Traditional Chinese Photography Poses

Sometimes the most entertaining thing at a tourist site is not the site itself… but the tourists. This is certainly true in China. Just find a comfortable vantage point to observe the subjects in their natural habitat, behaving naturally, and you will likely be entertained by an array of both highly predictable and completely unpredictable behaviors. It should be noted that as a Westerner there is a distinct risk of altering their behavior via the Hawthorne effect. When they know they’re being watched directly, they will oftentimes scale down their routine. However, even this is unpredictable…. sometimes their behavior becomes even more absurd, particularly if they think you’re waiting on them to finish. One absolutely certain principle though: if a Westerner sets up a tripod, anywhere, at any time, no matter how empty the place, Chinese people will be attracted like flies to honey. Take the photo below for example. We were at a large monument (The Big Wild Goose Pagoda) in Xi’an and started taking terrible photos of the monument blocked by a tree, just to see what the locals did. Next thing you know, we were surrounded and they were taking the same photo!

In addition to knock-off photographic composition, bad wardrobe choices, and odd social behavior, one thing we found particularly interesting in China were the often predictable photography poses. Possibly a modern Chinese variant of Yoga, locals will assume sequences of poses and maintain them for extended periods in the hot sun. Sometimes they will need to maintain these poses for quite a while in order to capture the perfect photograph, crowded with other people in the background.

“The Soaring Phoenix”

This may be the most common pose, seen at any large crowded monument. We had initially assumed this to be primarily a female behavior, but further study in the field failed to produce many example of females engaging in this behavior. We’ve since decided that this may actually be primarily a male Chinese pose. This particular pose may have actually made (as Martha termed it) “The Great Sino-Western Photographic Migration,” as it can occasionally be observed being performed by Westerners. It is debatable whether this pose actually originated in the west and is simply being imitated in China.

It is a near certainty that young pairs will each assume the same poses consecutively.

Note that this is not a pose reserved only for young people though, it can span generations.

And look at these guys, one Phoenix just isn’t enough:

Here’s Martha, performing an improvised Phoenix pose:

It’s an essential part of Chinese vacation photos.


“Terracotta Warrior Holding a Spear”

This is another common posture taken by locals. Are the they pointing at a distant object? Sort of. Grabbing the distant object in their imagination. Maybe. Our theory is that they are actually holding an imaginary spear, and that this posture is a display of dominance and ownership of the distant object.

“The Preying Mantis”

This is a rare variant, possibly an evolution of the Terracotta Warrior pose. As you can see, he is attempting to devour a distant monument with his “claw.”

“The Japanese Knock-Off”

This posture is easy to distinguish from the genuine Japanese article by the subjects’ level of excitement. Japanese people know that deploying double peace signs is serious business, and they act accordingly. If the person is behaving in a loud and overly exuberant manner, it is likely a Chinese counterfeit.

“The Strictly Business”

There may actually be a minor backlash in China against these imaginary and exaggerated postures involving flight and the conquest of distant objects. Here you can observe a local with a far more grounded posture. A pose like this makes a bold statement in China. Note that he has shorts on, telling everyone “I’m on vacation.” However, the inability to part from his briefcase, even for a second, tells observers: “I’m always at work.”

This guy is on such a tight vacation schedule, he can’t even unpack! He may just have brought the entire office with him on his vacation.

“The Reclining Buddha”

He’s in the zone. He’s achieved nirvana. His motto in life: “The ladies love the tower.”

“Panda in the Shade”

This guy doesn’t pose for photographs, he just doesn’t have time. It takes a lot of bamboo to maintain that figure. Also, he really hates the sun. Hates it.


“Crane Against The Sunset”

This is primarily a posture assumed by females. It’s a display of balance and, like the Crane, symbolizes longevity. You can frequently observe local females posing in many variations of this posture. The common element is one raised foot.

Here’s Martha in proper “Crane” posture:

“The Cowardly Crane”

A very subtle variation of the traditional Crane posture. Note the timid and ever so slightly raised rear foot. She wants to allude to the Crane pose, but is too shy to completely assume the correct posture.

“The Bouncing Tiger”

This is a tough one. It’s difficult to capture in the wild, as it is typically over in an instant. This pose has definitely made “The Great Sino-Western Photographic Migration,” and can be seen in the photographs of many Westerners. In this example, Martha is trying her hardest to fly out of China.

Oh, and one final pic, at Martha’s insistence. She just really loved this lady’s footwear.

So as you can see, we’ve been enjoying ourselves and finding ways to make the best of our remaining time in China. After returning from the DPRK a few days ago, we hopped on a flight to Xi’an and crossed off another big “must see” attraction in China. The Terracotta Warriors. Nothing much to say there, crowded site in a mostly touristy city. The drive out to the warriors took us past rolling pastures of farmland. Well, maybe not rolling, since you couldn’t see very far with all the smog. I’m thinking that the millions of cars in China are only part of the problem. It’s probably more related to unregulated industry, coal burning, and things like that. We passed several large industrial complexes with smokestacks hard at work. Martha called them “cloud factories.” Very quaint. Honestly though, we’re both still decompressing a little from the North Korea trip, and we’ve found ourselves talking about it constantly, no matter where we’re at. A lot of the stuff we saw there takes time to process. I promise the DPRK post is coming though, there’s just a lot to sort through.




One interesting place in Xi’an is called the “Muslim Quarter.” Apparently Xi’an was the ancient terminus of the “Silk Road.” Many Muslims settled in this area and a walk through the district really feels like a walk outside of China. Shopkeepers selling all manner of dried fruits and Arabic-style breads, several mosques, including the historic “Great Mosque,” calls to prayer being heard over loudspeakers, men and women wearing traditional head coverings. We really enjoyed spending a little time in this district, and it really feels like a totally different region of the world.




13 thoughts on “Traditional Chinese Photography Poses”

  1. Hilarious! I absolutely love your posting. Do you have plans to go to S. Korea? You’ll find it amusing – they never fail to display victory signs in every pic… And every s. Koreans have mastered the technique of self-cam. 🙂 I’m looking forward to the DPRK posting. I’ve been watching documentaries on the issues there…

    1. Glad you liked it! There is only so much reverent temple hopping a normal person can take—inevitably, people watching takes over lol

  2. @Rita – Thanks! We definitely want to visit S. Korea as well, and we definitely want to visit DPRK again

    @Christine – You know, published online and all. Who knows, maybe some people would be embarrassed and not want everyone to know their vacation photos are full of the crane and phoenix poses =)

    1. You’re right. They were always snapping “secret” pictures of us when they thought we weren’t looking. This was just one way to pay back the favor.

  3. Panda in the shade is totally Jesse as a kid lol. And my favorite is the Bouncing Tiger. In flip flops!!

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