- For other places with the same name, see China (disambiguation).
|Currency||Renminbi (CNY, ¥, 元)|
|Population||1,353,821,000 (2012 estimate)|
|Electricity||220V/50Hz (Australian 2 and 3 pin plugs)|
|Time zone||UTC +8|
China (中国; Zhōngguó), officially known as the People's Republic of China (中华人民共和国 Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó), is a vast country in Eastern Asia about the same size as the United States of America with the world's largest population, 1.355 billion according to the 2013 census.
With coasts on the East China Sea, Korea Bay, Yellow Sea, and South China Sea, it borders 14 nations—Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam to the South, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to the West, Russia and Mongolia to the North and North Korea to the East. This number of neighbouring states is equalled only by China's vast neighbour to the north, Russia.
- "I am not one who was born in the possession of knowledge. I am one who is fond of antiquity, and earnest in seeking it there."—Confucius
China built its first civilisations at around the same time as the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians, and for many centuries stood out as a leading civilisation with technologies that the West was not able match until much later. Paper and gunpowder are examples of ancient Chinese inventions that are still widely used today. As the dominant power in the region for much of its history, China exported much of its culture to neighboring Vietnam, Korea and Japan, and Chinese influences can still be seen in the cultures of these countries to this day.
Chinese civilisation has endured through millennia of tumultuous upheaval and revolutions, golden ages and periods of anarchy alike. Through the recent economic boom initiated by the reforms of Deng Xiaoping, China is once again one of the leading nations in the world, buoyed by its large, industrious population and abundant natural resources. The depth and complexity of the Chinese civilisation, with its rich heritage, has fascinated Westerners such as Marco Polo and Gottfried Leibniz in centuries past, and will continue to excite - and bewilder - the traveller today.
In Chinese, China is zhong guo, literally "central land" but often translated as "Middle Kingdom". People from everywhere else are wai guo ren, "outside land people", or colloquially lao wai, "old outsider" with "old" in the sense of venerable or respected. Of course the Chinese are by no means the only people who do this sort of thing — consider the Mediterranean (middle of the Earth) Sea — but it is a part of the Chinese world view that visitors should consider.
The recorded history of Chinese civilisation can be traced back to the Yellow River valley, said to be the 'cradle of Chinese civilisation'. The Xia Dynasty (夏朝) was the first dynasty to be described in ancient historical chronicles, though to date, no concrete proof of its existence has been found. Nevertheless, archaeological evidence has suggested that a primitive bronze-age civilisation had already developed in China by the period described.
The Shang Dynasty (商朝), China's first historically confirmed dynasty, and the Zhou Dynasty (周朝) ruled across the Yellow River basin. The Zhou adopted a decentralized system of government, in which the feudal lords ruled over their respective territories with a high degree of autonomy, even maintaining their own armies, while at the same time paying tribute to the king and recognising him as the symbolic ruler of China. During the second half of the Zhou period, China descended into centuries of political turmoil, with the feudal lords of numerous small fiefdoms vying for power during the Spring and Autumn Period （春秋时代), and later stabilised into seven large states in the Warring States period (战国时代). This tumultuous period gave birth to China's greatest thinkers including Confucius, Mencius and Laozi, who made substantial contributions to Chinese thought and culture.
China was eventually unified in 221 BC by Qin Shi Huang, the 'First Emperor', and the Qin Dynasty (秦朝) instituted a centralized system of government, and standardized weights and measures, Chinese characters and currency in order to create unity. However, due to dissatisfaction with tyrannical rule under the Qin, the Han Dynasty (汉朝) took over in 206 BC after a period of revolt, ushering in the first golden age of Chinese civilisation. To this day the majority Chinese race use the term "Han" to describe themselves, and Chinese characters continue to be called "Han characters" in Chinese, with similar cognates in Japanese and Korean. The Han Dynasty saw the beginning of the Silk Road, and also saw the invention of paper.
The collapse of the Han Dynasty in AD 220 led to a period of political turmoil and war known as the Three Kingdoms Period (三国), which saw China split into the three separate states of Wei (魏), Shu (蜀) and Wu (吴). China was then briefly reunified under the Jin Dynasty (晋朝), before descending into a period of division and anarchy once again. The era of division culminated with the Sui Dynasty (隋朝) which reunified China in 581. The Sui were famous for major public works projects, such as the engineering feat of the Grand Canal, which gradually developed into the Canal linking Beijing in the north to Hangzhou in the south. Certain sections of the canal are still navigable today.
In 618 A.D, the Sui were supplanted by the Tang Dynasty (唐朝), ushering in the second golden age of Chinese civilisation, marked by a flowering of Chinese poetry, Buddhism and statecraft, and also saw the development of the Imperial Examination system, which attempted to select court officials by ability rather than family background. Chinatowns overseas are often known as "Street of the Tang People" (唐人街 Tángrén jiē) in Chinese. The collapse of the Tang Dynasty then saw China divided once again, until it was reunified by the Song Dynasty (宋朝) in 960 AD. In 1127, The Song was driven south of the Huai river by the Jurchens, where they continued to rule as the Southern Song based in Lin An (临安Lín'ān) (modern-day Hangzhou), and attained a level of commercial and economic development unmatched until the West's Industrial Revolution. The Yuan Dynasty (元朝) (Mongol Empire) first defeated the Jurchens, then proceeded to conquer the Song in 1279, and ruled their vast Eurasian empire from Da Du (modern-day Beijing).
After defeating the Mongols, the Ming dynasty (明朝) (1368-1644) re-instituted rule by ethnic Han. The Ming period was noted for trade and exploration, with Zheng He's numerous voyages to Southeast Asia, India and the Arab world; see Maritime Silk Road. Famous buildings in Beijing, such as the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven, were built in this period. The last dynasty of the Qing (Manchu) dynasty (清朝) (1644-1911), saw the Chinese empire grow to its current size, incorporating the western regions of Xinjiang and Tibet. The Qing dynasty fell into decay in its final years to become the 'sick man of Asia', where it was nibbled apart by Western powers. The Westerners established their own treaty ports in Guangzhou, Shanghai and Tianjin. China lost several territories to foreign powers; Hong Kong and Weihai were ceded to Britain, Taiwan and Liaodong were to Japan, parts of the North East including Dalian and parts of Outer Manchuria to Russia, while Qingdao was ceded to Germany. In addition, China lost control of its tributaries, with Vietnam being ceded to France, while Korea and the Ryukyu Islands were ceded to Japan.
The Republic and WWII
The two thousand-year old imperial system collapsed in 1911, when Sun Yat-Sen (孙中山, Sūn Zhōngshān) founded the Republic of China (中华民国 Zhōnghuá Mínguó). Central rule collapsed in 1916 after Yuan Shih-kai, the second president of the Republic and self-declared emperor, passed away; China descended into anarchy, with various self-serving warlords ruling over different regions of China. In 1919, student protests in Beijing gave birth to the "May Fourth Movement" (五四运动 Wǔ Sì Yùndòng), which espoused various reforms to Chinese society, such as the use of the vernacular in writing, as well as the development of science and democracy. The intellectual ferment of the May Fourth Movement gave birth to the reorganized Kuomintang (KMT) in 1919 and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), in the French Concession of Shanghai, in 1921.
After uniting much of eastern China under KMT rule in 1928, the CCP and the KMT turned on each other, with the CCP fleeing to Yan'an in Shaanxi in the epic Long March. During the period from 1922 to 1937, Shanghai became a truly cosmopolitan city, as one of the world's busiest ports, and the most prosperous city in East Asia, home to millions of Chinese and 60,000 foreigners from all corners of the globe. However, underlying problems throughout the vast countryside, particularly the more inland parts of the country, such as civil unrest, famines and warlord conflict, still remained.
Japan established a puppet state under the name Manchukuo in Manchuria in 1931, and launched a full-scale invasion of China's heartland in 1937. The Japanese initiated a brutal system of rule in Eastern China, culminating in the Nanjing Massacre of 1937. After fleeing west to Chongqing, the KMT realized the urgency of the situation and signed a tenuous agreement with the CCP to form a second united front against the Japanese. With the defeat of Japan at the end of World War II in 1945, the KMT and CCP armies manoeuvred for positions in north China, setting the stage for the civil war in the years to come. The civil war lasted from 1946 to 1949 and ended with the Kuomintang defeated and sent packing to Taiwan where they hoped to re-establish themselves and recapture the mainland some day.
A Red China
Mao Zedong officially declared the establishment of the People's Republic of China on 1 Oct 1949. After an initial period closely hewing to the Soviet model of heavy industrialization and comprehensive central economic planning, China began to experiment with adapting Marxism to a largely agrarian society.
Massive social experiments such as the Hundred Flowers Campaign (百花运动 bǎihuā yùndòng), the Great Leap Forward (大跃进 dàyuèjìn), intended to collectivize and industrialize China quickly, and the Cultural Revolution (无产阶级文化大革命 wúchǎn jiējí wénhuà dà gémìng), aimed at changing everything by discipline, destruction of the "Four Olds," and total dedication to Mao Zedong Thought, rocked China from 1957 to 1976. The Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution are generally considered disastrous failures in China.
Mao Zedong died in 1976, and in 1978, Deng Xiaoping became China's paramount leader. Deng and his lieutenants gradually introduced market-oriented reforms and decentralized economic decision making. Economic output quadrupled by 2000 and continues to grow by 8-10% per year, but huge problems remain — bouts of serious inflation, regional income inequality, human rights abuses, ethnic unrest, massive pollution, rural poverty and corruption. The former president and CCP General Secretary, Hu Jintao, had proclaimed a policy for a "Harmonious Society" (和谐社会 héxié shèhuì) which promised to restore balanced economic growth and channel investment and prosperity into China's central and western provinces. China continues to develop economically at a breakneck speed, and has overtaken Japan to become the world's second largest economy after the United States, cementing its place once again as a major political, military and economic world power, but what lies ahead for the Middle Kingdom is anybody's guess.
China is a one-party authoritarian state tightly ruled by the Communist Party of China. China has actually only ever had one open national election, which was back in 1912. The government consists of an executive branch known as the State Council (国务院 Guó Wù Yuàn), as well as a unicameral legislature known as the National People's Congress (全国人民代表大会 Quánguó Rénmín Dàibiǎo Dàhuì). The Head of State is the President (主席 zhǔxí, lit chairman) while the Head of Government is the Premier (总理 zǒnglǐ). Whilst neither of them hold absolute power, the President actually holds the most powerful position with the Premier next to him as the second most powerful person in the country.
China largely follows a centralized system of government, although the country is administratively divided into 22 provinces, 5 autonomous regions and 4 directly controlled municipalities. The provincial governments are given limited powers in their internal and economic affairs. Autonomous regions are technically given more freedom than regular provinces, for example the right to declare additional official languages besides Mandarin. In addition, there are the Special Administrative Regions (SAR) of Hong Kong and Macau that effectively run themselves as separate countries, with only foreign policy and defense being controlled by Beijing, and their political systems are more open and democratic in nature. Taiwan is defined by the PRC as a 'renegade province' awaiting reunification with the mainland. Both the Taiwanese and the PRC governments support eventual reunification in principle and have signed trade pacts to more closely link their economies and lessen the danger of war.
People and customs
China is a very diverse place with large variations in culture, language, customs and economic levels. The economic landscape is particularly diverse. The major cities such as Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai are modern and comparatively wealthy. However, about 50% of Chinese still live in rural areas even though only 10% of China's land is arable. Hundreds of millions of rural residents still farm with manual labour or draft animals. Some 200 to 300 million former peasants have migrated to townships and cities in search of work. Government estimates for 2005 reported that 90 million people lived on less than USD $924 a year and 26 million were under the official poverty line of USD $668 a year. Generally the southern and eastern coastal regions are more wealthy while inland areas, the far west and north, and the southwest are much less developed.
The cultural landscape is unsurprisingly very diverse given the sheer size of the country and its population. China has 56 officially recognized ethnic groups; the largest by far is the Han which comprise over 90% of the population. The other 55 groups enjoy affirmative action for university admission and exemption from the one-child policy. The Han, however, are far from homogeneous and speak a wide variety of mutually unintelligible local "dialects"; which most linguists actually classify as different languages using more or less the same set of Chinese characters. Many of the minority ethnic groups have their own languages as well. Contrary to popular belief, there is no single unified Han Chinese culture, and while they share certain common elements such as Confucian and Taoist beliefs, the regional variations in culture among the Han ethnic group are actually very diverse. Many customs and deities are specific to individual regions and even villages. Celebrations for the lunar new year and other national festivals vary drastically from region to region. Specific customs related to the celebration of important occasions such as weddings, funerals and births also vary widely. In general contemporary urban Chinese society is rather secular and traditional culture is more of an underlying current in every day life. Among ethnic minorities, the Zhuang, Manchu, Hui and Miao are the largest in size. Other notable ethnic minorities include: Koreans, Tibetans, Mongols, Uighurs, Kirghiz and even Russians. In fact, China is home to the largest Korean population outside Korea, and is also home to more ethnic Mongols than the Republic of Mongolia itself. Many minorities have been assimilated to various degrees with the loss of their language and customs or a fusing with Han traditions. An exception to this trend is the current situation of the Tibetans and Uighurs in China who remain fiercely defensive of their cultures to the point of death.
On the whole, however, the Chinese love a good laugh and because there are so many ethnic groups and outsiders from other regions, they are used to different ways of doing things and are quite okay with that. Indeed the Chinese often make conversation with strangers by discussing differences in accent or dialect. They are very used to sign language and quick to see a non-verbal joke or pun wherever they can spot one. (A laugh doesn't necessarily mean scorn, just amusement and the Chinese like a "collective good laugh" often at times or circumstances that westerners might consider rude.) The Chinese love and adore children, allow them a great deal of freedom and heap attention upon them.
Potentially jarring behaviours
Foreigners may observe some behaviours in mainland China that may be somewhat jarring.
- Spitting: in the street, shops, supermarkets, hotel lobbies, hallways, restaurants, on buses and even in hospitals. Traditional Chinese medical thought believes it is unhealthy to swallow phlegm. Although the government has made great efforts to reduce this habit in light of the SARS epidemic as well as the Olympics, it still persists to varying degrees.
- Smoking: almost anywhere, including areas with "no smoking" signs including health clubs, football pitches, bathrooms and even hospitals. Some cities now forbid smoking in most restaurants, however enforcement of smoking bans can vary. Western restaurants seem to be the only ones who consistently enforce the ban. Masks would be a good idea for long distance bus trips. It is perfectly common for someone to smoke in a lift or even in the hospital, even when in plain sight of a 'no smoking' sign.
- Reaction to foreigners: Anyone who does not look Chinese will find that calls of "hello" or "laowai" are common: lǎowài (老外) literally means "old outsider", a colloquial term for "foreigner"; the more formal term is wàiguórén (外国人). Calls of "laowai" are ubiquitous outside of the big cities (and even there, occasionally); these calls will come from just about anyone, of any age, and are even more likely from the very young and can occur many times in any given day. Discrimination against people with darker skin colours is quite common in China.
- Staring: This is common throughout most of China. The staring usually originates out of sheer curiosity, almost never out of hostility. Don't be surprised if someone comes right up to you and just looks as if they are watching the TV, no harm done!
- Drinking: there's often much toasting at dinners, and it's generally considered rude to turn down the toast. See #Drink for details.
- Loud conversations: These are very common. Many Chinese speak very loudly in public and it may be one of the first things you notice upon arrival. Loud speech usually does not mean that the speaker is angry or engaged in an argument (although obviously it can). Noise means life, and China is rooted in a community based culture, so you may want to bring earplugs for long bus or train rides!
- Queue jumping: The concept of queuing is not widely respected in China, and it is difficult to suggest how to deal with it other than push and shove as the others do! This is a serious problem when queuing for tickets at train stations. If you are trying to catch a taxi, then expect other people to move further down the road to catch one before you. You may need to learn to become more assertive in order to get what you want in China.
- Personal space: Keep in mind that the concept of personal space more or less does not exist in China. It is perfectly common and acceptable behaviour for someone to come in very close contact with you or to bump into you and say nothing. Don't get mad, as they will be surprised and most likely won't even understand why you are offended!
- Ignoring rules: Disregard of city, provincial and/or national rules, regulations and laws. This includes (among many other things) dangerous and negligent driving, (see Driving in China) that includes excessive speeding, not using head lights at night, lack of use of turn signals, and driving on the wrong side of the street, jaywalking, and smoking in non-smoking areas or defiance of smoking bans.
- Air rage: A fairly recent phenomenon particular to China is groups of passengers displaying both verbal and physical aggression towards airline staff whenever there is a delay (and flight delays are very common). This is generally done in order to leverage better compensation from the airline.
- Sneezing: Many Chinese do not cover their mouths when they sneeze.
- Escalators: Take care when standing behind people on an escalator, since many people have a look-see as soon as they get off - even when the escalator behind them is fully packed. Department stores hire special staff to prevent this behaviour as much as they can.
- Elevators: People love to use elevators whenever possible, especially in large family groups. You should definitely plan on using patience if you want to go around a shopping mall with a baby buggy or luggage.
Some foreign residents will say that such conduct is getting worse and others will say things are improving all the time. The cause is usually attributed to the influx of millions of migrants from the countryside who are unfamiliar with big city life. The key advice is not to take any jarring behaviour personally, since Chinese people are rarely intentionally offensive towards foreigners.
In general, 3, 6, 9, and especially 8 are lucky numbers for most Chinese.
- "Three" means harmony of the sky, the earth and the human beings. "Three" is mostly seen in Chinese ancestor worship and traditional weddings.
- "Six" represents smoothness or success.
- "Eight" sounds so close to the word for wealth that many people believe eight is a number that is linked to prosperity. So it is no surprise that the opening ceremony for the Olympics started at 8:08:08pm on 08/08/2008.
- "Nine" is also regarded as a lucky number with the meaning of everlasting.
- "Four" is a taboo for most Chinese because the pronunciation in Mandarin and more so in Cantonese is close to "death".
Overall, Chinese people like homophones. Sometimes even "four" can be a good number. A lot of people went to register their marriage on 4 Jan 2013 simply because 2013/1/4 sounds like "love you forever" in Chinese.
Chinese people believe the spirit of the deceased will come back on the seventh day after their death. After a fire in Shanghai which killed many, about 10,000 people came to mourn at the site seven days after the fire.
Climate and terrain
Given the country's size the climate is extremely diverse, from tropical regions in the south to subarctic in the north. Hainan Island is roughly at the same latitude as Jamaica, while Harbin, one of the largest cites in the north, is at roughly the latitude of Montreal and has the climate to match. North China has four distinct seasons with intensely hot summers and bitterly cold winters. Southern China tends to be milder and wetter. The further north and west one travels, the drier the climate. Once you leave eastern China and enter the majestic Tibetan highlands or the vast steppes and deserts of Gansu and Xinjiang, distances are vast and the land is very harsh.
Back in the days of the planned economy, the rules stated that buildings in areas north of the Yangtze River got heat in the winter, but anything south of it did not — this meant unheated buildings in places like Shanghai and Nanjing, which routinely see temperatures below freezing in winter. The rule has long since been relaxed, but the effects are still visible. In general, Chinese use less heating and less building insulation, and wear more warm clothing, than Westerners in comparable climates. In schools, apartments and office buildings, even if the rooms are heated, the corridors are not. Double glazing is quite rare. Students and teachers wear winter jackets in class, and long underwear is very common. Air conditioning is increasingly common but is similarly not used in corridors and is often used with the windows and doors open.
There is a wide range of terrain to be found in China with many inland mountain ranges, high plateaus, and deserts in the centre and the far west. Plains, deltas, and hills dominate the east. The Pearl River Delta region around Guangzhou and Hong Kong and the Yangtze delta around Shanghai are major global economic powerhouses, as is the North China plain around Beijing and the Yellow River. On the border between Tibet, (the Tibet Autonomous Region) and the nation of Nepal lies Mount Everest, at 8,850 m, the highest point on earth. The Turpan depression, in northwest China's Xinjiang is the lowest point in China at 154 m below sea level, which is one of the lowest points in the world after the Dead Sea.
Units of Measure
China's official system of measurement is metric, but you will sometimes hear the traditional Chinese system of measurements being used in colloquial usage. The one you are most likely to come across in everyday use is the jin (斤), which is a unit of measure for mass. Most Chinese will quote their weight in jin if asked, and food prices in markets are often quoted per jin. For practical purposes, one jin is roughly equivalent to 0.5 kg.
Lunar New Year dates
The year of the Horse started on 31 Jan 2014
During holidays, mainly Chinese new year and National Day, hundreds of millions of migrant workers return home and millions of other Chinese travel within the country (but many in the service sector stay behind, enjoying extra pay). Travellers may want to seriously consider scheduling to avoid being on the road, on the rails, or in the air during the major holidays. At the very least, travel should be planned well well in advance. Every mode of transportation is extremely crowded; tickets of any kind are hard to come by, and will cost you a lot more, so it may be necessary to book well in advance (especially for those travelling from remote western China to the east coast or in the opposite direction). Train and bus tickets are usually quite easy to buy in China, (during the non-holiday season), but difficulties arising from crowded conditions at these times cannot be overstated. Travellers who are stranded at these times, unable to buy tickets, can sometimes manage to get air tickets, which tend to sell out more slowly because of the higher but still affordable (by western standards) prices. For the most comfortable mode of transportation, air travel is the obvious choice. There is an emerging ultra-modern bullet train network which is also very nice, but you may still have to potentially deal with many insanely overcrowded, smoke-filled, cold, loud and disorganized train depots to get on board. The spring festival (Chinese New Year) is the largest annual migration of people on earth.
China has six major annual holidays:
- Chinese New Year or Spring Festival (春节 chūnjié) - Falls between late January to the middle of February
- Qingming Festival or tomb sweeping day — Usually 4th to the 6th of April. Cemeteries are crowded with people who go to sweep the tombs of their ancestors and offer sacrifices. Traffic on the way to cemeteries can be very heavy.
- Labor Day or May Day (劳动节 láodòngjié) - May 1st
- Dragon Boat Festival (端午节 duānwǔjié) - 5th day of the 5th lunar month, usually in the period of May to June (12th June in 2013). Boat races and eating zongzi (粽子, steamed pouches of sticky rice) are a traditional part of the celebration.
- Mid-Autumn Day (中秋节 zhōngqiūjié）- 15th day of the 8th lunar month, usually October (30th September in 2012). Also called the Moon Cake Festival after its signature treat, moon cakes (月饼 yuèbǐng). People meet outside, put food on the tables and look up at the full harvest moon.
- National Day (国庆节 guóqìngjié) - October 1st
The Chinese New Year and National Day are not one day holidays; nearly all workers get at least a week for Chinese New Year and some of them get two or three. Students get four to six weeks of holiday. A week of holiday is typical for National Day.
The Chinese New Year is especially busy. Not only is it the longest holiday, it's also a traditional time to visit family, and the entire country pretty well shuts down during this period. Most migrant workers in the cities will return to their farms and villages, which is often the only chance they have. Around the Chinese New Year, many stores and other businesses will close from a few days to a week or even longer. With this in mind, it is not ideal to visit during this period unless you have close friends or relatives in China.
In early July, around twenty million university students will return home and then in late August they will return to school, which makes roads, railways and planes very busy at these times.
A complete list of Chinese festivals would be very long since many areas or ethnic groups have their own local ones. See listings for individual towns for details. Here is a list of some of the nationally important festivals not mentioned above:
- Lantern Festival (元宵节 yuánxiāojié or 上元节 shàngyuánjié) - 15th day of the 1st lunar month, just after Chinese New Year, usually in February or March. In some cities, such as Quanzhou, this is a big festival with elaborate lanterns all over town.
- Double Seventh Festival (七夕 qīxī) - 7th day of the 7th lunar month, usually August, is a festival of romance, sort of a Chinese Valentine's Day.
- Double Ninth Festival or Chongyang Festival (重阳节 chóngyángjié) - 9th day of the 9th lunar month, usually in October.
- Winter Solstice Festival (冬至 dōngzhì) - 22nd or the 23rd December.
In addition to these, some Western festivals are noticeable, at least in major cities. Around Christmas, one hears carols — mostly English, a few in Latin, plus Chinese versions of "Jingle Bells", "Amazing Grace", and for some reason "Oh Susana". Some stores are decorated and one sees many shop assistants in red and white elf hats. For Valentine's Day, many restaurants offer special meals. Chinese Christians celebrate services and masses at officially sanctioned Protestant and Catholic churches as well.
- Wild Swans by Jung Chang (ISBN 0007176155) - a biography of three generations, from the warlord days to the end of Mao's era, illustrating life under China's version of nationalism and communism. Note that this book is banned in China.
Topics in China
For a complete list of provinces and an explanation of China's political geography, see: List of Chinese provinces and regions.
|Northeast China (Liaoning, Jilin, Heilongjiang)
Ethnic homeland of the Manchus (hence it's historically known as "Manchuria). Now known as dōngběi and contains "rust belt" cities, vast forests, Russian, Korean, and Japanese influence, and long, snowy winters
|North China (Shandong, Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, Henan, Hebei, Beijing, Tianjin)
Yellow River Basin area, cradle of Chinese civilization and its historic heartland
|Northwest China (Shaanxi, Gansu, Ningxia, Qinghai, Xinjiang)
ChangAn, China's capital for 1000 years, Silk Road westward stretch across deserts, mountains, grasslands nomads, and Islam
|Southwest China (Tibet, Yunnan, Guangxi, Guizhou)
The exotic part, minority peoples, spectacular scenery, and backpacker havens
|South-central China (Anhui, Sichuan, Chongqing, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangxi)
Yangtze River Basin area, farms, mountains, river gorges, temperate and sub-tropical forests
|Southeast China (Guangdong, Hainan, Fujian)
Traditional trading centre, manufacturing powerhouse, and ancestral homeland of most overseas Chinese
|East China (Jiangsu, Shanghai, Zhejiang)
The "land of fish and rice" (China's equivalent of the "land of milk and honey"), traditional water towns, and China's new cosmopolitan economic centre
China has many large and famous cities. Below is a list of the nine most important to travellers in mainland China. Other cities are listed under their specific regional section. See the Dynasties and capitals section for a detailed list of China's many previous capitals.
- Beijing (北京) — the capital, cultural centre, and host of the 2008 Olympics
- Guangzhou (广州) — one of the most prosperous and liberal cities in the south, near Hong Kong
- Guilin (桂林) — popular destination for both Chinese and foreign tourists with sensational mountain and river scenery
- Hangzhou (杭州) — famously beautiful city and major centre for the silk industry
- Kunming (昆明) — capital of Yunnan and gateway to a rainbow of ethnic minority areas
- Nanjing (南京) — a renowned historical and cultural city with many historic sites
- Shanghai (上海) — famous for its riverside cityscape, a major commercial centre with many shopping opportunities
- Suzhou (苏州) — "Venice of the East," an ancient city famous for canals and gardens just west of Shanghai
- Xi'an (西安) — the oldest city and ancient capital of China, home to ten dynasties including the Han and the Tang, terminus of the ancient Silk Road, and home of the terracotta warriors
You can travel to many of these cities using the new fast trains. In particular, the Hangzhou - Shanghai - Suzhou - Nanjing line is a convenient way to see these historic areas.
