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This is the most comprehensive collection of Chinese Business Etiquettes on the planet.
What is the best part?
All of the tips in this 101 guide are from my real consulting business.
And they are 100% actionable.
So if you want to do better business in China, check out this guide.
Chinese Business Etiquette: First Lesson to Do Business in China
With the large and prosperous market, China could be your most lucrative country to do business in.
But it is a big challenge to understand Chinese business culture.
The truth is, it is always misunderstood by the people outside China.
Successful entrepreneurs know the first lesson of doing business in China is to:
Learn Chinese Business Etiquette
In Ultimate Guide to Finding Your Profitable Niche Market in China, when you start following my 7-Step Formula to uncover your profitable business opportunities in China,
You’re probably wondering:
How different are Chinese people doing business from western people?
In this article, I’ll reveal the cultural differences behind the common business activities in China.
They come from my real life consulting practices with my overseas clients.
If you want to share any stories, let me know!
Here we go.
Table of Contents
- 01. Relationships
- 02. Communication
- 03. Business Meeting
- 04. Business Negotiation
- 05. Dress Code
- 06. Greeting
- 07. Get A Real Chinese Name
- 08. Business Cards
- 09. Gift Giving
- 10. Numbers
- 11. Dining
- 12. Dinner at Home
- 13. Drinking
- 14. After-Dinner Entertainment
- 15. Table Manners
- 16. Tipping
China is considered by many businessmen to be the most difficult country to break into.
Chinese don’t like doing business with individuals or 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 credibility of you or your company.
Some clients tried to make appointments with key decision makers just through cold calls.
They realized this after many trials.
Do Business With Key Decision Makers
You have to impress and do business with decision makers at the very top.
The normal cold call strategy would not work and you will never be taken seriously.
- First, it seems you don’t know the Chinese culture.
- Second, they could not tell whether you are trustworthy.
- Third, they will doubt your capability.
The wise investment is to find a local partner or agent to help you arrange serious meetings and introduce valuable connections.
Personal Relationship Boosts Your Chance of Success
Business relationships are built formally after the Chinese get to know you.
Doing business in China is based heavily on personal relationships, which is called Guanxi.
If you are not a friend, you are basically not a trusted business partner.
Prove Yourself to Win the Trust
Just knowing someone does not win your business.
You might have to meet up several times to achieve your objectives.
People can not judge a person for the first time.
Be Very Patient
Normally it takes a considerable amount of time.
You need time to find the right person.
You need to break through enormous bureaucracy if your client is a big company.
You Chinese clients, big or small, need time to test you to see whether you are honest and reliable.
Doing business in China is not simple at all.
Misunderstandings often happen in communications.
Sales Pitch in the Right Way
Send materials describing your company, its history, and your products/services, in well-translated Simplified Chinese version, or in bilingual version.
In most cases, the best way is not to translate but write a new copy for your Chinese customer.
I hate to see unprofessional sales letters full of errors.
Unfortunately, they are everywhere.
These mistakes will either waste your money and ruin your business potentials.
Let’s check a case study of an overseas medical company’s failure.
Face-to-Face Meetings are More Productive
The Chinese prefer face-to-face meetings rather than written or telephonic communication.
For serious business cooperations, almost no agreement could be reached without meeting in person.
You need to be present for most serious situations, even when you have a very capable managing director here in China.
Work Through Intermediaries to Avoid Misunderstanding
Work through a right capable China local partner, you can ask and answer questions to avoid possible misunderstandings.
Embarrassments often happen in your direct contact.
Keep Rank Differences in Mind
Rank is extremely important in Chinese business relationships.
Keep rank differences in mind all the time.
Meals and Social Events
Meals and social events are not the places for serious business discussions.
Don’t be misled by the saying of “business is done during the meals”.
Avoid Sensitive Political Topics
Don’t talk on topics involving national integrity and potentially painful history.
