School of Commercial and Economic Laws in Gothenburg
Written by Mu Zhiling and Li Guanhui
Supervisor: Bilyana Martinovsky


Chinese Emotion and Gesture

Nonverbal communication includes facial expression, tones of voice , gestures, and eye contact. It plays an important role in our daily life, sometimes it is even more powerful than the verbal interaction. Different gestures have different meanings. Different nationalities have specific gestures and emotions. However, due to the different background and culture, even the same gesture and emotion has different meaning for different people in certain contexts. Thus, it is very useful for us to understand people by understanding their basic nonverbal communicative skills.

China is one of the largest countries in the world, the birth place of ancient culture and civilization. In general, one may say that by the influence of Confucius' philosophical thinking, the Chinese have become more reserved or at least the gestures expressing emotions are comparatively less expressive. As the verbal language, the nonverbal register of gestures lasts for a long time, but in different historic times, there are different gestures. From a historical point of view we will distinguish between dead and contemporary gestures. This gesture categories are metaphorical because there may be archic gestures which are still used somewhere in China, but in general we will try to pick up only gestures which are out of use today. The metaphors refer to common idea of 'dead metaphors', since the gestures are to a great extend symbolic expressions of meaning often in combination with iconic mode of representation. In this way we are putting forward the idea of analysing gestures as metaphors. The problem with the term "dead gesture" in realtion to "dead metphor" is that dead metaphors are very much in use although they are not conceptualized as such by the speakers but what we call "dead gestures" are not used anymore, they are archaic, as there as archaic words and expressions in every language. However, since we consider the metaphorical aspect of gestures as very important we will keep the analogy.

Nonverbal language includes not only gestures, which are part of the body language but also mimics, which are facial expressions.

In a sense mimics are also body language expressions since the face is a part of the body but they have a special name because they are especially important for, so called, face-to-face communication (in fact there is no expression like "body-to-body communication", and if there is it will mean something specific, such as making love or fighting). However basic this distinction is, here we are not going to observe facial expressions especially, but they will be illustrated and discussed in relation to each gesture.

The taxonomy of gestures we will use is the following:

Dead gestures

Gestures according to power relations

Contemporary gestures

Gestures for emotive and attitudinal speech acts




Gestures for counting

Good bye!

However, the group of dead gestures given here will exemplify only gestures related to power relations since this kind of gestures are still available today in movies. It is much more difficult to gather information about, e.g., counting gestures in year 1200 (although this is not a completely impossible task).

Dead Gestures

Gestures according to power relation

Dead gestures are gestures which have existed in ancient times and which are not used or understandable today. Like verbal language, the gesture has birth and death. Every gesture is born based on a specific cultural background. For example, China is a country with many nationalities. Among them, the 'Hanna' nationality, with over 90% population, is the biggest one. In the past centuries, 'Hanna' was conquered by other nationalities. In that peroid, the living custom of Chinese people was influenced by the ruling class. For example, in Qing Danasty, Chinese people had special, in modern eyes, strange ways of expressing meaning which were influenced of the "Mang" nationality (the ruling class at that time). When men of similar social status sent greetings to each other, they used the following gesture, , but when noble women met or sent greetings to each other, they use gestures like this one ; . The following picture shows how to meet the emperor

This gesture, called 'koutou', is complicated and has strict regulations. It consists of three steps:

i) right sleeve brushing the left arm from top to the fingers,

ii) left sleeve brushing the right arm from top to the fingers,

iii) bend down, one knee on the floor, right hand on the back and left hand hitting the floor.

People had to complete series of actions to say "yes" and listen the imperial edict, no mistakes were permitted, otherwise people would be punished. When women met the emperor, they should show pleasant feelings on their faces in order to please the emperor. The gestures mentioned above were very popular during the "Qing Dynasty" among the officials and nobles, but not very popular among the common people. In present, all of them have died, because the kingdom was overthrowed and the ruling class was changed. These gestures disappeared quickly. We can only see them in movies, but the descendants of "Mang" in Beijing are proud and glad to talk about their great history .

In 1970s (the culture revolution), China was under the leadership of Mao, people used series of gestures and emotions to show their loyalty to him and their confidence in the revolution. Please, see the following two pictures

"I am loyal to Chairman Mao!"

"I am a true revolutionary!"

These gestures were popularly used at that time. The gestures occurred everywhere, between different people when they talked about Mao. For example, people use these special gestures and emotion when they took pictures of themselves.