Some of the most famous tourist attractions in China are:
- Great Wall of China (万里长城) — longer than 8,000 km, this ancient wall is the most iconic landmark of China
- Hainan (海南) — a tropical paradise island undergoing heavy tourism-oriented development
- Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve(九寨沟) — known for its many multi-level waterfalls, colourful lakes and as the home of the giant pandas
- Leshan — most famous for its huge riverside cliff-carving of Buddha and nearby Mount Emei
- Mount Everest — straddling the border between Nepal and Tibet, this is the world's highest mountain
- Mount Tai (泰山 Tài Shān) — one of the five sacred Daoist mountains in China, and because of its history the most climbed mountain in China
- Tibet (西藏) — with a majority of Tibetan Buddhists and traditional Tibetan culture, it feels like an entirely different world
- Turpan (吐鲁番)— in the Islamic area of Xinjiang, this area is known for its grapes, harsh climate and Uighur culture
- Yungang Grottoes (云冈石窟) — these mountain-side caves and recesses number more than 50 in all and are filled with 51,000 Buddhist statues
China has over 40 sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Visa policy overview
China offers the following visas to citizens of most countries:
Additionally the following nationalities are exempted from needing to obtain a visa before travelling to China, as long as their stay is limited to the stated duration:
You can contact your nearest Chinese embassies and consulates for more details.
Most travellers will need a visa (签证 qiānzhèng) to visit mainland China. In most cases, this should be obtained from a Chinese embassy or consulate before departure. Citizens from most Western countries do not need visas to visit Hong Kong and Macau for up to 90 days and 30-day single- or double-entry visas for the mainland are generally easy to acquire in Hong Kong. This means you can generally fly from overseas to Hong Kong without a visa and then proceed from there into the mainland having spent a few days in Hong Kong to acquire a mainland visa. Those requiring visas for Hong Kong and Macau may obtain them from a Chinese embassy or consulate, but they must be applied for separately from the mainland Chinese visa.
Nationals of Brunei, Japan and Singapore do not need a visa to visit mainland China for a stay of up to 15 days, regardless of the reason of visit. Nationals of San Marino do not need a visa to visit mainland China for a stay of up to 90 days, regardless of the reason of visit.
To visit mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau, residents of Chinese nationality need to apply at the China Travel Service, the sole authorised issuing agent, to obtain a Home Return Permit (回乡证), a credit card sized ID allowing multiple entries and unlimited stay for 10 years with no restrictions including on employment. Taiwan residents may obtain an entry permit (valid for 3 months) at airports in Dalian, Fuhzou, Haikou, Qingdao, Sanya, Shanghai, Wuhan, Xiamen and China Travel Services in Hong Kong and Macau. Visitors must hold a Republic of China passport, Taiwanese Identity Card and Taiwan Compatriot Pass (台胞证 táibāozhèng). The Compatriot Pass may be obtained for single use at airports in Fuzhou, Haikou, Qingdao, Sanya, Wuhan and Xiamen. The entry permit fee is ¥100 plus ¥50 for issuing a single use Taiwan Compatriot Pass. Travellers should check the most up-to-date information before travelling.
Transit without a visa
Although entry into China requires a visa for citizens of most countries, there is an exception when transiting through some airports. These rules are subject to sudden changes and you should check with your airline shortly before attempting this method of entry.
As of January 1st, 2014, citizens of the designated countries who arrive at airports in Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqing, Dalian, Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Shenyang can stay in the city of arrival for up to 72 hours provided they depart from an airport of the same city. The onward ticket must be to a country other than the country from which their arriving flight originated and they must have the required entry documents for the third county or countries.
Passengers without a visa who intend to leave the transit area will typically be directed by an immigration officer to wait in an office for around 20 minutes while other officials review the passengers' onward flight documentation.
Types of visas
Getting a tourist visa is fairly easy for most passports as you don't need an invitation, which is required for business or working visas. The usual tourist single-entry visa is valid for a visit of 30 days and must be used within three months of the date of issue. A double-entry tourist visa must be used within six months of the date of issue. It is possible to secure a single or double entry tourist visa for up to 60 days or, less commonly, 90 days for some citizens applying in their home countries.
Consulates and travel agents have been known to occasionally request proof of onward travel at the time of visa application.
Tourist visa extensions can be applied for at the local Entry & Exit Bureau after handing in the following documents: valid passport, visa extension application form including one passport-sized photo, a copy of the Registration Form of Temporary Residence which you received from the local police station at registration. In Shanghai, the Entry & Exit Bureau is located at 1500 Mingsheng Road, Pudong District. Processing time is five working days.
Some travellers will need a dual entry or multiple entry visa. For example, if you enter China on a single entry visa, then go to Hong Kong or Macau, you need a new visa to re-enter mainland China. In Hong Kong, multiple entry visas are officially available only to HKID holders, but the authorities are willing to bend the rules somewhat and may approve three-month multiple entry visas for short-term Hong Kong qualified residents, including exchange students. It is recommended to apply directly with the Chinese government in this case, as some agents will be unwilling to submit such an application on your behalf.
Obtaining a Visa on Arrival is possible usually only for the Shenzhen or Zhuhai Special Economic Zones, and such visas are limited to those areas. When crossing from Hong Kong to Shenzhen at Lo Wu railway station, and notably not at Lok Ma Chau, a five day Shenzhen-only visa can be obtained during extended office hours on the spot for ¥160 (Oct 2007 price) for passport holders of many nationalities, for example Irish or New Zealand or Canadian. Americans are not eligible, while British nationals have to pay ¥450. The office now accepts only Chinese yuan as payment, so be sure to bring sufficient cash.
There may be restrictions on visas for some nationalities and these vary over time. For example:
- The visa fee for American nationals was increased to USD140 (or USD110 as part of a group tour) in reciprocation for increased fees for Chinese nationals visiting America.
- Indian nationals are limited to 10 or 15 day tourist visas, and have to show USD100 per day of visa validity in the form of traveller's checks. (USD1,000 and USD1,500, respectively)
- Foreigners in South Korea not holding an alien registration card must now travel to the Chinese consulate in Busan, as the Chinese embassy in Seoul does not issue visas to non-residents in Korea. Additionally applications have to be made through an official travel agency.
The current Z visa only allows you to remain in the country for 30 days; once you are there, the employer gets you a residence permit. This is effectively a multiple-entry visa and you can leave China and return using it. Some local visa offices will refuse to issue a residence permit if you entered China on a tourist (L) visa. In those cases, you have to enter on a Z visa. These are only issued outside China, so getting one may require a trip outside China such as Hong Kong or South Korea. They also require an invitation letter from the employer. In other cases it is possible to convert an L visa to a residence permit; it depends upon which office you are dealing with and perhaps on your employer's connections.
For family members of a Z visa holder, a dependent S1 visa is now available and can be applied for outside of China with the original birth and/or marriage certificates.
One option for foreigners married to Chinese citizens is to obtain a six to twelve month visiting relatives (探亲 tànqīn) visa. A visiting relatives visa is actually a tourist (L) visa that permits individuals to remain in China continuously for the duration of their visa and does not require the visa holder to exit and re-enter China to maintain the validity of the visa. Individuals seeking to apply for a visiting relatives visa should first enter the country on a different visa and then apply for a visiting relatives visa at the local Public Security bureau in the city that your marriage was registered in, which is usually your Chinese spouse's hometown. Make sure to bring your marriage certificate and spouse's identification card (身份证 shēnfènzhèng).
It is possible for most foreigners to get a visa in the Chinese Embassy in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. During busy periods, the office may refuse entry after 11AM. Also be aware of major Chinese holidays, the Consular Section may be closed for several days.
Those seeking a visa in South Korea will generally have to either show an Alien Registration Card showing they still have several months of residency in South Korea or show that they've received a Chinese visa within the last two years. One cannot apply to a Chinese embassy or consulate directly but must proceed through a travel agent. Generally only 30 day single entry visas are available.
Registering your abode
Chinese law requires that hotels, guest houses and hostels register their guests with the local police when checking in. The staff will scan your passport including your visa and entry stamps. Help staff out if they do not know where the most recent stamp is — immigration officers are sometimes known to stamp in the wrong order.
If you are staying in a private residence, you are in theory (and by law) required to register your abode with the local police within 24 (city) to 72 (countryside) hours of arrival, though in practice the law is rarely if ever enforced so long as you don't cause any trouble. The police will ask for a copy of the photograph page of your passport, a copy of your visa, a copy of your immigration entry stamp, a photograph and a copy of the tenancy agreement or other document concerning the place you are staying in. That agreement might not be in your name but it will still be asked for.
This Temporary Residence Permit should be carried with you at all times, especially if you are in larger cities or where control is tight.
You will need to re-register if your visa or residence permit undergoes any changes — extensions, or changes in passport (even here, it is ideal to re-register when you get a new passport, regardless if you've transferred the visa or residence permit tot he new passport).
The main international gateways to mainland China are Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Other sizeable cities will have an international airport, although options will be usually limited to East and sometimes, Southeast Asian destinations.
Transiting through Hong Kong and Macau
If arriving in Hong Kong or Macau there are ferries that can shuttle passengers straight to another destination such as Shekou or Bao'an Airport in Shenzhen, Macau Airport, Zhuhai and elsewhere without actually "entering" Hong Kong or Macau.
Airline tickets are expensive or hard to come around Chinese New Year, the Chinese 'golden weeks' and university holidays.
If you live in a city with a sizeable overseas Chinese community (such as Toronto, San Francisco, Sydney or London), check for cheap flights with someone in that community or visit travel agencies operated by Chinese. Sometimes flights advertised only in Chinese newspapers or travel agencies cost significantly less than posted fares in English. However if you go and ask, you can get the same discount price.
See also: Discount airlines in Asia
Hong Kong based Cathay Pacific or their subsidiary Dragon Air can connect from many international destinations to all the major mainland cities. Other Asian carriers with good service into China include Singapore Airlines, Japan Airlines, Korean Air, Garuda Indonesia and Taiwan-based China Airlines.
Most major carriers based outside Asia fly to at least one of China's main hubs — Beijing, Shanghai Pudong, Guangzhou and Hong Kong — and many go to several of those. Some, such as KLM, also have quite a few flights to various lesser Chinese cities, and the number of such flights in increasing. Check the individual city articles for details.
See Discount airlines in Asia for some additional options both to reach China and to get around within it.
China can be reached by train from many of its neighbouring countries and even all the way from Europe.
- Russia & Europe - two lines of the Trans-Siberian Railway (Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Manchurian) run between Moscow and Beijing, stopping in various other Russian cities, and for the Trans-Mongolian, in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
- Kazakhstan & Central Asia - from Almaty, Kazakhstan, you can travel by rail to Urumqi in the northwestern province of Xinjiang. There are long waits at the Alashankou border crossing for customs, as well as for changing the wheelbase for the next country's track. Another, shorter, trans-border route has no direct train service; rather, you take an overnight Kazakh train from Almaty to Altynkol, cross the border to Khorgos, and then take an overnight Chinese train from Khorgos (or the nearby Yining) to Urumqi.
- Hong Kong - regular services link mainland China with Hong Kong, as well as building a high speed rail link that will be operational in a few years time.
- Vietnam - from Nanning in Guangxi province into Vietnam via the Friendship Pass. Services from Kunming have been suspended since 2002.
China has land borders with 14 different countries; a number matched only by its northern neighbour, Russia. Mainland China also has land borders with the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau, which are for all practical purposes treated as international borders. Most of the border crossings in western China are located in remote mountain passes, which while difficult to reach and traverse, often reward travellers willing to make the effort with breathtaking scenic views.
The Nathu La Pass between Sikkim in India and Southern Tibet is not open to tourists, and special permits are required to visit from both sides. The pass has recently reopened for cross-border trade and therefore there is a possibility that the tourist restriction may change in the future.
Entering China from Myanmar is possible at the Ruili (China)-Lashio (Myanmar) border crossing, but permits need to be obtained from the Burmese authorities in advance. Generally, this would require you to join a guided tour.
For most travellers Hanoi is the origin for any overland journey to China. There are currently three international crossings:
- Dong Dang (V) - Pingxiang (C:凭祥)
You can catch a local bus from Hanoi's eastern bus station (Ben Xe Street, Gia Lam District, ☎ +86 4 827 1529 to Lang Son, where you have to switch transport to minibus or motorbike to reach the border at Dong Dang. Alternatively there are many offers from open-tour providers; for those in a hurry, they might be a good option if they offer a direct hotel to border crossing transfer.
You can change money with freelance money changers, but check the rate carefully beforehand.
Border formalities take about 30 minutes. On the Chinese side, walk up past the "Friendship-gate" and catch a taxi (about ¥20, bargain hard!) to Pingxiang, Guangxi. A seat in a minibus is ¥5. There is a Bank of China branch right across the street from the main bus station; the ATM accepts Maestro cards. You can travel by bus or train to Nanning.
- Lao Cai (V) - Hekou (C:河口)
You can take a train from Hanoi to Lao Cai for about 420,000 VND (as of 11/2011) for a soft sleeper. The trip takes about 8 hr. From there, it's a long walk (or a 5 minute ride) to the Lao Cai/Hekou border. Crossing the border is simple, fill out a customs card and wait in line. They will search your belongings (in particular your books/written material). Outside the Hekou border crossing is a variety of shops, and the bus terminal is about a 10 minute ride from the border. A ticket to Kunming from Hekou costs about ¥140; the ride is about 7 hr.
- Mong Cai (V) - Dongxing (C:东兴)
At Dongxing, you can take a bus to Nanning, a sleeper bus to Guangzhou (approximately ¥180), or a sleeper bus to Shenzhen (approximately ¥230, 12 hr) (March 2006).
From Luang Namtha you can get a bus leaving at around 08:00. going to Boten (Chinese border) and Mengla. You need to have a Chinese visa beforehand as there is no way to get one on arrival. The border is close (about 1 hr). Customs procedures will eat up another good hour. The trip costs about 45,000 Kip.
Also, there is a direct Chinese sleeper bus connection from Luang Prabang to Kunming (about 32 hr). You can jump in this bus at the border, when the minibus from Luang Namtha and the sleeper meet. Don't pay more than ¥200, though.
The Karakoram Highway from northern Pakistan into Western China is one of the most spectacular roads in the world. It's closed for tourists for a few months in winter. Crossing the border is relatively quick because of few overland travellers, and friendly relations between the two countries. A bus runs between Kashgar (China) and Sust (Pakistan) across the Kunerjab pass.
The road from Nepal to Tibet passes near Mount Everest, and through amazing mountain scenery. Entering Tibet from Nepal is only possible for tourists on package tours, but it is possible to travel into Nepal from Tibet
From Zamiin Uud. Take a local train from Ulaanbaatar to Zamiin Uud. Then Bus or Jeep to Erlian in China. There are local trains leaving in the evening most days and arriving in the morning. The border opens around 08:30. From Erlian there are buses and trains to other locations in China.
The border crossing closest to Almaty is located at Khorgos. Buses run almost daily from Almaty to Urumqi and Yining. No visa-on-arrival is available so ensure that both your Chinese and Kazakh visas are in order before attempting this. Another major crossing is at Alashankou (Dostyk on the Kazakh side).
It is possible to cross the Torugart pass to/from Kyrgyztan, but the road is very rough and the pass is only open during the summer months (June–September) every year. It is possible to arrange crossings all the way from Kashgar, but ensure that all your visas are in order.
Alternatively, while less scenic, a smoother crossing is located at Irkeshtam to the south of Torugart.
There is a single border crossing between China and Tajikistan at Kulma, which is open on weekdays from May–November. A bus operates across the border between Kashgar in Xinjiang and Khorog in Tajikistan. Ensure both your Chinese and Tajik visas are in order before attempting this crossing.
The most popular border crossing at Manzhouli in Inner Mongolia. Buses run from Manzhouli to Zabaikalsk in Russia. There are also ferries across the Amur from Heihe to Blagoveshchensk, and from Fuyuan to Khabarovsk. Farther east, there are land border crossings at Suifenhe, Dongning, and Hunchun. Ensure both your Russian and Chinese visas are in order before attempting.
Crossing overland into North Korea is possible at the Dandong/Sinuiju border crossing, but must be pre-arranged on a guided tour from Beijing, and is mostly available only to Chinese citizens. In the reverse direction, the crossing is fairly straightforward if you have arranged it as part of your North Korean tour. Several other border crossings also exist along the Yalu and Tumen rivers, though these crossings may not be open to tourists. Your tour company must ensure that both your Chinese and North Korean visas are in order before attempting this.
There are four road border crossings into China from Hong Kong at Lok Ma Chau/Huanggang, Sha Tau Kok/Shatoujiao, Man Kam To/Wenjindu and the Shenzhen Bay Bridge. A visa on arrival is available for some nationalities at Huanggang, but visas must be arranged in advance for all other crossings.
The two border crossings are at the Portas do Cerco/Gongbei and the Lotus Bridge. A visa-on-arrival can be obtained by certain nationalities at the Portas do Cerco. At Gongbei, Zhuhai train station is adjacent to the border crossing, with frequent train service to Guangzhou.
Hong Kong and Macau
There is regular ferry and hovercraft service between Hong Kong and Macau to the rest of the Pearl River Delta, such as Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Zhuhai. Ferry service from Hong Kong International Airport allow arriving passengers to proceed directly to China without having to clear Hong Kong immigration and customs.
There is a 2-day ferry service from Shanghai and Tianjin to Osaka, Japan. Service is once or twice weekly, depending on season.
Hourly ferries (18 departures per day) run between Kinmen and Xiamen, with the journey time either 30 minutes or 1 hr depending on port. There is also a regular ferry between Kinmen and Quanzhou with 3 departures per day. A twice-daily ferry links Matsu with Fuzhou, with journey time about 2 hr. From the Taiwanese main island, there are weekly departures from Taichung and Keelung aboard the Cosco Star to Xiamen.
Golden Peacock Shipping company runs a speedboat three times a week on the Mekong river between Jinghong in Yunnan and Chiang Saen (Thailand). Passengers are not required to have visas for Laos or Myanmar, although the greater part of the trip is on the river bordering these countries. the ticket costs ¥650
In the fall, several cruise lines move their ships from Alaska to Asia and good connections can generally be found leaving from Anchorage, Vancouver, or Seattle. Star Cruises operates between Keelung in Taiwan and Xiamen in mainland China, stopping at one of the Japanese islands on the way.
China is a huge country so, unless you're not planning on venturing outside the eastern seaboard, definitely consider domestic flights if you don't want to spend a couple of days on the train or on the road getting from one area to another. China has many domestic flights connecting all the major cities and tourist destinations. Airlines include the three international carriers: Air China, China Southern, and China Eastern, as well as regional ones including Hainan Airlines, Shenzhen Airlines, Sichuan Airlines and Shanghai Airlines.
Flights between Hong Kong or Macau and mainland Chinese cities are considered to be international flights and so can be quite expensive. Hence if arriving in, or departing from, Hong Kong or Macau, it is usually much cheaper to fly to or from Shenzhen or Zhuhai, just across the border, or Guangzhou, which is a little further afield but offers flights to more destinations. As an example, the distance from Fuzhou to Hong Kong, Shenzhen or Guangzhou is about the same, but as of mid-2005 flying to Hong Kong cost ¥1,400 while list price for the other cities was ¥880 and for Shenzhen discounts to ¥550 were available. Overnight bus to any of these destinations was about ¥250.
Prices for domestic flights are set at standard rates, but discounts are common, especially on the busier routes. Most good hotels, and many hostels, will have a travel ticket service and may be able to save you 15%-70% off the price of tickets. Travel agencies and booking offices are plentiful in all Chinese cities and offer similar discounts. Even before considering discounts, travelling by aircraft in China is not expensive.
For travel within China, it is usually best to buy tickets in China, or on Chinese websites (there are several available in English - they will deliver the tickets to hotels in major cities. Payment is made in cash to the person delivering the ticket/s). Overseas, especially online, vendors often charge much higher rates. Booking too far in advance on Chinese websites is not advisable as prices tend to remain high until 2 months before the flight date, at which point large discounts are usually seen unless a particular flight has been heavily booked far in advance.
Be prepared for unexplained flight delays as these are common despite pressure from both the government and consumers. For short distances, consider other, seemingly slower options. Flight cancellations are also not uncommon. If you buy your ticket from a Chinese vendor they will likely try to contact you (if you left contact information) to let you know about the change in flight plan. If you purchased your ticket overseas, be certain to check on the flight status a day or two before you plan to fly.
Train travel is the main method of long distance transportation for the Chinese themselves, with an extensive network of routes covering most of the country. Roughly a quarter of the world's total rail traffic is in China.
China now has the world's largest network of high-speed railways (similar to French TGV or Japanese Shinkansen bullet trains) and expansion continues at a frantic pace. They are called CRH and train numbers have a "G", "C" or "D" prefix. If your route and budget allow then these may be the best way to get around. For more detail, see High-speed rail in China.
Chinese trains are split into different categories designated by letters and numbers indicated on the ticket. A guide to the hierarchy of Chinese trains from fastest to slowest are as follows:
- G-series (高速 gāosù) – 300 km/h long-haul high-speed expresses - on a number of high-speed mainlines, including Beijing–Zhengzhou–Wuhan–Guangzhou–Shenzhen, Zhengzhou–Xi'an, Beijing–Nanjing–Shanghai, Shanghai–Hangzhou, Nanjing–Hangzhou–Ningbo.
- C-series (城际 chéngjì) – 300 km/h short-haul high-speed expresses - currently only on Beijing–Wuqing–Tianjin–Tanggu line and Shanghai South-Jinshanwei line. C-series numbering is also used for commuter trains on the Wuhan–Xianning lines.
- D-series (动车 dòngchē) – 200 km/h high speed expresses.
- Z-series (直达 zhídá) – 160 km/h non/less-stop services connecting major cities. Accommodation is mostly soft seat or soft sleeper, although they often have a couple of hard sleeper cars too.
- T-series (特快 tèkuài) – 140 km/h intercity trains calling at major cities only. Similar to Z–trains although they usually stop at more stations.
- K-series (快速 kuàisù) – 120 km/h fast trains, the most often seen series, calls at more stations than a T train and has more hard-sleepers and seats.
- General fast trains (普快 pǔkuài) – 120 km/h trains, with no letter designation, four digits starts with 1–5. These trains are the cheapest, although slowest long-distance trains
- General trains (普客 pǔkè) - 100 km/h short-distance trains with no letter designation, four digits starts with 5, 6, or 7. Slowest trains, stop almost everywhere.
- Commuting trains (通勤 tōngqín) / Service trains (路用 lùyòng) - four digits starts with 8, or five digits starts with 57, very slow local trains, mostly used by rail staffs.
- L-series (临时 línshí) – seasonal trains suitable to K- or four-digit-series.
- Y-series (旅游 lǚyóu) – trains primarily serving tourist groups.
- S-series (市郊 shìjiāo) - Currently the only on the Beijing Suburban Railway between Beijing North and Yanqing County via Badaling (Great Wall).
On the regular non-CRH trains there are five classes of travel:
- Soft sleepers (软卧 ruǎnwò) are the most comfortable mode of transportation and are still relatively cheap by Western standards. The soft sleeper compartments contain four bunks stacked two to a column (though some newer trains have two-bunk compartments), a latchable door for privacy, and are quite spacious.
- Hard sleepers (硬卧 yìngwò), on the other hand, have 3 beds per column open to the corridor. The highest bunk is very high up and leaves little space for headroom. Taller travellers (6'3" and above) may find this to be the best bunk since when sleeping your feet will extend into the passageway and they will not be bumped. The top bunk is also useful for people with things to hide (e.g. cameras). When placed by your head they are harder for would-be thieves to reach. It should be noted that the "hard" sleeper is not "hard"; the beds have a mattress and are generally quite comfortable. All sleepers have pillows and a blanket.
- Soft seats (软座 ruǎnzuò) are cloth-covered, generally reclining seats and are a special category that you will rarely find. These are only available on day trains between destinations of about 4–8 hours of travel time, as well as on all high speed trains (class D and above).
- Hard seats (硬座 yìngzuò), which are actually padded, are not for everyone, especially overnight, as they are 5 seats wide, in a three and two arrangement. It is in this class, however, that most of the backpacker crowd travels. Despite the "no smoking" signs, there almost always remain smokers within the car. There is invariably a crowd of smokers at the ends of the cars and the smoke will drift endlessly into the cabin. On most trains, particularly in China's interior, the space between the cars is a designated smoking area although the signs for "designated smoking area" are only in Chinese so this fact may not be clear to many travellers. Overnight travel in the hard seats can safely be deemed uncomfortable for just about everyone and will cause a great deal of discomfort for nearly including many restless endless hours of no sleep.
- Standing (无座 wúzuò) allow access to the hard seat car but give no seat reservation. Consider carrying a tripod chair in your backpack to make such journeys more comfortable.
The soft seat and soft sleeper cars, and some of hard seat and hard sleeper cars are air-conditioned.
The CRH trains usually have five classes:
- Second class (二等座 erdengzuo) (3+2 seat layout). Seats are a bit narrow, but there is plenty of leg room.
- First class (一等座 yidengzuo) (2+2 layout)
- Three VIP classes (2+1 layout just behind the driver's cabin). There are three different VIP classes, named "商务座" (business class), "观光座" (sightseeing class) and "特等座" (deluxe class). Unlike on airliners, 商务座 (business class) is in fact better than "一等座" (first class) on CRH trains. 商务座 (business class) and 观光座 (sightseeing class) priced the same, while 特等座 is usually more expensive than "一等座" (first class), but cheaper than 商务座 and 观光座.
As of 2014, sale of train tickets usually starts 20 days in advance, either online via the China Rail booking site or at the major train stations' ticket offices.
- China Rail website. It is possible to book tickets via this site, and there is no charge for the service. However, the site is in Chinese only and it accepts only UnionPay so you need a Chinese bank account to use it.
Two days later, tickets can be bought at private agencies, which are small ticket window shops scattered around cities, labeled "售火车票" (shou huo che piao). They charge a small commission (e.g. 5 Yuan) but can save you a trip to the train station. In general, if you go to a counter to buy tickets, you will save everyone a lot of hassle if you have your train number, date and time of departure, seating class and number of tickets, as well as origin and destination cities all written down in Chinese, or at least in Pinyin. Staff will not generally speak English, and at the train stations they will not have a lot of patience as there are usually long queues.
Travel agencies will accept money and bookings for tickets in advance but no one can guarantee your ticket until the station releases them onto the market, at which point your agency will go and buy the ticket they had previously "guaranteed" you. This is true of anywhere in China.
Nationals and foreigners alike must present ID in order to purchase a ticket (e.g., national ID card or passport). The purchaser's name is printed onto the ticket and each individual is required to be present, with ID, to pick-up their ticket. Especially around festivals, tickets sell out very quickly, so it is advisable to book tickets as far in advance as possible. One way to get around the ID restriction if one of the passengers is not present is to ask a Chinese person to buy the ticket online. You then only need to input the passport number, presenting the passport when picking up the ticket.
Be aware that many cities have different stations for normal trains and high speed trains. High speed station names usually consist of the city name and the cardinal direction (for example Héngyángdōng "Hengyang East")
Differently from what you may be used to, Chinese train stations function similarly to an airport. The most important implication of this is that you should not count on catching a train on the last minute – gates close a few minutes prior to departure! To be safe, be there at least 20 minutes early, or 30 minutes if you are entering a big train station.
You need to pass an initial ticket and security check to enter the station. Once in the departure hall, follow the digital indicator boards to find the right boarding gate (they should be in both English and Chinese, at least at CRH stations; if Chinese is available only, you will still be able to find the train service number which is printed at the top of your ticket). Wait in the waiting area close to your gate until boarding is announced about 10–20 minutes prior to departure. You will then pass a ticket check (have your passport ready as they may want to see it) and follow the crowd to the platform. Note that there are two types of tickets: red paper tickets which are issued at ticketing agencies, and blue magnetic tickets which you get from the station's ticket office. Blue tickets go into one of the automated ticket gates, while red tickets are checked manually; be sure to go through the gate at the right place.
