Common myths and misconceptions about China

7 Common Myths & Misconceptions About China Debunked

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I’m pretty well-travelled, but the only things I’d heard about China before I visited for the first time were half-baked horror stories from ex-pat colleagues.

Almost all of these myths and misconceptions about China came from storytellers who had “done” China (aka they were posted there for a couple of years) before scuttling back to their cosy London suburbs or the United States, delighted to have ticked “international role” off on their c.v.).

Today, I know that most of those stories were false beliefs, with plenty of the facts embroidered and distorted in the storytelling! Naturally, some of the myths and assumptions about Chinese culture were from people who hadn’t even been to the country!

Many Misconceptions About China Are Just Myths

So, when I told a bunch of different people where I was going for a trip, I found that I wasn’t the only one who had amassed a stock of common myths and misconceptions about China that were somewhat dubious.

China has many challenges, and Chinese society is very different to the West.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders exert a level of control over their citizens that is (at best) uncomfortable for Westerners. Human rights continue to be an issue in China today, especially in rural areas, Chinese factories, and Hong Kong.

The Chinese government also uses technology to limit all information flowing into the country. The “Great Firewall of China” prevents all internet users in China from accessing information from the rest of the world, including non-Chinese social media and Western media.

The summer Palace, Beijing on a lush green hill
The beautiful summer Palace near Beijing

Still, China is a rewarding country to visit, with so much to offer every kind of traveller, from adventure seekers to foodies and culture vultures.

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Everything from the people to the years of history, the natural beauty, the fabulous food and the Chinese culture blew me away.

By the time my first trip was over, I was already hatching plans for the next trip, as there were still so many amazing things on my China bucket list. After all, you can’t “do” one of the biggest countries in the world in just one trip. Or two. Or three.

If you still have doubts, here are seven of the most common misconceptions about China, plus why they’re about as true as one of Pinocchio’s tales.

7 Myths and Misconceptions About China

Myth 1: China is a Dangerous Communist Country

Like millions worldwide, I watched the 1989 student uprising in Tiananmen Square, Beijing (known in China as the ‘June the Fourth incident’). With absolute clarity, I remember the brave student standing in front of tanks sent to crush the protests.

I also remember the horrifying bloodshed as troops opened fire on the assembled crowds, killing and injuring thousands of Chinese students and other young people.

For years after this, China was more closed than ever, making it difficult for foreigners to visit the country for a long time. Times have changed dramatically, though, and modern China is changing – it’s still an assault on all the senses, but in a good way.

While you will see police and government officials everywhere in the Republic of China, you’ll feel safe walking around, even at night and in street markets. You need to have your wits about you, exactly as you would anywhere else in the world.

Myth 2: If You Don’t Speak Chinese, It’s Impossible to Get Around

Not knowing the Chinese language was one of my biggest reservations before taking my trip. I’m used to travelling to countries where I have at least a few words to get by – and I can read the alphabet!

We’d chosen the luxury of a private tour guide; however, we also explored independently and never had any problems.

It did help, though, that I’d bought a Chinese phrasebook and learned a few essential Chinese words to help me get by, but I’m afraid I didn’t get as far as being able to recognise Chinese characters! (Note to self – brush up on those language skills and don’t focus so much on European languages)

The good news is that even without speaking Chinese, the urban areas of China are straightforward to get around. Station announcements for bullet trains are in Chinese and English, and the subway in Shanghai (and every major city) is very straightforward to use (and so clean!)

Pro Tip: Take something with the name and address of your accommodation on it so you can show a taxi driver the address if you’re lost. This worked perfectly for us after a long ramble through the winding streets of the night market in Xi’an!

If all else fails, use a translation app

Myth 3: Air pollution is dreadful

Many Chinese people wear masks in hotels, restaurants, and shopping malls. We bought masks as soon as we arrived (ask your guide/driver to stop at a pharmacy, as they are so much cheaper to buy in China than at home!!).

Despite being a pair of wheezy asthmatics, we didn’t need to use the masks.

Edit: In this post-pandemic world, I’d be more cautious.

