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Everything you need to know about Chinese culture, etiquette, protocol, visiting, doing business and communicating in or with China.

2010 by Michael Hanna

I was born in Hong Kong and I know that there are many protocols, values and traditions that the Chinese hold close and since I still travel a lot in Asia on Feng Shui consultations and teaching I thought I would share with you common mistakes that many foreigners make whilst either visiting or doing business in or with China. China is known as a state of etiquette, custom, respect and ceremony. To understand the Chinese, some consideration to their way of life should not be ignored:

Chinese Society & Culture

The Importance of keeping Face:

Roughly translated as 'good reputation', 'respect' or 'honour,' one must learn the details of the concept and understand the possible impact it could have on your doing business in China and many other Asian countries.

The concept of 'face' roughly translates as 'honour', 'good reputation' or 'respect'.

There are four types of 'face':

  1. Diu-mian-zi: this is when one's actions or deeds have been exposed to people.
  2. Gei-mian-zi: involves the giving of face to others through showing respect.
  3. Liu-mian-zi: this is developed by avoiding mistakes and showing wisdom in action.
  4. Jiang-mian-zi: this is when face is increased through others, i.e. someone complementing you to an associate.

It is critical that you give face, save face and show face when doing business in China.


Confucianism is a system of behaviours and principles that stress the obligations of people towards one another based upon their relationship. The basic system of belief is based upon five different relationships:

Ruler and subject
Husband and wife
Parents and children
Brothers and sisters
Friend and friend

Confucianism stresses duty, sincerity, loyalty, honour, respect for age and seniority. Through maintaining harmonious relations as individuals, society itself becomes stable. The founder, Confucius is a Chinese philosopher (551 ~ 479 BC) who taught morality, loyalty and strict social relationships. Confucianism especially accentuates social relationship codes between the young and the old, men and women, the royal and the common people.

Non Verbal Communication

  • The Chinese' Non-verbal communication speaks volumes.
  • Since the Chinese strive for harmony and are group dependent, they rely on facial expression, tone of voice and posture to tell them what someone feels.
  • Frowning while someone is speaking is interpreted as a sign of disagreement. Therefore, most Chinese maintain an impassive expression when speaking.
  • It is considered disrespectful to stare into another person's eyes. In crowded situations the Chinese avoid eye contact to give themselves privacy.

General Etiquette and Protocol Guidelines:

Meeting Etiquette

  • Normally greetings are formal and the eldest person is always greeted first.
  • A good strong handshake is the most common form of greeting with foreigners with less formal greetings with a slight bow or nod of the head.
  • Many older Chinese will look to the ground when greeting someone.
  • Address the person by a respectful title and their surname. If they want to move to a first name basis, they will advise you which name to use.
  • The Chinese have a wonderful sense of humour.

Gift Giving Etiquette:

Generous gift giving is a significant part of Chinese culture in the past. Nowadays in business, official policy in Chinese business culture forbids giving gifts; this gesture is considered bribery, an illegal act in this country, so if you are giving gifts to a government official please be very careful.

You may find your gift declined, although these days' times have relaxed more and you will find that the Chinese will decline a gift three times before finally accepting, so they do not appear greedy so you will have to continue to insist. You will be expected to go through the same routine if you are offered a gift.

It is appropriate to bring a gift that is representative of your country, town or region, to a business meeting or social event. A gift should always be wrapped but please read the list below of acceptable and unacceptable gifts, this is very important. Always present the gift with both hands as a sign of courtesy and always mention that this is only a small token of appreciation. Do not expect your gift to be opened in your presence.

A very auspicious gift to give is a pair of Fu Dogs; these are protection animals and a very thoughtful gift. Fu Dogs are an extremely powerful protection for a home or business; you will find most homes or business in China complemented by a pair either inside or outside. They come in all shapes and sizes and some of the homes I have visited all over the world display some of the most magnificent pairs I have seen especially the ones in Asia. Probably the most impressive are from the Beijing's Forbidden City, these are really amazing to see. If you follow this link you will find more details on Fu Dogs and the correct way to display them which is very important.

