- For other places with the same name, see China (disambiguation).
China (中国; Zhōngguó) is one of the world's oldest civilizations. Its long and rich history is present both in people's thinking and values and in the art, architecture, and feats of engineering that remain from dynasties past.
After a tumultuous 20th century, China has dramatically re-emerged as an economic powerhouse. Its rapid development has been paralleled by an ascent onto the international stage that has led many experts to speculate that it may eventually become the dominant world superpower. Of course there are growing pains when high-rises and factories surge up to dwarf centuries-old pagodas, but the Chinese people have the drive to make it work. If you visit now, you can see the relics of millennia of history and experience the signs of further transformations in progress.
China's hierarchy of administrative divisions has 22 provinces (省 shěng) which tend to have their own cultural identities, and 5 autonomous regions (自治区 zìzhìqū) each with a designated minority ethnic group. These along with four municipalities (直辖市 zhíxiáshì) make up what is known as mainland China.
For the purposes of Wikivoyage, these provinces are grouped into the following regions:
|Northeast China (Liaoning, Jilin, Heilongjiang)|
Historically known as Manchuria, the Northeast is a land of steppes, vast forests, and long snowy winters. Culturally influenced by Russia, Korea, and Japan, it contains a mix of modern cities and "rust belt" industrial towns that have become neglected.
|North China (Shandong, Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, Henan, Hebei, Beijing, Tianjin)|
The plains of North China around the fertile Yellow River basin were the cradle of Chinese civilization. It was the political center of various Chinese Empires over several millennia, as it is today in the modernized capital Beijing, while some regions are still relatively free of Western cultural influence.
|Northwest China (Shaanxi, Gansu, Ningxia, Qinghai, Xinjiang)|
A historical borderland, both geographically with grasslands giving way to deserts and mountains, and culturally with the ancient Silk Road connecting China to Europe. While Xi'an was China's capital for 1,000 years, Northwest China is also home to many Muslims and racial minorities who at times formed independent kingdoms. Since the early 20th century, it's been rapidly growing as many Han Chinese have migrated here.
|Southwest China (Tibet, Sichuan, Chongqing, Yunnan, Guizhou)|
Minority peoples, spectacular scenery, and backpacker havens.
|South-central China (Anhui, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangxi)|
Yangtze River Basin area, farms, mountains, river gorges, temperate and sub-tropical forests.
|South China (Guangdong, Guangxi, Hainan)|
Traditional trading centre, manufacturing and tech powerhouse, and ancestral homeland of many overseas Chinese.
|East China (Jiangsu, Shanghai, Zhejiang, Fujian)|
The "land of fish and rice", traditional water towns, and China's new cosmopolitan economic centre.
China has many large and famous cities. Below is a list of nine of the most well known. Other cities are listed under their specific regional section.
- 1 Beijing (北京) — the capital, cultural centre, and host of the 2008 Summer Olympics and 2022 Winter Olympics
- 2 Chengdu (成都) — capital of Sichuan province, known for tingly-spicy food and home of the giant pandas
- 3 Guangzhou (广州) — one of the most prosperous and liberal cities in the south, near Hong Kong, and main centre of Cantonese culture
- 4 Hangzhou (杭州) — built around West Lake, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and southern terminus of the Grand Canal
- 5 Harbin (哈尔滨) — capital of Heilongjiang, which hosts the Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival during its bitterly cold winters
- 6 Kashgar (Chinese: 喀什, Uyghur: قەشقەر) — centre of Uyghur culture, with a beautiful and well-preserved old town, and the famous Id Kah Mosque.
- 7 Nanjing (南京) — former capital during the early Ming Dynasty and Republic of China era, a renowned historical and cultural city with many historic sites
- 8 Shanghai (上海) — China's largest city, famous for its riverside cityscape, a major commercial centre with many shopping opportunities
- 9 Xi'an (西安) — the oldest city and ancient capital of China, 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:
- 1 Great Wall of China (万里长城) — longer than 8,000 km, this ancient wall is the most iconic landmark of China
- 2 Hainan (海南) — a tropical paradise island undergoing heavy tourism-oriented development
- 3 Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve (九寨沟) — known for its many multi-level waterfalls, colourful lakes and as the home of the giant pandas
- 4 Leshan — most famous for its huge riverside cliff-carving of Buddha and nearby Mount Emei
- 5 Mount Everest — straddling the border between Nepal and Tibet, this is the world's highest mountain
- 6 Mount Tai (泰山 Tài Shān) — one of the five sacred Taoist mountains in China, and because of its history the most-climbed mountain in China
- 7 Tibet (西藏) — with a majority of Tibetan Buddhists and traditional Tibetan culture, it feels like an entirely different world
- 8 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
- 9 Guilin karst (桂林) — sensational mountain landscapes that have long been the subject of Chinese paintings
China has over 40 sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
|Population||1.4 billion (2017)|
|Electricity||220 volt / 50 hertz (NEMA 1-15, Europlug, AS/NZS 3112)|
|Time zone||China Standard Time, UTC+08:00|
|Emergencies||119 (fire department), 110 (police), 120 (emergency medical services)|
|edit on Wikidata|
Chinese civilization is one of the major civilizations in this world, and for many centuries stood out as a leading civilization with technologies that the West was not able to match until the early modern period. Paper and gunpowder are examples of 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 civilization has endured through millennia of tumultuous upheaval and revolutions, golden ages and periods of anarchy alike. Through the economic boom initiated by the reforms of Deng Xiaoping, China is a major political and economic world power, buoyed by its large, industrious population and abundant natural resources. The depth and complexity of the Chinese civilization, 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 zhōng guó, literally "central state" (it originally referred only to the central part of the country) but often translated more poetically as "Middle Kingdom". People from everywhere else are called ‘’wàiguórén‘’ (外国人, "outside country people"), or colloquially lǎowài, "old outsider" with "old" in the sense of venerable or respected (in practice, these terms mostly refer to white people or Westerners, and almost never to any foreigner of Chinese descent).
- See Imperial China for more information on pre-revolutionary China.
According to legend, the origin of the Chinese civilization can be traced to the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors (三皇五帝), though they are regarded as mythical figures by most modern historians.
The recorded history of Chinese civilization can be traced back to the Yellow River valley, said to be the "cradle of Chinese civilization". The Xia Dynasty (夏朝, c.2070 BC- c.1600 BC) was the first dynasty to be described in ancient historical chronicles, though to date, no indisputable proof of its existence has been found. Some archaeologists have linked the Erlitou settlements to the Xia dynasty, but this is a controversial position.
The Shang Dynasty (商朝, c.1600 BC- 1046 BC), China's first archaeologically confirmed dynasty, and the Zhou Dynasty (周朝, 1046 BC- 256 BC) 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 recognizing 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, 770 BC- 476 BC), and later stabilized into seven large states in the Warring States period (战国时代, 475 BC- 221 BC). This tumultuous period gave birth to China's greatest thinkers including Confucius, Mencius and Laozi (also spelt Lao-Tzu), who made substantial contributions to Chinese thought and culture, as well as the military strategist Sun Tzu, whose Art of War is studied to this day.
- See also: On the trail of Marco Polo
China unified in 221 BC under Qin Shi Huang, "First Emperor of Qin", and the Qin Dynasty (秦朝, 221 BC- 206 BC) instituted a centralized system of government, and standardized weights and measures, Chinese characters and currency in order to create unity. The Han Dynasty (汉朝, 206 BC- 220 AD) took over in 206 BC after a period of revolt and civil war, ushering in the first golden age of Chinese civilization. To this day the majority Chinese race use the term "Han" to describe themselves, and Chinese characters continue to be called "Han characters" (汉字 hànzì) 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 (三国时期, 220- 280), which saw China split into the three separate states of Wei (魏, 220- 265), Shu (蜀, 221-263) and Wu (吴, 222- 280). The Jin Dynasty (晋朝, 265- 420) reunified China in AD 280, though the reunification was short-lived, and China would rapidly descend into civil war and division again. The Southern and Northern dynasties (南北朝, 420- 589) were a period which China was divided into two parts (the Northern and the Southern), and had several dynasties respectively. The Sui Dynasty (隋朝, 581- 618) reunified China in 581. 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 AD, the Sui were supplanted by the Tang Dynasty (唐朝, 618- 907), ushering in the second golden age of Chinese civilization, marked by a flowering of Chinese poetry, the rise of Buddhism and statecraft. It also saw the development of the Imperial Examination system, which attempted to select government officials by their ability. Chinatowns overseas are often known as "Street of the Tang People" (唐人街 Tángrén jiē) in Chinese. The collapse of the Tang Dynasty in AD 907 then saw China divided once again, until it was reunified under the Song Dynasty (宋朝, 960- 1279) in AD 960. In 1127, the Song were driven south of the Huai river by the Jurchens, where they continued to rule as the Southern Song based in Linan (临安 Lín'ān, modern-day Hangzhou), and attained a high level of commercial and economic development that would be unmatched in China until the 20th century. The Yuan Dynasty (元朝, 1271- 1368, one of the four divisions of the Mongol Empire) first defeated the Jurchens, then proceeded to conquer the Song in 1279, and ruled the vast empire from Khanbaliq (大都 Dàdū, 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, even reaching the eastern coast of Africa; 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 imperial dynasty, the Qing dynasty (清朝, 1644- 1911), were ethnic Manchus and saw the Chinese empire grow to its current size, incorporating the western regions of Xinjiang and Tibet.
The Qing dynasty fell into decay in the 19th century to become the 'sick man of Asia', where it was nibbled apart by the Western powers and Japan, a period dubbed by the Chinese as the "Century of Humiliation (百年国耻)". The Westerners and Japanese 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 to Japan, parts of the North East including Dalian and parts of Outer Manchuria to Russia, and Qingdao 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 turmoil during the end of the Qing Dynasty and Republic of China-era led to the emigration of many Chinese, who established overseas Chinese communities in many other parts of the world, most notably in Southeast Asia, India, South Africa, Mauritius, Latin America and many Western countries.
The Republic and World War II
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 warlords ruling over different regions of China and fighting wars with each other to expand their respective influences. In 1919, student protests in Beijing over the Treaty of Versailles 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, and 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 1921. It also laid the foundation for the establishment of Standard Mandarin as the standard spoken form of Chinese for the entire country.
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 one of the most prosperous cities 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, extreme poverty, famines and warlord conflict, still remained.
Japan established a puppet state of Manchukuo in Manchuria in 1931, and launched a full-scale invasion of China's heartland in 1937. The Japanese implemented 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 maneuvered for positions in north China, setting the stage for the civil war in the years to come. The civil war lasted from 1945 to 1949 and ended with the Kuomintang defeated and forced to flee to Taiwan where they hoped to re-establish themselves and recapture the mainland someday.
A Red China
On 1 Oct 1949, Mao Zedong declared the establishment of the People's Republic of China (中华人民共和国 Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó). 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 Great Leap Forward (大跃进 Dàyuèjìn), intended to collectivize and industrialize China quickly, and the Cultural Revolution (文化大革命 Wénhuà Dà Gémìng), aimed at changing everything by discipline, destruction of the "Four Olds" (customs, culture, habits, ideas), 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 with the deaths of tens of millions of people. The effects of the Cultural Revolution in particular can still be felt today; many elements of traditional Chinese culture and folk beliefs continue to thrive in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and overseas Chinese communities, but have largely disappeared in mainland China.
Mao 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. One of the innovations was the creation of Special Economic Zones with tax breaks and other government measures to encourage investment and development; these still exist and are quite prosperous. Economic output quadrupled by 2000, with China now a middle-income country, though it has begun to slow, with experts warning of economic troubles on the horizon.
China's miraculous growth since Deng Xiaoping has been an extraordinary achievement, but significant problems remain, including inflation, regional income inequality, human-rights abuses, unrest among some ethnic minorities, major environmental issues, rural poverty and corruption.
Hu Jintao, who was Communist Party General Secretary from 2002 to 2012, 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 developed economically at a breakneck speed since the 1990s. It 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. With this growth, China has also expanded its international clout and become a major source of foreign investment, particularly in Southeast Asia and Africa. Paramount leader Xi Jinping (2012 till now) launched the Belt and Road (一带一路) initiative in 2013, which attempts to grow international trading networks through Chinese investment in transportation infrastructure. This is largely along the route of the old Silk Road.
Two former colonies, Hong Kong (British) and Macau (Portuguese), rejoined China in 1997 and 1999 respectively. They are Special Administrative Regions (SARs), run differently under the slogan "One country, two systems". This article does not cover them because for practical travel purposes, they effectively function like different countries because they have their own visas, currencies, and laws.
China is a one-party authoritarian state ruled by the Communist Party of China. The government consists of an executive branch known as the State Council (国务院 guówùyuàn), and 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") and the Head of Government is the Premier (总理 zǒnglǐ). The President of China is by convention the paramount leader (General Secretary of the Communist Party), with the Premier of the State Council next to him as the second most powerful person in the country. The President is Xi Jinping (习近平) and the Premier is Li Keqiang (李克强) at present.
China largely follows a centralized system of government, and is administratively divided into 22 provinces (省), 5 autonomous regions (自治区) and 4 directly controlled municipalities (直辖市). Provincial governments are given limited powers in their internal and economic affairs. Autonomous regions are given more legal freedom than provinces, such as the right to declare additional official languages besides Mandarin. Directly controlled municipalities are cities that are administratively not part of any province, with the respective city governments reporting directly to the Central Government in Beijing instead. In addition, there are the Special Administrative Regions (SAR, 特别行政区) of Hong Kong and Macau that effectively run themselves as separate jurisdictions, with only foreign policy and defense being controlled by Beijing (at least in theory).
The PRC considers Taiwan to be one of its provinces, but in reality Taiwan's government (the Republic of China) has been completely separate from the mainland Chinese one since 1949. Both governments continue to claim to be the sole legitimate government for all of China, though there is significant support for formal independence in Taiwan. China's government has repeatedly threatened to launch a military attack on Taiwan if the island ever declares itself independent.
See Chinese provinces and regions for more detail.
People and customs
With 1.4 billion inhabitants, China is home to nearly a fifth of the world's population and is the most populous country in the world. It is a diverse place with large variations in culture, language, customs and economic levels from region to region, and often strong distinct cultural and regional identities as well.
