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Chinese Culture

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

Written by Michael Hanna © July 2007

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.


  • 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.

Tipping Etiquette:

Tipping is becoming more commonplace, especially with younger workers although older workers still consider it an insult. Different parts of Asia have different rules, in Singapore generally you do not tip at all whereas in Malaysia it is consider rude not too.

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.
  • Rank is extremely important in business relationships and you must keep rank differences in mind when communicating.
  • 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.

There are some useful Chinese expressions easy to learn:

Hello Ni Hao
Thank you Xie Xie
Cheers (toast) Gan pei
Goodbye Zai jian

 Business Meeting Etiquette:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Women should avoid high heels and short sleeved blouses. The Chinese frown on women who display too much.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Facts and Statistics

Location: Eastern Asia bordering Afghanistan 76 km, Bhutan 470 km, Burma 2,185 km, India 3,380 km, Kazakhstan 1,533 km, North Korea 1,416 km, Kyrgyzstan 858 km, Laos 423 km, Mongolia 4,677 km, Nepal 1,236 km, Pakistan 523 km, Russia (northeast) 3,605 km, Russia (northwest) 40 km, Tajikistan 414 km, Vietnam 1,281 km

Capital City: Beijing – coordinates: 39 56 N, 116 24 E. In spite of its vast size, all of China falls within one time zone.

Time difference: Standard time zone: +8 hours ahead of London UK and +13 hours ahead of Washington, DC.

Climate: The weather is incredibly diverse; tropical in south to sub arctic in north.

Population: 1,321,851,888(over 1.3 billion) (July 2007 EST.) China is the most populous nation on earth.

Area – comparative: Most western websites claim that China is slightly smaller than the US although most Chinese websites claim that China is slightly larger than the US, hmmm, heard this story before, mines bigger than yours. I really do not know which is true but they are roughly about the same give or take.

Ethnic groups: Han Chinese 91.9%, Zhuang, Uygur, Hui, Yi, Tibetan, Miao, Manchu, Mongol, Buyi, Korean, and other nationalities 8.1%.

Religions: Daoism (Taoist), Buddhist, Muslim 1%-2%, Christian 3%-4%.

Government: Communist state.

Flag of China:

China’s national flag was adopted in September 1949. This flag was first flown in Tiananmen Square on October 1, 1949 the day of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The rectangular flag has a red field with five golden-yellow stars (each with five points) in the upper left corner. The star on the left is larger than the other four. The red colour of the flag symbolizes revolution. The large star symbolizes the Communist Party (which rules China) and the smaller stars represent the people of China.

Map of China

 Geography – note: Fourth largest country in the world after Russia, Canada, and US; Mount Everest is on the border with Nepal and is the world’s tallest peak.

The Chinese Language

Standard Chinese or Mandarin (Putonghua, based on the Beijing dialect), Yue (Cantonese), Wu (Shanghaiese), Minbei (Fuzhou), Minnan (Hokkien-Taiwanese), Xiang, Gan, Hakka dialects, minority languages (see Ethnic groups entry)

Country name:

Conventional long form: People’s Republic of China
Conventional short form: China
Local long form: Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo
Local short form: Zhongguo
Abbreviation: PRC

© Feng Shui Store 2007

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