Don’t judge Chinese cleanliness or manners.
How Many Children Do You Have?
The question “How many children do you have?” was not polite in China since most Chinese families only have one child in the past over thirty years.
It is still sensitive to many people although the policy just changed.
Popular topics includes
- language learning (either Chinese or English),
- and ancient Chinese history.
03. Business Meeting
Appointments in Advance
If possible, serious meetings should be made between one-to-two months in advance, preferably in writing with the meeting purpose, considering the tight schedules of both parties.
Leaving sufficient lead time is a polite way.
And it is necessary for busy men/women.
A Remind Call or Email
Confirm the meeting with a remind call or an Email.
It is necessary, esp. when you need to fly across half of the globe and do not want to see the door closed.
A French client made an appointment with a senior manager in a Fortune 500 company in Shanghai.
The CEO and CFO flew over and asked me to go to the client’s office together.
We were there at the front desk just on time.
However, it took three of us and the two receptionists more than half hour to find the client.
Obviously, he forgot the meeting.
And it took us another half hour to fight for an empty meeting room.
Arrange A Formal Introduction
If you do not have a contact within the company, use an intermediary to arrange a formal introduction.
Always Show Up On Time
Punctuality is a virtue in Chinese culture.
Always show up on time, or slightly early, say 5-10 minutes.
Arriving late is an insult, If traffic delays you, always call.
Send An Agenda Before the Meeting
Send an agenda before the meeting so your Chinese counterpart has the time to prepare prior to the meeting.
Discuss the agenda with your translator/intermediary prior to the meeting.
Find Opportunities in Small Talks
Small talks are important in the meeting, and you can get much information from them.
Arrange your China partner to keep an eye on the small talks, to understand the attitude and feedback on your speech.
Teamwork always works well in business negotiations, we will cover more points in the following.
Bring Your Own Interpreter
It is imperative that you bring your own interpreter or Chinese speaking local partner.
Be sure he/she understands the major concepts prior to the meeting.
Accurate Written Materials
Written materials should be available in both English and Simplified Chinese.
Be very careful about what is written.
Make sure that written translations are accurate.
Presentations should be detailed, factual and focus on long-term benefits.
Visual aids are useful in large meetings.
Colors have special meanings and if you are not careful, your color choice could work against you.
Consult some expert if you want to make some good looking ones.
A safe choice is to use black type on white background.
Building Trust Through Accurate Data And Numbers
Customers might ask many details about your true data.
Share it if it is not classified.
Verify your data and numbers prior to the meeting.
Trust are established on these details.
Promise to give the accurate data after the meeting if you do not have.
I encourage my clients to do this and this is a very practical tip.
Cold Water Is Seldom Available
Cold water is seldom available in China since it’s impolite in Chinese culture.
Don’t be frightened if you can only drink hot tea, hot coffee or hot water.
Sometimes, you can get iced coke in foreign invested companies, but that is quite rare in Chinese invested companies.
After the Meeting
After the meeting, accompany guests beyond the door of the office, or to the elevator.
A normal practice is to accompany the high-ranking guest all the way to the car, and wait until the car has departed before leaving.
04. Business Negotiation
Normally, only senior members of the negotiating team will speak.
Designate the most senior person in your group as your spokesman.
Silence isn’t an invitation for others to talk.
Silence gives one the opportunity to carefully consider what is being said and formulate an appropriate response.
DON’T Assume “Yes” Means Yes
Don’t be pushy.
“We will think about it”, “I will look into it” sometimes means no.
Try to figure out the reason behind the hesitance and try to find an alternative solution.
DON’T Say “NO” in Public
Saying a direct “No” in public is impolite in Chinese traditional culture.
Do it in private.
Waiting for the Decisions
Decisions are unlikely to be made during the meeting.
They may take a long time.
Careful reviews and considerations are necessary.
Your starting offer should always leave room for negotiation.