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 labor or draft animals. Some 200 to 300 million former peasants have migrated to townships and cities in search of work. Poverty has been reduced dramatically, but towards the end of 2016, China still had 43 million people under the official poverty line of ¥2,300 (about US$334) in annual income. At the other end of the spectrum, the wealthy continue to splurge on luxury items and real estate at an unprecedented rate. Generally the southern and eastern coastal regions are more wealthy, while inland areas, the far west and north, and the south-west are much less developed.
The cultural landscape is unsurprisingly diverse given the sheer size of the country and its population. Han Chinese are the largest ethnic group, comprising over 90% of the population, but they are not culturally homogeneous and speak a wide variety of mutually unintelligible local dialects and languages. 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. Sadly, the Cultural Revolution wiped out much of traditional Chinese culture and religion, and while they still survive to some extent, much of the traditions of old are better preserved in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau and overseas Chinese communities than in mainland China. In general, contemporary urban Chinese society is rather secular, and traditional culture is more of an underlying current in everyday life.
The other 10% of the population are 55 recognized ethnic minorities — the largest of which are the Zhuang, Manchu, Hui and Miao (Hmong) — which each have their own unique cultures and languages. Other notable ethnic minorities include Koreans, Tibetans, Mongols, Uyghurs, Kyrgyz and even Russians. In fact, China is home to the largest Korean population outside Korea, and is home to more ethnic Mongols than the country Mongolia. Many minorities have been assimilated to various degrees, losing their language and customs or fusing with Han traditions, although Tibetans and Uyghurs in China remain fiercely defensive of their cultures.
Overall, many Chinese people like homophones, and several numerals are considered auspicious or inauspicious based on rhymes with other Chinese words. In general, 6, 9 and especially 8 are lucky numbers for many Chinese.
- "Six" is a good number for business, sounding like "slick" or "smooth" in Mandarin, and "good fortune" or "happiness" in Cantonese.
- "Eight" sounds so close to the word for "prosper" that it's widely considered auspicious. It's no surprise that the opening ceremony for the Olympics started at 8:08:08PM on 2008/08/08, and phone numbers with a lot of 8s are in high demand.
- "Nine" was historically associated with the Emperor, and also sounds like "long lasting".
Meanwhile, "four" is a taboo for most Chinese because the pronunciation in Mandarin and Cantonese is close to "death"; some buildings skip floors and room numbers that contain 4s. However, even "four" can be a good number: a lot of people registered their marriage on Jan 4, 2013 because the date sounds like "I will love you all my life" in Chinese.
Climate and terrain
China has a land area of 9.6 million km2, about the same as the United States. Accordingly 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 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 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 variety 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 the second-lowest point 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 unit of mass jīn (斤), nowadays equal to 0.5 kg in mainland China. Most Chinese will quote their weight in jin if asked, and food prices in markets are often quoted per jin.
Lunar New Year dates
The year of the Rat started on 4 Feb 2020 at 17:03, and the Lunar New Year was on 25 Jan 2020
Contrary to popular belief, the change of the zodiac does not occur on the first day of the Lunar New Year, but instead occurs on Li Chun (立春 lì chūn), the traditional Chinese start of spring.
China observes two week-long holidays during the year, called Golden Weeks. During these weeks, around Chinese New Year (late January to mid-February) and National Day (1 October), 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. The spring festival (Chinese New Year) is the largest annual migration of people on Earth.
China has seven national holidays:
- New Year (元旦 Yuándàn) — 1 January
- Spring Festival (春节 Chūn Jié), a.k.a. Chinese New Year — 1st day of the 1st lunar month, late January to mid-February (25 January in 2020)
- Tomb-Sweeping Day (清明节 Qīngmíng Jié) — 15th day from the Spring Equinox, 4 to 6 April (4 April in 2020). 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.
- Labour Day (劳动节 Láodòng Jié) — 1 May
- Dragon Boat Festival (端午节 Duānwǔ Jié) — 5th day of the 5th lunar month, late May to June (25 June in 2020). Boat races and eating rice dumplings (粽子 zòngzi, steamed pouches of sticky rice) are a traditional part of the celebration.
- Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节 Zhōngqiū Jié） — 15th day of the 8th lunar month, September to early October (1 October in 2020). Also called the "Mooncake Festival" after its signature treat, mooncakes (月饼 yuèbǐng). People meet outside, put food on the tables and look up at the full harvest moon.
- National Day (国庆节 Guóqìng Jié) — 1 October
Chinese New Year and National Day span multiple days; nearly all workers get at least a week for Chinese New Year and some of them get two or three. For many working Chinese, these are the only times of the year they get to travel. Students get four to six weeks of holiday.
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 20 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 Yuánxiāo Jié or 上元节 Shàngyuán Jié) — 15th day of the 1st lunar month, just after Chinese New Year, February to early March. (8 February in 2020). In some cities, such as Quanzhou, this is a big festival with elaborate lanterns all over town.
- Double Seventh Day (七夕 Qīxī) — 7th day of the 7th lunar month, usually August (25 August in 2020). This romantic holiday is similar to Valentine's Day.
- Double Ninth Festival or Chongyang Festival (重阳节 Chóngyáng Jié) — 9th day of the 9th lunar month, usually October (7 October in 2019)
- Winter Solstice (冬至 Dōngzhì) — 21 to 23 December (22 December in 2019)
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.
Around the longer holidays (especially the two Golden Weeks and sometimes Labor Day), surrounding weekends may be rearranged to make the holiday longer—for instance, people may have to go to work on a Sunday to make up for a day off during the week. This means that around major holidays, places may be closed when they're usually open or open when they would usually be closed.
Despite geographically spanning five time zones, the entirety of China officially follows Beijing Time (GMT +8). However, in the restive province of Xinjiang, ethnic Uyghurs use the GMT +6 time zone as a sign of defiance against Beijing, while ethnic Han use Beijing Time as a symbol of solidarity with Beijing.
- 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. This book is banned in China.
- The Search for Modern China by Jonathan Spence - a standard history book on modern China from the late Ming to the current period.
Topics in China
- See also: Chinese phrasebook
The official language of China is Standard Mandarin, known in Chinese as Pǔtōnghuà (普通话, "common speech"), which is based on the Beijing dialect; Chinese in general is known as Zhōngwén (中文). Standard Mandarin is the main language for government and media, as well as the national lingua franca. While the official language is standardized, local pronunciation of Mandarin does vary by region. Unless otherwise noted, all terms, spellings and pronunciations in this guide are in Standard Mandarin.
Chinese is written using Chinese characters (汉字, hànzì, lit. "Han characters"). Unlike an alphabet that represents individual sounds without any inherent meaning, each Chinese character represents a meaningful syllable: a specific word or part of a word. Although they look impenetrable at first, there is some method to the madness: most characters are composed from base components combined with other characters (often giving clues to both pronunciation and general meaning). The same characters are used in Japan and Korea with usually similar meanings, albeit different pronunciations. However, since the 1950s mainland China has used simplified characters, such as 龟 instead of 龜. Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and many overseas Chinese still use the traditional characters, which are also sometimes used on the mainland as an aesthetic choice. As a result, a word like "bank" will be written 銀行 as often as 银行. The simplification was fairly systematic, and you may deduce at least some of the simplifications on your own just from seeing them frequently. Cursive forms of Chinese characters, often used for effect in logos, range from "looks familiar if you squint" to "impenetrable scribbles".
The standard way of romanizing Mandarin is pinyin (汉语拼音 hànyǔ pīnyīn). It's a fairly logical system, although it has a few idiosyncrasies, including using some letters in ways that are different from English (such as q which is similar to English "ch" and x which is like English "sh"). Mandarin is also tonal, meaning each syllable has to be pronounced with the correct tone — high, rising, falling-rising, falling, or neutral — to be understood; tones are marked in pinyin using diacritics that graphically mimic the tones patterns (as in mā, má, mǎ, mà, and ma). With just a few hours of practice, you can learn to pronounce Mandarin words accurately using pinyin. However, as Chinese has many homophones, pinyin is useful for pronunciation but not practical for communicating meaning; for something like a street address, you need to use Chinese characters.
Although Chinese is written nearly the same across the country, spoken Chinese has a huge array of dialects, of which Standard Mandarin is just one. Verbally, Chinese dialects are as different from each other as English and Dutch, or French and Italian — related, but not mutually intelligible. Two people who speak different Chinese dialects would read and write the same, but they would pronounce the written text differently, and couldn't carry on a spoken conversation with each other. However, thanks to heavy emphasis in the education system, most people can comfortably carry on a conversation in Standard Mandarin, though sometimes with a strong accent.
A variety of (mainly northern) dialects closely related to the standard are classified as Mandarin and account for the majority of China's population. Other large groups of dialects include Wu (spoken in Shanghai, Zhejiang and southern Jiangsu) and Yue (Guangdong), which includes Cantonese (spoken in much of Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macau). The Min (Fujian) group includes Minnan (Hokkien, spoken in South Fujian and in Taiwan), Fuzhou dialect (Foochow or Hokchiu, spoken around Fuzhou), Teochew (Chiuchow, spoken in Chaoshan) and Hainanese (spoken in the island province Hainan). Hakka is spoken in several parts of southern China but is more related to northern dialects. Like Mandarin, these are all tonal languages.
Most Chinese are bilingual or even trilingual, speaking Mandarin as well as regional or local dialects. Some who are older or less educated may speak only the local dialect. While you can easily get by in most of China speaking Mandarin, learning a bit of the local dialect is always appreciated, and may get you preferential treatment in shops and restaurants.
Besides dialects of Chinese, various regions also have ethnic minority languages. The west has Turkic languages such as Uyghur, Kyrgyz, and Kazakh as well as other languages such as Tibetan; the north and northeast has Manchu, Mongolian, and Korean; the south has many other ethnic minorities who speak their own languages. However, except for some older folks, Mandarin is generally usable in these regions and many people are bilingual.
Chinese Sign Language (CSL or ZGS, 中国手语 Zhōngguó Shǒuyǔ) is the dominant sign language. Although it's not an official language of China, there is an official version of CSL standardized by the government. There are also two regional dialects, Southern (from Shanghai) and Northern (from Beijing); these and official CSL are largely mutually intelligible. CSL is not mutually intelligible with Hong Kong, Taiwanese, or Malaysian Sign Languages, nor with any others. Tibetan Sign Language (藏语手语 Zàng yǔ shǒuyǔ) is an independent sign language used in Tibet, not mutually intelligible with any others; it too is standardized by the government based on existing regional sign languages.
While national media is broadcast in Mandarin, each area often has its own local media that broadcasts in the local language.
Chinese students study English in primary and secondary school. However, the focus is mainly on formal grammar and writing, with less emphasis on reading, and even less on speaking or listening. While knowledge of basic words and phrases such as "hello," "thank you", "OK" and "bye-bye" appears nearly universal, the ability to participate in an English conversation can be limited.
It's generally rare to find locals conversant in English. Staff at airports, hotels, and popular tourist attractions can sometimes speak basic to conversational English.
When using English, simplify and speak slowly. Chinese grammar is very different from English, as verbs, pronouns, and other words essentially don't inflect at all. Although it sounds abrupt in English, simple declarative sentences like "Give me two beers" are quite similar to Chinese, and thus more readily understood than roundabout constructions like "Could we have a pair of beers please?".
While English signage or menus are increasingly widespread in China, especially at or near tourist attractions, they are often written in incorrect English. 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.
Many places have English Corner, informal gatherings for practicing oral English, which can be a good way to meet locals. They're often held at schools and colleges on Friday afternoons, and on Sundays in public parks, English schools, and bookstores, and universities. Topics often include cultural activities like holidays and festivals from English speaking countries, such as Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
Other foreign 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, while Mongolian is the native language of the ethnic Mongol community in Inner Mongolia. Mongolian is written in the traditional Mongolian alphabet instead of Cyrillic in Inner Mongolia, by contrast with the practice in the nation of Mongolia to the north. Japanese is spoken by some professionals in international businesses. German is a popular language for engineering professionals. Some people in border areas and some older people are able to speak Russian.
Visa policy overview
China offers the following visas to citizens of most countries:
A few nationalities are exempted from needing to obtain a visa before travelling to China for certain durations.
You can contact your nearest Chinese embassy or consulate for more details.
Most travelers will need a visa (签证 qiānzhèng) to visit mainland China. In most cases, it should be obtained from a Chinese embassy or consulate before departure. Hong Kong and Macau have separate visa policies. Visas for Hong Kong and Macau may be obtained from a Chinese embassy or consulate, but they must be applied for separately from the mainland Chinese visa; there is no visa that serves both mainland China and either of those areas. A single-entry mainland China visa is terminated if you go to Hong Kong or Macau, so ensure that you have a multiple entry visa if you plan to return to mainland China.
You're required to submit your fingerprints during the visa application process. Children under 14, and senior citizens over 70 are excepted. Your fingerprints may also be taken when you enter China.
30-day single- or double-entry visas for the mainland can sometimes be acquired in Hong Kong or Macau. You can generally fly from overseas to Hong Kong and spend a few days there to be a visa for the mainland. This is supposed to be available only to residents of Hong Kong or Macau. Exceptions are often made but they vary over time, apparently for political reasons, and are not reliable. Anyway this approach is no longer worth the time and cost, as you will face expensive hotel bills in Hong Kong until your visa is granted. Macau's visa office is less crowded and the hotels are a bit cheaper, but it takes just as long. In general, only single and double entry visas are granted to visitors without HKID cards, although foreigners with previous entries into the mainland and Hong Kong student or work visa holders have been known to be approved for multiple entries. Many Hong Kong travel agencies (such as CTS) offer a faster visa turnaround service for a fee. If you need to get a visa faster than using the public visa office method and are willing to pay then this would be your best option. In addition, a travel agency has some capacity to "negotiate" on the length of your visa. You might apply for a one year visa and have that rejected, however they may well be able to get a shorter one for you instead (i.e. 6 months) which is much better than nothing.
Visas are sometimes denied to travelers with passport stamps from Turkey and nearby Middle Eastern countries; see Visa trouble#China for more information.
