Main religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Taoism
At just under 10 million square kilometres, China is the second-biggest country in the world by land area. In the times of the ancient dynasties China was a leader in culture and science, with the ancient Chinese reportedly inventing gunpowder, papermaking, printing and the compass. Home to the world’s largest population and showing rapid economic growth, modern China’s international influence is also on the increase.
With its vast land mass and 56 officially recognised ethnic groups, Chinese culture is difficult to define, with customs varying between different cities and provinces. To foreign visitors, Chinese values often appear traditional and conservative, and this is certainly true to a degree. Media in China is still subject to restrictions, and several major global websites remain blocked by the governing Communist party. However, China is a fast-developing nation, and there is a real desire for progress in academia, science and technology.
Social gatherings in China are often driven by shared pastimes and sports. It is not uncommon to see groups of people playing board games or cards in the street or meeting up in parks to exercise or dance together. On the world stage, Chinese athletes are strongly associated with gymnastics, diving and table tennis. With outdoor tables a regular sight across the country, ping pong remains a staple in China, although football and basketball are increasingly popular too. For a more traditional experience, visitors can watch or even try ancient Chinese pastimes such as dragon dancing, martial arts and equestrian sports. China’s surprisingly vibrant nightlife also has a distinct personality with diverse activities like acrobatic shows, karaoke, gaming and opera!
Food and drink
Chinese food is often defined by the Eight Culinary Traditions, but as with most things in the country regional variations are common. The staple food in southern China is rice, while wheat farming is more common further north where wheat flours are used to make dumplings or noodles. Typically, Chinese dishes are cooked quickly and feature characteristic flavours like ginger, chilli and soy. Meals tend to be communal and consist of lots of small dishes to be shared.
China produces a huge variety of teas and meals traditionally end with tea. Common alcoholic drinks include grape and rice wines, beers and baijiu, a strong spirit reported to be the world’s most consumed due to its popularity in China.
China has several spoken dialects, some of which are not mutually intelligible. This has led to a degree of confusion over what is a language and what is a dialect, and academics continue to debate and evaluate the distinctions today. Officially, the main language is Standard Chinese. Based on a dialect of Mandarin, it is sometimes referred to as Putonghua, Guoyu or Huayu. Cantonese is also widely spoken, and English and Japanese are both commonly taught in schools.
The sheer size of China means its climate varies hugely. The extreme north of the country can see winter temperatures as low as -30°C (-22°F) while in the tropical south temperatures regularly reach over 20°C (68°F), although the difference is much less in summer. China’s weather is also affected by the differing terrains of its regions and there are several microclimates that experience different levels of rainfall, as well as monsoon and typhoon conditions at certain times of year.
Safety and security
China is generally a safe place to visit, with heavy penalties serving as an effective deterrent for most serious crimes. In urban areas, beware of pickpockets and keep an eye on luggage and belongings, but the risk is usually no greater than in other major cities around the world. Road safety is a bigger issue, and care should be taken at all times as traffic can be very heavy and unpredictable. Travellers should also try to be aware of local laws, particularly in areas outside the main provinces.
China has four levels of education: primary school, junior middle school, senior high school (or vocational school) and university or college. State law requires all Chinese children to have nine years of education, so primary school and junior middle school are compulsory. The government funds this period, although more recently the country has started to embrace private education and there are a growing number of private schools at all levels of education. The Chinese state has invested heavily in developing a better education system with the annual budget running to hundreds of billions of Yuan, but many expats choose to send their children to international schools to follow an International Baccalaureate programme. The nine-year compulsory education law does not apply to the children of foreign nationals.
Most institutions in China divide the academic year into two semesters, although the length of each changes depending on the dates of the Chinese New Year. Generally, the first semester begins in September and runs until January or February, and the second starts in February or March and ends in July. Some regions, particularly in the rural north, choose to have a longer winter break and shorter summer break because of the extreme winter weather.
University level education has developed rapidly in China over the last fifteen to twenty years, and academic achievement is highly prized. The number of higher education institutions has increased drastically, with around 20 million people now attending over 2,000 universities and colleges. Over a hundred institutions carry the National Key University designation, which although no longer an official term, is still considered a mark of real prestige. Historically there was a tendency for Chinese universities to specialise in one area, but recent diversification means that even institutions whose names imply a specialism often have faculties covering completely different academic areas.
Higher education in China is funded through a scholarship and loan system. Institutions are free to set their own course fees, but generally they range from around ¥20,000 (≈£1,900) to ¥60,000 (≈£5,700) per year (source: www.cucas.edu.cn ). Different scholarships are available to both Chinese students and international students. Although universities have not been state-funded in China since the mid-1980s, there are a number of government initiatives aimed at driving teaching and research excellence, and many institutions obtain additional funding through these schemes.