  • In general, gifts are given at Chinese New Year, weddings, births and birthdays.
  • The Chinese love food and a food basket will always make a nice gift.
  • Never give scissors, letter openers, knives or other cutting tools as they indicate the cutting of a relationship.
  • Do not give clocks, white handkerchiefs, a stork or crane or straw sandals as they are associated with funerals and death. The word for clock in Chinese sounds similar to the expression 'the end of life' and should never be given as a gift.
  • Do not give flowers, as many Chinese associate these with death.
  • Do not wrap gifts in white, blue or black paper.
  • Give gifts of money in a red envelope called Ang Pow red envelopes also known as "red packets" "Ang Pow" "laisee" "lai see" "hung bao" or "Hung-Bao". They are considered extremely auspicious to receive as a gift and even more auspicious if they contain money. They are commonly used for Chinese New Year, weddings, birthdays or any other important event.
  • Always present gifts with two hands.
  • Never present a valuable gift to one person In the presence of other people. This gesture will cause embarrassment, and possibly even problems for the recipient, given the strict rules against bribery in Chinese business culture.
  • Gifts are not opened when received.
  • Gifts may be refused three times before they are accepted. Each time it's refused, you as the giver must graciously continue to offer the gift. And once it's taken, tell the person you're happy it's been accepted.
  • The gift is offered using both hands and must be gift-wrapped; though it won't be opened it front of you. It will be set aside and opened later. This tradition eliminates any concern that the recipient's face might show any disappointment with the gift.
  • If you're presented a gift, follow the same process of refusing it three times then accept it with both hands. You'll also not open it, but wait until later.
  • Never give a pen with red ink as a gift as it indicates severing of relationships.
  • Four is an unlucky number so do not give four of anything. Eight is the luckiest number, so giving eight of something brings luck to the recipient and considered very auspicious.
  • Giving a talisman to hang beside a main door is considered very lucky to the Chinese, if you click on the picture below you will find more details on talismans, couplets and the Kitchen God.

Dining Etiquette:

I love eating in China and most other Asian countries, it is an event and if you are being entertained by a local the experience is so much better. On my Feng Shui travels around the world regardless of what city you are in, the restaurants are very commercial and never a true reflection of what the local food is like, on a recent Feng Shui consultation in Barcelona I was visiting an old client of mine who has lived in Spain for seven years (emigrated from UK) and even he struggled to find a traditional Spanish restaurant that served a good paella, I wish I had not asked for one as it caused embarrassment for him. The next night we ended up in his local restaurant that was very basic but served the best quality food.

  • The Chinese prefer to entertain in public places rather than in their homes, especially when entertaining foreigners.
  • If you are invited to their house, consider it a great honour. If you must turn down such an honour, it is considered polite to explain the conflict in your schedule so that your actions are not taken as a slight.
  • Arrive on time.
  • Remove your shoes before entering the house.
  • Bring a small gift but bear in main the list above of offensive gifts.
  • Eat well to demonstrate that you are enjoying the food and do not eat all of your meal. If you eat all of your meal, the Chinese will assume you did not receive enough food and are still hungry.

Table manners:

  • Learn to use chopsticks.
  • Wait to be told where to sit. The guest of honour is normally given a seat facing the door.
  • The host begins eating first.
  • You should try everything that is offered to you.
  • Never eat the last piece from the serving tray.
  • Be observant to other peoples' needs.
  • Chopsticks should be returned to the chopstick rest after every few bites and when you drink or stop to speak.
  • The host offers the first toast.
  • Do not put bones in your bowl. Place them on the table or in a special bowl for that purpose.
  • Hold the rice bowl close to your mouth while eating.
  • Do not be offended if a Chinese person makes slurping or belching sounds; it merely indicates that they are enjoying their food.
  • Never place your chopsticks straight up in your bowl. By placing your sticks upright in your bowl your will remind your host of joss sticks which connotes death.
  • Do not drop the chopsticks it is considered bad luck.