Visa-free travel: Nationals of Brunei, Japan, and Singapore can visit China without a visa for up to 15 days; nationals of Bahamas, Barbados, Belarus, Fiji, Grenada, Qatar, Serbia, Seychelles, Tonga, and United Arab Emirates for up to 30 days; nationals of Mauritius for up to 60 days; and nationals of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ecuador, and San Marino for up to 90 days. (Nationals of Bosnia and Herzegovina can only stay 90 days within a 180-day period.)
To visit mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau residents of Chinese nationality must apply at the China Travel Service, the sole authorized issuing agent, to obtain a Home Return Permit (回乡证), a credit card-sized ID allowing multiple entries and unlimited stay for ten years with no restrictions including on employment. Taiwanese citizens are required to obtain a Taiwan Compatriot Pass (台胞证 táibāozhèng), which is typically valid for five years, and may live in mainland China indefinitely for the duration of the permit's validity with no restrictions including on employment. Travelers 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; this can be used for short visits to many metropolitan regions of the country. These rules are dizzyingly complicated and subject to sudden changes—you should check with your airline shortly before attempting this method of entry.
Citizens of the designated countries who arrive at airports in Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqing, Dalian, Hangzhou, Kunming, Nanjing, Qingdao, Qinhuangdao, Shanghai, Shenyang, Shijiazhuang, Tianjin, Wuhan, Xiamen, and Xi'an can stay in the city of arrival for up to 144 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 country or countries. In Guangdong, this arrangement applies to the whole province. A similar policy in Guilin, Harbin, and Changsha allows stays of up to 72 hours. 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.
A more generous policy has been introduced for the city of Shanghai and the neighboring provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang. Visa-free entries through the airports of Shanghai, Nanjing, and Hangzhou, as well as the Shanghai sea port or Shanghai Station (through train from Hong Kong), are allowed; once admitted, passengers can go anywhere within the three province-level units, and must depart within 144 hours (6 days). Translation: 144-Hour Visa-Free Transit Policy for Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang.
In Hainan, citizens of the UK, Canada, the US and some other European and Asian countries can travel for up to 30 days without a visa.
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 or Public Security Bureau (公安局 Gōng'ānjú) 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. Tourist visas can be only extended once. Processing time is usually five working days and it costs ¥160. See city articles to find out the local bureau.
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. 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 US$140 (or US$110 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 US$100 per day of visa validity in the form of traveller's checks. (US$1,000 and US$1,500, 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.
If you want to work in China, you should enter on a Z visa; see Working in China for detailed guidance.
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).
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 immigration law requires that hotels, guest houses and hostels register their guests with the local police when they check in. The staff will scan your passport including your visa and entry stamps. In some places, your face may even be photographed. 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.
Some of the lower-end hotels are not set up for this and will refuse foreign guests. Others will accept foreign guests but ignore the registration requirement. You should avoid staying at one of these places immediately after arriving in China, lest you run into problems later, such as refusal of entry, due to not registering when you entered the country.
If you are staying in a private residence, you are required to register your abode with the local police within 24 hours (city) to 72 hours (countryside) of arrival, though the law is enforced inconsistently. 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 to the new passport). In some cities, you must re-register every time you re-enter mainland China even if your residence permit is still valid; check with your local police station to see if this is necessary.
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.
The main international gateways to mainland China are Beijing (PEK IATA & PKX IATA, for all airports BJS IATA), Shanghai (PVG IATA) and Guangzhou (CAN IATA). The explosive growth of commercial aviation in China has led to the proliferation of international gateways to the country. In particular, Chengdu (CTU IATA), Chongqing (CKG IATA) and Kunming (KMG IATA) are emerging as major Chinese hubs, with flights to quite a few destinations in North America, Europe and Oceania.
Airline tickets are expensive or hard to come by 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.
China's carriers are growing rapidly. The three largest, and state-owned airlines are flag carrier Air China (中国国际航空), as well as China Eastern Airlines (中国东方航空) and China Southern Airlines (中国南方航空), based in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou respectively. Other airlines include XiamenAir (厦门航空), Hainan Airlines (海南航空), Shenzhen Airlines (深圳航空) and Sichuan Airlines (四川航空).
Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific can connect from many international destinations to all the major mainland cities. Other Asian carriers with good connections into China include Singapore Airlines, Japan-based Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways, South Korea-based Korean Air and Asian Airlines, and Taiwan-based China Airlines and EVA Air.
Most major carriers based outside Asia fly to at least one of China's main hubs — Beijing (Capital or Daxing), Shanghai Pudong and Guangzhou — and many go to several of those. Some, such as KLM, also have flights to other less prominent Chinese cities. 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 neighboring 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. There is also direct train service between Ürümqi and Astana (via Khorgos). (Details, in Chinese)
- Hong Kong - regular services link mainland China with Hong Kong. A high speed rail link was completed on 23 September 2018.
- Vietnam - from Hanoi Gia Lam Station to Nanning in Guangxi province, via the Friendship Pass. You can take a train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, walk or take a taxi across the border to Hekou, and take a train from Hekou North to Kunming.
- North Korea - four weekly connections between the North Korean capital Pyongyang and Beijing.
China has land borders with 14 countries. Mainland China also has land borders with the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau, which are similar to international borders. Most of the border crossings in western China are 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 both countries require special permits to visit. The pass has reopened for cross-border trade so the tourist restriction may be lifted.
Entering China from Myanmar is possible at the Ruili (China)-Lashio (Myanmar) border crossing, but permits must 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 three international crossings:
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 one hour). 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 hours). 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
There are two border crossings between Mongolia and China:
Other crossing (bilateral only) are:
- Zhuen Gadabuqi or Zuun Khatavch (Xilingol, Inner Mongolia)
- Bichig (Mongolia)
- Sheveekhuren - Sekhee
The border crossing closest to Almaty is 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 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 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:
- 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.
There are a number of boats to China by both sea and river:
- 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.
- Japan A ferry service to Shanghai from Osaka and Kobe, Japan. Service is once or twice weekly, depending on the season and takes about 2 days.
- South Korea A ferry service from Shanghai and Tianjin to Incheon, a port close to Seoul. Another line is from Qingdao or Weihai to Incheon or Dalian to Incheon.
- Taiwan Hourly ferries (18 departures per day) run from Kinmen to Xiamen, with the journey time either 30 minutes or one hour 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 hours. From the Taiwanese main island, there are weekly departures from Taichung and Keelung aboard the Cosco Star to Xiamen and Damaiyu, Taizhou.
- Thailand 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. Tickets cost ¥650
- Cruise ship 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.
Many foreign apps such as Google Maps and Apple Maps do not work in China, and tend to have patchy coverage and data quality even if accessed via VPN. Moreover, China uses its own coordinate system, which sometimes causes problems when using foreign map apps. The most common direction-finding app used by the Chinese themselves is Baidu Maps, though it is only available in Chinese. Amap is effectively the Citymapper for the whole of China. It is only available in English on Apple devices, and replaces Apple Maps when you are in mainland China. It lists all public transport and suggested car routes even in seemingly rural places. Alternative methods include other map apps based on OpenStreetMap data or renting a local GPS. More information at GPS navigation.
Names of long streets are often given a middle word indicating the part of the street: north (北 běi), south (南 nán), east (东 dōng), west (西 xī), or central (中 zhōng). For example, White Horse Street or Báimǎ Lù (白马路) may be split up into Báimǎ Běilù (白马北路 "White Horse North Street"), Báimǎ Nánlù (白马南路 "White Horse South Street"), and Báimǎ Zhōnglù (白马中路 "White Horse Central Street"). 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.
China is a huge country so, unless you're not planning on venturing outside the eastern seaboard, definitely consider domestic flights. China has many domestic flights connecting all the major cities and tourist destinations. Airlines include the three state-owned 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.
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 (these often have English versions). A useful app/website is CTrip, which is the only way you can use an international credit/debit card on the fly to buy train/plane tickets. If you buy your ticket from a Chinese vendor they will contact you to let you know about changes to your flight. If you purchased your ticket overseas, be certain to check on the flight status a day or two before you plan to fly. Booking too far in advance on Chinese websites is not advisable as prices tend to remain high until two months before the flight date, at which point large discounts are usually seen unless a particular flight has been heavily booked far in advance.
Matches and lighters are not permitted on flights in China, even in carry-on luggage. Pocketknives must be placed in checked luggage.
Be prepared for unexplained flight delays as these are common despite pressure from both the government and consumers. One reason is the tight military control of the airspace - few countries have as much of their airspace off limits to civil aviation as China. 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.
That said, the safety record of Chinese aviation is superb. They have not had a major fatal accident since 2010 and Chinese regulatory authorities are very no-nonsense when it comes to safety violations by crews or maintenance problems.
Also be sure not to lose your checked baggage receipts, as they will be checked against your baggage tags before you are allowed to leave the baggage claim hall.
- See also Rail travel in China
Train travel is the main method of long-distance transportation for the Chinese, 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) called CRH. If your route and budget allow then these may be the best way to get around. CRH trains are top-notch, even internationally, in terms of equipment and cleanliness.
On most higher-level trains recorded announcements are made in Chinese, English. Local trains will have no announcements in English, so knowing when to get off can be harder. Be careful with your valuables while on the train; theft on public transportation has risen. Motion sickness pills and ear plugs are recommended.
Long distance trains will have a buffet or dining car, which serves mediocre hot food at around ¥25. The menu will be entirely in Chinese. There may be vendors on station platform who will sell noodles, snacks, and fruit at better prices. Most train cars have a hot boiled water dispenser available so you can bring tea, soups and instant noodles.
Smoking is not permitted in the seating or sleeping areas but is allowed in the vestibules at the end of each car on ordinary trains, while on high-speed trains, it is totally banned. Smoking is banned inside station buildings apart from in designated smoking rooms.
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. The China Rail site is available only in Chinese and you must have a Chinese bank account to buy tickets, so you can only use it if you have a Chinese friend but the tickets for you. Especially around festivals, tickets sell out quickly, so book tickets as far in advance as possible.
- CTrip. A Chinese travel site with an English version and English mobile app which allows you to view timetables, book conventional and high-speed trains from 20 days to 30 minutes before departure. A purchase voucher for the train ticket will be sent to the app 2 hours after purchase. Show this to the station staff at the ticket desk with your passport to collect the train ticket.
- Absolute China Tours or China Highlights have English time and fare information (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.
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) but can save you a trip to the train station.
Travel agencies will "sell" 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 sold you. This is true everywhere in China.
If you go to a station to buy tickets, have your train number, date and time of departure, seating class, number of tickets, 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 there are usually long queues. You must present ID (e.g., passport). Each traveller must be present, with ID, to pick-up their ticket.
It is illegal to buy second-hand tickets so don't buy "discount" tickets that you may be offered at the train station.
Chinese train stations function like an airport, so do 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. Make sure you're waiting in the right place, because often the train will only stop for a couple of minutes.
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")
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-distance transportation.
City buses vary from city to city. 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 'xià yí zhàn - zhōng shān lù' (next stop Zhongshan Road) or 'Shànghǎi nán huǒ chē zhàn dào le' (Shanghai South railway station - now arriving). Some major cities such as Beijing or Hangzhou will have English announcements, at least on some major routes. Fares are usually about ¥1-3 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. The driver usually prioritises speed over comfort so hold on tight.
Coaches, or long-distance buses, may be more practical than trains for going to suburbs or smaller cities. Coaches originating from larger cities on the east coast tend to be air conditioned with soft seats. Bus personnel tend to try to be helpful, but they are much less familiar with foreigners than airline personnel.
A coach or bus in rural China is a different experience. Signs in the station to identify buses will be in Chinese. The coach's license plate number is printed on the ticket, it will be spray-painted on the back of the bus. Scheduled times of departure and arrival are only rough estimates, with the bus leaving when it's full, rather than at a scheduled time. Often, rural coaches are the only forms of transportation in many areas of China and 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.
Getting a ticket is straightforward. Large bus stations have ticket counters who sell printed tickets displaying the departure time, boarding gate and license plate number of your bus. You need your passport to purchase a ticket, and often you will need to go through security inspection.
Most major cities in China now have subway/metro (地铁 dìtiě) systems. They are typically modern, clean, efficient, popular with the locals and are still rapidly expanding. Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou already have some of the world's most extensive systems. Subways are usually the best way of getting between two points. In rush hour they will be extremely crowded, but the roads will be heavily congested at the same time.
On both station platforms and in trains there is usually signage in both Chinese and English listing all stations on that particular line. Announcements in the stations and trains are made in Mandarin and English, and sometimes the local language. Given the rapid rate of change over the past years, many maps (especially English versions) may be out of date. It is worth obtaining a bilingual subway network map in advance and carrying it with you whilst traveling by subway.
Chinese subway stations often have a security checkpoint before the turnstiles, where you must run your bags through an X-ray scanner.
Stations tend to have numerous exits with labels such as Exit A, B, C1, or C2. On maps you will find each exit is labeled clearly around the station. Signs in the station itself make it easy to find your exit.
If there are available seats, be prepared for a mad dash as commuters shove and wrestle for the available seats. Pickpockets are also most likely to strike at this moment, so pay attention to your belongings.
Taxis (出租车 chūzūchē or 的士 dīshì, pronounced "deg-see" in Cantonese-speaking areas) are reasonably priced: flagfall ¥5-14, per km charge ¥2-3. Most trips within the city center will cost ¥10-50. There is no extra charge for luggage, but in many cities rates are higher at night. The taxi fee is usually rounded up to the nearest whole yuan. Tips are not expected, but are welcome, especially after long trips.
Taxis are commonly ordered through a phone app, and it has become harder to hail a taxi on the street. The most popular app, Didi Chuxing, is also available in English.
Taxi hawkers stalk naive travellers at airport terminals, train stations, and border crossings. They will try to negotiate a set price, and will usually charge 2x or 3x more than a metered fare. There are designated taxi areas outside most major airport terminals; insist that the driver use the meter. The fare should be plainly marked on 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.
