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This lesson correlates to the National History Standards.

  • Era 10-Contemporary United States (1968 - present)
    • Standard 1C- The student understands major foreign policy initiatives.
    • Standard 2D- The student understands modern American culture

President Nixon tries out his chopsticks at a banquet given in his honor.

Citation: President Nixon, sitting next to Premier Chou En-lai, enjoying his dinner eaten with chopsticks, at a banquet given in his honor, February 21, 1972; Frame C8616-29; White House Photo Office Collection (Nixon Administration), 01/20/1969 - 08/09/1974; Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.

When President Nixon entered office, the United States had not had any formal diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China since 1949 when the Communist Party, led by Mao Zedong, won China's long civil war. His decision to visit China and open discussions between the two nations stunned the world and became one of the defining moments of his presidency. In this lesson, students will study a confidential memorandum discussing cultural differences between the United States and China to better understand both the long and short term consequences of the cultural exchange stemming from the President's visit.

For more information on the opening of China, visit our special website , download our free iTunesU collection, or visit our virtual exhibit on the Presidential Timeline.


Students will

  • Identify and demonstrate Chinese cultural etiquette and compare it to American culture.
  • Better understand the short and long term implications of President Nixon's visit to China.


  • Copy of a confidential memo describing Chinese culture prepared by White House Officials for staff members selected to accompany the President on his visit.

    Confidential Memorandum "Restricted to Trip Members Only", nd; President's Trip File; Box 52 - Technical General Haig [Nov 71-Jan 72];National Security Council Files; Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.

  • Chinese culture vs. American culture worksheet.

Time: approximately 20 minutes


  1. Give students a copy of the Chinese culture vs. American culture worksheet. Put students in mixed ability pairs or do the activity together as a class.
  2. Ask the students to read the Chinese customs and then write down the American equivalent in the right hand column.
  3. Request volunteers to act out the differences between the two cultures. For example, one student can demonstrate the Chinese way to call a friends attention while another student can demonstrate the American way.
  4. Discuss with students the problems that may arise for Americans when visiting China. How might one be confused? Why did President Nixon and his team have to study Chinese customs before they visited China?

After the Activity:

Ask students

  • How has the relationship between the U.S. and China changed in the 40 years since President Nixon's visit?
  • Has our knowledge of Chinese culture improved?
  • Do you think Chinese knowledge of American culture has improved?


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