The language is changing, but also some gestures are changing in the process. Today they are like souvenirs, representing the past culture. However, some old gestures, as well as some archaic words and expression, are still used today, such as the gesture equal to the expression "Thank you for serving me!". This gesture appeared during the Qing Dynasty when Emperor Qianlong visited South China with civil clothes, that is, in secret of the common people. During the visit, the emperor served tea to his officers, but since they were in public they couldn't use the 'koutou' gesture illustrated above and that is why they invented a more discreet gesture of showing respect and subordination . Here the fingers move up and down continuously, thus, metaphorically depicting repeated bowing, not with heads down to the ground but with fingers to the table. From that time, the gesture was spread generation by generation. Being conscious of the meaning of this gesture may be very important in certain intercultural contexts since the same sequence of finger movements on the table express nervousness and impatience in many European and Western countries.

Contemporary gestures

Contemporary gestures are gestures which are currently used gestures in one social community. Since china is a very large country there are significant linguistic and cultural differences between the distant regions. Most typical is the distinction between north and south China. However, most studies have been concentrated on analyzing differences in verbal communication, habits and traditions but not on differences and similarities between gestures. Thus we will distinguish between two main regional types of gestures: gestures from the north and gestures from the south.

Furthermore, there are different things we want to express and do with gestures. We will distinguish between: gestures of emotion, on one side, which we will define as emotive nonverbal acts, thus echoing the definition of speech acts, such as promise, agreement and gestures of counting, on the other.

Positive emotions and speech acts


When you meet your professor you should lower your head and bend slightly to show respect. The same posture is used when a young man is greeting an old man.

Shaking hands is not used between people of radically different status, as the previous two cases, but between socially equal people, friends or businessman.


This gesture is used in informal situations, when you reach an agreement with somebody else. In China, it is not only a gesture, but also a good wish. Each of you hopes the agreement will be long.


If you put your right hand on the position of the heart means it "sincere promise" but since a promise is a promise only if it is sincere (Searle, What is a speech act?, in (ed.) Davis, S.,Pragmatics. A Reader. Oxford University Press, N.Y/Oxford, 1991, pp. 254-265.) The ancient Chinese thought that the calculating functions and the memory of human beings are based in the heart, thus this gesture is a typical iconic metaphor.


This gesture represents a feeling of self-satisfaction. It is usually used by women when they feel satisfied and don't want other people to know it. Typical for the Chinese culture as a whole is that Chinese women express their feelings in a more introvert or discreet manner.


"Thank you!"

"I wish you good fortune!"

In China, when you don't know how to express your gratitude to somebody, may be gesture 1 will be helpful, you don't need to say a single word, but everyone knows that you are expressing your thankfulness. But when you gesticulate like 2 especially on festivals, all the people you gesticulate to will be very happy, because you wish them good fortune.

"Thank you for serving me! "

Nord Chinese gesture for "Thank you for serving me!"

South Chinese gesture for "Thank you for serving me!"

In China, when being served, it will be very polite to make a gesture to express your feeling of thankfulness, but you should do it in different way if you are in the different areas of China. In North China, you should do like that like in 1, but in South China, you should do 'the koutou' gesture (desribed also as a dead gesture above). It is especially important in public occasions.

Neutral emotion


This gesture symbolizes confrontation with difficult problems and attempts to solve them, in other way, it means hesitation.

Negative emotion


When people show gestures like this one, that means that they look down upon somebody. And when you use one of your fingers to scrape your face looking at somebody, in fact, the corresponding verbal expression may be said to be "Shame on you!"

irritation and instigating

If someone insults you, but you don't want to fight with him, the following gesture may express your irritation. It means "Damn you!", but if you make this gesture first, it means "If you have guts, come and take me!".


Chinese people have particular gestures for counting. They can be different in different parts of China. The gestures for 1,2,3 and 5 are similar to the corresponding European gestures. The rest are as follows:

South Chinese Gesture for 4.

North Chinese gesture for 4.

Gesture for 6.

South Chinese gesture for 7.

North Chinese gesture for 7.

Gesture for 8.

Gesture for 9.

Gesture for 10.

The description above include only general and typical gestures in China. One shouldn't forget that, China is a large country with long history. We can not cover all of the gestures in this short paper but if somebody is interested of contributing to this page she/he is very welcome to contact us. We will be glad if you can learn something about China or get an inspiration to experience it.

Comments on this page? Please, contact