Business Etiquette Basics

Relationships & Communication:

It is imperative when opening your greeting for the most senior person to introduce themselves and then the next senior person, working down the rank in your company. Even when Chinese people visit Western countries, they will mostly walk in the room with the most senior person leading the party. This custom is a matter of respect; this word is probably the most important in Chinese culture.

  • The Chinese don't like doing business with companies they don't know, so working through a go-between is crucial. This could be an individual or an organization that can make a formal introduction and vouch for the reliability of your company.
  • Before arriving in China send materials (written in Chinese) that describe your company, its history, and literature about your products and services.
  • The Chinese often use intermediaries to ask questions that they would prefer not to make directly.
  • Business relationships are built formally after the Chinese get to know you.
  • Be very patient. It takes a considerable amount of time and is bound up with enormous bureaucracy.
  • The Chinese see foreigners as representatives of their company rather than as individuals.
  • Rank is extremely important in business relationships and you must keep rank differences in mind when communicating.
  • Gender bias is nonexistent in business.
  • Never lose sight of the fact that communication is official, especially in dealing with someone of higher rank. Treating them too informally, especially in front of their peers, may well ruin a potential deal.
  • The Chinese prefer face-to-face meetings rather than written or telephonic communication.
  • Meals and social events are not the place for business discussions. There is a demarcation between business and socializing in China, so try to be careful not to intertwine the two.
  • Do not point when speaking.
  • To point do not use your index finger, use an open palm.
  • It is considered improper to put your hand in your mouth.
  • Do not take the Chinese nod for agreement; it's only a sign that they are listening attentively.

Business Meeting Etiquette:

  • Appointments are necessary and, if possible, should be made between one-to-two months in advance, preferably in writing.
  • If you do not have a contact within the company, use an intermediary to arrange a formal introduction. Once the introduction has been made, you should provide the company with information about your company and what you want to accomplish at the meeting.
  • You should arrive at meetings on time or slightly early. The Chinese view punctuality as a virtue. Arriving late is an insult and could negatively affect your relationship
  • Pay great attention to the agenda as each Chinese participant has his or her own agenda that they will attempt to introduce.
  • Send an agenda before the meeting so your Chinese colleagues have the chance to meet with any technical experts prior to the meeting. Discuss the agenda with your translator/intermediary prior to submission.
  • Each participant will take an opportunity to dominate the floor for lengthy periods without appearing to say very much of anything that actually contributes to the meeting. Be patient and listen. There could be subtle messages being transmitted that would assist you in allaying fears of on-going association.
  • Meetings require patience. Mobile phones ring frequently and conversations tend to be boisterous. Never ask the Chinese to turn off their mobile phones as this causes you both to lose face.
  • Guests are generally escorted to their seats, which are in descending order of rank. Senior people generally sit opposite senior people from the other side.
  • It is imperative that you bring your own interpreter, especially if you plan to discuss legal or extremely technical concepts as you can brief the interpreter prior to the meeting.
  • Written material should be available in both English and Chinese, using simplified characters. Be very careful about what is written. Make absolutely certain that written translations are accurate and cannot be misinterpreted.
  • Visual aids are useful in large meetings and should only be done with black type on white background. Colours have special meanings and if you are not careful, your colour choice could work against you.
  • Presentations should be detailed and factual and focus on long-term benefits. Be prepared for the presentation to be a challenge.
  • Women should avoid high heels and short sleeved blouses. The Chinese frown on women who display too much.
  • Men and women wear jeans. However, jeans are not acceptable for business meetings.
  • Revealing clothing for women is considered offensive to Chinese businessmen.
  • Do not use large hand movements. The Chinese do not speak with their hands. Your movements may be distracting to your host.