On the platform, the train may already be waiting; otherwise, look for your car number written on the platform edge and make sure you're waiting in the right place, because often the train will only stop for a couple of minutes. If there are no such indications, show your ticket to staff and they will show you where to wait. Some newer stations have higher level platforms that are level with the door, but at smaller stations the platforms are very low and you have to ascend several steep steps to board the train, so be prepared if you have a large suitcase. Generally passengers are friendly and will offer to help you with any bulky luggage.
At your destination, you leave the platform through one of the clearly indicated exits, which will not bring you into the waiting area but outside of the station. Your ticket may be checked again and may or may not be kept.
CRH trains are top-notch, even internationally, in terms of equipment and cleanliness. This includes the toilets, which reliably have toilet paper and soap available – a rare thing in China. The toilets on non-high-speed trains also tend to be a little more "usable" than on buses or most public areas because they are simple devices that empty the contents directly onto the track and thus don't smell as bad. Soft sleeper cars usually have European style toilets at one end of the car and Chinese squat toilets at the other. Be aware that on non-CRH trains if the train will be stopping at a station, the conductor will normally lock the bathrooms prior to arrival so that people will not leave deposits on the ground at the station.
Long distance trains will have a buffet or dining car, which serves not very tasty hot food at around ¥25. The menu will be entirely in Chinese, but if you're willing to take the chance then you can eat very well (try to interpret some of the Chinese characters, or ask for common dishes by name). If you are on a strict budget then wait until the train stops at a station. There are normally vendors on the platform who will sell noodles, snacks, and fruit at better prices. Trains generally have boiled water available so bring tea, soups and instant noodles in order to make your own food.
Be careful with your valuables while on the train; property theft on public transportation has risen in recent years.
On most higher-level trains (T, K, Z and CRH trains) pre-recorded announcements are made in Chinese, English and occasionally Cantonese (if the train serves Guangdong province or Hong Kong), Mongolian (in Inner Mongolia), Tibetan (in Tibet) or Uyghur (in Xinjiang). Local trains will have no announcements in English, so knowing when to get off can be harder.
Motion sickness pills are recommended if you are inclined toward that type of ailment. Ear plugs are recommended to facilitate uninterrupted sleep. In sleeper cars, tickets are exchanged for cards on long distance trains. The cabin attendants return the original tickets when the train approaches the destination station thus ensuring everyone gets off where they should even if they can't wake themselves up.
If you have some things to share on the train, you'll have fun. The Chinese families and business people travelling the route are just as bored as the next person and will be happy to attempt conversation or share a movie shown on a laptop. All in all, the opportunity to see the countryside going by is a neat experience.
Smoking is not permitted in the seating or sleeping areas but is allowed in the vestibules at the end of each car. On the new CRH trains, the Guangzhou-Kowloon shuttle train and the Beijing Suburban Railway smoking is completely forbidden. Smoking is banned inside station buildings apart from in designated smoking rooms, although these places are often unpleasant and poorly ventilated.
Official booking site
Railway customer service center is the official and only definitive online source for train schedules, ticket availability, and online booking. It is only available in Chinese, but not hard to use if you can read some Chinese characters. To inquire train schedules or ticket availability, click "余票查询" (yu piao cha xun, remaining ticket inquiry) on the front page. Enter origin, destination, and date (the interface will accept pinyin and show you the corresponding Chinese characters to select), then click "查询" (cha xun, query).
You are then shown a matrix of the trains making the journey on that day and the remaining tickets.
- 车次: This column shows the train number.
- 出发站/到达站: Origin and destination of the train. Note that there may be a suffix added to each city indicating the train station. This is usually one of 北 (bei, North), 南 (nan, South), 东 (dong, East), 西 (xi, West). E.g., 北京西 is Beijing West railway station. These suffixes are especially common with CRH trains, as they often stations separate from regular trains.
- 出发时间/到达时间: Departure and arrival time.
- 历时: The duration of the trip, shown as "XX小时YY分" where XX is the number of hours and YY the number of minutes. Below it, the number of days is indicated: 当日到达 (arrival on the same day), 次日到达 (arrival on the next day), 第三日到达 (arrival two days later).
- The rest of the columns correspond to different classes and display the amount of remaining tickets. "No tickets available" is displayed as "无" (wu), otherwise the number of remaining tickets is shown. Clicking it will reveal the price for the ticket. Check the information above to make sense of the various available train types and classes. If you are searching far ahead, a time of day may be shown, which then indicates at what time tickets become available for purchase.
It is possible to book tickets via the site; however, you need a Chinese bank account to pay them. The tickets can then be picked up at any time, while presenting your passport, at any train station or ticket agency. While you will probably not be able to book tickets yourself, asking a Chinese friend to do it for you is one of the most convenient ways of getting tickets in advance: The tickets first become available online before being sold at agencies, and you don't need to present every passenger's passport while booking (just have all the passport numbers ready). All the while, you pay only the ticket price with no extra fees.
The site has a bit of a reputation with the Chinese population for being slow and unreliable. However, this mostly relates to times like the Chinese new year, where tickets sell out in seconds and loads are generated that would bring almost any web site to its knees.
- The Man in Seat 61 website has a good section on Chinese trains.
- Absolute China Tours or China Highlights have English time and fare information (note that while extremely useful, these sites' lists are not 100% complete)
- OK Travel has more schedules. This site is mostly in Chinese, but includes romanized place names and you can use it without knowing Chinese. On the search page, simply choose from the lists provided: the left-hand side is the place of departure, the right-hand side is the destination. Note that you have to choose the province(s) or region(s) in the drop-down box before the corresponding list of cities will appear. You choose the cities you want, then press the left-hand button below (marked 确认, "confirm") to carry out the search. If you can enter place names in Chinese characters, the search function can even help you plan multi-leg journeys.
- CNVOL has an extensive (pretty much exhaustive) and frequently updated list of all the trains that travel in China. Just enter the names of the places you with to start and end your trip in, and you will find a list of all trains that ply the route (including all trains that are just passing by your selected stations), listed with their start and end cities and times. Click on a train number you like, and you can find the prices for all the classes of seats or berths that are available by clicking check price further down the price. The most important thing here is to get your town names right in "pinyin", the characters are never separated by a space, i.e.: Lijiang, Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Kunming etc.
Travelling by public city buses (公共汽车 gōnggòngqìchē) or long distance buses (长途汽车 chángtúqìchē) is inexpensive and ideal for in-city and short distances transportation.
City buses vary from city to city - generally expect plastic seats, many people, no English signs and unhelpful drivers. However, if you can understand the bus routes then they are cheap and go almost everywhere. Buses will normally have recorded announcements telling you the next stop - examples of which might include 'xia yi zhan - zhong shan lu' (next stop Zhongshan Road) or 'Shanghai nan huo che zhan dao le' (Shanghai South railway station - now arriving). Some major cities such as Beijing or Hangzhou will have English announcements on some major routes. Fares are usually about ¥1-2 (the former for older buses with no air-conditioning, the latter for air-conditioned modern buses) or more if travelling into the suburbs. Most buses simply have a metal cash-box next to the entrance where you can insert your fare (no change - save up those 1 yuan coins) or on longer routes a conductor that will collect fares and issue tickets and change. Note that the driver usually prioritises speed over comfort so hold on tight.
Sleeper buses are common in China; instead of seats they have bunk beds. These are a good way to cover longer distances — overnight at freeway speeds is 1000 km or more — but they are not all that comfortable for large or tall travellers.
Generally, these are fast smooth and comfortable in the prosperous coastal provinces and less so in less developed areas. Try to avoid getting the bunk at the very back of the bus; if the bus hits a major bump, passengers there become airborne.
At some places you have to remove your shoes as you enter the bus; a plastic bag is provided to store them. Follow the locals. If there are food or restroom stops, you put the shoes back on. If you normally travel in boots, it is worth getting a pair of kung fu slippers to make this easy.
Coaches, or long-distance buses, differ drastically and can be a reasonably comfortable or very unpleasant experience. Coaches originating from larger cities on the east coast tend to be air conditioned with soft seats or sleepers. The roads are very good and the ride is smooth, allowing you to enjoy the view or take a snooze. Coaches are often a better, though more expensive option than trains. Bus personnel tend to try to be helpful, but they are much less familiar with foreigners than airline personnel and English ability is very rare. Some coaches have toilets, but they are frequently dirty and using them can be difficult as the bus turns a corner and water in the basin splashes around.
A coach or bus in rural China is a different experience altogether. Signs in the station to identify buses will only be in Chinese or another local language, routes may also be posted or pasted on bus windows and drivers or touts will shout their destinations as you pass, the coach's license plate number is supposed to be printed on the ticket, but all too often that is inaccurate. Due to different manners and customs, foreigners may find bus personnel to be lacking in politeness and other passengers lacking in manners as they spit on the floor and out the window and smoke. The vehicle can get crowded if the driver decides to pick up as many passengers as he can cram into the bus. The roads in rural China are frequently little more than a series of potholes, which makes for a bumpy and painful ride; if you have a seat in the back of the bus you'll spend much of your trip flying through the air. Scheduled times of departure and arrival are only rough estimates, as many buses won't leave until every seat is sold, which can add hours, and breakdowns and other mishaps can significantly extend your trip. The misery of your ride is only compounded if you have to travel for 10–20 hours straight. As gut-wrenching as all this sounds, short of shelling out the cash for your own personal transport, rural coaches are the only forms of transportation in many areas of China. On the bright side, such rural coaches are usually more than willing to stop anywhere along the route should you wish to visit more remote areas without direct transport. Buses can also be flagged down at most points along their route. The ticket price the rest of the way is negotiable.
Everywhere in China drivers often disregard the rules of the road, if there are any, and accidents are frequent. Sudden swerves and stops can cause injury, so keep a good hold wherever possible. Horn honking is widespread among Chinese drivers, so a set of earplugs is a good idea if you plan on sleeping during the trip.
Getting a ticket can be fairly hard. Large bus stations have ticket counters who sell printed tickets displaying the departure time, boarding gate and license plate number of your bus (not always accurate) and have fixed prices. Smaller bus stations will have touts shouting destinations and will direct you to your bus where you pay on board. Even large stations have touts outside - generally they will call the bus driver of a departing bus, who will wait up the road while the tout takes you there on the back of a motorcycle to the waiting bus - you can then negotiate the fare with the driver. This is sometimes a complete scam and sometimes you can save around 30% of the fare - depending on your bargaining and Chinese abilities.
There is an alternative now with an Independent Travel Network that has been created by a western company. Dragon Bus China now operates an Integrated transport and accommodation network across most of China. The Network is a “Jump On & Off” style of travel which means that you can stay longer at any of the Cities that they travel through and be assured that another bus will be coming through that same City for you or you travel partners to board. This travel option has been operating for more than 25 years throughout Europe and is an extremely popular form of independent travel within New Zealand, Australia and Canada. Travelling by this method could greatly reduce the hassle of travelling by public buses and greatly increase the safety aspect.
Major cities — at least Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Wuhan, Shenyang, Xi'an, Chengdu and Nanjing — have a subway (地铁 dìtiě) system. Chongqing has monorail systems. Xiamen has "Bus Rapid Transit": a system of bus-only roads, mostly elevated. Generally these are modern, clean and efficient. The signs and ticket machines are in both English and Chinese.
Most of these systems are being expanded, and new lines are under construction (as of early 2009) in other cities such as Hangzhou, Xi'an and Chengdu. The long-term plans are quite ambitious, with multiple subway lines per city planned. By 2020 or so China seems likely to have some of the world's most extensive urban transport infrastructure. Subway systems which link into regional rail systems such as between Guangzhou and Shenzhen are planned in many regions.
Taxis (出租车 chūzūchē or 的士 dishì, pronounced "deg-see" in Cantonese-speaking areas) are generally common, and reasonably priced. Flagfalls range from ¥5 in some cities to ¥14 in others, with a per km charge around ¥2-3. In most situations, you can expect between ¥10-50 for an ordinary trip within the city. There is no extra charge for luggage, but in many cities rates are a bit higher at night. (For example, in Shanghai flag fall costs ¥14 06:00-22:59, and ¥18 23:00-05:59) Tips are not expected.
While it is not unheard of for drivers to cheat visitors by deliberately selecting a longer route, it is not that common, and usually shouldn't be a nuisance. When it does happen, the fare difference will usually be minimal. However, should you feel you have been seriously cheated on the way to your hotel, and you are staying at a mid- or high-range hotel that has a doorman, you can appeal to him and/or the desk staff for assistance: A single sharp sentence pointing out the deception may resolve the issue.
Also beware of taxi hawkers who stalk naive travellers inside or just outside the airport terminals and train stations. They will try to negotiate a set price to bring you to your destination and will usually charge 2x or 3x more than a metered fare. If you’re not familiar with the area then stick with the designated taxi areas that are outside most major airport terminals and insist that the driver use the meter. The fare should be plainly marked outside the taxi.
Finding a taxi during peak hours can be a bit hard. But it really gets tough if it is raining. Away from peak hours, especially at night, it is sometimes possible to get a 10% to 20% discount especially if you negotiate it in advance, even if with the meter on and asking for a receipt. Tipping is not required, although they will certainly not complain if you round up after a long journey.
Sitting in the front passenger seat of taxis is acceptable and actually useful if you have trouble communicating in Chinese. Some taxis mount the taxi meter down by the gearbox, where you can only see it from the front seat. Be warned that drivers may start smoking without asking by just opening their window and lighting up. In some cities it is also common for drivers to try and pick up multiple passengers if their destinations are in the same general direction. Each passenger pays full fare but it saves the time of waiting for an empty cab at rush hour.
Even in major cities like Shanghai or Beijing, you are very unlikely to find an English-speaking taxi driver, and anywhere else less so. If you are not able to pronounce Mandarin well then you can be easily misunderstood. Therefore it is advisable to keep a written note of the name of place where you want to go or carry a map. Using romanized spelling (Pinyin) is actually not very helpful since most Chinese can't understand it, so it is always better to get someone to write it down in Chinese characters for you. Business cards for your hotel and for restaurants are useful to show taxi drivers. It will be a good idea to equip yourself with sound tracked guide to conversation in Chinese. Such tools can be easily found on the Internet in different languages.
If you are in China for any length of time, consider getting a cell phone so you can call Chinese friends and let them tell the driver where to take you. Cellphones are inexpensive, and pay-as-you-go GSM SIM cards are readily available.
In some cities, taxi companies use a star-rating system for drivers, ranging from 0 to 5, displayed on the driver's name-plate, on the dashboard in front of the passenger seat. While no or few stars do not necessarily indicate a bad driver, many stars tend to indicate good knowledge of the city, and willingness to take you to where you ask by the shortest way. Another indicator of the driver's ability can be found on the same name-plate - the driver's ID number. A small number tells you he has been around for a long time, and is likely to know the city very well. A quick tip to get a taxi driver's attention if you feel you are being ripped off or cheated: Get out the car and start writing down his license plate number and if you speak some Chinese (or have a good phrasebook) threaten to report the driver to the city or the taxi company. Most drivers are honest and fares are not very high but there are the bad ones out there who will try to use your lack of Chinese skills to their advantage.
Chinese can sometimes be very assertive when it comes to finding a taxi. The person who flags down a particular car is not necessarily entitled to that ride. Having locals move farther up in traffic to intercept cars or being shoved out of the way while trying to enter a taxi is common. If there are others in the area competing for rides, be ready to reach your car and enter it as soon as possible after flagging it down.
Wear your seat belt at all times (if you can find it) however much the taxi driver insists you don't need it. Some taxi drivers, in particular those who can speak some English, can be quite curious and talkative, especially during peak hours' traffic (高峰 gāofēng). You'll find a conversation very amusing or pretty annoying depending on the character and the driver's English capabilities, or your knowledge of the Chinese language.
By tram (trolley)
Above ground, certain cities like Dalian or Changchun, offer transport via tram. Making more frequent stops than light-rail, they may offer a practical way of getting around if the touring city possesses one. Single-cart trolleys may also be in use. Both modes are susceptible to traffic jams.
Bicycles (zìxíngchē, 自行车), along with electronic bikes and motorcycle, are the most common form of transportation in China; at rush hour almost anywhere in China there will be thousands of them. Many are traditional heavy single-speed roadsters, but basic multi-geared mountain bikes are pretty common as well. For travellers, bicycles can be a cheap, convenient means of transport that is better than being squeezed into a public bus for hours on end.
There are two major dangers for cyclists in China:
- Motor traffic; cars and motorcycles frequently pull out without any warning, and in most areas red lights are apparently optional. See the more extensive comment at Driving in China.
- Bicycle theft is rampant throughout cities in China. Observe how other people park their bikes. In some places you can still see local people causally parking their bikes, but in many cities, people tend to lock it inside restaurants and internet cafes. This is a warning sign. It's advised to park in designated areas with a guard as much as possible; it usually costs around ¥1-2. Some local people also intentionally buy a second-hand, old, ugly bikes so that they won't tempt a thief.
In most tourist areas — whether major cities like Beijing or heavily-touristed villages such as Yangshuo — bicycles are easy to rent and there is a repair shop around every corner. Guided bike tours are also readily available.
Buying a bicycle is easy. Dahon, Merianda and Giant are three most popular quality brands and all cities have their distributors. Prices vary from as little as ¥150 to over ¥10,000. For a reasonably well-equipped mountain bike for riding to areas like Tibet, expect around ¥3,000-4,500 for a bike. Big cities like Shanghai and Beijing usually stock more upmarket bikes, but if you have very specific requirements, Hong Kong is still the last hope for buying them.
Bicycle repair shops are frequent apparently anywhere in cities and rural areas; Non-Chinese speaking tourists might find it a bit difficult, but you can just look for bikes and tires. For a quick fix to a sudden flat tire, there are also many people standing by along the road with a bowl of water and a repair kit ready. For special parts like disc brake, you may want to bring your spare one if you are not using them in big cities.
China is a vast country and it provides serious cyclists with challenges to bike across mountains and desert. However, as of November 2011 foreign tourists biking across the Tibetan Autonomous Region are required by law to obtain a permit and hire a tour guide (though other Tibetan regions in China may be visited).
See Karakoram Highway for one spectacular but difficult route. Companies such as Bike China and Intrepid Travel organize such tours for small groups.
See also: Driving in China
The PRC generally does not recognize International Driving Permits and does not permit foreigners to drive in China without a Chinese license. Note that Hong Kong and Macau licenses are also considered to be foreign and having one of them will not allow you to drive in the mainland. This supposedly changed in 2007 and short-term driving without a Chinese license became legal. However, as with many laws in China, official changes and changes in practice do not necessarily correspond; as of December 2008 it is still illegal for foreigners to drive without a Chinese license. Importing foreign vehicles is very difficult.
Rented cars most often come with a driver and this is probably the best way to travel in China by car. Driving in China is not recommended unless you are used to chaotic driving conditions. Driving in China's cities is not for the faint hearted, and parking spaces are often very difficult to find. That being said, driving habits have been improving over time, and these days are not as aggressive as in say, Indonesia or Vietnam. Traffic moves on the right in mainland China. Many neighbors, such as India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan as well as Hong Kong and Macau have traffic that moves on the left.
In the areas that most tourists are likely to visit, road direction signs are bilingual in Chinese and English.
Foreigners should really avoid driving outside of major cities. "One Way" signs usually mean "mostly but not always one way". Expect someone who misses an exit ramp on a freeway to slow down just before the upcoming entry ramp and make a 270° turn to get back on. Expect drivers to take creative shortcuts in most scenarios.
See also: Driving in China#Motorcycles
Motorcycle taxis are common, especially in smaller cities and rural areas. They are usually cheap and effective but somewhat scary. The fares are negotiable.
Regulations for riding a motorcycle vary from city to city. In some cases, 50cc mopeds can be ridden without a driving license although many cities have now banned them or reclassified them due to numerous accidents. Riding a 'proper' motorcycle is much harder - partly because you'll need a Chinese license, partly because they are banned in many cities and partly because production and importing have slowed with the focus on automobiles and electric scooters. The typical Chinese motorcycle is 125cc, can do about 100 km/h and is a traditional cruiser style. They are gnerally slow, mundane to ride and have little sporting potential. Government restrictions on engine size mean that sports bikes are rare but can still be found. Another popular choice is a 125cc automatic 'maxi' scooter based loosely on the Honda CN250 - it's a bit quicker than a moped and more comfortable over long distances but has the benefit of automatic transmission which makes negotiating stop-start urban traffic much easier.
Most cities will have a motorcycle market of some description and will often sell you a cheap motorcycle often with fake or illegal license plates - although a foreigner on a motorbike is a rare sight and it will grab the police's attention. Helmets are essential on 'proper' bikes but optional on scooters. Technically you'll need a license plate - they are yellow or blue on a motorcycle or green on a scooter and can cost several thousand yuan to register the bike yourself although fake plates are easily available at a lower price - do so at your own risk.
By pedicab (rickshaw)
What's in a name?
The terms pedicab and rickshaw are often used interchangeably by foreigners in China, but refer to two different modes of transportation - one of which no longer exists. The (in)famous rickshaw was a two-wheeled contraption with two poles at the front, which the operator held while walking or running passengers to their destinations. These proliferated in the late 19th century but were gradually phased out by the 1950s. Videos of Western elites playing polo on rickshaws propelled by Chinese workers showcased the exploitative nature of rickshaws. A distant relative of the rickshaw can still be seen when day-laborers in smaller or less developed cities gather with their rickshaw-like carts each morning waiting for work delivering construction materials, coal, or other odds and ends. The rickshaw has been replaced by the pedicab - a three-wheeled conveyance ridden much like a bicycle.
In some mid-sized cities, pedicabs are a much more convenient means of travelling short distances. Sanlunche (三轮车), the Chinese term used both for pedal-powered and motorized rickshaws, are ubiquitous in rural China and lesser developed (which is to say, less touristy) areas of larger cities. Negotiating the fare in advance is a must.
Reports that "the drivers will frequently try and rip you off" probably refer to rip-off artists working tourist destinations, like Silk Alley, Wangfujing, and the Lao She Tea House in Beijing in particular. Perhaps the rule of thumb should be, "Beware of anyone selling anything near tourist traps."
If you see normal Chinese families using the "sanlun" - for instance, travelling between the Beijing Zoo and the nearest subway stop - then it's safe. Don't patronise any sanlun wearing some old fashioned costume to attract tourists. He'll try to charge you ten times the going rate.
Where possible try to choose pedicabs over motorized transport. You'll be helping the truly poor stay in business and preserving part of China's traditional charm. Electrified 3-whelled sanluns developed or converted from the pedicabs seem to be in the majority in Shanghai.
- See also: Chinese phrasebook
The official language of China is Standard Mandarin, which is mostly based on the Beijing dialect, known in Chinese as Putonghua (普通话, "common speech"). Mandarin has been the only language used in education on the mainland since the 1950s, and the main language for government and media, so most people speak it. Unless otherwise noted, all terms, spellings and pronunciations in this guide are in standard Mandarin. As Mandarin is tonal, getting the four tones correct is necessary to be understood.
Many regions, especially in the southeast and south of the country, also have their own "dialect", but that term has a different meaning for Chinese than for other languages. Chinese dialects are not mutually intelligible; the spoken forms are as different as French and Italian or English and Dutch which are considered separate, though related, languages. However, all Chinese dialects are written (mostly) the same way and calling them "dialects" rather than "languages" is both common among linguists and politically correct in China. Like standard Mandarin, the "dialects" are all tonal languages. Even within Mandarin (the large brown language area on the map), pronunciation varies widely between regions and there is often a liberal dose of local slang or terminology to liven up the mix.
After Mandarin, the two largest groups are Wu, spoken in the region around Shanghai, Zhejiang and southern Jiangsu, and Cantonese (Yue), spoken in most of Guangdong Province, Hong Kong and Macau. The Min (Fujian) group includes Minnan (Hokkien) spoken in the region around Xiamen and in Taiwan, and Mindong (Fuzhou Hua, Hokchiu) spoken around Fuzhou. Related dialects include Teochew (Chiuchao) spoken around Shantou and Chaozhou in Northern Guangdong, and Hainanese spoken in the island province Hainan. Hakka is spoken in several parts of southern China but is more related to northern dialects.
Most Chinese are bilingual in their local vernacular and Mandarin, and it is not uncommon to encounter people trilingual in a local, regional and national language, perhaps Hakka, Cantonese and Mandarin. Some who are older, less educated or from the countryside may speak only the local dialect, but this is unlikely to affect tourists. It often helps to have a guide who can speak the local language as it marks that person as an insider and you as a friend of the insider. While you can easily get by in most parts of China speaking Standard Mandarin, locals always appreciate any attempt to say a few words or phrases in the local dialect, so learning a few simple greetings will help you get acquainted with the locals much more easily. In general, an understanding of or appreciation for the local speech can be useful when travelling to more remote areas. But in those areas a phrase book that includes Chinese characters will still be a big help as written Chinese is more or less the same everywhere.
Formal written Chinese is for all intents and purposes the same regardless of the local dialect. Even Japanese and Korean use many of the same characters with the same or similar meaning. There is a complication in this, however. Mainland China uses "simplified characters", adopted to facilitate literacy during the mid-1950s. Traditional characters are used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and by many overseas Chinese, but also on the mainland in advertising and commercial signs. As a result you will just as often see 银行 (yínháng) as 銀行 for "bank". The simplification was however fairly systematic, which means that all hope is not lost for the traveller trying to pick up some sign-reading skills. On the other hand, native speakers usually do not encounter problems reading either script so learning how to write either one would usually suffice.
Note that in calligraphy, the number of scripts is much more varied as different painters use different unique styles, though these have been grouped into five different styles. They are zhuanshu(篆书／篆書), lishu(隶书/隸書), kaishu (楷书/楷書), xingshu (行书/行書) and caoshu (草书/草書), of which kaishu is the official script used in China today. When calligraphy is written in kaishu, it is usually traditional Chinese characters that are used due to their superior aesthetic value. The casual traveller can easily get by without learning the other four styles though learning them would certainly help those with a deep interest in traditional Chinese art.
In the far western reaches of the country, Turkic languages such as Uighur, Kirghiz, and Kazakh as well as other languages such as Tibetan are spoken by some of the non-Han ethnic minorities. In the north and northeast other minority languages including Manchu, Mongolian and Korean are also spoken in areas populated by the respective ethnic minorities. Yunnan, Guizhou, Hainan and Guangxi in the south are also home to many other ethnic minorities such as the Miao, Dong, Zhuang, Bai and the Naxi who speak their own languages. However, with the possible exception of the elderly, Mandarin is generally usable in these areas too, and most younger people are bilingual in their minority language and Mandarin. Sadly some of the minority languages such as Manchu are dying out.
For the last twenty years, Chinese students have been taught English as a compulsory subject starting from late elementary or middle school. Passing an English exam is a requirement to earn a four-year university degree, regardless of major. However, the focus of the instruction at all levels is formal grammar and, to a lesser degree, writing rather than speaking or listening. While knowledge of very basic words and phrases such as "Hello," "thank you", "OK" and "Bye bye" appears nearly universal, few are able to participate in an English conversation.
Even in the big cities, outside major tourist attractions and establishments catering specifically to foreigners, it is rare to find locals conversant in English. Airline staff and those at large hotels - particularly international chains - usually speak some basic to conversational English, although in-depth skills are seldom seen. Proficiency among university graduates, even those with degrees in English, ranges from nonexistent to fluent.