Chinese universities provide degrees at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and postgraduate courses are showing particular growth in availability and prestige. The majority of institutions offer taught courses in English and these are popular with both domestic applicants and international students, although over 40,000 international students travel to China to study Chinese language and culture too. Admission to university is assessed by an examination called gaokao.
Research in China is well-funded by the state, with many government grants available. The science and technology sectors are particularly well supported. Information about the major state funds can be found through the Access4.eu website, while funding may also be available through provincial or regional initiatives.
Once the nine years of compulsory education are complete, students aged 15 to 18 may undertake an additional three years of studies. This is either vocational training or a more traditional academic curriculum through senior high school. Entry to this level of education is assessed by the zhongkao examination, although the content varies between regions. With competition for university places fierce, senior education is the highest level of education achieved by many Chinese nationals.
Primary and junior education
The nine-year compulsory aspect of Chinese education takes place between the ages of 6 and 15, with six years at primary school and a further three at junior middle school. With over 200 million children enrolled at any one time, the system is vast and in the past it struggled to provide for all children, with rural areas in particular missing out. In order to widen opportunities, China’s government now targets particular groups with different schooling initiatives according to the needs of their province and community.
Preschool and childcare options
Kindergarten is among the most popular forms of preschool education in China. State-run kindergartens usually accept children aged between 3 and 6, while privately-owner equivalents may take younger children as well. Costs of preschool vary hugely and demand is very high, however some employers offer childcare facilities for the children of staff.
Average salaries in China are relatively low compared to the countries like the UK, but costs are also comparatively low, giving greater purchasing power and potentially a higher standard of living. The cost of living is cheaper in western China and in rural regions than in the large eastern cities of Beijing, Qingdao and Guangzhou. Shanghai has a reputation for being the most expensive place to live, although job opportunities there can be more lucrative.
Many foreign nationals who move to China for work are provided with accommodation by their employer, particularly in the academic sector. However, these arrangements may only be short term or limited in availability. If you need to find your own rental accommodation, it is best to use an estate agent unless you have a really good understanding of the Chinese language. Estate agents will charge a fee based on the rental value of the property once they have successfully placed you. Costs vary hugely across the country, so make sure you research the area you are relocating to beforehand.
To buy property in China, you must have lived there for a year or more. Property owned by foreign nationals must be lived in and cannot be bought to rent out. There are also restrictions on expats buying land in China and taking out mortgages from Chinese banks, so many choose to rent instead.
The initial outlay for renting in China can be quite high. As well as any agent’s fees, you may be asked to pay a non-refundable holding deposit of one month’s rent. Security deposits can be up to three months’ rent and there may be property management fees on top of this, particularly in communal residences like apartment blocks. Quoted rent prices often don’t include bills, so check what is included before signing.
Real estate tax
Homeowners in China may be required to pay real estate tax on the value of their property, while landlords must pay tax on rental income. Some landlords will pass this tax on to their tenants in the rental agreement, so always budget accordingly.
Utilities such as water, electricity and gas are provided by regional suppliers. In theory, tariffs are regulated by the state and should be the same across the country, but in practice there is a degree of variation. Payment systems also vary between suppliers, so it’s best to check your local service. In some areas, particularly in the cooler north of the country, shared residential buildings may have communal heating. Telephone and internet connections are available from a number of suppliers on a range of pricing packages and structures.
There is no fee for owning a television in China and the China Central Television (CCTV) provides 22 free-to-air channels. Most programming is in Mandarin, but there are some channels broadcast in other languages or with subtitles. The company also offers pay TV channels. Paid satellite and internet TV services are also available through a range of providers, and are popular with foreign nationals looking for more programming in their native languages.
Healthcare and medical costs
Healthcare in China is not free and relies on an insurance system. Visits to the doctor or hospital usually incur a charge. If you are working in China your employer is obliged to provide health insurance, but the levels of cover vary greatly. If you are unhappy with the policy on offer, it may be worth taking out private cover. Some foreign nationals are insured for treatment in China by policies they hold in their home country, but it’s always worth checking that the hospital you are attending is covered by your provider.
The availability of goods in China depends on your location. In the cities you can find everything from exotic foods to designer clothing, whereas in rural areas supplies are more basic. While the general cost of goods is low, expect to pay similar prices to the UK or US for designer brands or premium products.
Value-Added Tax (VAT) is charged on most goods and services in China at a rate of 17%, although some products and particular industries benefit from discounted rates.