Sitting in the front passenger seat is acceptable, and is 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. Drivers may start smoking without asking. 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, you are very unlikely to find an English-speaking taxi driver. If you are not able to pronounce Mandarin well, have your destination written in Chinese characters to show the driver. Business cards for your hotel and for restaurants are useful for this. In major cities in the prosperous southern and eastern coastal provinces, many taxi drivers are migrants from other parts of China who speak Mandarin but not the local dialect.
Most drivers are honest and fares are reasonable but there are the bad ones out there who will try to use your lack of Chinese skills to their advantage. The fare difference will usually be minimal. Should you feel you have been seriously cheated on the way to your hotel, and it has a doorman, you can appeal to him or the desk staff for assistance. In cities, photographing the driver's ID (posted on the dashboard) or license plate number and threatening to report him to the authorities can be quite effective.
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 thus likely to know the city better. Use the bigger taxi companies when possible, as the smaller companies tend to have a higher number of dishonest drivers.
Chinese are sometimes competitive 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).
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).
By tram (trolley)
Above ground, cities like Dalian or Changchun, offer transport via tram. An increasing number of cities, such as Nanjing and Wuhan, are opening new light-rail systems in newly developed urban areas.
Making more frequent stops than subways, trams can offer a practical way of getting around. Single-car trolleys may also be in use. Both modes are susceptible to traffic jams.
- Main article: Cycling in China
Bicycles (自行车 zìxíngchē) were once the most common form of transportation in China, but many people have upgraded to electric bikes and motorcycles. Bicycle repair shops are frequent apparently anywhere in cities and rural areas.
The fairly new phenomenon of dockless rideshare bikes has dramatically reversed this decline on the streets of China's larger cities. They operate on a grab'n'go basis: you use your mobile phone to unlock any free bike, pay ¥1-2 per 30 minutes while using them, and drop them off pretty much anywhere you like. The largest operators Mobike (orange) and Ofo (canary yellow) have English apps. Dockless bikes are built to last, meaning they're heavy, clunky and ungeared, but for travellers, they can be a cheap, convenient means of transport that is better than trying to deal with public transport 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.
- Bicycle theft is rampant throughout cities in China.
China is a vast country and it provides serious cyclists with challenges to bike across mountains and desert. If you plan to cycle through China, get a visa before your journey, as it can be hard to get one along the way. Avoid saying that the journey will be by bike, as embassy personnel may not like that, and Xinjiang and Tibet are politically sensitive. The visa is valid for any border crossing and transport method anyway (except Tibet).
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. 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. Importing foreign vehicles is 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 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 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 generally 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. You must have 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. Fake plates are easily available at a lower price, but are risky.
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 of overcharging 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.
Electrified three-wheeled sanluns developed or converted from the pedicabs seem to be in the majority in Shanghai.
China's attractions are endless and you will never run out of things to see. Especially near the coastal areas, when finished with 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 a 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, Zhangjiajie in Hunan, and much of central and western Guizhou province.
See also: Sacred sites of China
Linell Davis, who literally wrote the book on practical cultural differences between China and the West, has this to say about Chinese mountains:
"Westerners find Chinese mountains confusing as they do not provide an experience of wild untamed nature. They expect mountains to be natural rather than paved with steps from bottom to top. They don't expect to see very old people and very young children climbing mountains. I have also noticed that each local area in China has a 'mountain' even if it is quite small and even if people had to build it themselves. After a few experiences of finding there was nothing to see from the top or that the view was lost in clouds and mist (Emei and Huangshan, for instance), I started trying to figure out what people are really doing when they are climbing mountains. My conclusion is that in China people climb mountains because the experience of doing it is enjoyable. I think they also do it to experience the mountain by moving into it and up and down it. In climbing the mountain they realize their connection with nature rather than their power over it." –Linell Davis, Doing Culture
Mountains are an important part of Chinese geomancy, and there are many mountains which have religious significance in Chinese Buddhism and Taoism. These mountains often serve as a popular backdrop in Chinese period dramas, and have traditionally been associated with various Chinese martial arts sects. Today, these mountains continue to house many Taoist and Buddhist temples, and continue to serve as scenic backdrops that attract many domestic tourists.
Five Great Mountains
The Five Great Mountains (五岳) are associated with the five cardinal directions in Chinese geomancy, and are believed to have originated from the body of Pangu (盘古), the creator of the world in Chinese mythology.
- Mount Heng (恒山), the Northern Mountain (北岳) in Shanxi province. Literally the "eternal mountain".
- Mount Heng (衡山), the Southern Mountain (南岳) in Hunan province. Literally the "balancing mountain".
- Mount Tai (泰山), the Eastern Mountain (东岳), in Shandong province. Literally the "peaceful mountain".
- Mount Hua (华山), the Western Mountain (西岳) in Shaanxi province. Literally the "splendid mountain".
- Mount Song (嵩山), the Central Mountain (中岳) in Henan province. Also home to the famed Shaolin Monastery (少林寺), historically famous for its warrior monks. Literally the "lofty mountain".
Four Sacred Mountains of Buddhism
The Four Sacred Mountains of Buddhism (四大佛教名山) are traditionally associated with four different Bodhisattvas, who are revered in Chinese Buddhism. To this day, these mountains continue to be scenic spots with prominent Buddhist temples.
- Mount Wutai (五台山), traditionally associated with Bodhisattva Manjusri (文殊菩萨), in Shanxi province.
- Mount Emei (峨眉山), traditionally associated with Bodhisattva Samantabhadra (普贤菩萨), in Sichuan province.
- Mount Putuo (普陀山), traditionally associated with Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (观音菩萨), the most popular Bodhisattva in Chinese Buddhism, in Zhejiang province. It isn't a mountain, but rather an island off the Chinese coast.
- Mount Jiuhua (九华山), traditionally associated with Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha (地藏菩萨), in Anhui province.
Four Sacred Mountains of Taoism
Although there are many sacred mountains in Chinese folk religion, the Four Sacred Mountains of Taoism (四大道教名山), together with the Five Great Mountains are considered to be the holiest among them. These continue to be scenic spots that feature prominent Taoist temples.
- Mount Wudang (武当山), regarded by most Chinese to be the holiest of all sacred mountains for Taoists, in Hubei province. Traditionally regarded to be a major centre of Chinese martial arts, and the main rival to the Shaolin Monastery (albeit a friendly one).
- Mount Longhu (龙虎山) in Jiangxi province.
- Mount Qiyun (齐云山) in Anhui province.
- Mount Qingcheng (青城山) in Sichuan province.
While Japan's cherry blossoms may be better known, China's plum blossoms (梅花 méi huā) and peach blossoms (桃花 táo huā) are often considered to rival the cherry blossoms in sheer beauty. Plums tend to flower during the coldest part of winter, often during heavy snowfall, making them a symbol of resilience. Peaches, on the other hand, tend to flower in the spring. These trees can be viewed in many parks, particularly in the northern and eastern parts if China, but also at higher elevations in the south. Both flowers are highly revered in traditional Chinese culture, and are frequently featured in traditional Chinese arts and crafts.
The peony (牡丹花 mǔ dān huā) is also highly revered, and represents honour and wealth. Unlike the plum and peach blossoms, peonies grow on shrubs rather than trees. They typically flower in late spring to early summer.
- Main article: Chinese performing arts
As a large and diverse country, China is home to a wide array of performing arts, both traditional and modern. While some genres are popular nationwide, there are also some which are only popular in specific regions, and the various ethnic minorities also have their own unique traditions. Two genres that are popular nationwide, and are also regularly performed internationally are Beijing opera (京剧 jīngjù) and Yue opera (越剧 yuèjù).
Sites of the Chinese revolution can be seen in our Chinese Revolutionary Destinations article.
Significant Buddhist sites in China can be found in our Buddhism article.
Some itineraries cover trips that are entirely within China:
- Along the Yangtze river
- Along the Yellow river
- Along the Grand Canal
- Around Erhai Lake by electric scooter
- Hong Kong to Kunming overland
- Long March
- Overland to Tibet
- Qinghai–Tibet railway
- Yunnan tourist trail
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
High-quality, reasonably priced massages are available throughout China. 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 massaging of the neck and arms. With a haircut and/or a shave, prices range from ¥25-100 with prices higher in large cities and in higher-class or tourist-oriented establishments.
- The availability of foot massage (足疗 zúliáo) is often indicated by a picture of a bare footprint on the sign. Prices are from ¥15 to about ¥60.
- Full-body massage is offered at prices from ¥15 an hour up and in 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 with blind staff (盲人按摩 mángrén ànmó).
- The most expert massages are in massage hospitals, or general Chinese medicine hospitals, usually costing 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. Many hotels offer massage in your room, and additional services are almost always available once she is the room. Pink lighting or lots of girls in short skirts in smaller establishments probably indicates 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 massages and generally do not offer sex. If the establishment advertises massage by the blind, it is almost certainly legitimate.
For basic phrases to use when getting a massage, see Chinese phrasebook#Getting a massage.
When planning an extended stay in China, 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 modest, and the necessary materials 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.
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 at a basic level by simply visiting any city park in the early morning and following along. You will likely find many eager teachers. However, learning martial arts to a level that allows you to use them competently in an actual fight requires years of study and training under a master, which often has to start from childhood.
In English, Chinese martial arts are often called "kung fu" and we follow that usage below. However in Chinese, the general term for martial arts is wǔshù (武術), while gōngfu (功夫, "kung fu") is the term for the skill or power that practitioners acquire.
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 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.
In public parks, squares or plazas, or indeed anywhere in a city that isn't fenced off and is large enough (like a parking lot), you will increasingly find, in the early morning and late evening, groups of (mostly) older women doing what looks like low-impact aerobics to music with a dance beat coming from a nearby portable speaker. This activity is called guǎngchǎngwǔ (广场舞), roughly translated into English as "square dancing", because of where it takes place (not to be confused with the traditional American folk dance of the same name). It originated in the mid-1990s among women (known as dàmā (大妈), or "dancing grannies" in English) who had just been forced into retirement as a way to stay fit, socialize and recall their own youth during the Cultural Revolution (indeed, many of the songs used are propaganda from that era, or current Chinese pop hits). By 2015 noise and space issues had provoked violent confrontations in some cities and led the government to introduce, then hastily withdraw, standard dance routines. It's interesting to watch at the very least as a modern folk phenomenon, and indeed some groups don costumes and props for their routines.
Some tourists, particularly Russians visiting Manchurian cities, have joined in. However, this is often frowned upon, as many square dancers compete competitively and are only practicing publicly due to a lack of practice space otherwise. If you are tempted to do so, only join groups that appear to be casually-oriented (no apparent dance uniform or complicated routines) and go to the rear row where beginners follow the leader and learn the moves. You should avoid, or at least practice extreme caution when joining near several groups in a space barely enough for all of them — turf battles have been known to start and given the novelty of a foreigner participating in square dancing, you may be seen as a final provocation of member poaching.
Some parks also have groups doing ballroom dancing.
China has several traditional games often played in tea gardens, public parks, or even on the street. Players often attract crowds of on-lookers.
- Chinese chess (象棋 xiàngqí) is the world's most-played chess variant. It is similar to but distinct from Korean chess (Korean: 장기 janggi), but quite different from Japanese chess (Japanese: 将棋 shōgi) and international chess, though they all have enough in common that a good player of one will find another easier to learn.
- Go (围棋 wéiqí, lit. "the surrounding game") is a strategy board game. Players place their stones to surround the most territory on the board. While the rules are simple, the strategy and tactics are very complex. There are professional Go players, some of whom are major celebrities, tournaments with large prizes, and some TV shows about the game.
- Mahjong (麻将 májiàng) is popular and almost always played for money. Mahjong uses tiles with a variety of Chinese symbols and characters. Players draw and discard tiles trying to complete a hand with particular sets of tiles. Its vast regional variations mean that you will have to learn new rules everywhere you go, and scoring is drastically different from the Taiwanese and Japanese versions. That said, the Chinese government is trying to create a standardized form of mahjong that can be played at international tournaments.
Many Chinese are skilled at cards (扑克牌 pūkèpái); Deng Xiaoping was renowned for his love for bridge (桥牌 qiáopái).
Exchange rates for Chinese Yuan
As of January 2020:
Exchange rates fluctuate. Current rates for these and other currencies are available from XE.com
The official currency of the People's Republic of China is the Chinese yuan, known as the renminbi (人民币 rénmínbì, "People's Money"), denoted by the symbol ¥, international currency code CNY. All prices in China are given in yuan; the Chinese character is 元 (yuán), or in financial contexts (e.g. cheques and banknotes) 圆. 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, 块 (kuài) may be used instead, much as "buck" can be used in the U.S. or "quid" in the UK. Some Chinese software will display a bigger "full width" character (￥) to differentiate it from the Japanese yen, which uses the same symbol.
The Chinese yuan is not legal tender in the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau, which issue their own currencies. However many businesses will also accept Chinese currency, albeit at an unfavorable exchange rate.
There are 10 jiǎo (角) in a yuan. A coin worth ¥0.1 will thus say 壹角 ("1 jiǎo"), on it, and a price like ¥3.7 would thus be read as "3 kuài 7". The jiǎo is rapidly heading for extinction, although you will get the odd 1 or 5 jiao coin or note as change. In spoken Mandarin, the jiǎo is usually called the máo (毛). A tenth of a máo is a fēn (分); you may see this digit on prices, but it will be rounded off if you pay in cash.
In spoken language, the trailing unit may be dropped. For example wǔ bǎi sān, literally "five hundred three", means 530 or "five hundred three tens". The number 503 would be read as wǔ bǎi líng sān, literally "five hundred zero three". Similarly yì qiān bā, literally "one thousand eight", means 1800. When using larger numbers, Chinese has a word for ten thousand, wàn (万), and thus for example 50,000 becomes wǔ wàn, not wǔ shí qiān.
- Coins: ¥0.1 (1 jiao; dull silver or shiny silver), ¥0.5 (5 jiao; gold), ¥1 (silver)
- Bills: ¥0.1 (1 jiao), ¥0.5 (5 jiao), ¥1, ¥5, ¥10, ¥20, ¥50, ¥100
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 as a coin and as two different bills. You should be prepared to recognize and handle either version.
Due to the popularity of mobile payments, an increasing number of shops in urban areas do not accept cash or credit cards, and even those that accept cash will often not have any change available.