While English signage or menus are increasingly widespread in China, especially at or near tourist attractions, they are often written in grammatically incorrect English with the wrong sentence structure, unusual word choice, or even complete mistranslations of several words. Such signage can be difficult to read but as "Chinglish" follows certain rules, it can usually be deciphered. Oftentimes, translations are simply a word-by-word equivalent of a Chinese expression which, like a word puzzle, can sometimes be pieced together with some thought but in other cases may be utterly baffling.
When speaking, as anywhere English language skills are limited, it is helpful to simplify your English. Speak slowly, avoid slang and idioms, and use simple present tense declarative sentence structure. Don't say "Would you mind if I come back tomorrow?", stick to simpler, more abrupt phrasing like "Tomorrow I will return." This brings the phrase closer to its Chinese equivalent and is therefore not necessarily condescending.
One way to meet people is to ask about "English Corner" - a time and place in town where local residents, often with a foreign host or speaker, meet to practice spoken English. Typically, they are held on Friday evenings or Sundays in public parks, English training schools, bookstores, and university campuses. There may also be "Corners" for French, German, Russian and perhaps other languages.
Although not as widespread as English, there are some foreign languages that are of use in China. Korean is spoken as a native language by the ethnic Korean minority in the north east of the country. Japanese is spoken by some professionals in international businesses. German is a popular language for engineering professionals. People in border areas and some older people are sometimes able to speak Russian.
See also: Learn
In the West, Chinese has a reputation for difficulty. The language is more dense than European languages, meaning considerably more can be said in a text message with the same number of characters. Each character corresponds to a syllable, and each syllable can have multiple meanings depending on the tone with which it is pronounced. The grammar, however, may strike a westerner as pretty simple. Verbs are static regardless of subject and whether they are referring to the past, present or future. Genders of nouns do not exist, and there is no separate form of nouns for plurals. The main difficulties are the existence of several consonants not present in European languages and use of the four tones.
Mandarin, like Vietnamese and Thai, is a tonal language that uses a pitch in sounds to inflict different meanings. "Ma" could mean mother, horse, numb, or blame, depending on the tone. Homophones are also common; the same sound at the same pitch usually has dozens of meanings. "Zhong1" ("Zhong" at the 1st tone) can mean China, loyalty, clock, chime, finish, a bowl, etc. All of them come with different Chinese characters, just the same sound at the same pitch. While homophones are unlikely a problem in most everyday conversations, it is very common for Chinese to ask how to write someone's name by identifying the characters one by one. "My name is Wang Fei (王菲). Wang is the "wang" with four strokes, Fei is the "fei" in "shifei"(gossip), with a grass on top."
Written Chinese looks like a mysterious secret code to some, but if you can recognize so many commercial logos—usually not logically related, you will be impressed with your capacity to memorize so many characters - most of them are logically related and formed based on certain rules.
There are, in theory, more than 50,000 Chinese characters. The good news is that more than 85% have become obsolete, or are rarely used. Like native speakers of many languages, most Chinese couldn't tell you how many characters are required to read a book and never bother to count how many characters they know. One may argue that junior students are supposed to learn at least 2000 characters and graduates in university 5000 characters.
To bridge the gap between recognizing and reading out loud, pinyin was developed, which uses Latin script as an aid to teaching Chinese. Pronouncing pinyin is not intuitive as certain letters and consonant clusters are used to represent sounds not present in European languages and are thus not pronounced as a westerner would expect. Nonetheless, learning pinyin at even a basic level has enormous practical value for the traveller. Written pinyin is less useful as most Chinese will not recognize place names or addresses in pinyin, and the same pinyin can be shared by different Chinese characters; it is always better to use characters for written information.
Foreign travelers in China may benefit from having an interpreter supporting them. Taxi drivers and many other people do not speak English. Prices and quality vary substantially, but some Western-managed organizations and marketplaces exist that specialize in translation and interpretation for English-speaking customers. These exist as both websites (e.g. SeekPanda) and smartphone apps (e.g. Tripper).
China's attractions are endless and you will never run out of things to see. Especially near the coastal areas, if you run out of things to see in one city, the next one is usually just a short train ride away.
Whether you are a history buff, a nature lover or someone who just wants to relax on a nice beach, China has it all from the majestic Forbidden City in Beijing, to the breathtaking scenery of Jiuzhaigou. Even if you live in China for many years, you'll find that there's always something new to discover in another part of the country. Perhaps unsurprisingly due to its sheer size and long history, China has the third largest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, after Italy and Spain.
The gumdrop mountains and steeply sloping forested hills with bizarre rock formations favored by traditional Chinese artists are not creative fantasy. In fact, much of southern and southwestern China is covered in strangely eroded rock formations known as Karst. Karst is type of limestone formation named after an area in Slovenia. As limestone layers erode, the denser rock or pockets of different stone resist erosion forming peaks. Caves hollow out beneath the mountains which can collapse forming sinkholes and channels leading to underground rivers. At its most unusual Karst erodes to form mazes of pinnacles, arches and passageways. The most famous example can be found in the Stone Forest (石林 Shílín) near Kunming in Yunnan. Some of the most famous tourist areas in China feature spectacular karst landscapes — Guilin and Yangshuo in Guangxi, and much of central and western Guizhou province.
- Mogao Caves in Gansu province - art and manuscripts dating back to the 4th century
- Longmen Grottoes near Luoyang - 5-10th century
- Yungang Grottoes in Shanxi Province - more than 51,000 Buddhist carvings, dating back 1,500 years, in the recesses and caves of the Yangang Valley mountainsides
- Dazu Rock Carvings near Chongqing - dating from the 7-13th century
- Maijishan National Park Bas relief and cave carvings of the Buddha grace the cliff face of this mountain.
China is home to many sacred mountains.
The Five Great Mountains (五岳 wǔyuè), associated with Taoism:
- Mount Tai (泰山), Shandong Province (1,545 meters)
- Mount Hua (华山), Shaanxi Province (2,054 meters)
- Mount Heng (Hunan) (衡山), Hunan Province (1,290 meters)
- Mount Heng (Shanxi) (恒山), Shanxi Province (2,017 meters)
- Mount Song (嵩山）, Henan Province, where the famous Shaolin Temple (少林寺) is located (1,494 meters)
The Four Sacred Mountains (四大佛教名山 sìdà fójiào míngshān), associated with Buddhism:
- Mount Emei (峨嵋山), Sichuan Province (3,099 meters)
- Mount Jiuhua (九华山), Anhui Province (1,342 meters)
- Mount Putuo (普陀山), Zhejiang Province (297 meters, an island)
- Mount Wutai (五台山), Shanxi Province (3,058 meters)
The three main sacred mountains of Tibetan Buddhism:
- Mount Kailash, Tibet (6638 meters), aka Gang Rinpoche in Tibetan, also sacred to Hindus pilgrims as the abode of Lord Shiva. Kora (walking around the foot of the mountain) takes 3 days.
- Kawa Karpo (卡瓦格博), Yunnan (6740 meters), Best viewed from FeiLaiSi (飞来寺) at sun rise. Kora takes 15 days.
- Amnye Machen (阿尼玛卿), Qinghai (6282 meters), aka Mt Jishi (积石山). Kora takes 8 days
There are also several other well-known mountains. In China, many mountains have temples, even if they are not especially sacred sites:
- Mount Qingcheng (青城山), Sichuan Province
- Mount Longhu (龙虎山), Jiangxi Province
- Mount Lao (崂山), Shandong Province
- Mount Wuyi (武夷山), Fujian Province, a major tourist/scenic site with many tea plantations
- Mount Everest, straddling the border between Nepal and Tibet, world's highest mountain
- Mount Huang (黄山) (Yellow Mountain), in Anhui province, with scenery and temples
- Mount Wudang (武当山), Taoist mecca, birthplace of taichi and Wudang kung fu
- Changbaishan/Paektusan (Chinese:长白山 Korean:백두산), most sacred mountain to both ethnic Manchus and Koreans, located on the border with North Korea
Revolutionary pilgrimage sites
- Shaoshan (韶山) - Mao Zedong's hometown
- Jinggangshan (井冈山) - The first CCP rural base area after the 1927 crackdown by the KMT
- Ruijin (瑞金) - Seat of the China Soviet Republic from 1929 to 1934
- Zunyi (遵义) - Site of the Zunyi Conference where Mao Zedong joined the Politburo Standing Committee
- Luding (泸定) - Site of a famous forced crossing of a high mountain river
- Yan'an (延安) - Primary base area for the Communist Party from 1935 to 1945
- Wuhan - Site of the 1911 Wuchang Uprising that led to the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the establishment of the Republic of China
- Guangzhou - Site of the Whampoa Military Academy where both KMT and Communist leaders (Chiang Kai Shek, Zhou Enlai, Mao Zedong) trained and led troops and political study groups before the Northern Expedition of 1926-27.
Some itineraries cover trips that are entirely within China:
- Along the Yangtze river
- Along the Yellow river
- Along the Grand Canal
- Hong Kong to Kunming overland
- Yunnan tourist trail
- Overland to Tibet
- Long March
Others are partly in China:
- Silk Road - ancient caravan route from China to Europe
- Karakoram Highway - Western China to Pakistan through the Himalayas
- On the trail of Marco Polo
Massage is available all over China, often both high quality and reasonably priced. Expert work costs ¥20-80 per hour.
- Almost any hairdresser will give a hair wash and head massage for ¥10. This often includes cleaning out ear wax and some massage on neck and arms. With a haircut and/or a shave, prices range ¥25-100 with prices higher in large cities and higher-class or tourist-oriented establishments.
- Foot massage (足疗 zúliáo) is widely available, often indicated by a picture of a bare footprint on the sign. Prices are from ¥15 to about ¥60.
- Whole body massage is also widespread, at prices from ¥15 an hour up. There are two varieties: ànmó (按摩) is general massage; tuīná (推拿) concentrates on the meridians used in acupuncture.
These three types of massage are often mixed; many places offer all three.
- Massage is a traditional trade for the blind, and the best value is often at tiny out of the way places who have some blind staff (盲人按摩 mángrén ànmó).
- The most expert massages are in massage hospitals, or general Chinese medicine hospitals, usually at around ¥50 an hour.
Some massage places are actually brothels. Prostitution is illegal in China but quite common and often disguised as massage. Most hot spring or sauna establishments offer all the services a businessman might want for relaxation. As for the smaller places, if you see pink lighting or lots of girls in short skirts, probably considerably more than just massage is on offer (and quite often they cannot do a good massage either). The same rule applies in many hair salons which double as massage parlors/brothels.
The non-pink-lit places usually give good massage and generally do not offer sex. If the establishment advertises massage by the blind, it is almost certainly legitimate.
It is possible to take a nap for a few hours in many massage places and even to spend the night in some. Hairdressers generally do not have facilities for this, but you can sleep on the table in a body massage place or (much better) on the couch used for foot massage. Fees are moderate; this is probably the cheapest way to sleep in China. Note, however, that except in high-end saunas with private rooms, you will share the staff's toilet and there may not be any way to lock up luggage.
Language for massage:
- tòng (痛) and bú tòng (不痛) are "pain" and "no pain"
- hǎo (好) and bù hǎo (不好) are "good" and "not good"; hěn hǎo (很好) is "very good" or "great"
- yào (要) is "want", bú yào (不要) "don't want"
- yǎng (痒) is "that tickles"
There are several ways a masseur or masseuse might ask a question. For example "does this hurt" might be asked as tòng bú tòng? or tòng ma?. For either, answer tòng or bú tòng.
If you are planning to spend a longer time in China then you may want to consider learning some of the traditional arts. Travelling to China is after all a unique chance to learn the basics, or refine already acquired skills, directly from master practitioners in the arts' home country. Many cities have academies that accept beginners, and not knowing Chinese is usually not a problem as you can learn by example and imitation. Calligraphy (书法 shūfǎ), a term that covers both writing characters and painting scrolls (that is, classical landscapes and the like) remains a popular national hobby. Many calligraphers practice by writing with water on sidewalks in city parks. Other traditional arts which offer classes include learning to play traditional Chinese instruments (inquire in shops that sell these as many offer classes), cooking Chinese cuisine, or even singing Beijing Opera (京剧 jīngjù). Fees are usually extremely modest, and materials you need will not exactly break the bank. The only requirement is being in the same place for a long enough time, and showing sufficient respect; it is better not to join these classes as a tourist attraction.
Martial arts and Taichi
As with traditional cultural arts, those with the time and inclination may be interested in studying China's famed martial arts. Some, such as tai chi (太极拳 tàijíquán) can be studied by simply visiting any city park in the early morning and following along. You will likely find many eager teachers. Other martial arts require more in-depth study. A traditional classification breaks Chinese martial arts into two groups named for two mountain areas with monasteries which are centers of kung fu — Shaolin Temple on Mount Song and Wudang Temple in the Wudang Mountains. Shaolin are the hard or external styles emphasizing speed and power, while Wudang are the soft or internal styles emphasizing breath control and smooth movement. Other well-known centers of kung fu include Southern Shaolin in Fujian and Wu Wei Temple near Dali.
Shanghai has a martial arts museum at a Physical Education university.
China has several traditional games often played in tea gardens, public parks, or even on the street. Players often attract crowds of on-lookers. Two famous strategy board games that originated in China are Go (围棋 wéiqí) and Chinese chess (象棋 xiàngqí). Mahjong (麻将 májiàng), a game played with tiles, is very popular and often (well-nigh always) played for money, although its vast regional variations mean that you will have to learn new rules everywhere you go. Among the most well known variants of this game are the Cantonese, Taiwanese and Japanese versions. Chinese checkers (跳棋 tiàoqí ), despite its name, did not originate in China but can be found. Many Chinese are skilled card (扑克牌 pūkèpái) players; Deng Xiaoping's love for bridge (桥牌 qiáopái) was particularly renowned.
The official currency of the People's Republic of China is the renminbi (人民币 "People's Money"). The base unit of this currency is the yuan, international currency code CNY. All prices in China are given in yuan; the Chinese character is 元. A price may be shown as, for example, 20 元, 20 rmb, RMB 20, 20 yuan or ¥20; we use the latter form here. In informal spoken Chinese and sometimes in spoken English, kuai may be used instead; much as "buck" can be used in the US or "quid" in the UK.
The Chinese yuan is not legal tender in the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau, both of which issue their own currencies. However many businesses will also accept Chinese currency, albeit at an unfavorable exchange rate.
As of June 2014, the yuan is just over 6 to the US dollar.
The official subdivisions of the yuan are the jiao (角), at 10 jiao to the yuan, and the fen (分) at 10 fen to the jiao. The fen is nearly extinct nowadays but may still be seen in less developed areas. A coin worth ¥0.10 will thus say 壹角 ("1 jiao"), not "10 fen", on it. But in colloquial Mandarin, people often say kuai (块) instead of yuan, and the jiao is also dubbed the mao (毛). A price like ¥3.7 would thus be read as "3 kuai 7" (the trailing unit is usually omitted).
When dealing with numbers, note that for example wu bai san, literally "five hundred three", means 530 or "five hundred three tens", with the trailing unit dropped. The number 503 would be read as wu bai ling san, literally "five hundred zero three". Similarly yi qian ba, literally "one thousand eight", means 1800. When using larger numbers, keep in mind that Chinese has a word for ten thousand, wàn (万), and thus for example 50,000 becomes wu wan, not wu shi qian.
A lot of Chinese currency will be in the form of bills — even small change. Bills are more common in some areas, coins in others, but both are accepted anywhere. Even the jiao, at just one tenth of a yuan, exists as both a bill (the smallest) and two different coins. Conversely, one yuan exists both as a coin and as two different bills. You should be prepared to recognize and handle either version.
Most major banks and upscale hotels will exchange travellers' cheques. You will need identification and your signature on the cheques, your ID, and your signature in front of the teller will be scrutinized very closely. In second-tier cities you will need to go to the head branch of Bank of China or Merchants' Bank. Exchanging travellers cheques is usually slower than exchanging cash.
Foreign currencies, including the Hong Kong dollar or U.S. dollar, are rarely seen as a substitute for RMB except in several 5-star hotels, some shops on the Hong Kong-Shenzhen border, and stock exchanges. You are unlikely to use other currencies in most transactions (after all, the average visitor comes to China to sight-see and shop, not to play day-trader, but for the curious, the minimum balance for USD trading is USD1,000 with USD19 account opening fee while the minimum for Hong Kong dollar trading is HKD5,000). If you are running out of money and only have dollars in your pocket, it usually means that you don't have money to pay the bill without a trip to a bank. Many shops won't accept it, having no idea on exchange rate or how to check if the bills are counterfeit.
Counterfeit banknotes and coins are a serious problem in China and anyone staying for a few months will have likely experienced them. Banknotes of ¥10, ¥20, ¥50 and ¥100, and even ¥1 coins are counterfeit risks. It is very important to learn how to scrutinize notes and coins. The main focus is on the texture of different parts, metal line, change of colours under different lights. Everyone has their own method, so just ask.
It is very common for cashiers to scrutinize banknotes and the more expensive supermarkets even have machines that can spot counterfeits. This is standard practice in China and offence should not be taken. Likewise, you should also carefully examine notes given back to you as sales people may sometimes try to give you counterfeit money in change.
Counterfeits from ATMs became are not common however, many people are still concerned. If you are worried, withdraw your money from the bank counter and say "I worry about jiabi (counterfeit)". You will find that bank staff are very understanding about this.
It's not unheard of for unscrupulous money exchangers on the Chinese border areas to give counterfeits to travellers. You are highly advised to go to a bank if you're not experienced in checking notes.
When you pay with a ¥50 or ¥100 banknote in a shop or taxi, it's socially accepted that you note down the last few digits of the banknote you are handing over. This is in case they claim your banknote is fake, then these remembered digits will ensure they give you the exact same note back.
Although still restricted, the yuan is readily convertible in many countries, especially in Asia. The Hong Kong dollar, US dollar, Canadian dollar, Euro, pound sterling, Australian dollar, Japanese yen and South Korean won can be easily changed in China. Southeast Asian currencies are generally not accepted, the exception being Singapore dollars. Currency should only be changed at major banks (Bank of China in particular) or with the licensed money changers usually found at airports or high end hotels although these offer very bad rates.
A black market for currency exchange does exist but you are highly advised to avoid as counterfeiting is a major issue when exchanging money in China. Beware the private money changers found in markets and hanging around large banks. While their exchange rates may look attractive, unless you have a local friend to help you out, do not exchange money with them. It is not uncommon to exchange a large amount of cash only to find that most of what you got is fake. Stick with the official exchange counter in the Bank of China or one of the other large banks as even though you get slightly worse rates, the risk of getting counterfeit bills is close to zero.
Foreign exchange is under tight control in China. Private money changers, widely seen in many tourist spots or shopping malls around the globe, are still uncommon in China. In a bank, it usually takes 5 minutes to 60 minutes to process the exchange, sometimes a little faster in an hotel, depending on their experience. Generally speaking bank branches in major cities know the procedure and are relatively quick while even main branches in third and fourth tier cities can take much longer.
Regardless of location, you will need to fill a form and show your passport. Your passport will be photocopied and scanned. Keep the exchange receipt if you plan to leave the country with larger sum of money. Note that not all banks with the "Exchange" logo will exchange money for non-customers or for all currencies in cash. For example, Standard Chartered will only exchange cash for its customers and will only do USD and HKD in cash (but opening an account is quick and doable even on a tourist visa, and they offer a better cash exchange rate than most local banks).
Exchanging US currency for RMB can be simple, but expect the bills to be heavily scrutinized before the exchange is processed. Opportunities to buy RMB before entering China, for example when coming overland from Hong Kong or Vietnam, should be taken, as the rates are better. The same is true going the other way - selling just across the border will often net a more favorable rate. Also, most international banks will allow you to get a cash advance via a debit or credit card at a Chinese ATM. However, the rates for such actions are often unfavorable and may include steep service charges. It's useful to carry an international currency such as pounds sterling, US dollars, or Japanese Yen to fall back on should you not have access to a cash machine.
Obtaining a Chinese bank account is a very good idea for long-term travel or residence. For Chinese owned banks you will only need your passport with a valid visa, and even tourist visas are sometimes acceptable. Some banks such as Bank of East Asia will require proof of residence and some may also require an initial deposit of around ¥100. Bank staff are typically unable to speak English, though some branches of the larger banks in the centres of major cities may have English-speaking staff available.
You may receive a bank book in which all transactions and balances are recorded, although most large banks will provide card only accounts. Depending on the bank, a PIN and/or ID may be required for withdrawals at the counter.
China currently imposes certain restrictions on the international transfer of Chinese Yuan out of the country. The rules change frequently, although for the most part it places a limit on the amount you may transfer daily.
Banks usually charge a fee (around 1%) for depositing and withdrawing money in a different city than the one you opened your account in ATMs are now present in almost all towns and cities except in the most remote areas. Many ATMs accept Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Maestro, and Plus debit and credit cards although some only accept UnionPay and Pulse, Interac, or Link ATM cards.
In Shanghai, most of the smaller local banks have relations with each other allowing for no-fee interbank deposits for any amount and withdrawals over ¥3,000. Also, any Bank of Shanghai deposit-capable ATM can do deposits for any bank with a Shanghai-issued account.
China Construction Bank offers Bank of America customers ATM use without any fees to withdraw RMB.
Standard Chartered is very expat-friendly although few branches outside the big cities. They offer unlimited interbank ATM withdrawals within the city the card was issued in as long as the amount drawn is over ¥2,000 each time and they also offer multiple foreign-currency investment products.
Woori Bank has even fewer branches than Standard Chartered, but offers the Shanghai Tourist Card, which gives discounts at assorted restaurants and half-price tickets to various attractions, as a debit card. This is usually only available from local banks. They also offer unlimited free ATM withdrawals anywhere in China. As a South Korean bank, they typically cater to South Koreans.
HSBC is another good international choice for expatriates, although branches are mostly found in the commercial centres of large cities.
Do note that if you are employed in China, you may not get a choice: many companies and schools deposit into only one bank, and therefore you must have an account with that bank to get paid.
ATMs are all over the country but most ATMs outside the large cities that accept Cirrus, PLUS, VISA and MasterCard network are owned by Bank of China or the Industrial and Commercial Bank. In big cities like Shanghai most ATMs will take Visa/Plus/MC/Maestro/Cirrus. However, cash advances from Diner's Club, American Express, or JCB cards are more difficult. For visitors from Hong Kong or Macau, the only ATMs that natively take JETCO cards are Bank of East Asia ATMs. Most ATMs will charge a small and flat fee.
Note: Minsheng Bank, Shenzhen Development Bank, and Bank of Shanghai ATMs will sometimes display PLUS/Cirrus/Maestro logos. In reality, only selected ATMs of theirs are linked into these networks, and there is usually no indication until you try. This is true of many other banks' ATMs, even Agricultural Bank of China (one of the big four).
Before travelling, find out if your home bank charges a currency conversion fee (often between 0-3%) on such transactions. It is worth opening a zero conversion fee account beforehand if possible. Otherwise it would be better to open a local account on arrival to store money in if staying for a sufficiently long time.
If you have trouble because the ATM requires a 6-digit PIN and your PIN only has 4 digits, try adding 2 zeros before it. If you find yourself in a town with a Bank of China branch but no international network-capable ATM, it is usually possible to get a cash advance on a credit card inside the bank. Just ask.
UnionPay, the local ATM card network, has made agreements with various ATM card networks across the globe. If your card is covered, any ATM in China will accept withdrawals and balance inquiries from your card. Currently covered are NYCE and Pulse in America (also applies to cash advances from Discover cards), Interac in Canada, and LINK in the UK.
Also, if your bank is part of the Global ATM Alliance, be aware that China Construction Bank is the local partner for fee-free withdrawals.
Electronic money transfers to another country are no longer as difficult as they used to be. Just about every bank in the big cities offers this service nowadays. On the other hand, service charges are variable (depends on the sending and receiving bank), the staff is sometimes ill-trained, and the process can take up to a week to clear. Alternatively, you may choose to look for a Chinese branch of a foreign or Hong Kong-based bank to do transfers. This is easier in the big cities, though.
It will be much easier to do transfers if you have an dual-currency account with the Bank of China - opened at the branch from which you plan to get your money. Electronic transfers to dual currency accounts incur no or very low fees although it will usually take about one week. Transfers to Chinese accounts from overseas also take from three to ten business days. All you need to start an account is your passport, visa and a small initial deposit (can be RMB) plus the new-account fee (¥10-20). If you open a foreign currency account or a dual currency account, be sure to check if you will be able to access it in another province or overseas. Alternatively, for visitors from the US, Wells Fargo offers a service called ExpressSend that allows someone to send money from the US and have it arrive at a China Agricultural Bank account on the same day.
Western Union has deals with China Agricultural Bank and with China Post so there are a lot of Western Union signs around. This is what overseas Chinese sending money to relatives, or expats sending money out of China, generally use; it is generally easier and cheaper than the banks. A list of locations is available through Western Union's website. There may, however, be problems. Their system may be down or the employee you deal with may ask for silly things — for an overseas transfer, the recipient's passport and visa numbers, or for a within-China transfer, cash in US dollars. Just try another branch if you are having difficulties.
Outside of star-rated or chain hotels, major supermarkets, and high-class restaurants, credit cards are generally not accepted and most transactions will require cash. Many department stores and large grocery stores have point-of-sale terminals for Chinese bank cards, but these will not work for most foreign cards.
Most Chinese banks and many merchants use the UnionPay system, so a foreign card that supports UnionPay — Discover or JCB (Japan Credit Bureau) — will be widely accepted. Visa, MasterCard or American Express are less common. Most convenience stores take UnionPay, as do most restaurant chains, stores selling high-value items, grocery store chains, and most ATMs.
If you are going to spend a lot of time in China and use significant amounts of money, consider getting a Chinese bank account or signing up for an international card that can interact with UnionPay. Ideally, if in a big city and later travelling to smaller ones, try signing up for an account with smaller banks like Woori Bank or Ping An Bank; these offer free inter-bank ATM withdrawals anywhere in China (Ping An Bank also offers free withdrawals overseas, a plus if travelling to nearby countries). Alternatively, Travelex offers UnionPay Cash Passports in certain countries.
If you have a bank account in Hong Kong then you may be able to open an additional Renminbi account with a UnionPay card which is very convenient for travelling in the mainland.
While China is no longer the bargain destination it was during the 1990s, it remains quite affordable. Unless you are heading to Hong Kong or Macau, China is generally much less expensive - from a traveller's perspective - than industrialised countries. If you eat local food, use public transportation and stay in very inexpensive budget hotels or hostels then ¥200-300 is a serviceable daily backpacker budget. However, if you want to live an extravagant lifestyle and eat only Western food and stay in star-rated hotels, then even ¥3,000 a day would not be enough.
There is a high degree of variation in prices depending on where you go. Major cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou generally cost more than second tier cities and rural, inland parts of the country. The boom towns of Shenzhen and Zhuhai are also known for being somewhat expensive by Chinese standards. Nonetheless, many Hong Kong or Macau residents (who live just across the border from Shenzhen and Zhuhai, respectively), and who are generally more affluent than mainlanders, often go to these cities to shop, play golf, and enjoy services like massage as prices are far lower.
As a general rule, tipping is not practiced anywhere in China. When leaving a tip on your table, it is common to see a waiter chase after you to return the money you "forgot" to take.
In a hotel, it is widely accepted not to tip for room service, airport service, taxis or anything else. Masseurs in some areas such as Shenzhen have been known to ask for a tip. However, if they become pushy at getting tips most Chinese see this as extortion and an immoral practice, so just be firm if you don't wish to give any.
In China, compliments over service is usually expressed in implicit ways. If you are a smoker, you are expected to pass a cigarette to the service staff or manager. If you don't do so, you will be seen as selfish and egocentric. It is common to buy a bartender or pub owner a drink.