You must be willing to show compromise and ensure Chinese negotiators feel they have gained major concessions.
Contracts are important, but do not rely too much on them.
Try to accumulate as little Chinese debt as possible.
Don’t deliver too much before getting paid, or pay too much before getting something delivered.
I always start with discovery contracts as pilot projects for most consulting cases.
Start some trial orders first to see whether it really works.
05. Dress Code
Conservative suits for men with subtle colors are the norm.
Fancy clothes like red pants, yellow suit are not accepted.
Women should wear conservative business suits or dresses with a high neckline.
Basically, women should avoid high heels and short sleeved blouses.
Subtle, neutral colors should be worn by both men and women.
Greetings are formal and the oldest person is always greeted first.
Handshakes are the most common form of greeting with foreigners.
Honorific Title Rules
It’s more important to know someone’s honorific title than to know his or her name.
Feel free to drop the vice from their title when referring to them.
The common combination of address is Surname + Title.
A typical example is:
YES, You’ve got it!
If they want to move to another way of address, they will advise you which name to use.
Chinese who frequently deal with foreigners or travel abroad on business may adopt a Western first name, such as David Liu.
They may request that they are referred to as David, or Sally etc, once a relationship has been established.
Now I prefer using my Chinese name Chao instead of my English.
07. Get A Real Chinese Name
When you have a good Chinese name, Chinese people will think you are passionate about the Chinese market and culture.
But, make sure you get a real one.
Easy to Remember
Get a Real Chinese name if you want others to remember you easily.
Normally Chinese People can not remember your full name in foreign languages.
It is always more difficult if it is some long Spanish name.
Chinese Name Auto-generator
Do not use any online Chinese name auto-generator.
The chance to get a good Chinese name in this way is like winning a lottery.
Non-native Chinese Speakers
Do not ask non-native Chinese speakers to make one up for you.
Random People on the Internet
Do not ask a random people on the Internet to think of one for you.
Random Chinese Native Speaker
Do not ask a random Chinese native speaker you know to think of one for you.
Check and Evaluate
Do not ask a random people to check or evaluate your Chinese name.
People are doing the above quite a lot, even for their business names.
It’s such a bad idea because there are so many cultural nuances involved with finding an appropriate Chinese name.
You always end up with
- A typical “foreign name”.
- A nonsense name.
- A ridiculous and funny name.
- A name that looks strange.
- A name that sounds awful, or weird.
- A name of a notorious villain in a classic novel, in a popular drama or movie, or in the history.
- A name with unlucky meaning.
Many Chinese native speakers still need to consult Chinese Name expert for a good name.
08. Business Cards
Time to Exchange
Business cards are exchanged after the initial introduction.
Have your business card translated into Simplified Chinese and make sure the translation is correct.
Include Your Title
Your business card should include your title.
People will understand your rank and arrange your counterpart for the possible appointments.
Indicate Your Strength
If your company is the oldest or largest in your country, include the fact on your card as well.
These are what people would like to know.
A sufficient supply of business cards will be required.
You will need to give out cards to everyone you meet.
It is quite embarrassing when you are out of the business cards.
Use Both Hands to Present
Use both hands to present your business cards, with Chinese side facing the recipient.
It’s Not a Card Game
Never deal out your cards across the table like a card game.
Use Both Hands to Receive
Use both hands to receive business cards to show the respect too.
Where to Put: Pocket/Bag
Never immediately put the card in a pocket or bag.
Where to Put: Pants
Never put a card in your back pants pocket.
Examine a Business Card
Examine a business card before putting it on the table next to you or in a business card case.
- Can I Write on the Business Card?
Never write on someone’s card unless so directed.
I’d read some tips for doing business in China to instruct one to print in gold ink since gold is an auspicious color.
This “golden” tip is obviously misleading.
I do not think it’s wise to do so nowadays.
09. Gift Giving
Do Not Bribe
One-sided gift-giving is awkward and sometimes improper gifts might be even considered as bribery.
