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Chinese Etiquette

Welcome to China!     Ni Hao or Hello!

Welcome to our page on Chinese etiquettes on business, eating and dining, gift giving, body language, and everyday etiquette. I hope this page really adds to your knowledge on Chinese etiquette! 

China is known as a state of etiquette and ceremonies. Many proverbs have been passed down from generation to generation such as 'civility costs nothing' or 'courtesy demands reciprocity' and so on. For instance, there is an interesting short story. Once upon a time, a man went on a long tour to visit his friend with a swan as a gift. But it escaped from the cage on the way and in his effort to catch it, he got hold of nothing but a feather. Instead of returning home, he continued his journey with the swan feather. When his friend received this unexpected gift, he was deeply moved by the story as well as the sincerity. And the saying 'the gift is nothing much, but it's the thought that counts.' was spread far and wide.

Chinese used to cup one hand in the other before the chest as a salute. This tradition has a history of more than 2000 years and nowadays it is seldom used except in the Spring Festival. And shaking hands is more popular and appropriate on some formal occasions. Bowing, as to convey respect to the higher level, is often used by the lower like subordinates, students, and attendants. But at present Chinese youngsters tend to simply nod as a greeting. To some extent this evolution reflects the ever-increasing paces of modern life.
 Eating and Dining

  1.  First of all- Where to sit? No you cannot randomly go pick the best seat, right next to a friend of your host. There is a specific order to where you can sit.
  2. The host sits nearest to the door.
  3. The guest of honor sits opposite.
  4. Other honorary guests sit to the left of the guest of honor. 
  5.  Don't eat a whole meal, just sample everything on your plate. There will be a lot of courses.
  6. Don't eat everything on your plate, or your host will see to it that you get more food to eat. Instead leave a little bit of food on your plate.
  7. Never pour your own drink first. Instead make a toast, about business or friendship. Pour everyone a drink, leave no one out, or it will seem as if you forgot them. Even if the persons cup is filled, pour a few drop in, or give the cup a long stare, before moving on. 
  8.  Don't take the last piece of food on the platter, as it will seem as your greedy.
  9. Don't take your chopstick and turn them into forks by poking into the food. You must use the chopstick to pick up the piece.
  10. If you pick up a piece with a chopstick and drop it, don't attempt to pick up another piece instead, keep on trying.
  11. Don't start playing the drums with your chopsticks.
  12. Don't use the chopsticks as tooth picks, or suck on them.
  13. Don't vertically place your chopsticks on top of a bowl, it resembles death. 

 Body Language

  1.  Personal space varies from country to country. The Chinese have less personal space than the westerners, so if you find that they are really close, it is normal. You might step a step back, but they might just take a step closer.
  2. If you are in China, and pushed in a line, don't feel bad, the Chinese aren't use to standing in lines, and you aren't required to be polite to strangers.
  3. Chinese don't like when you point your index finger to point, use this only to call a person( use you open palm to point), snap fingers, and whistle. 
  4.  At the same time, westerners don't like when you slurp your soup, or when you eat and talk at the same time.  Yet the Chinese don't mind.

Gift Giving

  1. A gift should reflect the interests of the giver and receiver. 
  2.  What should you get for a person? Well it should be based on these things:
  3. The Gift should reflect the interests of the giver (that is you) and the receiver. 
  4.  If you are foreign, then consider getting them a gift from your area, or a gift with a companies logo.
  5. Think twice about giving food items to the host they might have the impression that you think they are poor! It is okay to bring candy and fruit baskets though. Alcoholic beverages are okay too, as well as cigarettes and cigarette lighters. 
  6.  Don't wrap the gift in flashy paper, red pink and gold, are best, avoid blue, white, and black!
  7. You could give calculators, stamps, cigarette lighters, and kitchen supplies to the recipient. 
  8.  You could ask your gift-receiver what they would like as a gift, and commonly people would ask for tea, or ink pads. 
  9.  Present your gift to your recipient with two arms, and receive it with two arms.
  10.  Give your friend sharp objects, it says that you want to end the friendship. It you really insist on that item, ask your friend for a penny when you give him or her the present, so you would have sold the item to them. 
  11.  Give anything in sets of four, because four in Chinese sounds similar to death. Don't give anyone anything with storks or cranes on it, anything white, blue, or black, clocks, or straw sandals. 
  12.  Write anything in red ink, even if red is good.
  13. Accept gifts offered to you until you refuse it twice before. Chinese do not want to give the appearance that they are greedy , therefore wont accept the gift until you offer it to them thrice. 
  14.  Give gifts to a person without a good reason to do so, and a person watching. 


  1.  When you first meet a Chinese person, they might seem unfriendly, but that is because they are taught to not show emotions in public, because it is thought to be unacceptable.
  2.  Chinese like being formally introduced to a person by another person. When being introduced to a person, shake their hands. A smile, a wave, a nod, or a bow are good. At the same time kissing and hugging are bad. You can only do this I you know the person really well.
  3. Now you know this person, so give them a compliment. Never, insult a person, do anything to shame them, yell at a person, or try to prove them wrong in front of other people. Instead just pull them over and talk to them privately.
  4. Chinese never refuse or say no to anything, but that doesn't mean they will say yes.  That is because they will lose "face" or get shamed, if someone downright says "no".If you disagree with someone, or have no as an answer say "maybe" or "we'll see”.