Tipping in the wrong way can lead to embarrassment, and can sometimes be insulting, because you are suggesting that the relationship is based on money, not friendship.
Antiquities Banned From Export
China's government passed a law in May 2007 banning the export of antiques from before 1911. It is thus illegal to take antiques out of China. Even antiques from before 1911 bought in proper auctions cannot be taken out of the country. As violation of this law could lead to heavy fines and a possible jail term, it would be wise to heed it.
If you let vendors know you are aware of this law they may lower their prices since they know you know their "antiques" really aren't Ming Dynasty originals.
As China's emergent middle class finds itself with increasing amounts of disposable income, shopping has become a national pastime. A wide range of goods are available to suit any budget.
Do not expect everything to be cheap. The prices of imported brand name items, such as camping equipment, mountain bikes, mobile phones and electronics, cosmetics, personal care products, sportswear, cheese, chocolate, coffee and milk powder are often higher than overseas. Many Chinese buy such items in Hong Kong or overseas, where they are cheaper than in mainland China.
In most brand name shops, upscale malls and supermarkets, the prices already have Value-Added Tax (VAT) and any sales tax included. Thus, anything with a marked price tends to be sold at that price or, perhaps, slightly below especially if you pay cash and do not require a receipt for your purchase. For unmarked goods, there is wide room for bargaining.
Regarding discounts, Chinese make sales using the character: 折 (zhé) which represented the fraction of the original price you pay. For example, 8折 refers to 20% off and 6.5折 is 35% off.
China excels in handmade items, partly because of long traditions of exquisite artisanship and partly because labor is still comparatively inexpensive. Take your time, look closely at quality and ask questions, but don't take all the answers at face value! Many visitors come looking for antiques, and hunting in the flea markets can be great fun. The overwhelming majority of the "antique" items you will be shown are fakes, no matter how convincing they look and no matter what the vendor says. Do not spend serious money unless you know what you are doing, since novices are almost always taken for a ride.
- Porcelain with a long history of porcelain manufacture, China still makes great porcelain today. Most visitors are familiar with Ming-style blue and white, but the variety of glazes is much greater, including many lovely monochrome glazes which are worth seeking out. Specialist shops near hotels and the top floors of department stores are a good place to start, though not the cheapest. The "antique" markets are also a good place to find reproductions, though it can be hard to escape from vendors' attempts to convince you that their items are genuine antiques (with prices to match). Two of the most famous centres for porcelain are Jingdezhen and Dehua.
- Furniture in the 1990s and 2000s China become a major source of antique furniture, mostly sourced from the vast countryside. As the supply of old items has dwindled many of the restorers are now turning to making new items using the old styles. The quality of new pieces is often excellent and some great bargains can still be had in new and old items. Furniture tends to be concentrated in large warehouses on the outskirts of cities; Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu all have plenty of these and hotels can tell you how to find them. Major sellers can also arrange international shipment in most cases. Zhongshan has a huge furniture market; the city manufactures many replicas, mostly for the Hong Kong and Macau markets.
- Art and Fine Art the art scene in China is divided into three non-interacting parts. First, there are the traditional painting academies which specialize in "classical" painting (bird and flower, landscapes with rocks and water, calligraphy), with conservative attitudes and serving up painting that conforms to the traditional image of Chinese art. Second, there is a burgeoning modern art scene, including oil painting, photography and sculpture, bearing little relation to the former type. Both "scenes" are worth checking out and include the full range from the glorious to the dreadful. The centre of the modern scene is undoubtedly Beijing, where the Da Shan Zi (sometimes called 798) warehouse district is emerging as the new frontier for galleries, reminiscent of New York's Soho in the mid-80s. The third arts scene fits closely with China's prowess in mass-production. China has become famous for producing hand painted reproductions of great works. The Shenzhen suburb of Dafen is particularly renowned for its reproductions.
- Jade There are two types of Jade in China today: one type is pale and almost colorless and is made from a variety of stones mined in China. The other type is green in color and is imported from Myanmar (Burma) - if genuine! The first thing to be aware of when buying Jade is that you will get what you pay for (at best). Genuine Burmese jade with a good green color is extraordinarily expensive and the "cheap" green jade you will see in the markets is made either from synthetic stone or from natural stone that has been colored with a green dye. When buying jade look closely at the quality of the carving: How well finished is it? Is it refined, or crude with tool marks visible? The quality of the stone often goes along with the quality of the carving. Take your time and compare prices before buying. If you are going to spend a fair sum of money, do it in specialist stores, not flea markets. Khotan in Xinjiang is a famous area for jade production. Ruili on the China-Burma border has extensive trade in Burmese jade.
- Carpets China is home to a remarkable variety of carpet-making traditions. These include Mongolian, Ningxia, Tibetan and modern types. Many tourists come looking for silk carpets although these are actually a fairly recent tradition with most of the designs being taken from middle-eastern traditions rather than reflecting Chinese designs. Be aware that though the workmanship is quite fine on these carpets they often skimp on materials, particularly dyes. These are prone to fading and color change, especially if the carpet is displayed in a brightly lit place. Some excellent wool carpets are also made in China. Tibetan carpets are amongst the best in terms of quality and construction, but be aware that most carpets described as Tibetan are not actually made in Tibet, with a few notable exceptions. As with jade, best to buy from stores with a reputation to uphold.
- In the West of China, especially Kashgar, carpets imported from Pakistan or the nearby countries of Central Asia are readily available as well. The best of these, especially some of the Turkoman pieces, are very high quality indeed and their prices reflect that. However, there are also some interesting rugs at moderate prices.
- Pearls & pearl jewellery cultured Akoya and freshwater pearls are mass-produced and sold at markets across China. The use of large scale aquaculture makes pearl jewellery affordable and widely available. Big, lustrous, near-round and round freshwater pearls come out with a variety of colors and overtones. In addition to jewellery, pearl-based cosmetics are also widely available. Southern areas such as Beihai and Sanya are positively overrun with pearl vendors; pricing and quality are generally reasonable, but caution and bargaining are necessary since not all vendors are honest.
- Silver coins a variety of silver coins are sold in China's markets with good reason: in the 19th century, the emperor decreed that foreigners had to pay for all trade goods in silver. The United States even minted a special silver "trade dollar" just to meet this requirement. Collectors can find Mexican, U.S., French Indochinese, Chinese and other silver dollars available for purchase, mostly dated 1850-1920. Unfortunately, nearly all the coins on sale now are counterfeit. If you want to collect coins, carry a small portable scale to check their weights. In a tourist area, expect at least 90% to fail this simple test.
- Other arts and crafts Other items to look for include Cloisonne (colored enamels on a metal base), lacquer work, opera masks, kites, shadow puppets, Socialist-realist propaganda posters, wood carvings, scholar's rocks (decorative rocks, some natural, some less so), paper-cuts, and so on.
Luxury goods such as jade, expensive ceramics and other artwork, antiques or carpets are risky. Most of the antique furniture available today are replicas. Much of the jade is either glass or low quality stone that has been dyed a nice green; some is even plastic. Various stone carvings are actually molded glass. The samurai swords are mostly either inferior weapons mass-produced for the Japanese military and Manchurian soldiers in World War II or modern Chinese copies. At the right price, any of such goods can be a very good buy. However, none of them are worth anywhere near the price of real top-quality goods. Unless you are an expert on whatever you want to buy, you are quite likely to get sold low quality merchandise at high prices.
There are two solutions. Either stick to the cheaper products, some of which are quite nice as keepsakes, or if you do decide to spend a substantial amount, then deal with a large and reputable vendor; you may not get the bargains an expert could find elsewhere, but you probably won't get cheated either.
China is one of the world's leading manufacturers of clothing, shoes and accessories. Name-brand goods, whether Chinese or foreign, tend to be expensive when compared with the unbranded clothing sold in markets throughout the country. See next section for additional comment. Chinese brands, similar in look, feel and style to their foreign counterparts, are often an excellent deal. Cheap unbranded clothing is also often cheaply manufactured; check the seams and stitching before making a purchase.
Travellers would be wise to try on any item they wish to purchase as sizes tend to be very erratic. Items of clothing which may be a size XL in the U.S. can be anywhere from an L to a XXXL in China. Most nicer stores have a tailor on call who will adjust the length and hem of pants in 15–30 minutes for free.
There are very affordable tailors anywhere in China. In the major cities, some of them can make a fine job of Western-style garments. Shirts, pants and suits can be measured, fitted, assembled and delivered within three days in many cases. Some tailors have their own fabric selections while others require customers to purchase it in advance from fabric markets. The quality of the tailors, as everywhere, varies widely. More reputable tailors will often come to hotels to do measurements, fittings and final sales.
Items with big worldwide brand labels sold in China may be bogus, especially expensive and exclusive popular brands. By no means all are bogus; most of the major brands market in China, but some will be unauthorized or downright fake. If you are buying genuine branded foreign goods, particularly haute couture brands such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Prada, or popular brands such as Nike or Adidas, do not expect them to be cheaper than buying them in Western countries. Wealthy Chinese who can afford to travel often purchase luxury brand name goods in Hong Kong or overseas, as it is significantly cheaper than buying them in mainland China.
There are a number of sources of potential knock-offs or fake brand name goods.
- The most common variant comes from a Chinese firm that gets a contract to deliver, say, 100,000 shirts to BigBrand. They actually have to make a few more than that because some will fail quality control. Maybe 105,000? What the heck, make 125,000. Any extras will be easy to sell; after all they have the BigBrand label. So 25,000 shirts — a few "factory seconds" and many perfectly good shirts — arrive on the Chinese market, without BigBrand's authorization. A traveller might be happy to buy these — just check carefully to avoid the seconds and you get exactly the shirt BigBrand sells for a much better price.
- However, it doesn't end there. If the factory owner is greedy, he goes on to crank out a bunch more. Only now he doesn't have to worry about BigBrand's strict quality control. He can cut a few corners, slap the BigBrand label on them, and make a great profit. These may or may not be a good buy, but in any case they are not what you would expect from BigBrand.
- Finally, of course, some other factory may be cranking out utterly bogus "BigBrand" shirts. These outright forgeries often misspell the brand name which is a dead giveaway.
Fake brand oddities include items such as a reversible jacket with "Adidas" on one side and "Nike" on the other or shirts with more than one brand. While these might be interesting curiosities, they obviously are not genuine examples of either brand.
There are two basic rules for dealing with expensive brand name goods in China.
- First, you cannot just trust the brand; inspect the goods carefully for flaws. Check the spelling on labels.
- Second, if the deal seems too good to be true, be very suspicious. China makes a lot of good cheap products, but an amazingly cheap product with a major international label is almost certain to be bogus.
Bogus goods can cause legal problems. Selling "pirate" DVDs or forged brand name goods is illegal in China, but enforcement is lax. It is generally much less lax at customs for travellers' home countries. Customs officials will seize pirated DVDs or bogus brand name goods if they find them. Some Western travellers have even reported having to pay hefty fines after being caught returning home with bogus products.
Counterfeit and swing production markets in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Beijing are nonetheless fantastically amusing and a great place to get a completely new "designer" wardrobe for a fraction of the cost in a Western country. If you purchase such items, it is a good idea to remove the labels prior to taking them home because this reduces the chance of being hassled by customs.
Software, music and movies
Most CDs (music or software) and DVDs in China are unauthorized copies. The ones that sell for ¥6-10 and come in cheap flat paper envelopes are absolutely certain to be bogus. Some of the ones at higher prices with better packaging might be legal copies, but it can be hard to tell. Probably the best way to avoid bogus discs is to buy at one of the larger bookstores or department stores; most of these have a CD/DVD section. The prices are ¥15-40.
Some good checks, or dead giveaways, for a fake are:
- Credits on the back of the case which do not match the movie.
- Covers which are obviously made from cinema poster images ("Coming Soon", the release date, etc. mentioned on them.)
- Covers which feature uncomplimentary reviews ("Heavy on the spice and light on the meat", "Nothing more than you could get from an episode of CSI", etc.)
In stores, it is usually acceptable to ask the owner to test the DVD to make sure it works and has the correct language soundtrack.
If you buy DVDs or CDs and plan to take them home, be sure to get a receipt that will prove your good faith to Western customs officers.
There are products that are fairly common in China which you should avoid purchasing — coral, ivory, and parts from endangered animal species. China's economic miracle has been a disaster for the world's wildlife and has left such species as the elephant, tiger, rhinoceros, Tibetan antelope and Snow Lotus decimated or on the verge of extinction. The city of Pingyao and several markets on the outskirts of Beijing are notorious for selling rare animal skins, furs, claws, horns, skulls, bones, and other parts from endangered (even extinct) species. Anyone purchasing such items is encouraging the further destruction of the species in question.
It is illegal to trade in such products in nearly all countries, including China, under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Enforcement in China is somewhat lax, but anyone buying such products risks serious hassles either when trying to leave China with them or when trying to import them into another country. This can bring substantial fines and/or jail time. So if a store clerk seems eager to sell you a leopard skin or an ivory trinket, use your better judgment and move on.
Ivory is an odd special case. Trade in modern ivory is illegal worldwide, but some antique ivory items are legal. If you want to take any ivory items home, there will be paperwork — at an absolute minimum, you will need a letter from a reputable dealer stating the date of origin. Check with your own country's customs department for other requirements. Also remember that China restricts export of anything older than 1911 (see infobox), and that many of the "ivory" items in China are fakes made from various synthetics or ground bone.
See also: Bargaining
Bargaining is a national pastime in China. You can bargain over almost anything, and sometimes it's even possible to ask for discount in a restaurant at the last minute before you pay the bill. Many restaurants or bars will willingly offer a free dish or two (such as a fruit plate in a KTV) if you have made a particularly large order. Shopping malls are less willing to bargain, but why not ask "Will I get a gift?"
Unlike many southeast Asian countries, the tourism industry in China is overwhelmingly dominated by Chinese businesses, not westerners running businesses for their own such as seen in places like Bangkok's Khao San Road or Saigon's Pham Ngu Lao. Merchants in touristy areas, particularly street and sidewalk-stall sellers, are masters in exploiting the wallets of foreigners. They can also be very pushy, sometimes even grabbing your hands. Prices are almost always posted, but they are all substantially marked up, normally 2-3 times. Some items like silk fans (largest size: 1'2") are posted as ¥60-75, but the lowest price is actually just ¥10. Therefore it's often better to buy souvenirs somewhere just a few blocks away from the tourist spots. Local Chinese tourists have no issue with posted prices because they are all well trained in the art of bargaining. Foreigners always pay more for everything negotiable in China but remember that Chinese whose accents identify them as being from other provinces also pay higher prices than locals. However, if you have sufficient proof that the businessman asks different people for different prices, you can dial 12315 to protect your own right. It is not allowed to label different prices on one item in one business, though posting a high price and expecting some customers to bargain it down is quite legal.
The purchasing power of the nouveau riche in China makes the place not always cheap anymore. When you go to tourist spots, it is possible to see a ¥1,000 skirt tailor made by a designer, ¥2,000 per a bag of tea, or dozens of thousands for silverware.
It is hard to tell what price to offer when starting negotiations. Depending on the city, product or market in question, 5% to 50% of the posted price or vendor's first offer is common. Do note that if someone offers you too-great-to-be-true discount, it could be a sign that the goods are of less than great quality. The rule of thumb is to walk around and compare. In tourist spots, it's common to ask for a 30-50% discount, but in a place catering to local people, asking for a 50% discount will only make a fool of yourself.
In tourist places, don't take what merchants say seriously. When you ask for a 50% discount, they may be appalled and show scorn; it's a favorite drama. Souvenirs, including "antiques", are almost all standard products from factories. Compare more. Do be aware that in tourist markets, the room for negotiation is not as wide as it used to be. With so many tourists all shopping for the same products, vendors know they can make high margins and may not be as amenable to negotiating. If your starting price is too low, they may dismiss you because trying to get the margin they want isn't worth their time.
Souvenirs in some places may have no connection with the history of the place, and change frequently, often appearing to be cheap nicknacks the stallholders association picked up cheap and in bulk from a disposal sale. An example is CiQiKou Ancient Porcelain Village in Shapingba district in Chongqing, on one visit the souvenir stalls had large displays of green Irish shamrock medallions in stock, on a return visit some months later they were all gone, replaced by Mexican trinkets.
In this former communist country, most local people still expect a standard price for grocery products and see it as 'black-hearted' (黑心 hēixīn) to charge too much, even if the shops are in a major business district. However, in a tourist place where rental payments are skyrocketing, if someone sells you a bottle of Coca Cola for ¥5 (usually ¥3 in most places), you may have a chance to bargain a little bit too. It sometimes works, but not all the time.
Souvenir shops for jewellery, herbs, and tea recommended by hotel staff can also be tricky. While it is common that the staff takes tourists to places that give them commission, it is also common that they take you to certain places because the establishment actually offers decent products and prices. If you make a show of being overly cautious, it is likely to offend your hosts because you are suggesting a 'good guy' is actually a cheater.
In several places like the Lijiang Ancient City, when the ethnic horse carriage drivers stop by a souvenir shop, assume that you're paying commission. These carriage operators are notoriously known for extorting money from shops, or creating trouble if the shops refuse to pay. The local government usually avoids intervening in these cases where minority ethnic groups are involved.
Many group tours include mandatory visits to Chinese medicine hospitals such as the National Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine, silk, tea, or jade factories or similar shops. The goods are often expensive and include a commission for the tour guide or group. Use your judgment if you want to buy anything. However, the shops visited on tours can offer competitive prices and safe, reliable, international shipping for goods like silk and jade.
Areas with large expatriate communities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen have specialty grocery stores catering to those communities. These are often no larger than a 7-Eleven. They usually stock imported snacks, alcohol, and specialty groceries such as meats and cheeses and are often very expensive. See individual articles for details.
Several Western-owned supermarket chains are widespread in China — American Wal-mart (沃尔玛 Wòěrmǎ), German Metro (麦德龙 Màidélóng), and French Carrefour (家乐福 Jiālèfú). All have some Western groceries - often at high prices. However, the availability of foreign products diminishes at their branches in second or third-tier cities. Metro is probably the best of these; in particular it usually has a fine selection of alcohol. Asian-owned chains include Japanese Jusco (佳世客 Jiāshìkè), Taiwanese RT-Mart (大潤發 Dàrùnfā), South Korean LOTTE Mart (乐天玛特 Letianmate) and Filipino SM; these also carry imported goods. Some larger Chinese chains such as Beijing Hualian (北京华联 Běijīng Huálián) also carry a limited selection of foreign products.
While smoking is decreasing in China, it is still quite common and cigarettes (香烟 xiāngyān) are generally cheap. Cigarettes can be purchased from small neighbourhood stores, convenience stores, counters located in supermarkets and in department stores.
Most mainstream Chinese brands sell at around ¥5-20 for a 20-pack. Popular national brands include Zhongnanhai (中南海 zhōngnánhǎi), Honghe (红河 hónghé), Baisha, Nanjing, Liqun, and Double Happiness (双喜 shuāngxǐ). Some local brands sold in certain regions can be much cheaper whilst others are more expensive. Chinese cigarettes are stronger than many foreign cigarettes (13 mg tar is the norm) although Zhongnanhai is popular with foreign visitors, having a similar taste to Marlboro Light but only half the price. Western brands are available including Marlboro (万宝路 wànbǎolù), 555 (三五 sān wǔ), Davidoff (大卫杜夫 dàwèidùfú), Kent, Salem and Parliament. Western cigarettes are a little more expensive - stick to major convenience store chains such as C-Store or Kedi as many smaller stores sell counterfeit or illegally imported cigarettes.
Premium-brand cigarettes are often ridiculously overpriced and are vary rarely smoked personally - they are usually offered as gifts or bribes as an expression of wealth. The two most famous 'premium brands' include Zhonghua (中华 zhōnghuá) (¥60-100) and Panda (¥100). If you choose to buy them then stick to major department stores - those sold in neighbourhood cigarette stores are likely to be fake. Rolling tobacco and papers are rare in urban China. Lighters (打火机 dǎhuǒjī) are usually cheap (about ¥1) but flimsily made. Zippos are widely available but expensive.
Cigars can be bought from some specialist tobacco stores and Chinese-made cigars are surprisingly good - expect to pay around ¥20-30 for 10 locally produced cigars. Beware of fake western-brand cigars sold in bar-districts; they are usually terrible and ridiculously overpriced. Genuine Cuban cigars are available in cigar bars and upscale establishments in large cities but are often very expensive.
Duty-free stores in international airports, international rail stations (e.g. Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou East) and at land borders sell a greater range of imported brands - expect to pay between ¥80-150 for a 200-cigarette carton.
Food in China varies widely from region to region so the term "Chinese food" is pretty much a blanket term, just like "Western food." While visiting, relax your inhibitions and try a bit of everything.
Do keep in mind that undercooked food or poor hygiene can cause bacterial or parasitic infection, particularly during warm or hot weather. Thus it is advisable to take great care about (and perhaps abstain from) eating seafood and meat on the street during the summer. In addition, unless you're in Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai or other large cities, raw meat and seafood should be avoided. That all being said, the hygiene conditions of a restaurant are usually satisfactory which means that diarrhea is usually not a risk to most people.
Chinese gourmands place emphasis on freshness so your meal will most likely be cooked as soon as you order it. Searing hot woks over coal or gas fires make even street food usually safe to eat. Indeed freshly prepared street food, as noted by many travel writers, is often safer than food sitting on the buffet lines of 5-star hotels. China is no exception.
The two-menu system where different menus are presented according to the skin color of a guest remains largely unheard of in China. Most restaurants only have one menu - the Chinese one. Learning some Chinese characters such as beef (牛), pork (猪), chicken (鸡), fish (鱼), stir-fried (炒), deep-fried (炸), braised (烧), baked or grilled (烤), soup (汤), rice (饭), or noodles (面) will take you a long way. As pork is the most common meat in Chinese cuisine, where a dish simply lists "meat" (肉), assume it is pork.
Certain Chinese dishes contain ingredients some people may prefer to avoid, such as dog, snake or endangered species. However, it is very unlikely that you will order these dishes by a mistake. Dog and snake are usually served in specialty restaurants which do not hide their ingredients. Obviously, products made from endangered ingredients will have astronomical prices and would not be listed on the regular menu anyway.
Generally speaking, rice is the main staple in the south, while wheat, mostly in the form of noodles, is the main staple in the north.
- Beijing (京菜 Jīng Cài ): home-style noodles and baozi (包子 bread buns), Peking Duck (北京烤鸭 Běijīng Kǎoyā), cabbage dishes, great pickles. Not fancy but can be great and satisfying.
- Imperial (宫廷菜 Gōngtíng Cài): the food of the late Qing court, made famous by the Empress Dowager Cixi, can be sampled at high-end specialized restaurants in Beijing. The cuisine combines elements of Manchu frontier food such as venison with unique exotica such as camel's paw, shark's fin and bird's nest.
- Cantonese / Guangzhou / Hong Kong (广东菜 Guǎngdōng Cài, 粤菜 Yuè Cài): the style most Western visitors are already familiar with to some extent. Not too spicy, the emphasis is on freshly cooked ingredients and seafood. Dim Sum (点心 Diǎnxīn), small snacks usually eaten for breakfast or lunch, are a highlight. That being said, authentic Cantonese cuisine is also among the most adventurous in China in terms of variety of ingredients as the Cantonese are famous, even among the Chinese, for their extremely wide definition of what is considered edible.
- Shanghai (沪菜 Hù Cài): because of its geographical location, Shanghai cuisine is considered to be a good mix of northern and southern Chinese cooking styles. The most famous dishes are xiaolongbao (小笼包 Xiǎolóngbāo) and chives dumplings (韭菜饺子 Jiǔcài Jiǎozi ). Another specialty is "pulled noodles" (拉面 lāmiàn), from which Japanese ramen and Korean ramyeon are believed to be derived. Sugar is often added to fried dishes giving Shanghainese food a sweet flavor.
- Sichuan (川菜 Chuān Cài): Famously hot and spicy. A popular saying is that it is so spicy your mouth will go numb. However, not all dishes are made with live chilis. The numbing sensation actually comes from the Sichuan peppercorn (花椒). It is widely available outside Sichuan and also native to Chongqing. If you want really authentic Sichuanese food outside Sichuan or Chongqing, look for small eateries sporting the characters for Sichuan cuisine in neighborhoods with lots of migrant workers. These tend to be much cheaper and often better than the ubiquitous up-market Sichuan restaurants.
- Hunan (湖南菜 Húnán Cài, 湘菜 Xiāng Cài): the cuisine of the Xiangjiang region, Dongting Lake and western Hunan Province. Similar, in some ways, to Sichuanese cuisine, it can actually be "spicier" in the Western sense.
- Teochew / Chaozhou (潮州菜 Cháozhōu Cài): originating from the Shantou area in northern Guangdong, a unique style which nonetheless will be familiar to most Southeast Asian and Hong Kong Chinese. Famous dishes include braised duck (卤鸭 Lǔyā), yam paste dessert (芋泥 Yùní) and fishballs (鱼丸 Yúwán).
- Fujian (福建菜 Fújiàn Cài, 闽菜 Mǐn Cài): uses ingredients mostly from coastal and estuarial waterways. "Buddha Jumps over a Wall" (佛跳墙 Fó Tiào Qiáng) is particularly famous. According to legend, the smell was so good a monk forgot his vegetarian vows and leaped over the wall to have some. Fujian cuisine can be split into at least two distinct cuisines: Minnan cuisine from the area around Xiamen and Mindong cuisine from the area around Fuzhou.
- Guizhou (贵州菜 Guìzhōu Cài, 黔菜 Qián Cài): combines elements of Sichuan and Xiang cuisine, making liberal use of spicy, peppery and sour flavors. The peculiar zhergen (折耳根 Zhē'ěrgēn), a regional root vegetable, adds an unmistakable sour-peppery flavor to many dishes. Minority dishes such as Sour Fish Hot Pot (酸汤鱼 Suān Tāng Yú) are widely enjoyed.
- Zhejiang (浙菜 Zhè Cài): includes the foods of Hangzhou, Ningbo, and Shaoxing. A delicately seasoned, light-tasting mix of seafood and vegetables often served in soup. Sometimes lightly sweetened or sometimes sweet and sour, Zhejiang dishes frequently involve cooked meats and vegetables in combination.
- Hainan (琼菜 Qióng Cài): famous among the Chinese, but still relatively unknown to foreigners, characterized by the relatively heavy use of coconuts. The signature specialties are the "Four Famous Dishes of Hainan" (海南四大名菜 Hǎi Nán Sì Dà Míng Cài): Wenchang chicken (文昌鸡 Wénchāng jī), Dongshan goat (东山羊 Dōngshān yáng), Jiaji duck (加积鸭 Jiājī yā) and Hele crab (和乐蟹 Hélè xiè).
Various types of Chinese food provide quick, cheap, tasty, light meals. Street food and snacks sold from portable vendors can be found throughout China's cities. Wangfujing district's Snack Street in Beijing is a notable, if touristy, area for street food. In Cantonese-speaking areas, street food vendors are called gai bin dong; such ventures can grow into a substantial business with the stalls only barely 'mobile' in the traditional street food sense. Various quick eats available nationwide include:
- Various, usually sweet, items from the ubiquitous bakeries (面包房, 面包店). A great variety of sweets and sweet food found in China are often sold as snacks, rather than as a post-meal dessert course in restaurants as in the West.
- Barbecued sticks of meat from street vendors. Yang rou chuan (羊肉串), or fiery Xinjiang-style lamb kebabs, are particularly renowned.
