The Queen caused an international stir when she was caught on camera describing a Chinese delegation as “rude”. But was she merely echoing a common perception?
The good news is that Chinese food remains as popular as ever, with surveys consistently showing the cuisine among the world’s favourites.
Meanwhile, China now sends more tourists abroad than any other country – their cash making a major contribution to the coffers of those host nations able to pull them in with the offer of beaches, beauty spots and heritage sites.
Yet the increasing encounters between Chinese people and the rest of the world also provide more possibilities for cultural misunderstanding and for the perception of rudeness.
“Their habit of spitting was the main problem,” says Eddie Chan, who runs a Chinese health centre in central London. A long-time resident of the UK, he watched the first wave of Chinese tourists arrive and the reaction they provoked.
“Chinese people are also not accustomed to queuing. Their behaviour getting on a bus can certainly seem rude to foreigners.”
Jack Cheng believes it is also a matter of attitudes to bodily distance. He settled in the UK 10 years ago, having been raised in the south-eastern Chinese province of Guangdong, and he thinks his country’s customs present a particular problem for the British.
“To show you’re being friendly with someone, you have to get really close in a physical way. But the British don’t want to share their personal space with someone else. They find it rude.”
No-one knows if the Queen felt her Chinese guests were getting too physically close, prompting her judgement that they were rude.
But she might perhaps appreciate Switzerland’s approach to this perceived problem.
After repeated complaints of rude behaviour by Chinese tourists, one Swiss rail company created special carriages for visitors from Asia – acknowledging that they were really just aimed at the Chinese.
A little more understanding is called for by Jieyu Liu, a sociologist at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. She argues that anyone’s behaviour is determined by the time and place of their upbringing and that rules of etiquette are never universal.
“A lot of Chinese people work in factories, with machines in the background,” she says by way of example. “That’s why Chinese people speak loudly and can appear rude when they talk loudly in public.”
The perception of rudeness also cuts both ways, according to Eddie Chan. Chinese people, he says, often have an image of foreigners from films and the British in particular are imagined as being terribly polite, doffing their hats at passers-by and drinking tea with exquisite care.
It comes as a shock when Chinese visitors arrive in the UK to find many conversations peppered with foul language and drivers with road rage shouting at anyone who pauses too long at a traffic light.
There are also important differences in conversational habit. Chinese speakers tend to be indirect and subtle in their responses and can feel insulted when a suggestion is met with the simple answer “No”.
Of course, the increased travel between China and other countries might offer the hope that people will grow accustomed to each other’s differences and change their behaviour accordingly so that the perception of rudeness diminishes. Yet seasoned observers of Sino-Western relations have their doubts.
“We don’t understand where they’re coming from,” says Rod Wye, a former Foreign Office official who spent 10 years at Britain’s embassy in Beijing. Chinese history and more importantly, the way Chinese people perceive their history are just not appreciated sufficiently, he believes.
“We will all get more sophisticated as there is more personal interaction. But there will always be misunderstandings and these will be construed as rudeness.”