table.
And if someone refills your cup, tap the table to show your thanks.
Why you should embrace the weird things they do in China
When you’re in China, you’ll see and experience a range of behaviors that might seem very bizarre to you. But that doesn’t mean that they’re wrong.
Everyone has different ways of doing things based on their own experiences and history, and that applies as much to countries and cultures as it does to people.
Instead of judging, try to understand. Ask people why they do what they do and why they believe it works better.
With a bit of time and understanding, you may start to see the value in some of the practices you notice during your trip.
You may even start to drink hot water!
I hope I’ve been able to answer why Chinese people do some weird things, like spit and drink hot water. I’ve also written a blog about Chinese food that will gross you out. Let me know what you think!