Foreign currencies, including the Hong Kong dollar or U.S. dollar, are rarely seen as a substitute for yuan except in several five-star hotels, and in some shops on the Hong Kong-Shenzhen border, and stock exchanges. Other currencies are unlikely to be used in most transactions. If you 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.
With the popularity of mobile payment apps, counterfeit banknotes are less of a problem than before, but you should still be alert for them. Banknotes of ¥20, ¥50, and ¥100 are the main risks. When you're given one of these bills as change, scrutinize it to check. 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.
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 same note back.
Some unscrupulous money exchangers on the Chinese border areas give counterfeits to travelers. Go to a bank if you're not experienced in checking notes.
It is common for cashiers to scrutinize banknotes and some of the more expensive supermarkets even have machines that can spot counterfeits. This is standard practice in China and offence should not be taken.
Counterfeits from ATMs are not common, but some people are still concerned. If you are worried, withdraw your money from the bank counter and say "I worry about jiǎbì (counterfeit)". Bank staff are understanding about this.
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 they offer unfavorable rates.
A black market for currency exchange does exist but you are strongly advised to avoid as counterfeiting is a major issue when exchanging money in China, such as that from the private money changers found in markets and hanging around large banks.
Foreign exchange is under tight control in China. Private money changers, common 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 a hotel, depending on their experience. Generally speaking bank branches in major cities know the procedure and are relatively quick while even main branches in provincial cities can take much longer.
Regardless of location, you must 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. 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 US dollars and Hong Kong dollars 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 yuan can be simple, but expect the bills to be heavily scrutinized before the exchange is processed. Opportunities to buy yuan 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. You may only import or export a maximum in local currency of ¥20,000 in cash, and sums greater than US$5,000 cash in foreign currency require paperwork.
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.
If you are planning to stay a long time in China, e.g. for work or study, you may want to open a Chinese bank account. See Working in China#Banking for more information.
Many ATMs will only accept Chinese bank cards. ATMs from three of the big four banks are likely to accept foreign (Visa, MasterCard, AmEx, Diners) cards: Bank of China (BOC), Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), and China Construction Bank (CCB). Although ATMs from other banks are plentiful, state they accept Visa/MasterCard/Cirrus and have an English option, they are not likely to work with an international credit/debit card unless the ATM operator is a foreign big-name bank (HSBC, Citibank, Bank of East Asia).
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.
If you have trouble because the ATM requires a 6-digit PIN and your PIN only has four digits, try adding two 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 for a 3% fee. Just ask.
UnionPay, the local ATM card network, has made agreements with various ATM card networks around the globe. If your card is covered, any ATM in China will accept withdrawals and balance inquiries from your card. While UnionPay ATM and/or debit cards are now issued by banks in a number of countries, ATM cards linked to NYCE and Pulse in America (also applies to cash advances from Discover cards), Interac in Canada, and LINK in the UK are covered.
If your bank is part of the Global ATM Alliance, China Construction Bank is the local partner for fee-free withdrawals.
Outside of star-rated or chain hotels, major supermarkets, and high-class restaurants, foreign credit cards like Visa and MasterCard are generally not accepted and most transactions will require cash or mobile payments. Many department stores and large grocery stores have point-of-sale terminals for Chinese bank cards, but most foreign cards are not supported.
Most Chinese banks and many merchants use the UnionPay system, so a foreign card that supports UnionPay will probably be widely accepted. Several countries now have banks that issue UnionPay credit cards, and UnionPay supports Discover and JCB (Japan Credit Bureau) cards as well. Visa, MasterCard and American Express meanwhile are less common. Most convenience stores take UnionPay, as do most restaurant chains, stores selling high-value items, grocery store chains, and most ATMs. In 2017, it was reported that the new Discover cards with chip would require multiple attempts or did not work at all in most of the POS machines. Do not rely on credit cards as your sole payment method.
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 convenient for travelling in the mainland.
As with debit cards, Chinese retail clerks will usually present the POS credit card terminal to the cardholder for entry of a PIN for chip-and-pin cards. Visitors from sign-only countries should attempt to explain that fact to the clerk (while chip-and-sign cards will cause most terminals to automatically skip the PIN prompt), and sign the receipt as usual.
QR-code based mobile payments such as WeChat Pay (微信支付 Wēixìn zhīfù) and Alipay (支付宝 Zhīfùbǎo) are extremely popular in China. The vast majority of places that take small payments, including restaurants, street-food places, and some public transportation in large cities, would accept either one or both of WeChat Pay and Alipay as a payment method. Look for a QR-code posted with the App logo of WeChat or Alipay to find those places that accept these payment types.
Unfortunately for the traveller, both maintain strict separation between their Chinese and global networks: you can't use a global account to make payments in China. Getting full access to the Chinese network as a foreigner requires a Chinese bank account, but you can use Alipay with a foreign credit card (with some limitations that shouldn't affect casual tourists). Various other workarounds may be possible—WeChat also accepts foreign credit cards to a limited extent—but requirements are always changing.
Other NFC-based mobile payments, including Apple Pay and Android Pay, are not accepted in the vast majority of the places. The NFC/Contactless POS terminals usually only takes Contactless UnionPay cards. Even though some stores in large cities are labeled to accept Apple Pay, Apple Pay with a Visa/MasterCard/AmEx/Discover/JCB would probably not work at all in those stores as in most cases they also require a UnionPay card. Android Pay is completely absent from China due to the ban of Google in mainland China.
China is affordable for Western visitors, though it's noticeably more expensive than much of the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. 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 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 luxury hotels, then even ¥3,000 a day would not be enough. As a general rule, basic items are relatively cheap, but the prices of luxury items are exorbitant, even by the standards of Japan and Western countries. Western-branded products in particular are extremely expensive, sometimes more than double what you would pay for the same items in the U.S.
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 smaller cities and rural, inland parts of the country. The boom towns of Shenzhen and Zhuhai are also more expensive than the national average. 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 in China. While tipping would rarely be regarded as insulting, in some cases a tip might be seen as suggesting that a relationship is based on money, not friendship. 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 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.
In a hotel, it is customary not to tip for room service, airport service, taxis or anything else, although hotels that routinely serve foreign tourists may allow tipping for tour guides and associated drivers. 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.
Taxi drivers do appreciate a few yuan rounded up if they have made an extra effort for your journey; however, it is by no means required.
- See also: Shopping in China
Antiquities Banned From Export
China's government has banned the export of antiques from before 1911, the date of the revolution that overthrew the Qing Dynasty. Violation of this law could lead to heavy fines and even imprisonment.
Shopping has become a national pastime as China's middle class expands. A variety of goods are available to suit any budget.
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.
Chinese make sales using the character: 折 (zhé) which represents how many tenths 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. 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.
- Porcelain: with a long history of porcelain manufacture, China still makes great porcelain today.
- Furniture: in the 1990s and 2000s China became a major source of antique furniture.
- Art and Fine Art: Traditional painting, modern art, and hand-painted reproductions of great works.
- 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!
- Carpets: China is home to a remarkable variety of carpet-making traditions, including Mongolian, Ningxia, Tibetan and modern types.
- Pearls & pearl jewellery: cultured Akoya and freshwater pearls are mass-produced and sold at markets across China.
- Other arts and crafts: Cloisonné (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.
- Clothing: China is one of the world's leading manufacturers of clothing, shoes and accessories. There are affordable tailors anywhere in China.
- Brand-name goods: genuine branded foreign goods won't be cheaper than in Western countries. There are a number of sources of potential knock-offs or fake brand-name goods.
- Software, music and movies: Most CDs (music or software) and DVDs in China are unauthorized copies.
- Endangered species: avoid purchasing — coral, ivory and parts from endangered animal species. Anyone buying such products risks substantial fines and/or jail time either when trying to leave China with them or when trying to import them into another country.
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 paying 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?"
Prices are almost always posted, but they are all substantially marked up, normally 2-3 times. It's often better to buy souvenirs somewhere just a few blocks away from the tourist spots.
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. 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 sounds foolish.
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.
Unless you have a supermarket within walking distance of your hotel (see next section below), the most convenient option for basic supplies and groceries will almost always be a convenience store. Major chains in China include Kedi, Alldays, FamilyMart and 7-Eleven. China has belatedly caught up with East Asia's love affair with convenience stores, to the point where the largest cities like Beijing and Shanghai have become oversaturated with them.
Many convenience stores sell individual tissue packets, which are a necessity for touring China as many public restrooms do not have toilet paper. Although supermarkets also sell tissue packets and toilet paper, they tend to sell it in 6 or 10-packs which are too much for tourists.
Some discount and mid-market department stores in China also have groceries sections.
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 Wò'ěrmǎ), 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 according to the size of the city. 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 (大润发 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.
Smoking is quite common and cigarettes (香烟 xiāngyān) are generally cheap. Cigarettes can be purchased from small neighbourhood stores, convenience stores, counters in supermarkets and in department stores. Rolling tobacco and papers are rare in urban China. Lighters (打火机 dǎhuǒjī) are usually cheap (about ¥1) but flimsily made. Zippos are available but expensive.
Smoking is something of a social activity in China. In a bar or at dinner few Chinese will light up without offering cigarettes around the table, or at least to the men since few Chinese women smoke; visitors should do the same. Having an expensive brand is a status symbol.
- Main article: Chinese cuisine
Food in China varies widely between regions, so the term "Chinese food" is a blanket term, about as descriptive as "Western food." Still, there are some broad characteristics. Gastronomy has a long history in China, and dishes subtly balance many flavors, aromas, and colors. Each region developed cuisine and techniques based on the ingredients at hand, so you'll find spicy meat-filled dishes in cooler inland regions, slowly simmered seafood stews in coastal regions, and quickly stir-fried fresh vegetables in busy southern ports like Guangzhou. Even many native Chinese find food from outside their home region to be "foreign".
In southern China, rice (米饭 mǐfàn) is a staple food served with many meals, so much so that its root word 饭 (fàn) means "meal" as well as "cooked grain". It may be served plain (eaten by itself as a side, or used as a bed to soak up sauce from the main dish), stir-fried with a variety of ingredients to make fried rice, a quick tasty street meal and a common way to use up leftovers at home, or made into congee, rice porridge that's a common breakfast. Noodles (面 miàn) are another important staple, made from either rice or wheat, and served in a variety of methods. Soybeans are used to make soy sauce, a quintessential seasoning in Chinese cooking. They're also used to make tofu (豆腐 dòufu), which comes in many forms besides tasteless white blocks: some can be as flavorful and crispy as meat, others quite pungent like a blue cheese.
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 is often safer than food sitting on the buffet lines of 5-star hotels. Still, use common sense: if it's a searing hot summer day and the kebab vendor has their raw meat sitting unrefrigerated on the counter, you might want to head elsewhere.
Yelp is virtually unknown in China, while the Michelin Guide only covers Shanghai and Guangzhou, and is not taken seriously by most Chinese people. Instead, most Chinese people rely on local website Dazhong Dianping (Chinese only).
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, good for breakfast or a snack. And Western-style fast food is arguably as popular as the domestic variety.
- See also: Chinese cuisine#Respect
China is the birthplace of chopsticks (筷子 kuàizi), which are used for most Chinese food. Chinese cuisine evolved to be eaten using chopsticks, with almost all food prepared in bite-sized chunks or easily picked apart. Eating with chopsticks is a surprisingly easy skill to pick up, although mastering them takes a while. Some chopstick guidelines to be aware of:
- Never place or leave chopsticks upright in a bowl of food (reminiscent of funeral rites), pass something from your chopsticks to another person's chopsticks (another funeral rite), or drum your bowl with chopsticks (reminiscent of beggars).
- Always use chopsticks as a pair, like a set of tongs; never use just one chopstick at a time (nor one in each hand), hold them in your fist like you would a knife or dagger, or try to "cut" food with them like you would with a knife. Spearing food with your chopsticks is generally rude and should be done only as a last resort.
- Using chopsticks to move plates or bowls is rude.
- Pointing at things with your chopsticks is rude. (Pointing at people in general is rude; with chopsticks, doubly so.) Even when setting chopsticks down on the table, angle them so they're not pointing at anyone.
- In general, try not to touch food with your fingers. Even fried chicken is picked up with chopsticks and gingerly nibbled, touching it as little as possible. Small bones should be spat onto your plate or bowl, rather than removed using your hands or chopsticks. For foods that are eaten with your hands, disposable plastic gloves may be provided.
It's normal to pick up any bowl of food for easier eating, and you can put a bowl of rice directly to your mouth to push the last few bites in using your chopsticks. Spoons are used for soups and porridge, and to help with eating noodles in a soup.
In traditional Chinese dining, dishes are shared family style, and at larger tables there is usually a lazy Susan to pass dishes around.
- Communal chopsticks (公筷 gōngkuài) are not always provided; if not, just use your own chopsticks to transfer food to your bowl. It's not rude to request communal chopsticks from the restaurant, but it may make you look like a stickler for formality.
- Each communal dish should only be served from by one person at a time. Don't reach across someone to reach a farther dish while they're serving; wait until they're done.
- Once you put something on your plate, don't put it back. Confucius says never leave someone else with what you don't want.
- See also: Chinese cuisine#Regional cuisines
Several varieties of Chinese food have enough international popularity that you may already recognize some of them:
- Cantonese cuisine (from Guangdong), is by far the most widely known type of Chinese food abroad. Neither bland nor spicy, Cantonese cuisine will use almost anything as an ingredient, often preserving the freshness by quickly stir-frying in a very hot wok or steaming. Fried rice, chow mein, char siu pork, and sweet and sour pork are just a handful of its most famous dishes.
- Huaiyang cuisine (from the eastern area towards Shanghai) is considered a good mix of northern and southern Chinese cooking styles. Dishes tend to focus on a main ingredient, which is often seafood in this coastal region; flavors are often sweet, and almost never spicy. Its most famous dishes include xiaolongbao soup dumplings, red braised pork belly, drunken chicken, and sweet and sour mandarin fish.
