The dos and don’ts of Chinese etiquette
Soho House Hong Kong member and star of Netflix’s ‘Mind Your Manners’, Sara Jane Ho, shares her ultimate guide
Friday 20 January 2023 By Soho House
There’s more to good etiquette than using the right fork at the dinner table. In fact, in Chinese culture, practising traditional etiquette goes beyond politeness or avoiding external judgment, focusing instead on self-fulfillment and confidence.
During the Lunar New Year, the art of Chinese etiquette is also believed to help attract good luck into your home. So, as we celebrate the Year of the Rabbit, we asked Soho House Hong Kong member, international etiquette expert and star of Netflix’s Mind Your Manners, Sara Jane Ho, to give us a lesson in the dos and don’ts of conducting yourself in line with Chinese tradition.
Here are her seven key teachings:
1. Don’t wear black and white clothing, do wear red
‘The reason for this festival [the Lunar New Year] all began with an ancient beast that terrorised villagers, but it was scared of the colour red – and so began the tradition of wearing red. Donning black and white clothes, on the other hand, is associated with mourning, so avoid wearing them, especially on the first few days of the Lunar New Year. Red brings good luck and fortune, and keeps evil spirits away.’
2. Don’t curse, swear or argue with people
‘What you do during the beginning of the New Year will set the tone for the year ahead. Cursing, swearing or arguing with anyone could mean a whole year of arguments and troubling relationships – and who wants that? Especially avoid words associated with death, poverty, sickness, or death.’
3. Do eat fish
‘Fish in Chinese is “yu” and prosperity in Chinese is also pronounced “yu”. That’s why we like to serve a full steamed fish for the Lunar New Year and say “nian nian you yu”, which means every year you have prosperity. You can never have enough prosperity.’
4. Do clean the house, but finish before the clock strikes 12
‘A thorough house clean ensures that we sweep away bad luck from last year and are ready for the good fortune to come. But it’s important to have all your cleaning done before the stroke of midnight on Lunar New Year’s Eve – so that would be before the end of 21 January. If you do it on 22 January or the first few days after, you’re sweeping away all the good luck.’
5. Don’t cut your hair during the first month of Lunar New Year
‘One of the most interesting rituals is refraining from cutting your hair in the first lunar month. It was once believed that doing so during that time frame would bring harm to a person’s maternal uncles. Today, people in some Chinese provinces still observe the tradition.
‘In Chinese culture, one’s head is associated with the beginning. In the Chinese language, hair (头发) has the same character as fa in facai (发财), which means ‘to become wealthy’. To cut or wash your hair is seen as washing away your fortune. Some even go to the extreme of not showering altogether to retain their luck.’
6. Don’t visit the hospital
‘A trip to the hospital during this period is believed to bring illness to the person in question for the duration of the coming year. So, visits are avoided, except in cases of extreme emergency.’
7. Do see friends and family
‘Another common tradition is for families and friends to gather and have reunion dinners. These are typically held on the eve of the New Year.’
Visit the Soho House events page to see the various ways to celebrate Lunar New Year around our Houses.