Everyday Living

  1. At your friend's house you will be given tea automatically. If your friend asks you if you want tea, that probably means that they don't want to serve you tea, but they want to seem hospitable. You should know what  to do. 
  2.  When you leave your friend's house, they will "see you off", meaning that they will accompany you to your car, or elevator. When you get to know your friend very well, all formalities change, and they will say " I wont be seeing you off "and in turn you must quickly say ' That never crossed my mind!".

As more and more foreign corporations and individuals go to tap the Chinese market, it is better to know some Chinese practices in business contacts and negotiation beforehand.

Business Etiquette and Protocol in China

Relationships & Communication

  1. The Chinese don't like doing business with companies they don't know, so working through an intermediary is crucial. This could be an individual or an organization who can make a formal introduction and vouch for the reliability of your company.
  2.  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.
  3.  Business relationships are built formally after the Chinese get to know you.
  4. Be very patient. It takes a considerable amount of time and is bound up with enormous bureaucracy.
  5. The Chinese see foreigners as representatives of their company rather than as individuals.
  6. Rank is extremely important in business relationships and you must keep rank differences in mind when communicating.
  7. Gender bias is nonexistent in business. 
  8.  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. 
  9.  The Chinese prefer face-to-face meetings rather than written or telephonic communication.
  10. 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.

Business Meeting Etiquette

  1. Appointments are necessary and, if possible, should be made between one-to-two months in advance, preferably in writing.
  2. f 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.
  3. 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
  4.  Pay great attention to the agenda as each Chinese participant has his or her own agenda that they will attempt to introduce. 
  5.  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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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. 
  11.  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.
  12. Presentations should be detailed and factual and focus on long-term benefits. Be prepared for the presentation to be a challenge.

Business Negotiation

  1. Only senior members of the negotiating team will speak. Designate the most senior person in your group as your spokesman for the introductory functions.
  2. Business negotiations occur at a slow pace.
  3. Be prepared for the agenda to become a jumping off point for other discussions. 
  4.  Chinese are non-confrontational. They will not overtly say 'no', they will say 'they will think about it' or 'they will see'.
  5. 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. 
  6.  Decisions may take a long time, as they require careful review and consideration.
  7. Under no circumstances should you lose your temper or you will lose face and irrevocably damage your relationship.
  8. Do not use high-pressure tactics. You might find yourself outmanoeuvred. 
  9.  Business is hierarchical. Decisions are unlikely to be made during the meetings you attend.
  10. The Chinese are shrewd negotiators. 
  11.  Your starting price should leave room for negotiation.

What to Wear?

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

Business Cards

  1. Business cards are exchanged after the initial introduction.
  2. 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.
  3. 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. 
  4.  Hold the card in both hands when offering it, Chinese side facing the recipient.
  5. Examine a business card before putting it on the table next to you or in a business card case.
  6. Never write on someone's card unless so directed.

Chinese courtesies have always been formal to follow strict rules, although sometimes Chinese people seem to be impolite according to Western norms in public places. To well understand Chinese, some concepts should not be ignored

The idea of shame, usually expressed as 'face' could be loosely defined as the 'status' or 'self-respect' in Chinese and by no means alien to foreigners. It is the worst thing for a Chinese to lose face. Never insult, embarrass, shame, yell at or otherwise demean a person. Since all these actions would risk putting a Chinese in a situation that he might lose face. Neither try to prove someone wrong nor shout at him in public. In order to get a successful effect without letting a Chinese lose face, any criticism should be delivered privately, discreetly and tactfully, or else, just opposite to what you wish.

Guanxi (Relationships between People)

Throughout much of Chinese history, the fundamental glue that has held society together is the concept of guanxi, relationships between people. It is very important for the Chinese to have good relationships. They often regard good social relations as a symbol of personal ability and influence. Someone who has no connections would be despised and is only half-Chinese.

Keqi not only means considerate, polite, and well mannered, but also represents humbleness and modesty. It is impolite to be arrogant and brag about oneself or one's inner circle. The expression is most often used in the negative, as in buyao keqi, meaning "you shouldn't be so kind and polite to me," or "you're welcome."

Besides, Chinese seldom express what they think directly and they prefer a roundabout way. Neither show their emotions and feelings in public. They rarely greet people with a handshake, though it is very popular among foreigners, say nothing of embracing or kissing when greeting or saying good-bye. Consequently, it is better not to behave too carefree in public, even though you are well-intentioned. Also, it is advisable to be fairly cautious in political discussions. Do not particularly push yourself forward, or else you are unwelcome.

To sum up, do in Rome as Rome does, but you need not worry about these cultural barriers since most Chinese are hospitable and amiable and will not mind your nonproficiency.

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