- Sichuan or Szechuan cuisine (from the western inland) is popular with many foreigners for its málà flavors, using Sichuan peppercorns for a tingling numbness (má) and chili peppers for spiciness (là). Using lots of meat, preserved foods, and chili oil, it's famous for the original form of Kung Pao chicken, mapo tofu, twice-cooked pork, and dandan noodles.
Other major traditional cuisines include fragrant and vinegary Shandong, tender Fujian, spicy Hunan, herbal Anhui, and delicate Zhejiang. Ethnic cuisines in China include Korean, Uyghur, Tibetan, Mongolian, and Yunnan, while Northeastern Chinese cuisine is influenced by both Mongolian and Russian cuisines and includes dishes like potato dumplings and a type of borscht.
- See also: Chinese cuisine#Dietary restrictions
People with dietary restrictions will have a hard time in China. Kosher and Hindu food is virtually unknown. Halal food is hard to find outside areas with a significant Muslim population, but look for Lanzhou noodle (兰州拉面, Lánzhōu lāmiàn) restaurants, which may have a sign advertising "halal" in Arabic (حلال). Vegetarian food is often available at restaurants near major Buddhist temples, but elsewhere you'll probably need to ask specifically and it may not always be available. Awareness of food allergies (食物过敏 shíwù guòmǐn) is limited, and gluten-free foods are virtually non-existent.
The Chinese love a tipple, but unless you are used to imbibing heavily, be careful when drinking with Chinese. The Chinese liquor báijiǔ is quite potent (up to 65% alcohol); it's often drunk in small shot glasses for a good reason. When U.S. President Richard Nixon — who was an experienced drinker, if a bit of a lightweight — first visited China, his staff sent dire warnings that he not drink in response to toasts. (He diplomatically managed to toast every table at the banquet, taking very small sips.)
There are hardly any liquor laws in China. The legal drinking age is 18, but it's basically not enforced, and you'll never need to show ID. Alcohol can be purchased anywhere and drunk anywhere.
Toasts are made by saying "gānbēi" (干杯, lit. "dry glass"). Drinks are served in small glasses (even beer is usually drunk from oversized shot glasses), and traditionally you should drain the whole glass for a toast. Visitors are generally expected and pressured to have a toast with each person present; fortunately, it's okay to stick to beer, and Chinese beer is usually low alcohol. You should also offer toasts and not just receive them; it may be considered rude if you don't offer a toast whenever you take a drink, at least at the start of a meal.
If you want to take it easy but still be sociable, say "'suíbiàn" (随便) or "pèngbeī" (碰杯) 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 a separate toast for each person.
- See also: Chinese cuisine#Alcoholic
The all-purpose word jiǔ (酒, "alcohol") covers quite a range of alcoholic drinks. Generally speaking, heavy drinking is more prevalent in northern China than in southern China.
Beer (啤酒 píjiǔ) is common in China and is served in nearly every restaurant and sold in many grocery stores. The most famous brand is Tsingtao (青島 Qīngdǎo) from Qingdao, which was at one point a German concession.
Locally made grape wine (葡萄酒 pútáojiǔ) is common and much of it is reasonably priced, but usually bears only the faintest resemblance to Western wines. The Chinese like their wines red and very sweet, and they're typically served over ice or mixed with Sprite.
There are also several brands and types of rice wine. Most of these resemble a watery rice pudding, they are usually sweet and contain a minute amount of alcohol for taste. Chinese brandy (白兰地 báilándì) is excellent value; all are drinkable.
Baijiu (白酒 Báijiǔ) is distilled liquor, generally 40% to 60% alcohol by volume, made from sorghum and sometimes other grains depending on the region. Maotai or Moutai (茅台 Máotái), made in Guizhou Province, is China's most famous brand of baijiu and China's national liquor. 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.
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.
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. 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 (烧烤 shāokǎo) 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, etc.) 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 kǎlā'ōukèi) 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 culture, 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. For more information, see Chinese cuisine#Tea.
The most common types served are:
- gunpowder tea (珠茶 zhū chá): a green tea named after the appearance of the bunched-up leaves used to brew it
- jasmine tea (茉莉花茶 mòlìhuā chá): green-tea scented with jasmine flowers
- oolong (烏龍 wūlóng): a half-fermented mountain tea.
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). 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.
Chinese teas are drunk without sugar or milk. 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; 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. There are many small independent coffee shops or local chains.
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.
Small grocery stores and restaurants sell cold drinks, 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. 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. 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).
In the past, only a few hotels were allowed to take foreign guests and the police monitored those, but restrictions now vary from city to city. 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. Any hotel will still require a photocopy of your passport, some will check if your visa has expired, and they are supposed to share information with the authorities. On rare occasions, someone from your hotel will escort you to the local police station to satisfy the establishment's reporting requirement.
Finding a hotel when arriving in a Chinese city is difficult if you don't know where to look and what you're looking for. In general, neither star ratings nor price are an accurate indication of the quality of the hotel, so research before booking. If you're willing to pay ¥180 or more for a room, you'll probably have little problem finding one. 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. There are usually cheap hotels near the train or bus station. 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. If you are absolutely at a loss for finding housing, the local police (警察) or Public Security Bureau (公安局) 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 become 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, and many hotels ask for a cash security deposit of a few hundred yuan 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.
For those staying in China on a more permanent basis, rental is possible with the obvious caveat that all contracts are in Chinese. Real estate prices are exorbitant in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, surpassing even those of many major Western cities.
Many ultra-cheap options 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.
- Hostels (青年旅社) are the most comfortable low-cost options. They typically cater to foreigners, have English-speaking employees, and 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. In most cities of any size there is at least one hostel available, and in travel hot spots there are plenty of hostels, 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 that you can book their rooms (and pay a portion of the cost) on-line in advance. In Beijing, many hostels are 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 found on university campuses, near rural tourist attractions and as part of some hotels. Most travellers have spotty luck with dorms. It is common 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 a hotel, but simply rooms for rent 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.
- Spas: spa costs vary but can be as low as ¥25. Admission to a spa is typically for 24 hours, but entering a spa late at night (after 01:00) and leaving before noon may get you a 50% discount. Spas provide beds or reclining couches and a small locker for bags and personal possessions (this is ideal if you are travelling light), but there is no privacy because usually everyone sleeps in one room (so 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 a locker). There are also showers, saunas, complimentary food, and paid services such as massages and body scrubbing. 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 almost exclusively to Chinese clients, are usually off-limits to foreigners but you may be able to convince them to accept you, especially if you can speak a smattering of Chinese. As a foreigner, you are obligated to register your stay with local authorities, and in urban areas, budget hotels are often unaware of how to register foreign guests in the local system (and thus unwilling to take foreign guests). Despite this, you can offer to work with hotel staff in properly registering your stay in the PSB system (as most public security bureaus use the same registration system) using one of many online guides, but it is important to do so in a way that won't make the hotel clerk lose face. In rural areas, you will likely stick out like a sore thumb (especially if you have multimedia equipment), and even if you are registered as a guest, public security bureau officials will often show up late at night to firstly question your intentions for staying in a rural area, and furthermore ask you to leave and move on to another hotel.
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 towns a night's stay might be as cheap as ¥25; in bigger cities rooms usually cost ¥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 to arrive late, 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 large, clean and comfortable, with rooms ranging from ¥150 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 mid-range 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).
- [dead link] Motel 168. (莫泰168)
- Green Tree Inns (格林豪泰酒店). (English)
- Super 8 Motels by Wyndham. (English)
The high end includes international hotel chains and resorts, such as Marriott, Hyatt, Hilton 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 for stays of 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.
- See also: Studying in China
Traditional Chinese culture places a strong emphasis on education, so there is no lack of options for those who wish to receive quality education in China.
China's universities offer many different types of courses, and some of them are regularly ranked among the top universities in the world. 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.
There are many opportunities to learn Chinese in China, including university courses and special programs. Scholarships may be available, from your home country or the Chinese government. In any city with a sizeable expat community, you can also find private classes, which you can take on the side while working in China. While not as popular as Mandarin, there are also some opportunities to study the local dialects.
- See also: Working in China
China has grown so much that it is on track to become the world's biggest economy. Although the labor market is difficult for foreigners to access, there are, however, significant opportunities for those who wish to experience China. It is illegal to work in China on a tourist or business visa, and while many foreigners used to get away with doing so, the Chinese government is cracking down on the practice; you will need to proactively make sure your employer goes through the appropriate procedures for you.
Employment opportunities include English-language teaching, engineering, international trade, scientific research and working for multi-nationals. For most jobs, Chinese immigration law requires foreigners to have at least a bachelor's degree before they can be granted a work visa, and your application will be rejected if you do not have one. See Working in China for details.
While China is generally safe for visitors, the government has some authoritarian aspects, and the topic of human rights in China is highly contested. Despite what's written in the Chinese constitution, in practice some freedoms are strongly curtailed, such as free speech, privacy, freedom of information and the press, freedom of religion, and the right to a fair trial. As long as you're not deliberately provocative, most of these are unlikely to affect you during your visit — especially since enforcement is somewhat arbitrary anyway — but if they do, punishments can be heavy. China is known to use extrajudicial detention, torture, and (rarely, mainly for murder and drug trafficking) the death penalty. Detentions and enforcement are sometimes stepped up in reaction to geopolitical events, meaning that, for example, Canadian and American businesspeople have faced extra scrunity in 2019. Chinese dual citizens and people of Chinese heritage who are citizens of other countries have been subject to "exit bans", kept in China, sometimes for years, to compel them to cooperate with government investigations or pressure their relatives to return to China.
As long as you behave and do not get involved in drugs or political activity, you shouldn't have any problems. Even bypassing the Internet firewall or accessing potentially subversive material is usually overlooked for the average visitor. However, it doesn't hurt to have a contingency plan in case you run afoul of the government.
Law enforcement agencies
Private security officers in China dress similarly to the police. Private security also often use lights and sirens on their vehicles.
Public Security Police
The major law enforcement agency you will encounter most is the public security organs people's police (公安机关人民警察) under the administration of the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), often abbreviated as the public security (公安, Gōng'ān), or civilian police (民警).
- Most officers wear navy-blue peaked caps and light-blue shirts. Officers should carry their police identification document, which must be shown when you request them to do so, especially when you are interacting with them. They are usually unarmed, apart from sensitive situations or during major incidents.
- Special police officers wear black combat uniform, and have a special police badge on their left chest. They are routinely armed with firearms and riot control equipments.
- Traffic police officers wear white peaked-caps, and in some cities, they may wear fluorescent shirts.
- The uniforms of auxiliary police officers differ from city to city; most adopt uniforms similar to those of normal public security police officers, except that they will show the word "auxiliary police" (辅警), or any words that bear similar meaning. Auxiliary police officers usually have limited law enforcement power, and do not have the power of criminal detention (i.e. arrest).
- Detectives, including domestic security (国内安全保卫, 国保) agents wear plain clothes and are known to use unmarked vehicles to track down suspects.
- Typical police vehicles bear the word "公安". Special police vehicles are painted with black, and bear the word "特警"..
All public security police officers have nationwide authority. Most of the officers are friendly and reliable, yet there will inevitably be corrupt ones too.
People's Armed Police
The People's Armed Police (PAP) is the gendarmerie force of China, which is tasked with assisting public security police, riot control, guarding key infrastructure, etc. Their soldiers wear green camouflage combat uniform or olive-green military uniform, with red insignia, while officers have almost the same uniform with that of People's Liberation Army (PLA) Ground Force. However, their cap badge differs from that of the PLA, which can be used to identify them.
Known officially as City Urban Administrative and Law Enforcement Bureau (城市管理行政执法局), and often known as Integrated Enforcement (综合执法) or Administrative Enforcement (行政执法), the chengguan (城管) is under the administration of local governments, and may dress differently. Chengguan officers are known to be poorly-trained, brutal, and sometimes corrupt. Do not provoke a chengguan officer or watch chengguan action, as there have been several prominent cases in which people involved in their enforcement or even spectators with cameras have been assaulted or beaten to death by chengguan officers.
Crime rates vary across the huge nation, but in general it is as safe as most Western countries. Many Western tourists will feel safer in China than in their home country, and it is generally not a problem for women to roam the streets alone at night. Violent crime is rare, though scams and petty crimes are common, so it pays to be prudent and secure your valuables properly. As with anywhere else, a little commonsense goes a long way.
Generally speaking, crime rates are higher in the larger cities than in the countryside. 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. Most major Chinese cities have CCTV cameras installed in the downtown areas.
While not as rampant as in Europe, pickpocketing is a significant issue in crowded places. Be particularly vigilant when on public transport during peak hours, as it provides the perfect cover for pickpockets to get away after striking.
Bicycle theft can be a problem. In big cities there are 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 cafés, 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 or charger may be targeted.
There have been reports that groups of robbers on long-distance buses 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.
Child kidnapping has been known to happen, particularly in rural areas. By and large, foreign children are not targeted, but it pays to be prudent and never leave your children unattended in a public space.
The main crimes foreigners get in trouble for are around drug use (including drug use outside China before you arrived—they sometimes do a hair test for cannabis) or working illegally, with the consequence usually being a short sentence, fine and deportation. If you are accused of a more serious crime, then your first 72 hours of investigation is critical. It is during that time that the police, prosecutors and your lawyers will investigate, negotiate and decide if you are guilty. This is why people suffer hard interrogations (or torture) immediately after arrest since the police know that eliciting a confession is the quickest way to secure a conviction. Chinese law prohibits your lawyer from being present during your interrogation. If your case goes to trial, then your conviction is merely a formality, and the judge's only role is to decide your sentence. Signing any document during your interrogation would be an extremely bad idea, especially if you do not understand what you are signing, and you should politely insist that you be allowed access to consular services and a translator. According to Chinese statistics, 99.9% of criminal trials in 2013 ended in a conviction (most of which lasted less than 2 hours).
- See also: Driving in China
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 can appear chaotic. Cars are allowed to turn right on a red light and do not stop for pedestrians, regardless of the walk signal. Cars drivers, cyclists and electric scooter drivers will all drive assuming they all have right of way/priority at once. Pedestrian crossings are a guide for the driver where pedestrians are more likely to cross.
