If you pay a Chinese person a compliment and they respond with ‘na li, na li’, don’t worry. It does not mean they don’t appreciate your compliment. They are thanking you, but in a very humble way, a bit like saying: ‘Oh, it’s nothing really’.

Traditionally, Chinese people are brought up to show humility at all times. Nǎ lǐ, nǎ lǐ
literally means ‘where, where?’ – as if to say: ‘where did you get that idea from?’

The custom of finger-tapping dates back to the Qing dynasty. The Emperor Qian Long loved to travel in disguise, inspecting his country and observing the life of his subjects. Wherever he went, he never failed to stop in at his favorite place: the tea house. One day he was so impressed by the local waiters’ ability to lean over and pour tea without spilling that he decided to try it out for himself. He poured tea for his retinue, who were deeply embarrassed; they knew they could not kowtow to thank him, as that would mean giving the Emperor’s disguise away, but they had to thank him somehow. Then one of his companions had a brilliant idea: he gently tapped three fingers on the table. One finger represented his bowed head, the other two his prostrate arms. That is how this custom came into use.

Although this tapping custom is common in southern Chinese culture, in other parts of China it is generally accepted only if it is very difficult for you to say thank you at that moment, for example because you are in the middle of talking to someone. 


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