Rent on 1-bedroom apartment in city centre – ¥3,776.19 (≈£358.87) per month
Rent on 1-bedroom apartment outside city centre – ¥2,134.35 (≈£202.84) per month
Price of apartment in city centre – ¥31,590.53 (≈£3,002.20) per square metre
Price of apartment outside city centre – ¥15,930.07 (≈£1,513.91) per square metre
Although China has a developing network of highways and the biggest car-buying market in the world, road transportation remains challenging. The number of vehicles is often greater than the road capacity and the standard of driving is generally considered poor. Car hire is also restricted for foreign nationals, so many prefer not to drive in China, choosing to use taxis or bicycles instead.
For those who do choose to drive, international licences are not accepted by the Chinese authorities. Instead, you will need to obtain a Chinese licence, which most people apply for through an agency. Depending on the qualification you already hold, you may be able to convert your licence, but some people will need to take the theory and/or practical components of the Chinese driving test. In mainland China you drive on the right-hand side of the road, whereas Hong Kong and Macao retain the colonial custom of driving on the left.
With driving conditions regarded as hazardous, taxis are a very popular and inexpensive way to get around in cities. Most taxis charge on a meter, although rates increase at night and surcharges may apply for slow journeys on busy routes.
Bus services are also very cheap in China, with fares from as little as ¥2 or even less with a smartcard. However, buses can get extremely crowded and signs are very rarely translated, so if you don’t understand Chinese it’s important to plan the route in advance. Tickets are normally bought from a conductor on the bus, although in some areas they can be bought before travel.
The Chinese rail network is extensive and new high-speed sections have cut the journey times between major cities significantly. For lengthy travel, avoid ‘hard class’ tickets as travel conditions can be very uncomfortable, particularly on sleeper trains. You usually need your passports to buy tickets for long-distance train journeys and may also need them to board the train. Further information and travel advice is available through Seat 61. Although major stations usually have multi-lingual attendants, it can be useful to pre-book your tickets through an agency such as China Train Tickets, although costs may be higher.
China’s largest cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Guangzhou, have modern underground railway systems. Trains run for around 18 hours per day and signage is usually in both Chinese and English.
China’s sheer size makes air transit a very appealing prospect for domestic travel. There are around 200 commercial airports in the country, including Beijing Capital International Airport – one of the world’s biggest and busiest airports. The country’s aviation safety record is improving, and increased competition between airlines has helped to drive down costs.
Other ways to get around
Bikes are a very popular option in China, but if you want a slightly different experience there are plenty of alternative forms of transport available in Chinese cities. These include rickshaws and motorised tricycles with an enclosed cabin at the back for passengers. Although they aren’t the most practical way to travel on a regular basis they can be great for novelty value! Always agree a price upfront though to avoid paying over the odds.
China has a five-day week with working time theoretically limited to 44 hours. In practice, many people work longer hours, often without overtime payment. Business hours are typically Monday to Friday from 8am to 6pm with a two-hour lunch break from 12 noon until 2pm, although this varies from company to company.
The minimum annual leave entitlement in China starts at five days per year and increases to 15 with length of service. Although this may sound like significantly less than in other countries, public holidays help to make up the difference.
China’s public holiday schedule is announced by the government just before the turn of the year, and can be notoriously complicated. Officially there are seven public holidays, usually totalling 13 days of leave per year. For some holidays a weekday is given as leave but employees must work at a weekend instead. Local and national observance days also feature in the schedule. Some observance days, such as Women’s Day, Youth Day, Children’s Day and Army Day, are marked by holidays for a particular demographic, while others are celebrated without time off from work.
Public holiday dates
New Year: 1st January
Chinese New Year: 4th – 10th February
Ching Ming Festival: 5th April
Labour Day: 1st May
Dragon Boat Festival: 7th June
Mid-Autumn Festival: 13th September
National Day: 1st to 7th October
Visas and eligibility to work
The vast majority of foreigners visiting China need to obtain a visa. There are several categories of visa and costs vary depending on your nationality and the duration of your stay. Some categories must be applied for before travelling while others can only be obtained from inside the country. Consular staff will usually advise you on which category you should apply for. If you plan to stay for over 6 months, you will also need a health certificate authorised by the Chinese embassy. Every foreigner living in China has to register with the Public Security Bureau (PSB) via the local police station on arrival, although for tourists hotels normally complete the registration process for you.
Visa laws for travel to Hong Kong and Macao can be less strict, but you still need a visa to work there, so make sure you ask your employer what is required. Further documentation is also necessary for foreign nationals intending to travel to Tibet and access to the region is tightly controlled so the correct paperwork is absolutely essential.