Myth 4: China is Disgustingly Dirty

This is so far from the truth in the big cities that it’s laughable. I can’t stress enough how clean every single place we visited was. There were hordes of janitors, road sweepers, and park-keepers everywhere we turned.

The streets were spotless everywhere – from the wondrous historical sites to the bustling street markets. We didn’t see any specks of litter anywhere. In most places, even the public toilets, including the squat toilets, were spotless.

It was a different story, though, as soon as we ventured off the beaten tourist track: that was where we encountered some squalor.

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Pro Tip: If you’re a smoker, don’t drop cigarette butts in China, as it’s a serious offence! Pack a portable ashtray to stay legal!

Big Wild Goose Pagoda Park Xian 3 min
Look at that sparkling clean floor at the Big Wild Goose Pagoda Park!

Myth 5: You’ll End Up Eating Dog Meat and Get a Gastro Upset

A few cautious friends were incredibly keen to re-hash their 3rd hand horror stories about eating bugs, intestines, and dogs, (over)sharing graphic details about ‘Delhi Belly’ episodes 🤮

Why do people do that?

Trying out food from different cultures is one of my favourite aspects of travelling, and I’m a pretty experimental foodie. I was thrilled to eat ‘real’ Chinese cuisine, not something in a tray from the local takeaway – and not bland hotel food.

Chinese Food is Awesome!

China is vast, boasting many different cooking styles and regional specialities, so I was in serious foodie heaven. We ate like royalty throughout our stay.

From our 50th birthday celebration, blow-the-budget champagne brunch to awesome crab dumplings in Shanghai, beer fish in Yangshuo, and our favourite seafood kebabs from a stall in the Muslim market in Xi’an, we loved all the food that China had to offer.

Crab dumplings in Shanghai min
Delicious crab dumplings in Shanghai. Yummy!

Try out the street food – you won’t be disappointed

Do your taste buds a favour and step outside your hotel restaurant to go and experience the delicious variety of real local food. You won’t be disappointed, and you’ll save £££s!

We had to try the local speciality in Yangshuo – Beer Fish. It didn’t disappoint….

Pro Tip: Lots of eateries have pictorial menus. You can order food even if the staff don’t speak English! You might get mystery dinner, but it’s (almost) always delicious. If in doubt, you can always stick to vegetable dishes 🙂

Delicious Guo Koi In Shanghai
We had no idea what Guo Kui was before we tried it, but it was totally delicious and ridiculously cheap

Myth 6: China is Overcrowded. You’ll Feel Claustrophobic Everywhere

China is huge, and Shanghai and Beijing are ‘megacities’ with populations in the tens of millions. Prepare yourself for crowding and queuing as part of your trip, just as you would for Disney or attractions in London or Rome during peak holiday periods.

As you’d expect, some times of the year are much busier than others. As a rule, avoid weekends, school holidays, and Chinese National Holidays.

Forbidden City not overcrowded min
There were crowds at the Forbidden City, but the vastness of it meant it didn’t feel overcrowded

Most sites are massive, and if you’re patient, you can get awesome photos just by waiting a few moments for gaps in the crowds.

Visiitng the Great Mosque in Xian min
I only needed 2 minutes for the crowds to clear so I could capture this shot in Xi’an!

Myth 7: The ‘Inscrutable’ Chinese Are Not Very Friendly

This was the complete opposite of true! In every place we visited, lovely people greeted us with the widest smiles. Even where there was a language barrier, people practically tripped over themselves trying to help us.

Without exception, we met the most delightful, kind Chinese citizens. We swapped stories, laughed, used sign language, and had great conversations with everyone. Local families even invited us to join them for dinner.

We found it hilarious that so many Chinese people wanted to take their photos with us, but we said ‘yes’ to everyone who asked us. Posing for selfies with locals felt like being Z-list celebrities, but we got into it and had such a laugh.

Chinese people are anything but unfriendly. Another of those misconceptions about China proved to be completely untrue!

Wrap Up: Common Myths & Misconceptions About China

Can you see why I love China so much? It’s sad to hear people spouting wrong facts about China. We only had positive experiences during our trip and left loving the country and the people.

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