That being said, in cities, given the weight of traffic, it is unlikely drivers will be travelling fast enough to cause significant damage. Do as the locals do; cross the road with confidence, be aware of your surroundings, know that cars/bikes/scooters will tend to continue rather than stop.
Well publicized cases of drivers deliberately driving over victims again after an accident (death will result in a fine and (maybe) a short sentence, whereas an injury will result in a potential lifelong financial responsibility for the victim by the driver) are unlikely to be tried on a foreigner.
It is advisable as a foreigner not to drive, since in an accident you will be poorly equipped to deal with the nature of Chinese compensation.
Although rare, terrorist attacks in China have occurred, and there have been high-profile attacks on people in Guangzhou station, Kunming station and Beijing. There is airport-style security at all major train stations, and in metro stations. You will have your bag x-rayed and take water bottles out of your bag to be scanned separately, but no need to empty your pockets.
Chinese people traditionally disapprove of begging, so 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.
In China, local people usually only give money to those who have obviously lost the ability to earn money. Professional beggars have clear deformities, and some syndicates have been known to deliberately maim children as it is seen as more effective in soliciting pity. If you feel like giving them some, bear in mind that the minimum monthly wage is ¥2400 (2018).
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. Buddhism in China generally follows the Mahayana school, whose 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), 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.
Pollution is a serious problem in the world's factory. Talking about air pollution has become a part of life for both locals and expatriates. Stricter environmental protection laws are slowly beginning to bear fruit, with the result that Beijing is no longer the most polluted city in the world, but there is still a long way to go. 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.
Being a large country, China is affected by a range of different natural disasters. Pacific typhoons hit the coast in the summer and autumn months, bringing physical destruction and torrential rain. Floods also occur, in particular around the large rivers. Northern parts of the country have winter storms. Much of the country is prone to earthquakes and tornadoes.
China has a variety of venomous snakes. Be careful when hiking and seek immediate treatment for any snakebite. The bright green bamboo viper is especially notorious.
Chinese people are in general hospitable to foreigners, and want to leave a good impression on tourists visiting their country. However, as with anywhere else, there are also scam artists who operate at tourist hot spots, so it pays to be prudent and remember that if something seems too good to be true, it usually is.
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.
Touristy parts of Beijing and Shanghai have become notorious for various scams. If you are keen to avoid being scammed, the following are good rules of thumb:
- It is less likely for scammers to operate outside of the usual tourist spots
- If you are approached in a touristy area by a person who appears too enthusiastic about going to a particular place (teahouse or otherwise), you are likely to pay a premium and maybe get a better time elsewhere
- If you are uncomfortable, walk away.
- Most ordinary Chinese people are unable to speak English, so be on your guard if someone approaches you spontaneously and starts speaking to you in English.
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.
Although by far not an everyday occurrence, accident scams exist as well, where you are driving a car or motorbike, and people would deliberately crash into you or suddenly run out in front of you and pretend to be injured, and subsequently demand compensation. Sometimes, even 'good samaritans' who help people genuinely in distress have been blamed and successfully sued for compensation by the people they were trying to help. These scams are not tried on foreigners too often, but be careful when using a vehicle and always record your journey with a dashboard or bicycle camera.
If you find yourself being or having been scammed then call 110 and report it immediately.
Acts related to illicit drugs are dealt with harshly in China. Although drug use alone and the mere possession of small quantities of drugs (for example, less than 200 grams of opium and less than 10 grams of heroin or methamphetamine) are not criminalized and are only subject to lengthy detention and/or a fine, smuggling, trafficking, transporting, and manufacturing illicit drugs are crimes punishable by death. A British national was executed in China for drug trafficking in 2009. In addition, the possession of large quantities of drugs (exceeding the aforementioned amount) is a crime punishable by up to more than 7 years of fixed-term imprisonment, and sheltering others to take drugs is a crime punishable by up to 3 years of fixed-term imprisonment. With few exceptions, concurrent fines are attached to each drug-related crime conviction. Chinese people usually relate drugs with national humiliation (due to an unlimited influx of opium after Opium War), doubts with the death penalty system or advocacy of drug liberalization will at best, make you being publicly criticized, and at worst, land you in jail.
For recorded drug addicts, you may be subjected to sudden raids by the police, in order to verify that you did not consume any illicit drugs.
Be particularly wary in the provinces of Yunnan and Guangxi, as these provinces border Southeast Asia, which is a major drug-producing region. Police now target bars and nightclubs that foreigners frequent with drug-testing kits, with detention and deportation the likely consequence of a positive drug test. In a hair test, you may test positive even for drugs that you consumed three months before arriving in China. If you are driving from Chinese-Burmese border (eg. Xishuangbanna), you may also encounter layered narcotics checkpoints, in which you and your vehicle will be thoroughly searched, in an attempt to intercept drug mules.
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.
- Materials considered by the authorities as Anti-Chinese will be confiscated. This has a fairly wide interpretation, but can include the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan lion-mountain flag and literature about the Falun Gong religious group, independence movements in Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong and Taiwan or the Tiananmen Square protests.
- A heavy penalty is imposed on all pornography and penalties are counted based on the number of pieces brought into the country.
Visitors to China rarely get into trouble for practicing their religion. As a communist country, China is officially atheist, and religion is banned for people working in the public sector. Although religion was targeted for extermination during the Cultural Revolution, in modern times, visitors and private citizens are generally free to practice a religion if they wish. However, proselytising is prohibited and taken very seriously by the government, and could potentially lead to arrest and imprisonment, especially if there is any fear that it could undermine the government's authority. The government also occasionally launches crackdowns on public religious observances, though tourists are generally not targeted.
Catholics in China are split between the state-sanctioned Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPA, CPCA, or CCPA, 中国天主教爱国会 Zhōngguó Tiānzhǔjiào Àiguó Huì), which is run separately from the Vatican, and an underground church which is illegal and it is not recommended for visitors to associate with for legal reasons.
Falun Gong is illegal and heavily censored in China. Visibly supporting it will make you subject to arrest.
Although unprovoked violent racist attacks are virtually unheard of, foreigners, particularly darker-skin ones, often suffer discrimination in employment and are the subject of stereotyping from Chinese people. Even white foreigners, who allegedly enjoy significantly better treatment than locals, have been occasionally confronted by Chinese people during politically sensitive periods. Xenophobia has intensified amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with many restaurants now refusing service to foreign customers. Discrimination is particularly severe against black people, some of whom have been evicted by their landlords and denied rooms in hotels.
If your skin tone doesn't match people's assumptions for someone from your country, and especially if you're ethnically Chinese, you may be treated like the country on your passport isn't where you're really from. Visas on arrival are sometimes denied on this basis.
Gay and lesbian travellers
China is generally a safe destination for gay and lesbian travellers. 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 are 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, and acceptance of homosexuality by Chinese people tends to be mixed. Same-sex marriages and unions are not recognised anywhere in the country. 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.
Staff in hotels and guesthouses may assume that mistake has been made if a same-sex couple has reserved a room with one large bed and try to move you to another room. However, they will generally back down if you insist that it is not a problem.
Outside major cities, public washrooms range from mildly unpleasant to utterly repulsive. In cities, it varies from place to place. High-quality bathrooms can be found inside major tourist attractions, at international hotels, office buildings, and upper-class department stores. Washrooms in foreign restaurant chains, 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 clean. Some public facilities are free, others cost from a few mao up to ¥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 or Starbucks will have a western toilet, but may not have toilet paper.
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 cafés 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. There may not be soap in the public washrooms either.
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 if you can find any, carry some disposable disinfectant tissues (found in almost any department or cosmetics store), or use alcohol gel.
Food and drink
Although there are few widely enforced health regulations in restaurants, each major city does have an 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.
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. 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. Tap water is safe to drink after boiling.
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.
Purified drinking water in bottles is available everywhere, and is generally quite cheap. ¥2 is normal for a small bottle. Check that the seal on the cap is not broken. Beer, wine and soft drinks are also cheap and safe.
Also note that much river water in China has been contaminated by chemicals that filters can not help much with, although this should only be dangerous if consumed over an extended period of time.
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 the most notorious (though government policies have improved the situation there since 2018), but Shanghai and smaller cities such as Harbin have experienced this frequently as well.
Long-term effects of smog particulate are unlikely to have a significant effect on your health if you are in China for a short stay (e.g. a number of weeks) and have no significant respiratory problems. If you are concerned, discuss this with a medical professional before your trip.
This website can provide detailed hourly pollution readings for most large cities.
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 generally not up to the standards of the West. Local doctors have been known to prescribe more expensive treatments than necessary; IV drips are routine prescriptions in China, even for minor ailments like the common cold, and doctors have a tendency to liberally prescribe antibiotics. Most locals go to the hospital even for the most minor ailments, and the concept of a private clinic effectively does not exist. 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 acetaminophen/paracetamol or dextromethorphan 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 (with interpretation services often available for other foreign languages), and are often hired from, or have obtained their medical qualifications in Western countries. These provide an easy and comfortable way to obtain familiar Western treatment from doctors qualified in the West, although you will be paying a steep premium for these services starting at ¥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 pharmacies. 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 ubiquitous 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. You can 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, and Japanese encephalitis which is transmitted in rural areas.
As of 2019 the official estimate is that nearly 1 million people in China are living with HIV/AIDS. One in four infected individuals do not know their status. 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. There have been cases of bird flu: avoid undercooked poultry or eggs.
Using people's names
Names can be a complicated matter in China. Except for certain ethnic minorities, names always follow the East Asian naming order of family name followed by given name; this is usually done in English as well. It's fairly easy to tell because family names are usually one syllable, while most given names are two syllables. Many Chinese acquire English names, which may have no relation to their Chinese name (and are sometimes quite unusual words or non-words). When using their English name, they will likely switch their name to Western name order (given name followed by family name).
It's usually okay to address adult friends and children by given names, although using their full name is also common. Otherwise, use family names with a title or full names. Occupational titles are even used outside the workplace, so a teacher would be called "Teacher Zhang" (张老师 Zhāng Lǎoshī) even outside the classroom. Generic titles of varying commonness include Xiānshēng (先生, "Mr." or "Sir"), Tàitai (太太, "Madam" or "Mrs."), and Nǚshì (女士, "Ms."). The informal prefixes Lǎo- (老, "Old" or "Elder") and Xiǎo- (小, "Young" or "Little") are also commonly used, but you should avoid calling someone these until you hear enough other people use it to feel sure that person accepts it. The title "comrade" (同志) is rarely used outside of official situations, as the term nowadays also means LGBT people. While the title Xiǎojiě (小姐) is commonly used in Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore as an equivalent for the English "Miss", it is a euphemism for "prostitute" in mainland China and hence should be avoided.
Names for familial relationships (e.g. big sister, uncle) are frequently used for acquaintances and even strangers based on their age relative to you. It will usually be clear from context, but generally when someone refers to another person as "Brother Zhang" or "Aunt Zhang", even in English, they probably don't mean a family member.
Foreigners are still a rare breed in most parts of China, which means that how you interact with people there may well shape their impression of your country or even of foreigners in general. Follow the law, be polite, and try to leave a good impression as it affects the general reputation of foreigners in China.
- Unlike Japan and South Korea where bowing is extremely common, in China the practice did not survive into the modern era, and is only used in certain formal occasions such as marriage ceremonies, funerals, religious rituals, and for students greeting teachers in school. Give a soft handshake when greeting someone, which can optionally be accompanied by a slight bow.
- Personal space more or less does not exist in China. Elevators and buses can get very crowded. It's common and acceptable for someone to come in close contact with you or to bump into you and say nothing. Don't get mad, as they'll be surprised and most likely won't even understand why you're offended.
- Important items such as business cards or important papers are given and received with both hands.
- Business cards in particular are treated very respectfully and formally. How you treat someone's business card is seen as representing how you will treat the person. When accepting a business card, use both hands to pick it up by the corners, give a slight bow of your head, and take the time to read the card and confirm how to pronounce the person's name. It's disrespectful to write on a card, fold it, or place it in your back pocket (where you'll sit on it!); a nice case to keep cards pristine is preferable to a pocket.
- Smoking is common almost anywhere. "No smoking" signs are routinely ignored, and it's common for someone to smoke in an elevator or even in the hospital. Some cities now forbid smoking in most restaurants, but enforcement varies. Beijing has one of the nation's strictest smoking laws: you are not allowed to smoke anywhere with a roof; again, enforcement is patchy. Western restaurants seem to be the only ones who consistently enforce the ban. Masks would be a good idea for long distance bus trips.
- When you smoke, it's always considered polite to offer a cigarette to those you meet. This rule applies almost exclusively to men, but under certain circumstances, such as a club, it's okay to offer cigarettes to women.
- In homes and some other buildings, slippers or sandals are worn indoors. If your hosts are wearing slippers at home, and especially if there is carpet on the floor, remove your shoes and ask for a pair of slippers before you enter, even if your host says you don't have to.
- Saving face is an important concept in Chinese culture, and this concept extends beyond the individual to one's family (including extended family), and even the country. Pointing out mistakes directly may cause embarrassment. If you have to, call the person to one side and tell them in private.
- Chinese people sometimes criticize their own country, but you are highly advised not to do it yourself, as the same things being said by a foreigner tend not to be received so well.
- Swastikas have been used in Buddhist temples since the 5th century to represent Dharma, universal harmony, and the balance of opposites. Like in India, it does not represent Nazism. Jews have been living in China for centuries, and have always had peaceful relations with their non-Jewish neighbours.
- Outside of a business context, casual clothes are acceptable at most places, including temples and expensive restaurants. Sleeveless or low-cut tops are uncommon and may stand out. At the beach or the pool, conservative swimsuits are much more common than bikinis.
When visiting someone's home, a small gift is always welcome. Wine, fruit, or some trinket from your native country are common.
Some items are not given as gifts because of cultural associations. Some things to watch out for: black and white are important colors in funerals, scissors or knives may insinuate you want to cut off your relationship with someone, and many people see mirrors as bad luck. Other taboos are based on homophones: the word "four" (四 sì) sounds like "death" (死 sǐ), "pear" and "umbrella" sound like "separation", and "giving a clock" sounds like "attending a funeral". These gift taboos and others vary by region and generation, so it's a good idea to consult a local for advice, or at least search the Internet for lists of taboo gifts before you purchase one.
