Traditional Chinese meetings, dining, gifts and business with Feng Shui

Michaels father was in the RAF which resulted in Michaels birth and younger years being based in Hong Kong; Michael still travels to Asia and surrounding areas on Feng Shui Consultations and when teaching which has resulted in Michael being very accustomed to Traditional values and etiquette that the Chinese have followed for thousands of years. This comes in very useful over there as China is known as a place of respect, tradition, etiquette and ceremony. When visiting or doing business in China, the information below could help you get a great deal further.

Gift Giving Etiquette:

Giving generous gifts on birthdays, weddings, Chinese New Year, Christenings etc. plays a major part in traditional Chinese Culture although in business, official policy in the business culture in China it is forbidden to give gifts as this is usually seen as a bribe which is illegal in this country.

If you are planning on giving a gift to a government official, please be careful and think of the consequences as you may find that they refuse to accept your gift although people are a lot more relaxed these days. One thing to bear in mind is the Chinese custom to deny a gift three times before they accept it; be sure to remember this if someone tries to give you a gift and make sure you deny the gift three times before accepting it.

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; please be sure to 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 are seen as 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. Fu Dogs 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.
  • Never give scissors, letter openers, knives or other cutting tools as they indicate the cutting of a relationship.
  • The Chinese love food and a food basket will always make a nice gift.
  • 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 mainly used for Chinese New Year, weddings, birthdays or any other important event.
  • Always present a gift to someone with two hands.
  • Never present a valuable gift to one person In the presence of other people. This gesture will cause embarrassment, and can possible cause problems for the recipient, given the strict rules against bribery in Chinese business culture.
  • Gifts are not opened when received; they are usually opened when they are alone.
  • 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 in 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.
  • Never give a pen with red ink as a gift to someone as it indicates undoing a relationship.
  • 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 is considered as very auspicious.
  • Giving a talisman to hang beside a main door is considered very auspicious to the Chinese, if you click on the picture below you will find more details on talismans, couplets and the Kitchen God.

Chinese Society & Culture

The Importance of keeping Face:

This is 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 you doing well in 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.

Table manners:

  • Try to learn to use chopsticks as this shows that you have made an effort.
  • Wait to be told where to sit. The guest of honour is normally given a seat facing the door.
  • The host will be the first to begin eating.
  • You should try everything on the table that is offered to you.
  • Never eat the last piece from the serving tray.
  • Be observant to other peoples’ needs when dining.
  • 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.
  • Never 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.

Dining Etiquette:

I absolutely 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 mind 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 which can cause offence.

Tipping Etiquette:

Tipping is now becoming more and more common, especially with younger workers although a lot of older generation still see it as 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; the word respect is probably the most important in Chinese culture.

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Be very patient. Business can take 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 non-existent 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.
  • Do not take the Chinese nod as a signal of 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:

  • 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.
  • You should arrive at meetings on time or slightly early. The Chinese view punctuality as a virtue. Arriving late is considered an insult and could 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.
  • 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 will be able to brief the interpreter prior to the meeting.
  • Written material should be available in both English and Chinese, using simplified characters. Please make sure that you are 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.
  • 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.
  • Chinese are non-confrontational. They will not overtly say ‘no’, they will say ‘they will think about it’ or ‘they will see’ so please be prepared for this.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Your starting price should leave room for negotiation.
  • At the end of a meeting, you are expected to leave before your Chinese counterparts.

Dress Etiquette:

Dress styles are changing quickly in today’s China. Most City Chinese will wear a western style suit and tie for a business and even less formal meeting. It is best for foreigners to dress formally. Women should avoid low necklines and hemlines that rise above the knee. Jewellery will be noticed; modest gold jewellery and a quality watch and shoes will count in your favour. However, avoid overly expensive jewellery or showy ornaments.

  • Business attire is conservative and unpretentious.
  • Men should wear dark coloured, conservative business suits.
  • Women should wear conservative business suits or dresses with a high neckline.
  • Women should wear flat shoes or shoes with very low heels.
  • Bright colours should be avoided.

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 as this will be 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 patronising 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.
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