- Jiaozi (饺子), which Chinese translate as "dumplings", boiled, steamed or fried ravioli-like items with a variety of fillings. These are found throughout Asia; momos, mandu, gyoza, and jiaozi are all basically variations of the same thing.
- Baozi (包子), steamed buns stuffed with salty, sweet or vegetable fillings.
- Mantou (馒头), steamed bread available on the roadside - great for a very cheap and filling snack.
- Lanzhou-style lamian (拉面), fresh hand-pulled noodles. This industry is heavily dominated by members of the Hui (回族) ethnic group - look for a tiny restaurant with staff in Muslim dress, white fez-like hats on the men and head scarves on the women.
- In Guangdong and sometimes elsewhere, dim sum (点心). At any major tourist destination in China, you may well find someone serving dim sum for Hong Kong customers.
- Jianbing (煎饼), an egg pancake wrapped around a cracker with sauce and, optionally, chili sauce.
The Western notion of fast food is arguably as popular as the domestic variety. KFC (肯德基), McDonald's (麦当劳), Subway (赛百味) and Pizza Hut (必胜客) are ubiquitous, at least in mid-sized cities and above. There are a few Burger Kings (汉堡王), Domino's and Papa John's (棒约翰) as well but only in major cities. Chinese chains are also widespread. These include Dicos (德克士) - chicken burgers, fries etc., cheaper than KFC and some say better - and Kung Fu (真功夫) - which has a more Chinese menu.
China is the birthplace of chopsticks and unsurprisingly, much important etiquette relates to the use of chopsticks. While the Chinese are generally tolerant about table manners, you will most likely be seen as ill-mannered, annoying or offensive when using chopsticks in improper ways. Stick to the following rules:
- Never use your chopsticks to examine a dish piece by piece, making everyone taste your saliva. Implicitly use your eye to target what you want, then pick it.
- Once you pick a piece, you are obliged to take it. Don't put it back. Confucius says never leave someone with what you don't want.
- When someone is picking from a dish, don't try to cross over or go underneath their arms to pick from a dish further away. Wait until they finish picking.
- In most cases, a dish is not supposed to be picked simultaneously by more than one person. Don't try to compete with anyone to pick a piece from the same dish.
- Don't put your chopsticks vertically into your bowl of rice as it is reminiscent of incense sticks burning at the temple and carries the connotation of wishing death for those around you. Instead, place it across your bowl or on the chopstick rest, if provided.
- Don't drum your bowl with chopsticks. Only beggars do it. People don't find it funny even if you're willing to satirically call yourself a beggar.
Other less important dining rules include:
- Many travel books suggest that cleaning your plate suggests that your host did not to feed you well and will feel pressured to order more food. In general, finishing a meal involves a delicate balance. Cleaning your plate will typically invite more to be served, while leaving too much may be a sign that you didn't like it. When you're stuffed, you will please your host by lifting up a thumb, telling your host how much you enjoy it, and theatrically rubbing your belly to show that you're stuffed.
- Communal chopsticks (公筷) are not always provided. Diners typically use their own chopsticks to transfer food to their bowl. While many Westerners consider this unhygienic, it is usually safe. However, if desired, it is acceptable to request communal chopsticks.
- Making slurping noises when eating is common but could be considered inappropriate, especially among well educated families. However, slurping, like "cupping" when tasting tea, is seen by some gourmets as a way to enhance flavor.
- Spoons are used when drinking soups or eating thin or watery dishes such as porridge. In China, the dish should be scooped towards you, and not away from you as done in the West, as the Chinese believe that this rakes in wealth.
- If a piece is too slippery to pick, do it with the aid of a spoon; do not spear it with the sharp end of the chopstick(s).
- All dishes are shared, similar to "family style" dining in North America. When you order anything, it's not just for you, it's for everyone. You're expected to consult others before you order a dish. When you're asked about your opinion, being overly picky is usually seen as annoying.
- It is normal for your host or hostess to put food on your plate. It is a gesture of kindness and hospitality. If you wish to decline, do it in a way so that it does not offend. For example, you should insist that they eat and that you serve yourself.
- Fish heads are considered a delicacy and may be offered to you as an honored guest. In truth, the cheek meat in some species of fish is particularly savory.
Who pays the bill
In China, restaurants and pubs are very common entertainment places and treating plays an important part in socializing.
While splitting the bill is beginning to be accepted by young people, treating is still the norm, especially when the parties are in obviously different social classes. Men are expected to treat women, elders to juniors, rich to poor, hosts to guests, working class to non-income class (students). Friends of the same class will usually prefer to split the opportunity to pay, rather than split the bill, i.e. "This is my turn, and you treat next time."
It is common to see Chinese competing intensely to pay the bill. You are expected to fight back and say "It's my turn, you treat me next time." The smiling loser will accuse the winner of being too courteous. All these dramas, despite still being common among all generations and usually played wholeheartedly are becoming somewhat less widely practiced among younger, urban Chinese.
Unless you only hang out with non-Chinese tourists, you will have fair chances of being treated. For budget travellers, the good news is that Chinese tend to be eager to treat foreigners, although you shouldn't expect much from students and grassroots working-class families and individuals.
That being said, Chinese tend to be very tolerant towards foreigners. If you feel like going Dutch, try it. They tend to believe that "all foreigners prefer to go Dutch". If they try to argue, it usually means that they insist on paying for your bill as well, not the opposite.
Eating at a restaurant
Chinese restaurants often offer an overwhelming variety of dishes. Fortunately, all but the cheapest restaurants have picture menus with photos of each dish, so you are saved from despair facing a sea of characters. Starting from mid-range restaurants, there is also likely to be a more or less helpful English menu. Even with the pictures, the sheer amount of dishes can be overwhelming and their nature difficult to make out, so it is often useful to ask the waiter to recommend (推荐 tuijian) something. They will often do so on their own if they find you searching for a few minutes. The waiter will usually keep standing next to your table while you peruse the menu, so do not be unnerved by that.
Dishes ordered in a restaurant are meant for sharing amongst the whole party. If one person is treating the rest, they usually take the initiative and order for everyone. In other cases, everyone in the party may recommend a dish. If you are with Chinese people, it is fine to let them choose, but also fine to let them know your preferences.
If you are picking the dishes, the first question to consider is whether you want rice. Usually you do, because it helps to keep your bill manageable. However, real luxury lies in omitting the rice, and it can also be nice when you want to sample a lot of the dishes. Rice must usually be ordered separately and won’t be served if you don’t order it. It is not free but very cheap, just a few yuan a bowl.
For the dishes, if you are eating rice, the rule of thumb is to order at least as many dishes as there are people. Serving sizes differ from restaurant to restaurant. You can never go wrong with an extra plate of green vegetables; after that, use your judgment, look what other people are getting, or ask the waiter how big the servings are. If you are not eating rice, add dishes accordingly. If you are unsure, you can ask the waiter if they think you ordered enough (你觉得够吗? ni juede gou ma?).
You order dishes simply by pointing at them in the menu, saying “this one” (这个 zhe ge). The way to order rice is to say how many bowls of rice you want (usually one per person): X碗米饭 (X wan mifan), where X is yi, liang, san, si, etc. The waiter will repeat your order for your confirmation.
If you want to leave, call the waiter by shouting 服务员 (fuwuyuan), and ask for the bill (买单 maidan).
Traditional Chinese dining is made for groups, with lots of shared dishes on the table. This can make for a lonely experience and some restaurants might not know how to serve a single customer. It might however provide the right motivation to find other people (locals or fellow travellers) to eat with! But if you find yourself hungry and on your own, here are some tips:
Chinese-style fast food chains provide a good option for the lone traveller to get filled, and still eat Chinese style instead of western burgers. Another upside is that food safety is generally not an issue. They usually have picture menus or picture displays above the counter, and offer set deals (套餐 taocan) that are designed for eating alone. Usually, you receive a number, which is called out (in Chinese!) when your dish is ready. Just wait at the area where the food is handed out – there will be a receipt or something on your tray stating your number. The price you pay for this convenience is that ingredients are not particularly fresh. It’s impossible to enumerate all of the chains (though look above for some examples), and there is some regional variation, but you will generally recognize a store by a colourful, branded signboard. If you can’t find any, look around major train stations or in shopping areas. Department stores and shopping malls also generally house chain restaurants.
A tastier and cheaper way of eating on your own is street food, but exercise some caution regarding hygiene and be aware that the quality of the ingredients (especially meat) may be suspect. Ask around and check the local wiki page to find out where to get street food in your city; often, there are snack streets or night markets full of stalls. Another food that can be consumed solo are noodle soups such as beef noodles (牛肉面 niuroumian), a dish that is ubiquitous in China and can also be found at many chain stores.
Bear in mind that even if it may be unusual to eat at a restaurant alone, you will not be thrown out and the staff will certainly try to suggest something for you.
The Chinese love a tipple and the all-purpose word jiǔ (酒) covers quite a range of alcoholic drinks.
Chinese toast with the word gānbēi (干杯, literally "dry glass"). Traditionally one is expected to drain the glass in one swig. During a meal, the visitor is generally expected to drink at least one glass with each person present; sometimes there may be considerable pressure to do this. To be polite, you should also initiate toasts with many of the company. It can be considered rude, at least early during the meal, if you do not make a toast every time you take a drink.
Exercise caution. Fortunately, the glasses are usually small — even beer is often drunk from an oversized shot glass. The Chinese liquor, baijiu, is definitely potent (up to 65% alcohol). Baijiu is often drunk in small shot glasses for a good reason. US president Nixon practiced drinking before his first trip to China to be ready to drink with Mao Zedong. Unless you are used to imbibing heavily, be very careful when drinking with Chinese.
If you want to take it easy but still be sociable, say suíbiàn (随便) before you make the toast, then drink only part of the glass. It may also be possible to have three toasts (traditionally signifying friendship) with the entire company, rather than one separate toast for every individual present.
Beer (啤酒 píjiǔ) is very common in China and is served in nearly every restaurant and sold in many grocery stores. The typical price is about ¥2.5-4 in a grocery store, ¥4-18 in a restaurant, around ¥10 in an ordinary bar, and ¥20-40 in a fancier bar. Most places outside of major cities serve beer at room temperature, regardless of season, though places that cater to tourists or expatriates have it cold.
The most famous brand is Tsingtao (青島) from Qingdao, which was at one point a German concession. Other brands abound and are generally light beers in a pilsner or lager style with 3-4% alcohol. This is comparable to many American beers, but weaker than the 5-6% beers found almost everywhere else. In addition to national brands, most cities will have one or more cheap local beers. Some companies (Tsingtao, Yanjing) also make a dark beer (黑啤酒 hēipíjiǔ). In some regions, beers from other parts of Asia are fairly common and tend to be popular with travellers — Filipino San Miguel in Guangdong, Singaporean Tiger in Hainan, and Laotian Beer Lao in Yunnan.
Locally made grape wine (葡萄酒 pútaojiǔ) is common and much of it is reasonably priced, from ¥15 in a grocery store, about ¥100-150 in a fancy bar. That said, most of the stuff bears only the faintest resemblance to Western wines. The Chinese like their wines red and very, very sweet, and they're typically served over ice or mixed with Sprite.
Great Wall and Dynasty are large brands with a number of wines at various prices; their cheaper (under ¥40) offerings generally do not impress Western wine drinkers. Chang Yu is another large brand; some of their low end wines are a bit better. If you're looking for a Chinese-made, Western-style wine, try to find these labels:
- Suntime, with a passable Cabernet Sauvignon
- Yizhu, located in Yili and specializing in ice wine
- Les Champs D'or, French-owned and probably the best overall winery in China.
- Imperial Horse and Xixia, from Ningxia
- Mogao Ice Wine, Gansu
- Castle Estates, Shandong
- Shangrila Estates, from Zhongdian, Yunnan
There are also several brands and types of rice wine. Most of these resemble a watery rice pudding, they are usually very sweet and only have a very small amount of alcohol for taste. These do not generally much resemble Japanese sake, the only rice wine well known in the West. Travellers' reactions to these vary widely.
Báijiǔ (白酒) is distilled liquor, generally 80 to 120 proof, made from sorghum and sometimes other grains depending on the region. As the word "jiǔ" is often loosely translated as "wine" by Chinese beverage firms and English speakers, baijiu is frequently referred to as "white wine" in conversation, but "white lightning" would be a better translation. Baijiu will typically be served at banquets and festivals in tiny shot glasses. Toasts are ubiquitous at banquets or dinners on special occasions. Baijiu is definitely an acquired taste, but once the taste is acquired, it's quite fun to "ganbei" a glass or two at a banquet.
The cheapest baijiu is the Beijing brewed èrguōtóu (二锅头) (¥4.5 per 100 mL bottle). It comes in two variants: 53% and 56% alcohol by volume. Ordering "xiǎo èr" (Erguotou's diminutive nickname) will likely raise a few eyebrows and get a chuckle from working class Chinese.
Máotái (茅台), made in Guizhou Province, is China's most famous brand of baijiu and China's national liquor. Made from sorghum, Maotai and its expensive cousins (such as Kaoliang from Kinmen in Taiwan) are well known for their strong fragrance and are actually sweeter than western clear liquors as the sorghum taste is preserved - in a way. Most foreigners find baijiu tastes like diesel fuel, while a liquor connoisseur may find high quality, expensive baijiu quite good.
Chinese brandy (白兰地) is excellent value; as for grape wines or baijiu, prices start under ¥20 for 750 ml, but many Westerners find the brandies far more palatable. A ¥18-30 local brandy is not a ¥200+ imported brand-name cognac, but it is close enough that you should only buy the cognac if money doesn't matter. Expats debate the relative merits of brandies from French-owned Louis Wann, Chinese brand Changyu, and several others. All are drinkable.
The Chinese are also great fans of various supposedly medicinal liquors, which usually contain exotic herbs and/or animal parts. Some of these have prices in the normal range and include ingredients like ginseng. These can be palatable enough, if tending toward sweetness. Others, with unusual ingredients (snakes, turtles, bees, etc.) and steep price tags, are probably best left to those that enjoy them.
Bars, discos and karaoke
Western style pubs are becoming increasingly popular across the country. Especially in the more affluent urban centres such as Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Hangzhou one can find painstakingly recreated replicas of traditional Irish or English pubs. Like their Western counterparts most will have a selection of foreign beers on tap as well as provide pub food (of varying quality) and often feature live cover bands. Most of these pubs cater to and are frequented by the expatriate communities so you should not expect to find many Chinese in these places. Be aware that imported beer can be very expensive compared to local brew.
To just go out for a few drinks with friends, pick a local restaurant and drink beer at around ¥5 for a 600 ml bottle. It will be Chinese lager, around 3% alcohol, with a limited choice of brand and may be served warm. Most mid- to high- range restaurants will have small private suites for gatherings (usually offered free if there is more than around 5 people), and the staff will generally not try to hustle you out even if you decide to stay until closing time. Many residents frequent outdoor restaurants or roadside stalls and barbecues (shāokǎo - 烧烤) for a nice and inexpensive evening.
In discos and fancy bars with entertainment, you normally buy beer ¥100 at a time; this gets you anywhere from 4 import-brand beer (Heineken, Bud, Corona, Sol, ..) to 10 local beers. A few places offer cocktails; fewer have good ones.
Other drinks are sold only by the bottle, not by the glass. Red wine is in the ¥80-200 range (served with ice and Sprite) and mediocre imported whiskeys (Chivas, Johnny Walker, Jim Beam, Jack Daniels; extremely rarely single malts) and cognacs, ¥300-800. Both are often mixed with sweet bottled green or red tea. Vodka, tequila and rum are less common, but sometimes available. Bogus "brand name" products are fairly common and may ruin your next day.
These places often have bar girls, young women who drink a lot and want to play drinking games to get you to consume more. They get a commission on whatever you buy. In general, these girls will not leave the bar with you; they are professional flirts, not prostitutes.
Karaoke (卡拉OK) is huge in China and can be broadly split into two categories. More common is the no-frills karaoke box or KTV, where you rent a room, bring your friends and the house gives you a mike and sells you booze. Much favored by students, these are cheap and fun with the right crowd, although you need at least a few people for a memorable night. Bringing your own booze can keep the price tag down but must be done on the sly - many places have windows in the door so the staff can make sure you only drink liquor they sold to you.
Rather different is the distinctly dodgier special KTV lounge, more oriented to businessmen entertaining clients or letting their hair down, where the house provides anything and everything at a price. At these often opulent establishments — over-the-top Roman and Egyptian themes are standard — you'll be joined by short-skirted professional karaoke girls, who charge by the hour for the pleasure of their company and whose services may not be limited to just singing badly and pouring your drinks. It's highly advisable not to venture into these unless you're absolutely sure somebody else is footing the bill, which can easily run into hundreds of dollars even if you keep your pants on.
As elsewhere, never never accept an invitation to a restaurant or bar from an available-looking woman who just picked you up in the street sometime after sundown. At best, suggest a different place. If she refuses, drop her on the spot. More than likely, she will steer you into a quiet little place with too many doormen and you will find yourself saddled with a modest meal and beer that will cost you ¥1,000 or worse. And the doormen won't let you leave till you pay up. This is somewhat rare. But it does happen.
China is the birthplace of tea, and at the risk of stating the obvious, there's a lot of tea (茶 chá) in China. Green tea (绿茶 lǜchá) is served up for free in some restaurants (depending on region) or for a small fee. The most common types served are:
- gunpowder tea (珠茶 zhūchá): a green tea so-named not after the taste but after the appearance of the bunched-up leaves used to brew it (the Chinese name "pearl tea" is rather more poetic)
- jasmine tea (茉莉花茶 mòlihuachá): green-tea scented with jasmine flowers
- oolong (烏龍 wūlóng): a half-fermented mountain tea.
However, specialist tea houses serve a vast variety of brews, ranging from the pale, delicate white tea (白茶 báichá) to the powerful fermented and aged pu'er tea (普洱茶 pǔ'ěrchá).
Tea in China is priced like wine in Western culture; a product that is any of well-known, high-quality or rare can be rather costly and one that is two or three of those can be amazingly expensive. As with wines, the cheapest stuff should usually be avoided and the high-priced products left to buyers who either are experts themselves or have expert advice, but there are many good choices in the middle price ranges. Tea shops typically sell by the jing (500g, a little over a pound); prices start around ¥50 a jing and there are many quite nice teas in the ¥100-300 range. Most shops will also have more expensive teas; prices up to ¥2,000 a jing are fairly common. The record price for top grade tea, both high quality and rare, sold at auction was ¥9,000 per gram.
Various areas of China have famous teas, but the same type of tea will come in many different grades, much as there are many different burgundies at different costs. Hangzhou, near Shanghai, is famed for its "Dragon Well" (龙井 lóngjǐng) green tea. Fujian has the most famous oolong teas, "Dark Red Robe" (大红袍 dàhóngpáo) from Mount Wuyi and "Iron Goddess of Mercy" (铁观音 tiěguānyīn) from Anxi. Pu'er in Yunnan has the most famous fully fermented tea, pǔ'ěrchá (普洱茶). This comes compressed into hard cakes, originally a packing method for transport by horse caravan to Burma and Tibet. The cakes are embossed with patterns; some people hang them up as wall decorations.
Most tea shops will be more than happy to let you sit down and try different varieties of tea. "Ten Fu Tea" is a national chain and in Beijing "Wu Yu Tai" is the one some locals say they favor.
Black tea, the type of tea most common in the West, is known in China as "red tea" (紅茶 hóngchá). While almost all Western teas are black teas, the converse isn't true, with many Chinese teas, including the famed Pǔ'ěr also falling into the "black tea" category.
Normal Chinese teas are always drunk neat, with the use of sugar or milk unknown. However, in some areas you will find Hong Kong style "milk tea" (奶茶 nǎichá) or Tibetan "butter tea". Taiwanese bubble tea (珍珠奶茶 Zhēnzhū Nǎichá) is also popular and widely available; the "bubbles" are balls of tapioca and milk or fruit are often mixed in.
Coffee (咖啡 kāfēi) is becoming quite popular in urban China, though it can be quite difficult to find in smaller towns.
Several chains of coffee shops have branches in many cities, including Starbucks (星巴克), UBC Coffee (上岛咖啡), Ming Tien Coffee Language and SPR, which most Westerners consider the best of the bunch. All offer coffee, tea, and both Chinese and Western food, generally with good air conditioning, wireless Internet, and nice decor. In most locations they are priced at ¥15-40 or so a cup, but beware of airport locations where they sometimes charge around ¥70.
There are also lots of smaller independent coffee shops or local chains. These may also be high priced, but often they are somewhat cheaper than the big chains. Quality varies from excellent to abysmal.
For cheap coffee just to stave off withdrawal symptoms, there are several options. Go to a Western fast food chain (KFC, McD, etc.) for some ¥8 coffee. Additionally, almost any supermarket or convenience store will have both canned cold coffee and packets of instant Nescafé (usually pre-mixed with whitener and sugar) - just add hot water. It is common for travellers to carry a few packets to use in places like hotel rooms or on trains, where coffee may not be available but hot water almost always is.
Many drinks that are usually served chilled or with ice in the West are served at room temperature in China. Ask for beer or soda in a restaurant, and it may arrive at room temperature, though beer is more commonly served cold, at least in the summer. Water will generally be served hot. That is actually good, because only boiled (or bottled) water is safe to drink, but non-Chinese generally do not find it pleasant to drink hot water in the summer.
You can get cold drinks from small grocery stores and restaurants, just look for the cooler (even though it might not actually be cool). You can try bringing a cold beverage into a restaurant. Most small restaurants won't mind—if they even notice—and there is no such thing as a "cork" charge in China. Remember that most people will be drinking tea, which is free anyway, so the restaurant is probably not expecting to profit on your beverage consumption.
Asking for ice is best avoided. Many, perhaps most, places just don't have it. The ice they do have may well be made from unfiltered tap water and arguably unsafe for travellers sweating bullets about diarrhea.
Availability of accommodation for tourists is generally good and ranges from shared dorm rooms to 5 star luxury hotels. In the past, tourists' ability to stay in lower range accommodation was quite restricted but this has changed for many cities such that restrictions now vary from city to city and even in restricted cities and towns, family run operations in particular may check you in if they feel they can get enough information from you to get you registered in the system or feel that they can get away without such reporting.
Finding a hotel when first arriving in a Chinese city can be a daunting task: a mob of passengers is pushing to disembark from the train or bus, touts are tugging at your arm and screaming in your face to go with them, everything is in incomprehensible Chinese and you are just looking for a place to put down your bag. It doesn't get any better once you get in a cab because the driver doesn't speak any English and every hotel in your guide book is full or closed! This can be the experience for many travellers in China, but the pains of finding a hotel room can be avoided if you know where to look and what you're looking for. In addition, star ratings especially for two and three-star hotels generally cannot be trusted in China. Pricing is a much better guide.
If you're willing to pay ¥180 or more for a room, you'll probably have little problem finding a room. You could, for example, search Google Maps with the name of a chain hotel listed under "mid-range", below, determine what the address would be in Chinese, and then write that down on a note which you give to a taxi driver. If you want to look for something cheaper or more options, you could consider hostels, dorms, and extra rooms called zhusu. Sleeper trains and sleeper buses can also be a decent option if you schedule your long-distance travel overnight (see the Get around section of this page for more information). If you're in a town and you can't find a hotel, try looking near the bus or train station, an area that typically has a larger selection of cheap hotels. Hotels that are not licensed to accept foreigners can be heavily fined if they are caught housing foreign occupants, but enforcement of this law appears spotty and many unlicensed hotels will find you a room anyway. On rare occasions, someone from your hotel will escort you to the local police station to satisfy the establishment's reporting requirement.
Many ultra-cheap options are used as temporary housing by migrant workers and would not appeal to most travellers from developed countries for security and cleanliness reasons. In the cheapest range of hotels it is important to ask if hot water is available 24 hours-a-day (有没有二十四个小时的热水 yǒuméiyǒu èrshisì ge xiǎoshí de rèshuǐ), and check if the shower, sink and toilet actually work. It is also advisable to avoid checking into a room next to a busy street as traffic may keep you up late and wake you up early. If you do plan on just showing up in town and looking for a place to sleep, it's best to arrive before 18:00 or the most popular places will be booked for the night.
Note that if you are absolutely at a loss for finding housing, you should seek out the local police (警察) or Public Security Bureau (公安局). They can help you find a place to crash - at least for one night.
Prices are often negotiable, and a sharp reduction from the price listed on the wall can often be had, even in nicer hotels, by simply asking "what's the lowest price?" (最低多少 zuìdī duōshǎo). When staying for more than a few days it is also usually possible to negotiate a lower daily rate. However, these negotiating tactics won't work during the busy Chinese holiday seasons when prices sky-rocket and rooms are hard to get. Many hotels, both chains and individual establishments, have membership cards offering discounts to frequent guests.
In mid-range and above hotels, it was once quite common for guests to receive phone calls offering "massage" services (that actually offered additional physical services) but this has became rarer such that male guests might just encounter business cards stuffed under the door.
Booking a room over the Internet with a credit card can be a convenient and speedy method of making sure you have a room when you arrive at your destination, and there are numerous websites that cater for this. Credit cards are not widely used in China, particularly in smaller and cheaper hotels. Such hotels usually ask to be paid in cash, with a security deposit, up front. Some new online services allow you to book without a credit card and pay cash at the hotel. During Chinese holidays, when it is difficult to get a room anywhere, this may be an acceptable option, but in the off-season rooms are plentiful almost everywhere and it may be just as easy to find a room upon arrival as it is to book one over the Internet.
Across China, check-out is normally noon, and there is often the possibility of paying half a day's cost to get an 18:00 checkout.
There are various ways to sleep very cheaply in China: hostels, dorms, zhusu, massage shops, saunas, and spas.
- Hostels (青年旅社) are, by far, the most comfortable low-cost options. They typically cater to foreigners, have English speaking employees, and can provide cheap, convenient transport around town. Some of them are even cleaner and better furnished than more expensive places. Hostels also have a cozy, international atmosphere and are a good place to meet other travellers and get some half-decent Western food, which can be a godsend after days or weeks surviving off rice and noodles. In most cities of any size there is at least one hostel available, and in travel hot spots such as Beijing, Yangshuo, Dali, and Chengdu there are plenty of hostel options, although they can still fill up quickly because of their popularity with backpackers. Hostels can often be booked on-line in advance although you definitely should bring a print out of your confirmation as not all hostels are aware you can book their rooms (and pay a portion of the cost) on-line in advance. In Beijing, many hostels are located in Hutongs - traditional courtyard homes in the midst of a maze of traditional streets and architecture. While many of Beijing's Hutongs have been demolished a movement to save those which remain has led to a boom in youth hostels for backpackers and boutique hotels for the mid-range traveller.
- Dorm rooms (宿舍) are located on university campuses, near rural tourist attractions and as part of some hotels. Most travellers have spotty luck with dorms. It is not unusual to have rowdy or intoxicated roommates, and shared bathrooms can take some getting used to, especially if you're not used to traditional squat toilets or taking cold showers. However in some areas, especially on top of some of China's holy mountains, dorm rooms might be the only budget option in a sea of luxury resorts.
- Zhùsù (住宿), which simply translates as "accommodation", can refer to any kind of sleeping accommodation, but those places that have the Chinese characters for zhusu written on the wall outside are the cheapest. A zhusu is not an actual hotel, but simply rooms for rent located in homes, restaurants, and near train and bus stations. Zhusu rooms are universally spartan and bathrooms are almost always shared. The price can be quite low, costing only a few dozen renminbi. Officially a zhusu should not provide a room to a foreigner, but many times the caretaker is eager to get a client and will be willing to rent to anyone. There are never any English signs advertising a zhusu, so if you can't read Chinese you may have to print out the characters for your hunt. Security in zhusu's is sketchy, so this option is not recommended if you have valuables with you.