It’s best to arrange through your assistant or intermediary to see whether exchanging gifts is a good idea.
One European guy flew over to Shanghai with two bottles of nice French wine in his luggage.
He planned to bring them as the present to the senior managers he will meet for the first time in a big internet company.
He told me he followed a China business guide written by a western guy.
I stopped his attempt.
The reality is, more than 10 people are sitting in the same conference room that day.
It would be embarrassing if two bottles of wine show up.
When is the Suitable Time?
In general, gifts are given at Chinese New Year, weddings, births, birthdays, and more recently, Christmas.
For business, it could be on some milestones of cooperation or memorial moments.
Better Not Made in China
A good gift idea is something with nice packaging, and more important, not made in China:)
Never give scissors, knives or other cutting utensils as they indicate the severing of the relationship.
Never give clocks, handkerchiefs or straw sandals as they are associated with funerals and death.
Clocks are the worst gift in China, however, watches are fine.
Do not give white flowers in business ocassions, as many Chinese associate these with funerals.
Lilies could be sent to your girlfriend.
Wrap the Gifts
Do not wrap gifts in white, blue or black paper.
Always present gifts with two hands.
Open the Gifts
In Chinese tradition, Gifts are not opened when received.
But young people can accept the western way to open the gift when they get it.
Acceptance vs Refusal
Gifts may be refused once, twice or even three times before they are accepted.
This is the Chinese tradition to show the humble attitude to accept any gift.
Four is an unlucky number because it sounds like the word “death” in mandarin Chinese.
So do not give four of anything.
Six is considered a blessing for smoothness and progress.
Eight is the luckiest number in Chinese culture, so giving eight of something brings luck to the recipient.
Chinese number gesture of 8
The thumb and index finger make an “L”, other fingers closed, with the palm facing the observer.
A client told me an embarrassing story.
Once he went to buy steamed stuffed buns.
He wanted two buns and made a sign like what I did in the picture above.
The Chinese vendor sold him eight instead of two.
Entertaining guests at a Chinese banquet is a very popular and important way to establish the relationship.
Dining out is more preferred than at home, especially when entertaining foreigners.
Good Time for Dinner
Don’t suggest meeting for dinner too late, basically Chinese eat at set hours, eg. 18:00 is normally a good time to suggest for a dinner.
The host will always take a central seat opposite the door.
No Cocktail Hour
There’s no cocktail hour before the dinner.
Do not discuss specific business issues during the meal.
Some people made it worse.
No Sales Pitch at the Dinner Table
Do Not open the computer and make sales pitch at the dinner table.
However, It really happens.:)
An American guy put his notebook on the dinner table and made a long sales pitch when all the dishes were ready, turning cold.
This is a true story happened last summer in Quanjude, a famous Beijing duck restaurant.
All the people on the same table are quite embarrassed, not knowing whether they can eat, or not.
So I list this as a separate tip.
Share the Food
Dishes are almost always ordered communally and shared.
Ask for a spoon and a fork if you are not good at chopsticks.
After the Dinner
Normally the host will see the guests to the door, or to the car.
But there are always exceptions.
12. Dinner at Home
A Great Honor
If you are invited to their house, consider it a great honor.
And it is the opportunity to establish a personal relationship.
Needless to repeat the importance.
Remove Your Shoes
Remove your shoes before entering the house.
Bring a small gift to the hostess.
And this is the best time to give the present.
Enjoy your dinner and feel what is a typical Chinese family life.
Many Chinese parents want their children to speak good English.
Don’t be surprised if they ask their children to practice English with you.
Drink Some Wine
Drinking is an important part in Chinese entertaining.
Drink some wine if you can, but not too much.
An Appropriate Toast
Be prepared with an appropriate toast.
Safe topics for toasts are
- Pledges for cooperation,
- Mutual benefit and the desire to reciprocate the hospitality.
