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Different Northern and Southern Chinese Customs and Words That You Don’t Know

As a muti-ethnic country, there are many regional cultural differences in actual Chinese life. Today we will introduce some differences between Northern and Southern China and how to tell where someone is from just by talking to them.

(1) Differences in Local Food

Rice or noodles? North and South are different

When it comes to food for Chinese New Year, what is the first thing that flashes in your mind? Most people would say dumplings! Dumplings are a popular Chinese food, but not everyone eats dumplings during the New Year. For most southerners, rice is their main daily meal, while northerners often have noodles and other flour products on the table. Also, thanks to the fertile black land in Northeastern China, the main meal of northeastern people, who eat dumplings during the New Year, is still rice.

Sweet or salty? Be careful, you may start a war

The main ingredients of 粽子(zònɡ zi, rice dumpling) are glutinous rice and different fillings. They are wrapped into triangular and square shapes with special leaves. They are an important food for the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival. If you ask a Chinese person if they like to eat salty rice dumplings or sweet rice dumplings, you may get different answers. Every year, the topic of which is better, sweet or salty, is always a hot topic. Chinese people with different tastes even quarrel online. It’s hard to deal with. Generally, southerners like to eat salty rice dumplings, while northerners prefer to eat sweet dumplings. What’s interesting is that for 豆花(dòu huā ), which is made of tofu, unlike 粽子, northerners like to eat salty ones, while southerners prefer to eat sweet ones. Regarding the choice of bean curd flavor, it is yet another war.

(zònɡzi with different fillings)
(Salty and sweet dòuhuā)

(2) Differences in Speaking

Northerner: Roll up your tongue! Southerner: Too difficult

If you study Chinese, Pronunciation can be difficult. For example, “er”, which requires you to roll up the tip of your tongue backwards. For northerners, “er” is often added after certain words. For instance:

小孩儿(xiǎo hair) kid
画画儿(huà huàr) draw
聊天儿(liáo tiānr) chat

While for southerners, it’s not so easy to use “er” naturally, so you may hear them just say:

小孩(xiǎo hái)
画画(huà huà)
聊天(liáo tiān)

“Fān qié” or “xī hónɡ shì”? They’re the Same!

The last thing we would like to share with you is that in China, sometimes you will find the same item has two different names, which may be confusing sometimes. Let’s look at some examples.

Daily words that differ in southern and northern China

English South North
Ice cream 雪糕 (xuě ɡāo) 冰棍 (bīnɡ ɡùn)
cauliflower 花菜(huā cài) 菜花(cài huā)
tomato 番茄(fān qié) 西红柿(xī hónɡ shì )
potato 洋芋(yánɡ yù) 土豆(tǔ dòu)
Sweet dumpling 汤圆(tānɡ yuán ) 元宵(yuán xiāo)
wonton 云吞(yún tūn ) 馄饨(hún tun)


天气好热,我想吃雪糕 The weather is so hot, I want to eat ice cream.

(Tiānqì hǎo rè, wǒ xiǎnɡ chī xuěɡāo.


暖气太热了,我要吃根冰棍凉快一下。 The heater is too hot. I want to eat an ice cream to cool off.

(Nuǎnqì tài rè le, wǒ yào chī ɡēn bīnɡɡùn liánɡkuài yíxià.)

Don’t be surprised, in a place with powerful heating, some people really would like to have some ice cream even when it’s winter.


我最喜欢吃花菜I like cauliflower best.

(Wǒ zuì xǐhuɑn chī huācài.)


我要去超市买点菜花 I’m going to the supermarket to buy some cauliflower.

(Wǒ yào qù chāoshì mǎi diǎn càihuā.)


番茄是蔬菜还是水果?Is the tomato a vegetable or a fruit?

(Fānqié shì shūcài háishì shuíɡuǒ)


我会做西红柿炒鸡蛋。I can make scrambled eggs with tomatoes.

(Wǒ huì zuò xīhónɡshì chǎo jīdàn.)

See?sounds like two items,but they are all refer to tomato!


洋芋条是一种小吃。Fried potato sticks is a snack.

(Zhà yánɡyù tiáo shì yìzhǒnɡ xiǎochī .)


我买了两个大土豆I bought two big potatoes.

(Wǒ mǎi le liǎnɡɡè dà tǔdòu.)

Those are all different names for vegetables, and some snacks have different names, too.

汤圆(tānɡ yuán ) is a food made from glutinous rice. The fillings are usually sweet, such as peanuts and black sesame. Some people prefer to call it 元宵(yuán xiāo), especially during the Lantern Festival. In some places, people make these  rice balls and put meat in them.


我喜欢吃肉汤圆I like to eat rice balls with meat stuffing.

(Wǒ xǐhuɑn chī ròu tānɡyuán .)


元宵节要吃一碗元宵I want to eat a bowl of Yuanxiao during the Lantern Festival.

(Yuánxiāojié yào chī yìwǎn yuánxiāo.)

Another type of food is 馄饨(hún tun ), thin dough with a lot of meat inside. Northerners like to call it馄饨(hún tun ) , while southerners prefer to call it云吞(yún tūn ). But pay attention, these are not the same as dumplings.


请给我来碗云吞面。Please give me a bowl of wonton noodles.

(Qǐnɡ ɡěi wǒ lái wǎn yúntūn miàn.)


明天早上我要吃馄饨I want to eat wontons tomorrow morning.

(Mínɡtiān zǎoshɑnɡ wǒ yào chī húntun.)

There is another thing that southerners and northerners say differently, and that is the names for relatives.


这是我的外公/外婆This is my grandpa/grandmother.

(Zhè shì wǒ de wàiɡōnɡ / wàipó.)


那是我的姥姥/姥爷That is my grandma/grandpa.

(nà shì wǒ de lǎolɑo / lǎoyé.)

The next time you meet a Chinese person, ask them what they said about their grandpa on mother’s side, the answer may tell you whether they are a southerner or a northerner.

In addition to all the other words, sometimes Chinese people call other items by different names, such as bicycles.


那里有很多共享单车There are many shared bicycles there.

(Nàlǐ yǒu hěnduō ɡònɡxiǎnɡ dānchē.)


他每天骑自行车上班。He goes to work by bicycle every day.

(Tā měitiān qí zìxínɡchē shànɡbān.)

What do you think? After reading these, you could say that Mandarin Chinese is difficult but interesting! Don’t worry, if you know these, you would already be considered a basic “Chinese Culture Master!”

Lynn Cheng

Lynn got a Master degree majoring in Teaching Chinese as A Second Language. She taught Chinese in the Philippines for 2 years. Now she works at TouchChinese as a Chinese teacher. Her passion for education and language teaching impress all her students. She is eager to share the beauty of the Chinese language and culture to more learners.

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