Tom Herbert

China post: Globalisation and green hats

Deng_XiaopingLet’s go back in time to the early 1980s, and Deng Xiao Ping – leader of the Chinese Communist Party, veteran of the Long March and seen by many as the founding father of modern China – was touring the United States. Part of this state visit saw Deng and his entourage travel to Boston, and after the business of the day was complete Deng’s diplomatic counterparts decided to take him to see that most American of institutions, a basketball game, at the team founded in tribute to the city’s Irish community, the Boston Celtics.

All was going well and the Chinese delegation seemed to be enjoying the action when things suddenly and unexpectedly took a turn for the worst. As a token of friendship to commemorate the occasion, an American official attempted to present the Chinese leader with one of the team’s trademark green hats. However, instead of accepting it the usually unflappable Deng looked genuinely horrified, not only refusing to accept the hat, but vigorously and repeatedly pushing it away. Bemused, the hat-giver looked over at the rest of Deng’s group, all of whom were looking as shocked as their leader.

And the reason for such an extreme reaction? Well, it turns out that the phrase ‘wearing a green hat’ in Chinese mocks a man’s masculinity, as it implies that his partner enjoys the company of other men. The origin is apparently centuries old, and relates to ‘green hat’ sounding similar to the word for ‘cuckold’, a man with an adulterous wife, in a certain Chinese dialect.

Boston Celtics HatColourful head garments aside, adapting to life in China isn’t the enormous cultural leap that many who have yet to visit this vast and diverse country imagine. Globalising influences like television, film and the internet have narrowed cultural divides, and in larger, more economically developed cities such as Shanghai or Beijing the Chinese are so used to dealing with foreigners that one can walk down the street without attracting much attention.

In modern China there are no vast religious, political or ideological barriers to adapting to life that one might find elsewhere, and the Chinese themselves are, on the whole, an adaptable and pragmatic race. This flexibility may well be part of the reason that the millions of Chinese living abroad adapted and integrated relatively well into the countries in which they found themselves.

However, with a nation that was cut off from the rest of the world for a large part of the 20th Century is is inevitable that there are differences in attitudes and outlooks that come into play when people from two different societies meet, and the green hat incident mentioned earlier serves as a high profile example of this. There are countless other little cultural or linguistic faux-pas that an unwary and unprepared visitor can make in China, a selection of which can be found below. Some of them are perfectly understandable to those from other cultures, others slightly less so.

However, as pointed out above, none of these represent a catastrophic or unforgivable error, as most Chinese understand that their cultural norms are different to most other societies, and don’t generally take offence when these minor indiscretions are committed. On rare occasions such mistakes can even be an amusing way to break the ice between strangers from different lands, but still it’s probably best to leave your green hat at home for now, just in case…


  • Never give a clock, as song zhong (the Chinese for give clock) sounds very similar to the phrase for making funeral arrangements. Clocks also represents time running out or slipping away i.e. impending death (strangely giving watches seems to be ok)
  • Scissors and knives symbolize the cutting of ties – not such a good move, especially when trying to forge a relationship with a new Chinese business partner
  • Giving an umbrella (or yu san in Mandarin) is not recommended, as the san can also mean to crumple or disintegrate, and you don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade
  • Shoes are not a good gift, as xie sounds similar to the mandarin for evil
  •  ‘Giving a book’ in the Chinese language sounds the same as ‘delivering defeat’
  • Never wrap your gifts in white or black paper. Colours are important, red is lucky and used for celebrations, and white and black are bad as they associated with death
  • When at a Chinese banquet, always try to leave a small amount of food left in your bowl when you are full. Failure to do so symbolizes that your host didn’t serve you enough food – a grave insult in China’s culture of hospitality
  • It’s best not to leave your chopsticks sticking up out of your rice bowl as this resembles incense sticks burnt at family graves – another reminder of death
  • Numbers are also important, and just as the number 13 is an ill omen in the west, so the number four is frowned upon, as it sounds similar to the Chinese word for death

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