- Massage shops, saunas, and spas: spa costs vary but can be as low as ¥25. Entering a spa very late at night (after 01:00) and leaving before noon may get you a 50% discount. When in the spa there are beds or reclining couches in addition to showers, saunas etc. Admission to a spa is typically for 24 hours, and a small locker is provided for bags and personal possessions. This is ideal if you are travelling light. Furthermore spas often provide complimentary food, and paid services such as massages and body scrubbing. There is no privacy because usually everyone sleeps in one room. However, there is more security than in a dorm, since there are attendants who watch over the area, and your belongings (even your clothes!) are stored away in the lockers. Don't be fooled when receptionists try to make up reasons why you have to pay more than the listed rate. They may try to convince you that the listed rates are only for members, locals, women, men, or include only one part of the spa (i.e. shower, but no bed/couch). To verify any claims, strike up a conversation with a local a good distance away from the spa and inquire about the prices. Don't let them know that you are checking the spa's claims. Just act as if you are thinking about going there if the price is good. If they know that the spa is trying to overcharge you, they will typically support the spa's claim.
The next level of hotels, which cater to Chinese clients, are usually officially off-limits to foreigners but you may be able to convince them to accept you, especially if you can speak a smattering of Chinese. The cheapest range of Chinese budget hotels (one step above the zhusu) are called zhāodàisuǒ (招待所). Unlike zhusu these are licensed accommodations but are similarly spartan and utilitarian, often with shared bathrooms. Slightly more luxurious budget hotels and Chinese business hotels may or may not have English signs and usually have the words lǚguǎn (旅馆, meaning "travel hotel"), bīnguǎn or jiǔdiàn (宾馆 and 酒店, respectively, meaning "hotel") in their name. Room options typically include singles and doubles with attached bathrooms, and dorms with shared baths. Some budget hotels include complementary toiletries and Internet. In small, rural towns a night's stay might be as cheap as ¥25; in bigger cities you can usually get a room for ¥80-120. One problem with such hotels is that they can be quite noisy as patrons and staff may be yelling to each other across the halls into the wee hours of the morning. Another potential inconvenience is taking a room with a shared bath as you may have to wait to use a shower or squat toilet that moreover isn't in any sort of appealing condition. In smaller budget hotels the family running the place may simply lock up late at night when it appears no more customers are coming. If you plan on being late, try to explain this in advance or else you may have to call the front desk, bang on the door, or climb over the gate to get in.
These are usually larger hotels, clean and comfortable but not too expensive, with rooms ranging from ¥150 at the low end to over ¥300. Frequently the same hotels will also have more expensive and luxurious rooms. The doubles are usually quite nice and up to Western standards, with a clean private bathroom that has towels and free toiletries. A buffet breakfast may be included, or a breakfast ticket can be purchased for around ¥10.
Sprouting up around China are a number of Western-quality budget hotels that include the following chains, all of which have rooms in the ¥150-300 range and on-line advance booking:
- 7 Days Inns. (7天连锁酒店)
- JinJiang Inns. (锦江之星)
- Home Inns (如家快捷酒店).
- Motel 168. (莫泰168)
- Green Tree Inns (格林豪泰酒店). (English)
At the high end of the hotel food chain are international hotel chains and resorts, such as the Marriott, Hyatt and Shangri-La and their Chinese competitors. These charge hundreds or thousands of yuan per night for luxurious accommodations with 24-hour room service, satellite TV, spas, and western breakfast buffets. There are suites in Shanghai, for example, for over ¥10,000 a night. Many of these establishments cater to travelling business-types with expense accounts and charge accordingly for food and amenities (i.e. ¥20 for a bottle of water which costs ¥2 at a convenience store). Internet (wired or wireless) which is usually free in mid-range accommodations is often a pay service in high-end hotels. Some hotels in the ¥400-700 range such as Ramada or Days Inn are willing to lower their prices when business is slow. Chinese three and four-star hotels will often give block pricing or better deals if you negotiate or book a room for more than 5 days. If you are coming to China on a tour, the tour company may be able to get you a room in a true luxury hotel for a fraction of the listed price.
China's universities offer many different types of courses. Peking University (北京大学) and Tsinghua University (清华大学), both based in Beijing, are China's most prestigious universities, and are regularly ranked among the top universities in the world.
Language trainees Universities accept students who have achieved the minimum of a high school education for courses in the Chinese language. These courses usually last 1 or 2 years. Students are given certificates after they complete their course. Students who do not speak Chinese and want to study further in China are usually required to complete a language training course.
Undergraduates Undergraduate degrees usually require 4 to 5 years of study. International students will have classes together with native Chinese students. Taking each student's past education into account, some classes can be added or removed accordingly. Students will receive a Bachelor's degree after passing the necessary exams and completing a thesis.
Postgraduates Master's degrees are granted after 2 to 3 years of study. Oral examinations are also taken as well as written exams and a postgraduate thesis.
Doctoral students Usually 4 to 5 years of study are needed to obtain a PhD.
Research scholars Research is usually conducted independently by the student under the supervision of an assigned tutor. Any surveys, experiments, interviews, or visits that a research scholar has to make need to be arranged beforehand and authorised.
Short-term training courses Short-term courses are now offered in many areas such as Chinese literature, calligraphy, economics, architecture, Chinese law, traditional Chinese medicine, art, and sports. Courses are offered during the holidays as well as term time.
Foreign students can continue their studies and obtain Master's or doctoral degrees in China's universities. Some universities offer courses taught in foreign languages, but most courses will be in Chinese. You will need to demonstrate sufficient proficiency in Chinese before you can enroll on such a course. You do this by passing the HSK test (汉语水平考试 hànyǔ shuǐpíng kǎoshì), the official way to certify your skills on a Basic, Intermediate or Advanced level. The test involves reading, writing and listening, but no oral. See the HSK homepage  for dates and locations.
In order to promote its culture and language, the Chinese government offers scholarships to foreigners who want to study in China. Partial scholarships will cover tuition fees only. Full scholarships cover pretty much everything, including books, rent, some medical coverage, and a monthly allowance for food and expenses. Although studying pins you down to a specific city and limits the time you can spend travelling, a scholarship is a great way to help you cut through some red tape, get a Residence Permit and, if you're lucky, live in China practically for free.
To enquire about scholarships, directly contact the embassy in your area, or ask around at universities and language schools that have China-related courses. Scholarships are distributed by quota to each country therefore you will be competing against your fellow citizens, not against the entire world. The procedure varies from country to country, but normally requires the following paperwork:
- authorised copies of your highest (preferably university) degree, including exam scores;
- two letters of recommendation
- proof of a full health check-up (blood-test, ECG, X-Ray, etc)
- your reason for study
- plenty of passport-sized photos
All of this is shipped by the embassy to Beijing, which then decides who is accepted, where, and under what conditions. Applications are usually decided by the end of March, but the answer may not come until as late as August, with classes starting in September.
If all goes well, this will get you a letter of acceptance by the university of your choice, plus a visa that lets you stay in China for about two months. Once in China, you will have to do the medical tests all over again, and upgrade the visa to a residence permit. This is where being part of a university comes in handy, as they should be able to handle all of the paperwork, going so far as to bring a medical team on campus to check you up — more preferable to running from police station to hospital to consulate, especially if you don't speak Chinese!
When all is said and done, you will have a residence permit that lets you stay one year in China, lets you leave and enter the country as you want, and a fair ability to travel during weekends, holidays, and the occasional class-skipping stint.
Most foreign nationals working in China are required to obtain a residence permit before taking employment. There are some exceptions:
- Citizens of Hong Kong and Macau who hold a valid Home Return Permit (回乡证) have no restrictions and may live and work in mainland China indefinitely. These are issued mainly to ethnic Chinese. Permanent residents of Hong Kong and Macau are still considered to be foreigners in mainland China and are required to obtain a residence permit to live and work in the mainland.
- An F visa is a business visa which allows some work, such as providing training or consulting services to a Chinese client. Getting the visa requires a formal invitation from a Chinese company and quite a bit of other paperwork. The F visa does not allow any form of salaried employment and is usually good for only three or six months.
- A few foreigners have a permanent residence visa. These are valid for ten years, permit you to live and work in China indefinitely and allow you to exit and return to China multiple times. Requirements for obtaining them are quite strict. You need to fulfill one of the following conditions: Five years married to a Chinese citizen, four years employment in a senior post in China, a substantial investment in a successful local company, or significant other "contributions to China".
Most foreign workers will require a residence permit to work in China. This is in effect a one-year multiple entry visa; a permit holder can leave China and return with no difficulty. Obtaining the permit is not straightforward, the rules change frequently and sometimes without notice, and the rules can sometimes be bent if the employer has good contacts or influence. Hence the following information should be taken as a guideline only.
Residence permit procedure
Getting a residence permit generally requires dealing with two organisations, the State Administration for Foreign Expert Affairs (SAFEA), which is Beijing-based but has offices around the country, and the local Public Security Bureau (PSB, the cops).
SAFEA issues a Foreign Expert's Certificate (FEC) or a Foreign Teacher's Certificate (FTC). In theory, the FTC is for elementary or high school teachers and the FEC is for tertiary education or experts in industry. In some cases an entirely different certificate issued by a provincial department of labour can be used instead. In practice, nearly everyone seems to get the FEC. In theory, both FEC and FTC require a degree; this is usually, but not always, enforced. Whether it is depends at least on where you are, how well-connected your employer is, and how much trouble they are willing to go to. If you lack a degree, it helps if you have other certifications or diplomas.
Once you have an FEC or equivalent, getting the residence permit is routine. It requires an appearance at the local PSB, registration of your residence address with them, a small fee, and a health certificate. If you complete your health certificate in your home country, be sure to get copies of the x-ray, lab reports and other machine documents. Also have the form stamped with the official seal of the hospital. Even though you do all of this you will quite likely be required to take another physical in China. The physical is usually very quick: EKG, chest x-ray, sonogram of heart and stomach area, blood test, and urine check. However, the time of completion and various tests may change depending on the province.
In most cases, a Chinese member of the employer's staff — in English, the Foreign Affairs Officer (FAO), in Chinese the wai ban (outsider boss) — will guide foreign employees through this process and even handle much of it for them, and the employer will cover part or all of the costs. These may be points to negotiate before coming. Your spouse and any children going with you may require an even higher amount for their residence permit.
Much the safest way to come to a job in China is to enter the country on a Z visa. There can be some confusion with the terms; a few years ago, the Z was a one-year working visa but now the Residence Permit is the long-term visa and the Z is just an entry visa good for 30 days, long enough to get the FEC and Residence Permit. The Z visa can only be obtained outside of China, and it requires a letter from the employers to accompany your passport when you apply. Generally the school will request a signed contract, a health certificate (the more official-looking stamps, the better), a copy of your passport details, and a copy of your diploma. If you are over 60 and they are asking for their provincial office to accept you, they may also require that you have your own health insurance.
People over 60 often have trouble getting visas because of their age, and some job ads specify an age range. There are conflicting reports on whether this is SAFEA policy, SAFEA advice to provincial departments that make their own policies, or a question of health insurance. There are some exceptions, including a few people in their seventies still working legally, but there are also cases of people being asked to leave because they were turning 60 or 65.
It used to be common for people already in China to go to Hong Kong or Macau in order to apply for their Z visa. Around the time of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the rules tightened up considerably; they have relaxed some since, but not entirely. This is also true for getting Chinese visas in other nearby countries such as Vietnam, Korea, Japan or Singapore. Some people have been told they must return to their home countries to obtain a Z visa. Others have been able to get a Z visa in Hong Kong, provided the invitation paperwork clearly stipulates it.
Teaching a language, most commonly English, is a very popular source of employment for foreigners. There are English-teaching jobs all over China.
The market for teachers of other languages is more limited. However most universities require all students majoring in a foreign language to study another language as well, so they all have to teach at least two. The most common combination is English and Japanese, but many universities will happily hire a qualified instructor for another major language whenever they find one. Also, there are specialised universities for foreign languages in major cities such as Beijing, Guangzhou, Xi'an, Dalian and Shanghai which teach most major world languages. Guangzhou is establishing a reputation as a hub for so-called rare languages.
Requirements and qualifications range from just having a pulse and speaking a bit of English up to needing an MA and experience. Typically the good jobs want at least one, preferably two or three, of:
- a 4-year degree
- a teaching certificate for primary school or high school from your own country
- a recognised TEFL certificate, e.g. Cambridge CELTA
- teaching experience
If you want to go and do not already have good qualifications, get a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certificate. It really helps.
There are fairly strong preferences for native English speakers and for citizens of major English-speaking countries. Job ads routinely include a list of acceptable passports; UK, US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are on every list, Ireland and South Africa on most. Many employers will not even read the rest of your resume if you do not have one of those passports. Various prejudices and stereotypes may also come into play; some schools prefer Caucasians, especially blue-eyed blondes, apparently because they hope the "right" image will help their marketing. Overseas Chinese (even with perfect English), Filipinos, Indians, Malaysians, American Blacks, and especially Africans all report some difficulties finding jobs, or getting lower offers. Members of all those groups are happily employed in other schools, and many are well-paid, but getting a job is easier if you fit the stereotype. Accent can also be an issue; almost any educated native speaker will be fine, but if you sound like you are from rural Queensland or the hills of Virginia or are working-class Glaswegian, then some employers will not want you.
Pay and conditions vary greatly depending on location, experience and qualifications. Free accommodation, provided by the institution, is common. Generally this means an apartment of your own, though some tight-fisted schools want teachers to share. Most jobs pay for all or part of an annual trip home. Teachers nearly always make enough to live well in China, though some have a problem in summer because many university or high school jobs pay for only the 10 months of the academic year. Foreign teachers generally earn much more than their Chinese colleagues' salaries but the differences are gradually narrowing. A public college or university will often pay less than a private school, but will also require fewer teaching hours.
It is often possible to teach private lessons on the side - in fact your students or their parents may ask about this incessantly - or to find part-time work at another school in addition to your main job. Make certain you understand your employer's policies on outside work as some are quite restrictive. The standard SAFEA-provided contract, which most schools use (perhaps amended a bit), prohibits it entirely unless you get permission from the employer.
There can be difficulties around Foreign Expert Certificates for teachers. Universities and other public institutions can easily get FECs for staff, but not all private schools can. Before they can even apply for certificates, they must be authorised to employ foreigners by SAFEA. Getting the authorization takes many months and a significant amount of money. They also have to comply with SAFEA standards such as providing housing, health insurance and annual air fare home for all staff. Large established schools have the permission, but many of the smaller ones don't want the expense. Without the FEC you cannot get a Residence Permit so all the teachers in such schools are working illegally.
In terms of work visas, schools range from completely reliable to crooks who leave foreigners stranded without a legitimate work visa after they arrive. It is illegal to work with a tourist visa, but some schools want teachers to do that, and some even want teachers to foot the bill for "visa runs" to Hong Kong to renew it. Some even lie to teachers about this when recruiting. Some employers ask teachers to come in with a tourist visa and promise that they can get a residence permit later. The official regulations require the Z visa but moving from a tourist visa to Residence Permit is sometimes possible, depending on policies at the local PSB office and the employer's contacts there. On the other hand, working on a tourist visa is illegal and some of the employers who want you to come on one are stringing you along; they do not have SAFEA permission to hire foreigners legally and are trying to wriggle around that.
Do not even consider taking a post anywhere that wants you to come on a tourist visa unless you have talked to current foreign teachers and been assured that they came that way and had no problem getting FEC and Residence Permit.
If you plan to work as a teacher in China, research very carefully. You might get your dream job or a nightmare. Take great care in your selection of employer; broken contracts and general unscrupulousness and dishonesty are common. As a rule, government schools give the best all-around deals and if there is any dispute, you can appeal to the Foreign Experts Office of the provincial education ministry. If you can document your case and it is a valid one, they will take action. And it tends to be fast. Before filing an appeal, try to resolve the issue through direct discussion. If that fails, ask someone to function as a go-between—a Chinese if possible, but otherwise another expatriate will do. Only appeal as a last resort: as in other aspects of life everywhere, the threat of action is often more effective than action itself.
See also Teaching English.
There are opportunities in the main cities for professionals with backgrounds in areas such as finance, engineering, or information technology. Generally speaking you will need to be sponsored by a company in China that has a certificate to hire foreigners. There is significant paperwork involved around your Z visa as well as taxes, and it is advisable that your company uses an agency to take care of these on your behalf. If you have do paperwork by yourself then you will find it very difficult and time consuming, even if you can read simplified Chinese.
In previous years, companies were happy to fly in expatriate managers in order to develop their Chinese operations, although for both cost and cultural reasons there is now definitely a stronger preference for hiring workers and management locally. The cost of relocating and paying a foreigner is very high compared to the local workforce and companies will look for unique capabilities that you can bring, rather than generic 'middle managers'.
Opportunities for expatriates are usually far greater at multi-national companies with a significant China office than in local Chinese companies.
Many expatriates who wish to work in China actually base themselves in Hong Kong, owing to having a simple immigration process, easier living conditions for foreigners, low taxes and ready access to the Chinese mainland.
China is a huge country that shows a huge regional difference in crime rates but in general it poses no more risk than most western countries. Although you may hear locals complaining about increasing crime rates, violent crime remains rare. Many tourists will more likely feel safer in China than in their home country.
Generally speaking, crime rates are higher in the larger cities than in the countryside. The larger the city, the higher the crime rate. Nevertheless, they are no more dangerous than the likes of Sydney, London or New York in the Western world, so if you avoid seedy areas and use your common sense, you'll be fine.
Bicycle theft can be a problem. In big cities you may hear a stories of locals who have lost three bikes within one month, but in some other places, local people still casually park their bikes. Follow what local people do. If you see bikes are parked anywhere, just park yours or, better, tie it to a pole. In a place where everyone takes their bikes inside restaurants or internet cafes, it's a warning sign. Assume your expensive lock won't help at all. Professional thieves can break virtually any lock. In China, bike parking is common outside supermarkets or shopping centres, and usually charges ¥1-2 per day (usually until 20:00-22:00). If you have an electric bicycle or scooter, pay extra caution as the battery-packs may be targeted.
On long journey buses, there have been a handful of reports that groups of robbers have mugged all the passengers on board, especially on buses leaving from Shenzhen. Today, all passengers are required to take a mug shot before boarding. You're expected to follow the norm rather than discussing any privacy issues this may raise. Since this measure was introduced, reports of muggings have dropped drastically.
While it's true that China claims more lives in car accidents than any country in the world, that is mainly due to its extremely high population. Its mortality rate per head remains lower than that of many Western countries. But that said, in general, the driving in China can range from anywhere from nerve-rattling to outright reckless.
Traffic rules are usually practiced half-halfheartedly and rarely if ever enforced. Cars are allowed to turn right on a red light and do not stop for pedestrians, regardless of the walk signal. Bikers and electro-bikes tend to do as they like. Don't be fooled by following any signs and pedestrian paths; it is very common to see a motorcycle driving in a pedestrian lane. On occasion even cars will take to bike lanes and motor bikes to the sidewalk. Equally, pedestrians often walk in the roadways, especially at night, as they are better lit. Look in all directions when crossing! Expect or assume that anything will come at or behind you from any direction at any time.
See also driving in China.
In recent years there have been an increasing number of terrorist attacks in China, with some high profile attacks on people in Guangzhou station, Kunming station and Beijing. You should be careful when visiting or using train stations.
Chinese people traditionally hold strong negative views against begging, so unsurprisingly, begging is not a major issue in most places. It is however never far off the scene and particularly common just outside the main tourist attractions and in major transportation hubs.
Be aware of child beggars who could be victims of child trafficking. While it is becoming less common, you should avoid giving them any money. There have been several reports in local media about begging con artists who abduct children and pretend to be their mother in order to beg for money.
In China, local people usually only give money to those who have obviously lost the ability to earn money. Professional beggars have very clear deformities. If you feel like giving them some, bear in mind that many Chinese make only ￥30-70 a day doing hard labor jobs.
See begging for more detailed discussion.
Buddhism was brought to China from India via the Silk Road, and has formed an integral part of traditional Chinese culture since the Tang Dynasty. No trip to China will be complete without visiting at least one of the many Buddhist temples. Unfortunately, the presence of foreign tourists unaware of local Buddhist customs has also given rise to many scams, with many fake monks and temples preying on unsuspecting visitors.
Note that Buddhism in China generally follows the Mahayana school, in contrast to the Theravada school which is dominant in Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka. Mahayana Buddhist monks are required to be vegetarian, and usually grow their own food in the temples, or buy their food using temple donations. As such, they generally do not beg for food.
Monks also do not sell religious items (these are sold by laymen, not monks), and neither do they offer "Buddha's blessing" in exchange for money, or threaten you with misfortune should you not donate. Most temples will have a donation box in the main hall for devotees to make donations should they wish to do so, and monks will never go out in public to ask for donations. According to traditional Buddhist philosophy, it is entirely up to an individual to decide whether and how much he/she wishes to donate, and genuine Buddhist temples will never use high-pressure tactics to solicit donations, or ask for any amount of money in exchange for services. Monks also follow a very strict daily routine, and are not allowed to indulge in material luxuries, consume alcohol, or have any form of sexual activity.
Pollution is a serious problem in the world's factory. Beijing, by some accounts, is the most polluted city in the world. 16 out of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in China. Talking about air pollution has become a part of life for both locals and expatriates. Even the countryside, depending on the province in question, is not immune.
Places at higher altitudes or plains like parts of Yunnan and Sichuan, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Tibet and outlying islands such as Hainan usually have good air quality. Visitors should be prepared to see smog, which can be quite heavy, in nearly all large cities, including those on the coast.
You will also hear a lot of noise. Construction and renovation are full-time activities. Chinese and long-time residents' ears are trained to filter and tolerate it.
Touristy parts of Beijing and Shanghai have become notorious for various scams. The most notorious is the "teahouse scam." Variants can be seen at bars and cafes as well. While some scamming teahouses have been raided by the police in recent years, there are still a considerable number of scam reports from travellers and even local Chinese.
Around Tiananmen Square and Wangfujing in Beijing and the Bund, People's Square, and Nanjing Road in Shanghai, a scam artist(s) may start a conversation in relatively fluent English. They sometimes help you bargain and show you around. Everything is fine until they invite you to go to a teahouse, cafe or pub, place the orders before you have a chance to speak (or the tea and drinks were already laid out) and leave you facing an extortionate bill. At times, the scammers work in teams to increase the amount which can be ordered. Never begin sampling tea or other items without first getting, examining and keeping the written menu. Be sure to do the ordering or else agree with your hosts on anything which will be purchased.
While not exactly a scam, teahouse staff will bring snacks to your table and ask if you want something. The prices are not listed and neither are they mentioned when you take something. Note that the peanuts, sunflower seeds, raisins, etc., you take are not complimentary. You will have to pay for them. In Shanghai, one foreigner was reportedly taken to a teahouse by a group of women, given a bill for over ¥7,000 and threatened by the owner. The tourist called the police which prompted a swift raid on the teahouse.
Another scam, especially around Wangfujing, is to claim to be "art students" with an exhibition. You will be taken to small shabby art shops and pressured to buy overpriced reproductions. The same scam has been observed around the Forbidden City in Beijing.
If you find yourself being or having been scammed then call 110 and report it immediately. The police are sensitive to foreigners being targeted in this way and giving the country a poor reputation. In China, you have a legal right to ask for a "fa piao" (发票) which is an official sales invoice issued by the taxation department. It is against the law for an owner to refuse to give it to you. For scams, they generally will refuse since it is legal evidence of their extortionate price. If you have already been a victim then you can consider returning to the shop with some friends, ask for a refund and threaten to call the police. If you pay by credit card then you may be able to get the charges reversed.
Please note that while it is important to avoid being scammed, bear in mind that it is still common for English-speaking Chinese to genuinely want to start a conversation with you - even in touristy areas, show you around, and invite you for a drink and a meal. If you are paranoid about all invitations and interactions with the Chinese, it will ruin your travel experience.
When a stranger on the street invites you for tea or a drink, you should choose your own place, stating that you feel like eating or giving some other reason for your choice. If they are weirdly persistent at going to their "place" and make endless excuses to turn down your suggestions, use your common sense to tell if it's a scam.
Finally, high prices do not necessarily indicate a scam. In a teahouse or bar, ¥50-200 per cup or pot of tea (including hot water refills) and ¥15-60 per bottle of beer is not uncommon. Tea samplings may also charge high prices for each sample. Once again, to avoid being scammed, simply ask for and keep the menu. Although it is perfectly possible to pay ¥1,000 or more for a single pot of tea in a high-end teahouse, run-of-the-mill teas should not be nearly this expensive. Such delicate tea would only be offered to tea gourmets, not a casual tea taster. Furthermore, it is considered socially offensive to take a new friend to spend so much money and expect them to pay the bill. If someone takes you to an expensive place and expects you to pay, it is most likely a scam.
Possession or trafficking of illicit drugs is a very serious offence in China, and possession of certain drugs may lead to capital punishment. Be particularly wary in the provinces of Yunnan and Guangxi, as these provinces border Southeast Asia, which is a major drug producing region. Police in Beijing and possibly other cities are now targeting bars and nightclubs that foreigners frequent with drug testing kits, with detention and deportation the likely consequence of a positive drug test.
Due to the fast pace of change in China, you may find some items (especially media) continue to be banned by customs although they are readily available for purchase in the country itself. Searching your belongings for illicit items such as the ones below could potentially happen when entering China through an airport, although in practice it is rare these days.
- So-called Anti-Chinese materials will generally be confiscated: These include the Tibetan Lion-Mountain flag, and Falun Gong or Tiananmen Square incident materials.
- Books: Any books with photos of the Dalai Lama or Tiananmen Square incidents will be subject to confiscation. Expect to be questioned if you bring a book with Chairman Mao's portrait on it. George Orwell's books have apparently been seized at Chinese airports.
- Pornography: A heavy penalty is imposed on all pornography and penalties are counted based on the number of pieces you bring into the country.
Outside major cities, public washrooms vary from mildly unpleasant to utterly repulsive. In cities, it varies from place to place. High quality bathrooms can be found inside major tourist attractions (e.g., the Forbidden City), at international hotels, office buildings, and upper-class department stores. Washrooms in McDonald's, KFC, Pizza Hut, or any of the coffee chains listed in the drink section are usually more or less clean. While those in common restaurants and hotels are barely acceptable, those in hotel rooms are generally very clean. Some public facilities are free, others cost from a few mao up to one or two kuai (¥1-2). Separate facilities are always provided for men (男 nán) and women (女 nǚ), but sometimes there are no doors on the front of the stalls.
The sit-down toilet familiar to Westerners is rare in China in public areas. Hotels will generally have them in rooms, but in places where Westerners are scarce, expect to find squat toilets more often than not. Many private homes in urban areas now have sit down toilets, and one major benefit from having a local host is that they have clean bathrooms. As a rule of thumb, a western establishment such as McDonald's will have a western toilet.
Carry your own tissue paper (卫生纸 wèishēngzhǐ, or 面纸 miànzhǐ) as it is rarely provided. You can sometimes buy it from the money-taker at a public toilet; you can also buy it in bars, restaurants and Internet cafes for ¥2. Put used paper in the bucket next to the toilet; do not flush it away as it may block the often poor plumbing systems.
The Chinese tend to distrust the cleanliness of bathtubs. In hotels with fixed bathtubs, disposable plastic bathtub liners may be provided.