Taxation in China is based primarily on Individual Income Tax (IIT), and the tax year runs from January to December. Income is taxed on a progressive scale of between 3% and 45%. For foreign nationals living in China, there are three categories of IIT depending on the duration of your residency:
Under one year: Tax is paid on income within China only
One to five years: Tax is paid on income within China and income brought into the country
Over five years: Tax is paid on total worldwide income
The tax status of people who also live in another country is determined by the number of days spent in China each year. For more information, visit the State Administration of Taxation website.
In 2011 China moved to change the law for the provision of pensions to foreign workers. A new social insurance tax was introduced in exchange for access to pensions, although the minimum qualifying period is 15 years. The change was met with scepticism by many expats who already had access to a pension scheme under the terms of their employment. For more details, visit the ExpatBriefing website or speak to your employer to find out what kind of pension scheme they offer and how it applies to you.
Some foreign nationals living in China are entitled to state benefits including occupational injury compensation, medical insurance and maternity cover, while many businesses also offer such benefits to their staff. Check with your employer for more information.
Historically China had a reputation for limited or poor support for disabled people. Recent reforms have seen greater emphasis on equal opportunities for disabled workers, but there is still less legal protection of the rights of disabled workers than in some western countries.
Chinese culture is generally respectful of hierarchy and business structures reflect this. The system usually works from the top down, with key decisions made by individuals in positions of authority. Respect for age and position is very important. Often employees wait until their manager has given an opinion before expressing their own, and generally they follow the lead of their superior. For an employee to disagree with their boss, they must be tactful and construct a really persuasive argument.
Typically the Chinese are modest and don’t like to exaggerate their abilities, so management can seem muted compared to some countries. People do not like to lose face and managers will try to avoid embarrassing an employee by disagreeing with them in front of others. Business dealings are characterised by a quiet and respectful tone of voice, and it is unusual for people to express a directly negative response – with most preferring to defer a decision than give an outright ‘no’. Workers in China are characteristically dedicated and hard-working, even when engaged in menial tasks.
Chinese society is extremely formal and has various cultural nuances that can make people appear quite detached or self-conscious at first. Rather than being a sign of shyness, lowering the eyes signifies respect while direct eye contact may be considered too personal. You should also keep hand gestures to a minimum and avoid physical contact such as backslapping or hugging. Clicking fingers and whistling are also considered rude.
An essential skill when doing business in China is the ability to develop rapport and build relationships with Chinese associates. Developing a good knowledge of business culture and etiquette will help with this. Even when people are quite well acquainted, business dealings tend to remain quite formal with few exceptions. One curious reverse of this is the tendency to ask quite personal questions early on in a relationship. Don’t be surprised if you are asked about your marital status, earnings or even your age, but if you are not comfortable answering just politely move the conversation on.
Conservative, modest clothing should be worn in business environments in China. Women should wear dresses or suits, avoiding low-cut tops, high heels, backless dresses and excessive jewellery. Makeup should also be conservative and natural-looking. Men should wear suits and ties, unless invited to be more casual in summer, when open-neck shirts or polo tops may be worn with smart trousers. Avoid bright colours and flashy accessories as they are considered pretentious.
In business, people are normally addressed by their title or position followed by their family name, for example ‘Director Li’, ‘Mayor Wang’, or ‘Ms Chen’. In China, family names are usually written first with the given name afterwards. Traditionally Chinese people greet each other with a bow or a nod, but shaking hands has become more commonplace and is probably expected in international business dealings. Try to greet the eldest and most senior people present first, then work down the hierarchy.
Punctuality is of vital importance as being late is considered extremely rude. Failure to attend an arranged meeting could cause real damage to a relationship. Meetings will begin on time, regardless of whether people are missing. Most meetings are formally scheduled well ahead of time and it can be useful to draw up an agenda and distribute it beforehand too.
Preparation is important for business meetings in China as figures and claims will always be investigated. Ensure you know who the leader is in the group you are meeting, and remember that they will assume the first person from your delegation to enter the room is in charge.
Business cards are absolutely essential in China and are always exchanged in meetings. Ideally, have one side of your card printed in Chinese and one in your own language. You should use both hands when offering or receiving a business card. When given a card, always read it immediately as failing to do so is considered disrespectful.
Small gifts are also appreciated, although it is customary to refuse a gift when first offered. Gifts are not usually opened during meetings, showing that it is the thought that counts over the value.
A lack of knowledge of Chinese culture may lead to misunderstandings, so try to minimise the potential to cause offence. For more useful information about Chinese culture, including suitable business gifts and dining etiquette, visit the eDiplomat website.
Business dealings in China are generally conducted in the official language of Standard Chinese. Although English is taught in schools, competence in the language varies immensely, with the older generations in particular less familiar with it. Before meeting Chinese contacts, find out what their language capabilities are. If necessary, arrange for printed materials to be accurately translated beforehand or engage a translator for the event itself.