Every few years a story comes out of China about how rude people are that they get into fights over seats on buses and trains. The stories often cite a conflict between the older and younger generation and discuss whether respect should be expected with age or earned. Regardless of the philosophy and historical context of these arguments, it gives China a bad international reputation for not following global etiquette regarding when to give up a seat to someone in need. Generally speaking, Chinese people follow the same customs as other countries.
The subways in China have much more space dedicated to standing then to sitting. This results in two reactions: one is to accept that you will be standing for the duration of your subway ride and the other is to push past everyone to make sure you get the first available seat. The majority of people in China calmly get on the train, resigned to standing in the middle of the crowd. Yet some people, mostly older generations, push their way past everyone getting on or off the train in the hopes of finding a seat.
It is generally accepted in China, as with the rest of the world, that you should respect your elders and offer a seat to them, or to anyone else who might have trouble standing. On China's buses and subways, there are seats painted a different color, designated as "priority seats" for people who need to sit: elderly, pregnant, disabled, or injured. You can probably offer, accept, or decline a seat without words but what should you say in Chinese if you want to offer your seat to someone?
Nǐ zuò zhèr ba.
You can sit here.
Please sit down.
In response, the polite thing is to refuse the offered seat. It's impolite to accept a gift (or a seat) when it's first offered. You should expect to offer the seat twice, even three times if you're feeling generous. If they haven't accepted the seat at this point, you can relax and stay seated.
This article is part of our new online Chinese course. An efficient way to learn Chinese language for working and living in China.