Common Toast Expressions
The most common expression for toasting is Gan bei, meaning bottoms up, literally.
Another expression, Sui yi, means “as you wish” or at your own pace.
Do Not Pour Your Own Drink
It is the responsibility of the host to attend to the guests.
The person seated next to you may pour a drink for you.
You should reciprocate.
Wine Culture Difference in China
Wine culture in the Northern part of China is more formal.
If you do not drink, people would threat that they will not do business with you.
Sometimes they mean it.
The wine culture varies in different places in northern China too.
Consult your local guide for some survival guide.
I am not kidding.
In the southern part of China, you can feel more comfortable since most people will not force you to drink.
Red Wine With Coke
Drinking red wine is popular in bigger cities now in China, but some Chinese will mix it with Coke.
In most occasions, you’ll be offered a grain alcohol, called Baijiu, it is very strong.
Sometimes, the host will entertain a high-end distilled wine, mou-tai for most valued guests.
How to Avoid Drinking?
Most Chinese hosts understand if you are unable to drink alcohol.
You may use tea or a soft drink for the toast.
Stating medical reasons is always a good way to get out of drinking alcohol.
However, if you can drink, it is easier for you to build connections.
Do Not Sign any Deal After Drink
Leave these stuff to following days.
14. After-Dinner Entertainment
Like dining together, after-dinner entertainment is an excellent way to build a personal relationship.
One of the most popular entertainment is karaoke, or singing.
Practice one or two songs well and enjoy it.
Again, You may need to drink more.
Don’t Sign Any Deal After Drink
I know, it is a repeated warning.
15. Table Manners
Wait and the host will arrange the seat for you.
Guest of Honor
The guest of honor will sit facing the door.
When to Start
The host begins eating first and offers the first toast.
Learn to Use Chopsticks
Using chopsticks well makes you closer with your Chinese clients.
It is polite to try everything that is offered to you.
If you don’t like it, just try only a little bit.
Be observant to other peoples’ needs.
Do Not Put Bones in Your Bowl.
Place them on the table or in a special plate for that purpose.
Never Leave Chopsticks Sticking Upright Out Of Dishes
It’s the Chinese practice of leaving such dishes for the dead.
Always place on a chopsticks rest or horizontally on the side of a dish.
No Tipping Culture
Tipping is not officially forbidden, but it is not common, most service staff in local hotels, restaurants, and taxis do no expect tips.
Most local restaurants forbid the employees to take tips….
No tipping does not mean you don’t like the service.
Don’t be guilty of this.
Tipping on Foreign Services
Tipping on services targeting foreign customers are common.
Many western restaurants and hotels in China allow their employees to accept tips.
Young vs Old
Younger workers prefer to accept it although older workers still consider it an insult.
How Much for Tips
There is no standard rules for the specific tipping amount in a country without this culture.
Sometimes leaving a few coins is sufficient.
You can be generous to give more too.
You can also follow your habit, like 10-20% of the total bill like what you do in the US or Europe.
Tipping in Private
If you want to acknowledge special service or assistance, do tip in private.
Now It’s Your Turn…
Now that you’ve seen many tips of Chinese business etiquette.
I’d like to hear from you.
What do you think of the above rules?
Or maybe you have a question about a specific situation.
Either way, leave a comment quick below.
I’ll be around to reply to comments and answer questions.
Cheng Chao has extensive expertise in China market entry, global translation & localization, cross-border business development, and global digital marketing.
Chao founded ChineseTrans, where he led a team of senior linguists to establish ChineseTrans as the market leader in professional Chinese translation services.
Since 2011, Chao has served as the managing director of SinoStep, a consulting agency helping foreign investment enter into the China market. Backed up with a strong team of China business consultants experienced in different sectors, Chao has successfully introduced dozens of overseas brands into the China market, established their operations in China on early stage and adapted their businesses to the China market.
see Chao's Bio