Eating and drinking
Eating is very important in Chinese culture, and dining out is a widespread way to honor guests and deepen relationships. Seating at a formal dinner follows a specific order, with the host or most senior person at the center. Don't pick up your chopsticks until the most senior person at the table has done so. 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's not always welcome. Follow what other people do.
Hosts tend to order more food than you can eat because it's considered shameful if they can't stuff their guests. Although it varies regionally, finishing your plate generally means you're still hungry and may prompt your hosts to order more food, but leaving too much can imply you didn't like a dish; leaving an appropriate amount of food on your plate is a bit of a balancing act.
When offered a drink, you're expected to take it or your friends will keep pushing you. Excuses such as "I'm on medication" are better than "I don't feel like drinking". Toasts are common, and it's generally considered rude to turn down a toast (although you can take small sips with each toast). However, foreigners are given some slack on these customs.
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 take turns treating rather than split the bill.
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." 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".
For your safety, it's best if you avoid getting involved in any political activity, and avoid discussing politics with Chinese people.
- Most Chinese are ashamed that their country was forced into unequal treaties with Japan and the Western powers over the past two centuries, and are proud of the recent progress made by their government in restoring China's international influence. Many Chinese are also aware of alternative Western views, but you should tread lightly if you choose to discuss these.
- Supporting the independence movements of Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan or Hong Kong is illegal in China, so you should avoid discussing them.
- The political statuses of Hong Kong and Taiwan are a sensitive issue; don't say anything implying that these aren't part of China. When making comparisons between either of them and the mainland, be sure to use the term "mainland [China]" (［中国］大陆 [zhōngguó] dàlù) instead of just "China" (中国 zhōngguó). It is also a common practice in China to refer Taiwan as "Taiwan Province" (台湾省), and Hong Kong and Macau as "Hong Kong, China" (中国香港) and "Macau, China" (中国澳门).
- When presenting maps of China, make sure to include all areas which are deemed as Chinese territories by Chinese authorities, including disputed areas such as Taiwan, Arunachal Pradesh and the Nine-Dash line. Failure to do so can bring public shaming or fines.
- Avoid discussing any of the territorial disputes China is involved in, as many Chinese have strong feelings about these issues. If you are drawn into any such discussions by Chinese friends, it is best to stay neutral.
- Japan and its role in World War II and other wars with China is a sensitive and emotive issue that is best avoided.
- Many Chinese have a strong sense of ethnic nationalism. Tread particularly carefully if you are of Chinese ethnicity, even if you were born and raised overseas, as you may still be expected to align your political views with that of the Chinese government, and doing otherwise could result in you being labeled a "race traitor".
Differing cultural norms
Chinese people are sometimes puzzled when foreign visitors complain that Chinese people are rude. Many of them feel that really it's foreigners who tend to be rude. What's actually going on is that China has a different set of customs and values from common Western cultures—some Chinese behavior can be jarring to foreigners, and vice versa. People in China are friendly without being polite (unlike countries like the UK, where people can be polite without being friendly).
- Chinese often ignore rules they don't feel like following, including laws. Among many other things, this includes dangerous and negligent driving (see Driving in China) such as driving on the wrong side of the street, excessive speeding, not using headlights at night, not using turn signals, and jaywalking.
- Spitting is common everywhere, including in shops, supermarkets, restaurants, on buses and even in hospitals. Traditional Chinese medicine 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.
- Many Chinese do not cover their mouths when they sneeze. Picking one's nose in public is common and socially acceptable.
- As China is ethnically rather homogeneous, people who are visibly foreign will often elicit calls of "hello" or "wàiguórén" (外国人 "foreigner"); you may also hear lǎowài (老外), a colloquial equivalent. These calls are ubiquitous outside of the big cities (and are not uncommon even there); these calls will come from just about anyone, of any age, and are even more likely from children and can occur many times in any given day.
- Similarly, it's rather common that someone may come up and stare at you as if they're watching the TV. The staring usually originates out of sheer curiosity, almost never out of hostility.
- Many Chinese have loud conversations in public, and it may be one of the first things you notice upon arrival. China is rooted in a community-based culture, and noise means life; loud speech usually doesn't mean the speaker is angry or engaged in an argument (although obviously it can). You may want to bring earplugs for long bus or train rides.
- A fairly recent phenomenon particular to China is air rage: groups of passengers being verbally and physically aggressive towards airline staff whenever there is a delay (which is often). This is generally done in order to leverage better compensation from the airline.
- The concept of waiting in line has not fully been adopted in China. You'll have to learn to be more assertive to get what you want, and even push and shove as others do. If you're trying to catch a taxi, expect other people to move further down the road to catch one before you.
- Be careful 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 have staff to try to prevent this behavior.
- People love to use elevators whenever possible, especially in large family groups. Be extra patient if you want to go around a shopping mall with a baby buggy or luggage.
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 220 V (twice the 110 V 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 variety of plug shapes (including British) are often used.
Laundry services may be expensive or hard to find. 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 common 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, so perhaps opt for fast-drying fabrics such as polyester or silk. 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!'.
Public holidays in China are worth being aware of. Although you will never be truly alone in the most popular tourist sites, which includes the popular hikes in particular mountains, on weekends and public holidays these areas can be nearly impassible due to local tourism. What you may have planned as a quiet contemplative hike may turn into a many-hour queue! Know the national holiday dates and plan accordingly.
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 might be published.
Media in China diversified substantially after Mao, with independent outlets offering increasing competition to the state-run agencies of Xinhua (press agency publishing in many formats), CCTV (more than 40 TV channels), and the People's Daily newspaper.
Still, the press remains tightly controlled, with restrictions on what news is reported and what opinions may be aired. Certain topics are strictly off limits (such as criticizing China's claim of sovereignty over Taiwan), and the vagueness of boundaries for acceptable topics leads to further self-censorship. The biggest threat to state-controlled media has been the rise of text messaging and Internet news, although these are restricted by the government's firewall and internal censorship.
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 state-run English-language newspapers 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.
Internet cafés and business services
China has more Internet users than any other country in the world and Internet cafés (网吧 wǎngbā) are abundant. Most are designed 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 cafés 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).
For printing, scanning, photocopying, and other business esrvices, go to one of any number of small shops in most towns or print shops near university areas. 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.
Free wifi, which may require registration either with a Chinese mobile number, or your WeChat login, is abundant. The quality and speed of the wifi is not proportionate to the provider; i.e. your expensive hotel's free wifi may be nowhere near as fast nor more reliable than the wifi found on the bus you paid ¥2 to get on.
Many hotels and some cafés and restaurants provide wifi, typically free, of varying speeds and quality. Some cafés, especially in tourist areas such as Yangshuo, even provide a machine for customer use.
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 offer Internet and cost ¥150-200 per night. WiFi may also be provided in one's room, perhaps for an extra charge. On occasion, for a bit more, hotels will have rooms with older computers in them as well. The better hotels often have satellite TV in the rooms.
Since public computers and the Internet are not secure, assume that anything you type is not private. Do not send sensitive data such as banking passwords from an Internet café. 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, 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 extensive in mainland China. Pornographic and political sites are routinely blocked, as are many other sites with a broad range of content, including sites that are popular internationally. The government call their censorship system "Golden Shield" (金盾); others call it the Great Firewall of China or GFW.
Which Internet sites are available?
The actual list of websites and services banned is a secret, changes every day without notification, and oddly enough seems to depend on whether you're using a mobile or WiFi connection. Blocked sites generally include:
Corresponding fast and responsive Chinese websites exist (often only in Chinese), such as Baidu for search, maps, and other services, QQ and WeChat for messaging, Weibo for Twitter-style microblogging, Renren for Facebook-style social networking, and Bilibili and Tencent Video for YouTube-style video sharing.
Foreign news sites such as BBC, CNN, Reuters and The Economist may or may not be available. They're especially likely to be blocked after publishing stories the Chinese government disapproves of; for example, The New York Times has been blocked since 2012, when it reported on the financial holdings of top Chinese leaders.
Wikivoyage is not usually blocked, but English Wikipedia often is, and Chinese Wikipedia has been blocked since 2015.
Apart from actual website blocks, the firewall also scans for sensitive keywords in every unencrypted message or encrypted Chinese message (QQ, WeChat, etc.) in either direction and may block anything it disapproves of.
Censorship is often tightened during 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.
Few hotels offer uncensored Internet access. These hotels generally cater to foreigners, but obviously do not advertise this facility. Try browsing to known restricted sites to see if your hotel supports this.
The most popular way to access blocked websites is to use a VPN (Virtual Private Network) which provides users with relatively stable and reliable access to the Internet through a computer in another country. The best ones have a monthly fee on the order of US$10; free, ad-supported VPNs are also available. Other ways to bypass censorship include software such as Freegate, Tor (with an inconvenient special configuration), and Psiphon. Any of these should be downloaded before entering China as access to their official websites is generally blocked. Be warned that VPNs in China are not as reliable as they used to be—you may want to download more than one so that you have a backup, and be prepared for a lot of frustration and waiting for things to load. If you need constant access to Twitter or Facebook to be happy, then China is probably not the destination for you.
Chinese law enforcement is sometimes able to pinpoint (and arrest, if needed) users who access restricted sites using VPNs. Moreover, it's a criminal offence to upload and submit any materials seen as subversive. However, enforcement is sporadic and typically only targets journalists and public figures.
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 helpful to provide the receiver's phone number with packages or expedited mail. The customs and delivery drivers 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, it is also easier to send by sea as they care less.
- Your ID is now required when sending parcels. When sending parcels domestically, write the receiver's name correctly; it will be compared with their ID, as all parcels are now tracked end to end.
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 you end up with an IC Telephone Card instead, those are only intended to be used in payphones. They may be sold at a slight discount off of face value, but rarely below 20% off when purchased off the street. At a China Telecom payphone, domestic calls will cost ¥0.1/minute, calls to Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, the US, and Canada will cost ¥1/minute, and calls to all other countries will cost an uneconomical ¥8/minute.
If your line allows for international direct dialling (IDD), the prefix for international calls in China is 00. To make an overseas call, dial 00-(country code)-(number). Calls from the mainland to Hong Kong and Macau require international dialling. IDDs can be expensive. Ask the rate before calling.
Mobile (cellular) phones are widespread and offer good service in China. They play an essential role in daily life for most Chinese and for nearly all expatriates in China.
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 usually close to local rates with a special "Hong Kong/China" SIM sold by China Mobile or China Unicom in Hong Kong) 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. If you can obtain access to affordable roaming, an added advantage is that data will route around the Great Firewall, meaning that you will not experience censorship as you would with a local SIM. Most carriers now have UMTS roaming agreements with China Unicom, but 4G roaming is less developed, so you may wish to buy a local or Hong Kong SIM for 4G data access.
Chinese CDMA networks require R-UIM (SIM card equivalent), so only new American CDMA phones with SIM card slots will work, like iPhone 5 and newer. If you do not need CDMA voice, then a China Telecom 4G data SIM will work in any device with band 1 or band 3 LTE. There are still 3G-only data SIMs floating around, and they only work on EVDO-capable devices.
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 ☏ in the U.S. or ☏ 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 ¥200 used or ¥400 new for a smartphone. Chinese phones, unlike those sold in some Western countries, are never "locked" and will work with any SIM card you put in them, but do not come with support for Google services or the Play Store (unless you bought a gray-market device intended for another market, used or new).
Most shops selling SIM cards require a standard swipeable Chinese ID card (a citizen's ID card, or a foreigner's permanent-resident card) to purchase a SIM card. If you want to purchase a SIM card using a passport as your identity document, you may be asked to go to the cell-phone company's main office, probably somewhere in the city center. The staff will take your photograph for their record, along with the photocopy of your passport.
China's two big operators are China Mobile (Chinese only) and China Unicom. Most SIMs sold by them work nationwide, with Unicom allowing Hong Kong/Macau/Taiwan usage as well. Domestic roaming for text and voice does not cost extra. However, data packages can still be sold as local or national, so be aware of exactly where your data plan is valid when setting up.
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, so 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 corporate store. The employees will wear a blue uniform and there will be counter services. China Mobile is the cheaper of the two with calls to North America and 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 WeChat Pay, this is a more convenient way to recharge your account.)
For mobile data addicts, China Unicom offers a dizzying array of 4G plans, starting at ¥56/month for 100 nationwide minutes and 500MB data, and additional minutes cost ¥0.15, texts ¥0.10, and data ¥0.27/MB. A "build your own" plan is also possible; prices start from as low as ¥10 for only 100MB data and nothing else, but caller ID costs ¥6 on this plan option. Incoming transmissions (video/voice call, text) from anywhere are completely free. China Mobile has 4G plans starting at ¥18 for 100MB data. Their equivalent tier to China Unicom's base tier is ¥58 for 100 minutes and 500MB data. However, China Mobile uses a different set of frequency bands for its data services; if your phone does not support TD-LTE on bands 38, 39, 40, and 41 then China Unicom or China Telecom is recommended instead.
In general, apps that are widespread internationally are banned in China, and Chinese people typically use Chinese apps that are sometimes close copies of their foreign equivalents instead. The most important is WeChat (微信 Wēixìn), which Chinese people use instead of the internationally popular WhatsApp. WeChat is a combination messaging app, social network, and mobile payment service, and downloading it is essential if you want to start making friends in China or stay in the country for an extended period. The interface can be set to English, Chinese, and various other languages.
The country dialing code for mainland China is 86. The dialing code is 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). Additional prefixes have been introduced; a good rule of thumb is that an 11-digit domestic phone number that starts with 1 is a mobile number. Mobile phone numbers are geographic; if you attempt to dial a mobile number issued outside of the province you are in from a landline, you will be prompted to redial the number with a zero in front for long-distance.
- There are two additional non-geographic prefixes. A number starting with 400 can be dialed from any phone and is treated as a local call with associated airtime charges, while a number starting with 800 is totally free but can not be dialed from mobile phones.
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
112 and 911 do not connect you to emergency service personnel.
It is also possible to contact the police by sending SMS message to 12110XXX, where XXX is the area code of the prefectural-level city you are located. (see this list for more information.)