This is intended only as a primer on the very basics of etiquette in China, and it's decidedly slanted to a Western Male's point of view. With a little luck, when you arrive in China this will help you avoid severely embarrassing yourself, but trust me - you'll make many faux pas, and most of the time you'll be completely unaware that you've done so because it is not like the Chinese to point out to you any errors you've made. To do so would cause you to lose face, and the Chinese are very concerned neither to lose face themselves, nor to cause loss of face to others. Chinese Women will be particularly forgiving of your rude Western ways.
Before moving on to specific areas of etiquette, here are some generalizations:
1. There are many different "cultures" in China (55 or 56 depending on what book you read) and many variations on specific areas of etiquette, but if your behaviour on any matter is acceptable to most of the Chinese cultures the others will forgive you if it varies from theirs. The other side of that coin is that you shouldn't expect a Chinese woman who is a farm girl from Hunan to practice the same etiquette as a debutante from Shanghai.
2. Chinese Ladies know you're from a different culture and don't expect you to behave exactly as a Chinese man would. In fact they're frequently fascinated by the differences between you and themselves and want to know more. In order to actually offend most Chinese girls you'll have to commit an error in etiquette that is either grossly ignorant or obviously intentional.
3. Chinese women and Chinese people in general greatly appreciate it when you're obviously attempting to understand and follow their cultural norms, and especially when you clearly respect and even enjoy their way of doing things. Just a little evidence that you are "trying" will go a long, long way.
4. Chinese culture dates back 5,000 years or more, and the Chinese are justifiably proud of that, so don't get involved in little contests over whose cultural practices are "correct". You are a guest in their country so their moors of etiquette are correct by default. If you want to appreciate and enjoy your Chinese Lady's companionship, always try to view her through her cultural norms, not your own. On the other hand, there is nothing wrong at all in pointing out that "in America (or Britain, Australia, etc.) we don't do it that way" if you're clearly doing so to explain or excuse your error, not as criticism of their standards. In fact this will generally be a great conversation starter.
5. China is rapidly changing these days, and something that was universally acceptable just 5 years ago may now be generally frowned upon; for example spitting in public used to be the norm, but is now being discouraged everywhere due to the accompanying health threats that have been recently recognized. However, just as in any other country the new etiquette code on this matter is being picked up far faster in the larger, more economically advanced cities than in rural China.
6. Whatever is stated below will prove to be entirely wrong somewhere in China with some Chinese people.
Now, on to some specifics (in no particular order):
Chinese men, especially in the larger cities and when they can afford it, tend to dress more formally than we do. When you walk down a city street in China almost every male will be wearing at least dress pants and a good shirt with both collar and cuffs. Blue jeans, baggy shorts and wrinkled cotton shirts are almost exclusively the domain of the Western males. You will be forgiven but not often emulated.
Chinese women also dress to a higher standard, and usually take great care of their appearance. Of course there is a poor class that simply can't afford good clothes, but any Chinese woman with any resources at all will be wearing fashionable clothing and looking her best.
Get used to being stared at in China. You are different and unusual. There are 1.3 billion Chinese living in China, and only about 100,000 foreigners (according to the People's Daily newspaper in 2005), and likely well over 50% of those foreigners are of Asian descent. So for each obviously foreign person living in China there are 26,000 Chinese (1,300,000,000 Chinese / 50,000 non-Asian foreigners). You are very different.
Seen another way, in many of the rural areas of China they've never seen a white person, and even in the major cities, on any given busy city street, there will be more people visiting from those rural areas than there are white people. So, during much of the time during your stay in China, you'll be within sight of someone who has never seen a white person before. If you're of African heritage, you may have to hide in your own bathroom to avoid being in the presence of someone who has never seen anyone like you before. Like I said, get used to being stared at.
More importantly, especially for those same rural Chinese, staring is not considered rude. Once you realize that they are not being aggressive, just curious, you will get more comfortable with endlessly being looked at. For confirmation that they're not being aggressive, try staring back directly at their eyes. You'll soon notice that it takes them a long time to realize you're looking at them because they are not looking at your eyes, which they would be doing if their intentions were aggressive. Once they see you looking at them they'll quickly look away (wondering why some foreigner is so aggressively staring at them).
One caveat on the above point about a Chinese person staring at you not being aggressive is when you are in the obviously romantic presence of a Chinese lady, in which case the stares from surrounding Chinese men may well be angry and aggressive. According to the National Bureau of Statistics of China the male population is 51.53% of the whole and the female is 48.47%. Add to that the fact that the rich Chinese guys may have as many as 10 girlfriends and you have a fairly serious shortage of ladies to go around in China. No surprise then that some Chinese men aren't so happy to see you taking one more attractive prospect out of the running.
Forget it. There is no way for a Westerner to understand the Chinese reaction to a queue, which seems to be that it represents an opportunity to get ahead of other people by leaping to the head of the queue (sometimes without even knowing or caring what they will find when they get there).
After inevitably standing in line in one or more of a thousand places (my own favourite is the lineup to get your vegetables weighed and priced at the food market where even the tiniest Chinese female will be particularly adept at bypassing everyone in front of her as if they don't exist) and watching every Chinese person who comes along jump in front of you, you'll eventually become a practised queue jumper yourself. And, since you're likely bigger than almost all of your Chinese opponents in this contest, you'll have a decided advantage. Of course, you'll also be seen as an ugly and aggressive foreigner, but this is the one instance when you are to be forgiven for that (at least by this Writer, if not by the Chinese).
Public Displays of Affection (Male with Female)
Traditionally the Chinese have been very loathe to accept men and women demonstrating love or affection in public through kissing, hugging or holding hands. Lately, especially among younger people, you will occasionally see the holding of hands or light and very brief kisses. Anything beyond that will still lead to the conclusion by the viewing public that the woman is a prostitute and the man is a drunken lowlife (especially if the man is a foreigner).
Public Displays of Affection (Male with Male)
Unfortunately, from a Western male's point of view at least, public display of affection between two men is entirely acceptable in China. In nightclubs it's common for 2 or more men to dance together, on the street they often will walk arm in arm or hand in hand, and on the subway I've watched one man rubbing his buddy's knee for the duration of a 30 minute ride, and none of that is an indication in anyway of anything beyond mere friendship. For us homophobic North Americans (and I'm guessing Brits, Aussies and KiWis as well) it's an uncomfortable experience, but for the Chinese it is perfectly normal and acceptable.
Public Displays of Affection (Female with Female)
The good news, from a Western male's point of view at least, is that public displays of affection between women is not merely acceptable but is commonplace in China. Chinese women are constantly walking arm in arm, holding hands, walking while tightly hugging, dancing together as if they are Latin lovers, falling asleep in each other's arms, and even kissing each other. Give them a couple of drinks and suddenly they might even feel a need to touch each other's breasts (purely out of curiosity, not lust). While the Chinese girls engaging in this activity are being completely innocent (or are they?), to the Western male it's an ongoing trigger of one of our most enduring fantasies.
In formal or semi-formal settings, such as business meetings, Chinese when meeting you for the first time will likely greet you with a slight bow or nod, but handshakes are becoming more acceptable and common, and in most cases, after returning the nod a follow up handshake is likely also in order. However, traditionally, touching someone you are not familiar with is not acceptable, so you may want to avoid pushing the handshake with an elderly or less urban or cosmopolitan Chinese person. Don't touch anyone's head!!!!
Generally, unless there is an obvious power structure in a particular group it is appropriate to greet the elder person first, working your way down the age ladder.
Coming soon: "Dining Etiquette in China" and "Driving Etiquette (or Lack Thereof) in China".