Business Negotiation:

  • Only senior members of the negotiating team will speak. Designate the most senior person in your group as your spokesman for the introductory functions.
  • Business negotiations occur at a slow pace.
  • Be prepared for the agenda to become a jumping off point for other discussions.
  • Chinese are non-confrontational. They will not overtly say 'no', they will say 'they will think about it' or 'they will see'.
  • Chinese negotiations are process oriented. They want to determine if relationships can develop to a stage where both parties are comfortable doing business with the other.
  • Decisions may take a long time, as they require careful review and consideration.
  • Under no circumstances should you lose your temper or you will lose face and irrevocably damage your relationship.
  • Do not use high-pressure tactics. You might find yourself outmanoeuvred.
  • Business is hierarchical. Decisions are unlikely to be made during the meetings you attend.
  • The Chinese are shrewd negotiators.
  • Your starting price should leave room for negotiation.
  • At the end of a meeting, you are expected to leave before your Chinese counterparts.

Business Cards:

Business cards, called name cards ("Ming Pian") by the Chinese, are presented when everyone first meets. They should be given and received with both hands. Although common practice in most western countries, never slide your card on the table to your Chinese contact, it is viewed as extremely disrespectful. Never toss or "deal" your business card across the table, as this is also considered extremely impolite. Receive a business card with both hands and scan it immediately. Then lay the card in front of you on the table. It is demeaning to put someone's card directly into your pocket without looking at it first.

  • Business cards are exchanged after the initial introduction.
  • Have one side of your business card translated into Chinese using simplified Chinese characters that are printed in gold ink since gold is an auspicious colour.
  • Your business card should include your title. If your company is the oldest or largest in your country, that fact should be on your card as well.
  • Hold the card in both hands when offering it, Chinese side facing the recipient.
  • Examine a business card before putting it on the table next to you or in a business card case.
  • Never write on someone's card unless so directed and please try not to drop the card as this is considered very inauspicious to the business relationship.

Chinese calendars:

Chinese New Year (according to the lunar calendar) starts on the second New Moon (18th February 2007) after the Winter Solstice and is celebrated by Chinese all over the world. It heralds new beginnings and a fresh start. At a social level, it is very much a family affair, a time of reunion and thanksgiving. In 2007 Chinese New Year falls on February 18th (Lunar calendar) 00.14 China, 16.14 (Saturday 17th )United Kingdom, 08.14 (Saturday 17th) California USA, 17.14 (Saturday 17th) Barcelona and because the CNY falls close to midnight in China and because of time differences it will fall what appears to be a day early in most countries. I have done a Chinese New Year world time converter table to assist you. This is the date you celebrate the Chinese New Year with Ang Pow, fireworks etc and not the date you use to place your cures and enhancers in Feng Shui (February 4th 2007).

The Lunar Chinese New Year Day is very different from the Solar (Hsia) New Year Day (February 4th 2007). The Lunar Calendar formulates the days of the month according to the cycle of the moon whereas the solar year is governed by the sun. Although the Chinese solar year starts on a different date from the western year, the theory whereby the year is calculated on how long it takes the earth to go round the sun is the same. The lunar cycle lasts approximately 29.5 days and in order that the start of the Lunar New Year is not too far removed from the Solar New Year, the Chinese insert an extra month, this being called an intercalary month, once every few years. This is why Chinese New Year Day falls on a different date in each of the two calendars.

Whilst the solar (Hsia) calendar starts the New Year at the beginning of Spring, which falls normally between the 4th and 5th of February, the lunar (yueh) calendar marks the new year on the second New moon after the winter solstice. In 2007, Lunar Chinese New Year also called the 'Spring Festival', falls on 18th February 2007 which is the New Year that is celebrated by all ethnic Chinese. The solar New Year (4th February 2007) is not celebrated at all and only used for Feng Shui placement. The Feng Shui software that we have developed shows all dates for the solar calendar as this is what is used in Feng Shui.

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