Wash your hands often with soap, or better carry some disposable disinfectant tissues (found in almost any department or cosmetics store), especially after having used public computers; the main cause for getting a cold or flu is through touching your face, especially the nose, with infected hands.
Food & drink
Although there are few widely enforced health regulations in restaurants, each major city does have a inspection regime that requires each establishment to prominently display the result (Good, average or poor). It is hard to say how effective this is, but is it a start. Restaurants generally prepare hot food when you order. Even in the smallest of restaurants, hot dishes are usually freshly prepared, instead of reheated, and rarely cause health problems.
Western fast food chains may employ good hygiene, however do note that the food itself comes from the usual Chinese supply chain. Recent (July 2014) investigations revealed significant health and safety issues with meat supplied to Western chains by a Shanghai meat supplier, causing those companies to pull many products from sale.
You should be extremely cautious buying food from street vendors. This is especially true for meat or seafood products; they can be very unsafe, particularly during warm weather as many vendors don't have refrigeration. Additionally meat is sometimes substituted for a cheaper version, and a lamb kebab may actually use pork. Worst cases however have seen rat, fox and cat meat used by these street vendors. A rule of thumb regarding street food is to make certain it is cooked thoroughly while you are watching; also, visit stalls frequented by locals, and look for plastic-wrapped disposable chopsticks.
Minor stomach discomfort may still be experienced from street food and restaurant food alike, but is said to pass as one becomes accustomed to the local food. Ginger can be effective against nausea.
Chinese people do not drink water straight from the tap, even in the cities, and you should not either. All hotels provide a thermos flask of boiled water in your room (refillable by your floor attendant), a kettle you can use to do it yourself or a sealed plastic bottle of commercial mineral water.
Some apartments and businesses have rather large water filters installed (which require changing twice a year) to improve the quality of water for cooking and washing. It still doesn't make the water drinkable from the tap, however it does improve the water quality a great deal. Check for this when looking for accommodation.
Tap water can be safe to drink after boiling, although still try and avoid drinking too much since heavy metals and chemicals may still be present. Note that most food you eat in restaurants in China will be prepared with such water, so it is more about limiting your exposure.
Purified drinking water in bottles is available everywhere, and is generally quite cheap. ¥1 is normal for a small bottle, but it will be more in some places. Check that the seal on the cap is not broken. Beer, wine and soft drinks are also cheap and safe.
Most smog or haze outbreaks are made up of fine particles that are 2.5 microns or smaller (PM2.5). N95 masks provide good protection against smog as they are at least 95% efficient against fine particles that are about 0.1 – 0.3 microns. They are 99.5% efficient against larger particles of 0.75 microns or more. As with most things in China, be sure to identify a reputable brand such as 3M
Due to a rapid rate of industrialization in China, pollution and heavy smog is unfortunately part of the way of life in most major towns and cities. Beijing is often in the news for this, however Shanghai and smaller cities such as Harbin have experienced this frequently as well. A white surgical face mask may help with the occasional dust storms, but a simple fabric or paper mask will not protect you against smaller airborne particles and therefore you should consider purchasing an industrial strength N95 Mask, especially if you suffer from respiratory problems.
The web site http://aqicn.org can provide detailed hourly pollution readings for most large cities. Bear in mind that it is the main reading (PM2.5) that should concern you the most.
Healthcare for foreigners
Most major Chinese cities have clinics and hospitals that are more appropriate for foreigners, with English speaking and Western qualified staff. Although expensive, it is worth identifying them whenever you plan to stay in an area for a significant time. For non-urgent medical treatment, you may want to consider traveling to Hong Kong, Taiwan or South Korea for a higher standard of treatment which may not be particularly more expensive.
The quality of Chinese hospitals for the Chinese people is fairly inconsistent. While some of the newer hospitals in major cities like Shanghai and Beijing are equipped with the most cutting edge medical technology, overcrowding is a problem in many of the other hospitals, with the quality of care in these hospitals leaving much to be desired. Local doctors have been known to prescribe more expensive treatments than necessary; IV drips are routine prescriptions in China, even for minor ailments like flu and the common cold, and doctors have a tendency to liberally prescribe antibiotics. Most locals go to the hospital even for the most minor ailments. You should consider keeping a significant amount of cash readily available for emergencies, since not being able to pay upfront may delay treatment.
Ambulance services are expensive, require upfront payment, are not accorded much priority on the roads and are therefore not particularly fast. Taking a taxi to the hospital in an emergency will often be much quicker.
Common therapeutic drugs — things like penicillin or insulin — are generally available from a pharmacist with a prescription and considerably cheaper than in western countries. You can usually ask to see the instructions that came with the box. Western medicine is called xīyào (西药). Less common drugs are often imported, hence expensive.
In larger cities there are strong controls over medicine, and even 'standard' cold medicine such as Panadol may require a prescription or a foreign passport. Opiates always require a prescription, although Viagra never does.
In smaller cities and rural areas many medicines, including most antibiotics are often available without a prescription.
See Chinese phrasebook for more.
Most Chinese doctors and nurses, even in larger cities, will speak little or no English. However, medical staff are in plentiful supply and hospital wait times are generally short - usually less than 10 minutes at general clinics (门诊室 ménzhěnshì), and virtually no wait time at emergency rooms (急诊室 jízhěnshì).
There are private Western style clinics and hospitals in most major Chinese cities which provide a higher standard of care at a much higher price. The doctors and nurses will speak English, and are often hired from, or have obtained their medical qualifications in Western countries. These provide a very easy and comfortable way to obtain familiar Western treatment from doctors qualified in the West, although you will be paying a premium for these services starting at an eye-watering ¥1,000 just for the consultation. Check beforehand to see whether your insurance will cover all or part of this.
Ensure that needles used for injections or any other procedure that requires breaking the skin are new and unused - insist on seeing the packet being broken open. In some parts of China it is acceptable to re-use needles, albeit after sterilization.
For acupuncture, although the disposable needles are quite common in mainland China, you can provide your own needles if you prefer. The disposable type, called Wujun zhenjiu zhen (无菌針灸針, Sterilized acupuncture needles), usually cost ¥10-20 per 100 needles and are available in many pharmacy. Note that there should be minimal to no bleeding when the needle is inserted and removed if the acupuncturist is sufficiently skilled.
While Traditional Chinese Medicine is widespread in China, regulation tends to be lax and it is not unheard of for Chinese physicians to prescribe herbs which are actually detrimental to one's health. Do some research and ensure you have some trusted local friends to help you out if you wish to see a Chinese physician. Alternatively, head to Hong Kong or Taiwan instead, as the practice is better regulated there.
If making more than a short trip to China, it may be a good idea to get vaccinated against Hepatitis A and Typhoid as they can be spread via contaminated food.
China has only officially recognized the threat of an AIDS/HIV epidemic since 2001. According to the United Nations "China is currently experiencing one of the most rapidly expanding HIV epidemics in the world. Since 1998, the number of reported cases has increased by about 30% yearly. By 2010, China could have as many as 10 million infections and 260,000 orphans if without intervention"; Chinese President Hu Jintao has recently pledged to fight the spread of AIDS/HIV within China. Sex workers, clients of sex workers and injecting drug users are the most infected groups.
New diseases are sometimes a threat in China, particularly in its more densely populated parts. In 2003 China experienced a serious SARS outbreak; this is no longer considered a major threat. More recently, there have been cases of bird flu; avoid undercooked poultry or eggs. Partly as a result of the SARS experience, China's government has taken the global threat of Swine Flu very seriously. If you are running a fever or otherwise obviously ill, as of Summer 2009, it is possible you will face several days in quarantine upon entry into China.
A few basic guidelines and tips can help you avoid faux pas in China.
- Tipping: is not necessary or advised. No tip is needed for taxi drivers and most restaurants. Leaving a few coins in most restaurants, you will likely be chased by staff to give you back the money you 'forgot' to take. In some cases, a fee regarded as tipping in America is actually a fixed fee, such as a fee for a doorman allowing you into a building at a late hour.
- Business Cards: When presenting or receiving a business card or handing over an important paper, always use both hands, and never put it in pant pockets.
- Visitation: A small gift taken to a host's home is always welcome. Wine, fruit, or some trinket from your native country are common. If the hosts are wearing slippers at home, and especially if there is carpet on the floor, remove your road shoes and ask for a pair of slippers before you enter your host's home, even if the host asks you not to.
- Hosting meals: Hosts tend to order more food than you can eat because it is considered shameful if they can't stuff their guests. If you attempt to finish all food, it means that you're still hungry and may prompt your hosts to order more food (i.e. never totally clean your plate).
- Dining: Table manner varies from different places among different people in different scenarios. Sometimes you can see Chinese spit on a restaurant floor, pick their tooth in front of you and yell whilst dining but it is not always welcome. Follow what other people do. It very much depends on what kind of party you are involved in.
- Drinking: When offered a drink, you are expected to take it or your friends will keep pushing you. Excuses like "I'm allergic to alcohol" is usually better than "I don't feel like drinking". Sometimes you can pretend that you are drunk. Don't panic as usually foreigners are tolerated much on these customs.
- Tobacco: If you smoke, it is always considered polite to offer a cigarette to those you meet, as long as they are of adult age. This rule applies almost exclusively to men, but under certain circumstances, such as a club, it is okay to apply the rule toward women. If someone offers you a cigarette and you don't smoke, you can turn it down by politely and gently waving your hand.
- Saving Face: The Chinese tend to be very concerned about "saving face". Pointing out mistakes directly may cause embarrassment. If you have to, call the person to one side and tell him/her in private, and try to do it in a polished manner.
- Religion: Swastikas have been widely used in Buddhist temples since the 5th century to represent Dharma, universal harmony, and the balance of opposites. Simillar to India, it does not represent Nazism.
Gay and lesbian travellers
Homosexuality was de-criminalised in 1997 and taken off the state list of mental disorders in 2001. Chinese people tend to have mixed opinions when it comes to sexuality. Though there are no laws against homosexuality in China, films, websites, and television shows involving themes of homosexuality tend to be censored or banned. Gay scenes and communities are found in the major cities in China, but generally non-existent everywhere else. Most Chinese are reluctant to discuss their sexuality in public, as it is generally considered to be a personal matter. In addition, homosexual marriages and unions are not recognised anywhere in the country. Nevertheless, while openly displaying your sexual orientation in public is still likely to draw stares and whispers, gay and lesbian visitors should generally not run into any major problems, and unprovoked violence against homosexual couples is almost unheard of.
Electricity is 220 volts/50 Hz. Two-pin European and North American, as well as three-pin Australian style plugs are generally supported. However, be careful to read the voltage information on your devices to ensure they accept 220V (twice the 110V used in many countries) before plugging them in — you may cause burnout and permanent damage to some devices such as hairdryers and razors. Universal extension cords that can handle a wide variety of plug shapes (including British) are widely used.
Names of long streets are often given with a middle word indicating the part of the street. For example, White Horse Street or Baima Lu (白马路) may be split up into Baima Beilu (白马北路) for the northern (北 běi) end, Baima Nanlu (白马南路) for the southern (南 nán) end and Baima Zhonglu (白马中路) for the central (中 zhōng) part. For another street, dōng (东 "east") and xī (西 "west") might be used.
In some cities, however, these names do not indicate parts of one street. In Xiamen, Hubin Bei Lu and Hubin Nan Lu (Lakeside Road North and Lakeside Road South) are parallel, running East-West on the North and South sides of the lake. In Nanjing, Zhongshan Lu, Zhongshan Bei Lu and Zhongshan Dong Lu are three separate major roads.
Laundry services may be expensive or hard to locate. In upper end hotels it will cost ¥10-30 to wash each article of clothing. Cheap hotels in some areas do not have laundry services, though in other areas such as along the Yunnan tourist trail the service is common and often free. In most areas, with the exception of the downtown areas in big cities, you can find small shops that do laundry. The sign to look for on the front door is 洗衣 (xǐyī), or spot the clothes hanging from the ceiling. The cost is roughly ¥2-5/item. In even the smallest of cities dry cleaning (干洗 gānxǐ）outlets are widely distributed and may be able to wash clothes. But in some areas you're going to be stuck washing clothes by hand, which is time consuming and tiresome. It may take days for a pair of jeans to dry, which is especially difficult if you're in a dorm room with no hangers, so fast drying fabrics, such as polyester or silk, are a good idea. If you do find a hotel that does laundry, usually they will put all your clothes into the wash together or even with other items from the hotel, so lighter colours are best washed by hand.
Smoking is banned in public buildings and public transport except for restaurants and bars (including KTVs) - many of which are outright smoke dens, although many multinational restaurant chains do ban smoking. These bans are enforced across the country. Generally, smoking laws are most strict in Shanghai and Beijing, whilst they are more lightly enforced elsewhere. Many places (particularly train stations, hospitals, office buildings and airports) will have smoking rooms, and some long-distance trains may have smoking areas at the end of each car. Facilities for non-smokers are often poor; most restaurants, bars and hotels will not have non-smoking areas apart from top-end establishments although many modern buildings have a smoke extraction systems which suck cigarette smoke out of the room through a ceiling vent - meaning that the smoke doesn't hang in the air. The Chinese phrase for 'May I smoke?' is 'kěyǐ chōuyān ma?' and 'No Smoking!' is 'bù kěyǐ chōuyān!'.
China has more Internet users than any other country in the world and Internet cafes (网吧 wǎngbā) are abundant. Most are designed principally for online gaming and are not comfortable places to do office style work. It is cheap (¥1-6 per hour) to use a computer, albeit one with Chinese software. Internet cafes are supposed to require users to show official identification although enforcement varies by region. Browsing of Internet pages may well be monitored by the public security bureau (the police).
It is difficult to find an Internet cafe offering services beyond simple access. If you need to use a printer, scan a paper or burn a CD then expect to search hard for the service. The exception is tourist areas such as Yangshuo where these services are readily available. Printing, photocopying, faxing and other business services can be provided by small shops in most towns. Look for the characters 复印 (fùyìn) meaning "photocopy". Printing costs about ¥2 per page and photocopies are ¥0.5 per page. These shops may or may not have Internet access so bring your materials on a flash drive.
In University areas many students do not have access to printers and there are usually several printing/photocopy shops scattered around the surrounding areas or even within the university itself. Charges range from ¥0.3 per photocopy and ¥0.5 per printed black and white page to ¥3 for a high quality colour copy. Most also provide CD burning services and scan documents.
Some hotels provide Internet access from rooms that may or may not be free; others may provide a wireless service or a few desktops in the lounge area.
A few cafes provide free wireless Internet service — for example, Costa Coffee, Italy cafe, Feeling4Seasons Cafe in Chengdu, Padan cafe in Shanghai, etc. Some cafes, especially in tourist areas such as Yangshuo, even provide a machine for customer use. International chain MacDonalds does NOT provide free wifi in China. Starbucks provides access with registration.
In order to use a free public wifi, you may require a password to be sent to your (Chinese) mobile phone. If you do not have a Chinese mobile phone then you will obviously not be able to use many of the wifi services available.
Since public computers and the Internet are not secure, you should assume that anything you type is not private. Do not send extremely sensitive data such as banking passwords from an Internet cafe. It may be better to purchase a mobile data card for use with your own computer instead (these generally cost ¥400 and data plans run ¥10-¥200 per month depending on your usage).
If you are connecting to the Internet with your own computer, be aware that some websites in China (especially college campuses) require you to use Microsoft Internet Explorer and to install dedicated software on your system and/or accept certificates to access their websites.
Internet censorship is widely practiced in China (Hong Kong and Macau operate independently from this). In mainland China, pornographic and political sites are routinely blocked, and many other sites with a broad range of content are also subject to censorship of varying degrees.
Which internet sites are available?
The actual list of websites and services banned is a secret and changes every day without notification. It is well known that large social media websites such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, LiveJournal, Blogspot and Google Plus are completely blocked. Additionally other services such as Google search and Google Maps are incredibaly slow and unresponsive. You may wish to use a different service such as Bing for your searching needs. Western news sites such as the BBC, CNN, Reuters and The Economist are available, although individual pages with China sensitive keywords may be blocked. Bloomberg News and the New York Times are completely blocked in 2012, as a result of reporting on the financial holdings of top leaders. More common than outright blocking is throttling, such that users become frustrated with the speed of the web service and turn to a competitor that is more cooperative with the government.
Google, Wikivoyage, Wikipedia, and Flickr are often available, although queries with sensitive keywords will almost certainly trigger the censorship system, called the Golden Shield (金盾) (or euphemistically, the Great Firewall or GFW ) and result in the message "your connection has been reset".
Censorship is often tightened during certain sensitive periods, such as the annual meeting of China's parliament in March, the CCP congress every fourth October, and anniversaries such as the National Day in October and the Tiananmen massacre in June.
A (very) few hotels do actually offer uncensored internet access. These hotels generally cater to foreigners, but do not usually advertise this facility (for obvious legal reasons). You can always try browsing to FaceBook in order to see if your hotel supports this.
A recent initiative (September 2013) to provide uncensored internet access inside the Shanghai free trade zone unfortunately did not materialize.
The simplest way to access blocked sites is to use a proxy server but even then, most sensitive political issues will be blocked as the contents are not encrypted. Other ways to bypass censorship include downloadable software such as Freegate, Tor and Psiphon. These introduce certain levels of encryption, and therefore so-called sensitive content can be seen. These should be downloaded before entering China as access to their official websites are blocked. A serious internet user may wish to use a VPN (Virtual Private Network) which usually provides users with more stable and reliable access to banned websites for a fee starting from a few dollars per month.
It's a criminal offence to upload and submit any materials seen as subversive. However, regular internet users, especially English speakers without political backgrounds, are usually free to write and send anything without a problem.
Western companies often collaborate with the Chinese government to various degrees. In 2005, Shi Tao, a journalist in China, was imprisoned for ten years for releasing a document of the Communist Party to an overseas Chinese democracy site after Yahoo! China provided his personal Yahoo emails to the Chinese government.
Please fix it!
China Daily, the nationally distributed English newspaper, sometimes publishes constructive criticism of China from frustrated tourists. If you think something about China for travellers needs to be fixed, you should send a letter to email@example.com and it could possibly be published.
China has some local English language news media. CCTV News channel is a global English channel available 24/7 in most cities, with French and Spanish variants as well. CCTV 4 has a short newscast in English every day.
China Daily and Global Times are two English language newspaper available in hotels, supermarkets, and newsstands.
There are also a few English magazines such as China Today and 21st Century.
Foreign magazines and newspapers are not generally available in bookstores or newsstands except at top hotels.
- Hotmail, Yahoo, GMail and other web-based email providers are readily accessible from any PC though GMail will be intermittently blocked. Their news pages are almost all available too. News sources using YouTube, Twitter or Facebook are blocked and unavailable.
- Some Western newspaper websites are blocked, although this can change frequently and without notice. Presently (February 2014) the 'New York Times' website is an example of unavailable sources. Some sources such as the 'BBC News' website are available, although specific articles about China are often blocked.
- The better hotels often have satellite TV in the rooms.
- Business hotels typically have wired Internet service for your laptop in each room: 7 Days Inn and Home Inn are two nationwide chains meeting western standards for mid-range comfort and cleanliness that consistently offering internet and cost ¥150-200 per night. WiFi in one's room is uncommon, perhaps for government control reasons. Internet of varying reliability may be offered by locally-owned hotels in rooms going for as little as ¥70/night. On occasion for a bit more these hotels will have rooms with older computers in them as well.
The Chinese Post Office is generally reliable and sometimes quick. There are a few things you need to adapt to:
- Incoming mail will be both faster and more reliable if the address is in Chinese. If not, the Post Office has people who will translate but that takes time and is not 100% accurate.
- It will be very helpful to provide the receiver's phone number with packages or expedite mails. The customs and delivery postmen usually need it.
- Do not seal outgoing packages before taking them to the Post Office; they will not send them without inspecting the contents. Generally it is best to buy the packing materials at the Post Office, and almost all Post Offices will pack your materials for you, at a reasonable price.
- Most Post Offices and courier services will refuse to send CDs or DVDs, this can be circumvented by placing them in CD wallets along with lots of other things and finally packing the space in with clothes, giving the appearance of sending your stuff home, also easier to send by sea as they care less.
International fax (传真 Chuánzhēn) services are available in most large hotels for a fee of a dozen renminbi or more. Inexpensive faxes within China can be made in the ubiquitous photocopy outlets that have the Chinese characters for fax written on the front door.
Telephone service is more of a mixed bag. Calling outside China is often difficult and usually impossible without a calling card, which can often only be bought locally. The good news is that these cards are fairly cheap and the connection is surprisingly clear, uninterrupted and delay-free. Look for IP Telephone Cards, which typically have a value of ¥100 but sometimes can be had for as little as ¥25. The cards have printed Chinese instructions, but after dialling the number listed on the card English-spoken instructions are available. As a general indication of price, a call from China to Europe lasts around 22 minutes with a ¥100 card. Calls to the US and Canada are advertised to be another 20% cheaper.
If your line allows for international direct dialling (IDD), the prefix for international calls in China is 00. So if you wish to make an overseas call, you would dial 00-(country code)-(number). Note that calls from the mainland to Hong Kong and Macau require international dialling. IDDs could be very expensive. Ask the rate before calling.
Mobile (Cellular) phones are very widespread and offer very good service in China. They play an essential role in daily life for most Chinese and for nearly all expatriates in China. The typical expat spends a few hundred to a few thousand yuan buying a phone (depending on the features required), then about ¥100 a month for the service; tourists might use it less.
If you already have a GSM 900/1800 or 3G (UMTS/W-CDMA 2100) mobile phone, you can roam onto Chinese networks, subject to network agreements, but calls will be very expensive (¥12-35/min is typical). There are few exceptions; the primary sets are Hong Kong-based providers which typically charge no more than HK$6/minute and the second is T-Mobile US which charges US$0.20/minute with free text and data service. Check with your home operator before you leave to be sure. UMTS/HSDPA roaming is not available with every carrier, but you can buy a local SIM card for 3G data access (see below). Chinese CDMA networks require R-UIM (SIM card equivalent), so American CDMA phones will not work off the bat, but it's possible to program a new Chinese prepaid number into one at some shops for a fee of ¥100-400 — just don't forget to restore your old number before you leave. The exception is newer phones sold by Verizon (a US-based CDMA provider)- their iPhone 5 will work with China Telecom R-UIMs with no additional modification while their other phones require some software modification to make data services work but will call and text with a China Telecom R-UIM.
For a short visit, consider renting a Chinese mobile phone from a company such as Pandaphone. Rates are around ¥7 a day. The company is based in the US but has staff in China. Toll free numbers are 866-574-2050 in the U.S. or 400-820-0293 in China. The phone can be delivered to your hotel in China prior to your arrival and dropped off there at the end of your trip, or shipped to you in the US. When you rent the phone, they will offer you an access code for calling to your country, which is cheaper than buying a SIM card from a local vendor and dialling directly.
If you're staying for more than a few days, it will usually be cheaper to buy a prepaid Chinese SIM card; this gives you a Chinese phone number with a certain amount of money preloaded. Chinese tend to avoid phone numbers with the bad-luck digit '4', and vendors will often be happy to offload these "unsellable" SIM-cards to foreigners at a discount. If you need a phone as well, prices start around ¥100/200 used/new. Chinese phones, unlike those sold in some Western countries, are never "locked" and will work with any SIM card you put in them.
China's two big operators are China Mobile and China Unicom. Most SIMs sold by the two work nationwide, with Unicom allowing Hong Kong/Macau/Taiwan usage as well. There is usually a surcharge of about ¥1/min when roaming outside the province you bought the SIM, and there are some cards that work only in a single province, so check when buying. You may also need to manually activate national roaming, which may incur a small daily surcharge as long as it's active. PHS handsets no longer work since the associated network has been taken down. For China mobile, you can get your credits balances by calling 1008611 and get a sms with balance.
International calls have to be enabled separately by applying for China Mobile's "12593" or China Unicom's "17911" service; Neither provider requires a deposit, though both require applications. Usually there will be an English speaker, and let him/her know what you want. Ask for the "special" dialing code, and for ¥1/month extra, this will be provided to you. Enter the code, the country code, then the local number and you will be talking cheaply in no time. Don't be fooled by cellphone shops with the China Mobile signage, be sure to go a to a location. The employees will wear a blue uniform and there will be counter services. At time of writing, China Mobile is the cheaper of the two with calls to North America/Asia around ¥0.4/min. You can also use prepaid cards for international calling; just dial the number on the card as with a regular landline phone, and the charges will go to the prepaid calling card.
To recharge, visit the neighborhood office of your mobile service provider, give the staff your number and pay in cash to recharge your account. Alternately, many shops will sell you a charge card, which has a number and password that must be used to call the telephone company to recharge the money in your account. You will be calling a computer and the default language is Chinese, which can be changed to English if you understand the Chinese. Charge cards are sold in denominations of ¥30, 50 and 100. (If you have a local bank account, and you understand Chinese, all providers let you recharge by bank transfer online; this is cheaper and sometimes there will be special offers for recharging this way)
For mobile data addicts, the "Wo" 3G USIM from China Unicom starts at ¥96/month for 240 nationwide minutes, 10 videocall minutes, 300MB data, and some free multimedia/text content (ringtones, mobile news reports, wallpapers, music videos, etc.). Incoming transmissions (video/voice call, text) from anywhere is completely free. For short-term use there is no longer a basic service fee, with calls around ¥1/3 min, text messages ¥0.10 each and data ¥10/MB (overage for the ¥96 plan is a more reasonable ¥0.15/min, ¥0.10 per text ¥0.3/MB). The student plan (¥66 for 50 minutes, 240 texts, everything else same as ¥96 plan) is also an option. China Mobile offers their "Easy Own" prepaid card, the offer also includes the option of grps/edge-packs: ¥100 or ¥200 for 1 or 2 GB of data a month. It's possible to de-/activate this service with a short message to the number 10086. There is also a 5 G cap (maximum charge per month) of ¥500.
See also Mobile Phones.
The country dialing code for mainland China is 86. Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan have their own separate country dialing codes which are 852 for Hong Kong, 853 for Macau and 886 for Taiwan.
- Major cities with eight-digit numbers have a two-digit area code. For example, Beijing is (0)10 plus an eight-digit number. Other places use seven- or eight-digit local numbers and a three-digit area code that does not start with 0, 1 or 2. So for example: (0)756 plus 7 digits for Zhuhai. The north uses small numbers, the south has larger numbers.
- Normal cell phones do not need an area code. The numbers are composed of 130 to 132 (OR 156/186) plus 8 digits (China Unicom, GSM/UMTS), 133/153/189 plus 8 digits (China Telecom, CDMA) or 134 to 139 (OR 150/152/158/159/188) plus 8 digits (China Mobile, GSM/TD-SCDMA).
- Some mobile phones (小灵通 xiǎo língtōng) work only in the province or city in which they are registered. These have numbers that look exactly like land line numbers for their cities. They are the cheapest choice, both for cost of phone and for usage fees, but not flexible enough for most travellers. The technology is neither GSM nor CDMA, but basically a cordless phone on steroids called PHS. PHS phones can be reprogrammed with a new local number for each province; if you have brought your own (from Japan, for instance) it can be programmed with a local number for a small fee (beware that both of the PHS carriers in China are winding down their networks and are scheduled for complete shutdown in 2011).
The following emergency telephone numbers work in all areas of China; calling them from a cell phone is free.
- Patrol Police: 110
- Fire Department: 119
- (Government-owned) Ambulance/EMS: 120
- (some areas private-owned) Ambulance: 999
- Traffic Police: 122
- Directory inquiries: 114
- Consumer Protection: 12315