Confucius Says: It’s All About the Guanxi! Business Etiquette in China

Jan, 03, 2011


When conducting business in China, there are many protocols to be followed. Jenny Li, author of Passport China, writes that success in international business is about people, traditions, and relationships. Cultural Savvy president Joyce Miller adds, “Throughout much of Chinese history, the fundamental glue that has held the society together is the concept of guanxi (gwanji), or relationships between people.” With that in mind, it’s important to do your homework.

Before Leaving Home

Introductions. The most effective way to develop business connections in China is to engage an intermediary from home for assistance. A written introduction ahead of time will create a positive first impression; you will be far more accepted, and your credibility will rise to the top! The letter from this person should be submitted in advance of your trip. The letter should explain the reasons for your visit and include an agenda. As a next step, write a letter to request a meeting, and enclose the letter of introduction. Once a meeting is granted, bring your original letter of introduction to reaffirm your character.

Doing Business in China

The Chinese do not like to do business with strangers. Much as we cultivate and nurture personal relationships at home, the Chinese cultivate business relationships. Rank and profession are taken very seriously! The Chinese like small talk, so attempting to initiate business from the get-go is not wise.

It’s All About the Business Card. Overseas, you will need two passports: one from the United States and the other for your business card. In other words, your business card is your passport to the world of Chinese business. The business card is always extended with two hands with the text facing out, Chinese translation side up, English side down, in ceremonial fashion. After you have received business cards of all the others at the meeting, you should spread them out in front of you on the meeting table. This is a sign of respect and will also help you to remember names. Putting a card in your pocket right after receiving it is considered rude.

Don’t be surprised if you see Chinese spitting in the streets, pushing and shoving at train stations, or smoking everywhere. These are accepted customs.

Cuisine. If you’ve never had thousand-year-old eggs, this may be your chance. The Chinese love cuisine served banquet style. Try and sample a little bit of everything, but leave some food on your plate. A clean plate means you’re still hungry, so be prepared for seconds or even thirds to be served.

Bad Luck Colors. Never write or send cards in red ink; this symbolizes the end of a relationship. The color white is reserved for funeral flowers, and clocks signify death. Red is reserved for brides, so avoid wearing this color at meetings.

Dress. Stick with business suits and dresses, and avoid loud colors altogether.

Forms of Address. The Chinese say their surname first, as in Wang, John—the western version of John Wang. Err on the side of formality until you’ve been requested to do otherwise.

Silence is Golden. Listening, more than talking, during a meeting is considered polite. Think before you speak. The Chinese regard patience as a virtue, so there’s no need to fill a void in conversation unless you have something valid to say.

Gift Giving. A small gift is should be presented to the host of the meeting. It should be business related (a key chain with a corporate logo, or something that reflects your company or region) rather than personal. The best time to give a gift is at the onset of a meeting or in private, but never try and outdo your host, as this could cause embarrassment and shame. Avoid wrapping the gift in expensive paper (because a customs agent might tear it open) or in the colors of black or white (which signify death). Don’t give anything sharp such as scissors (which symbolize severing relations).

How Chinese View Themselves. The Chinese take pride in their ancient traditions and philosophies. They see themselves as duty oriented and have a strong sense of family, community, and country, as well as a strong work ethic. They maintain an outward appearance of calm dignity, modesty, and are reserved and unemotional. They are very aware of title and status, and their elders are always afforded the highest amount of respect.

How Chinese View Westerners. They Chinese consider us passionate but impatient, friendly but lacking in sincerity, and candid but not so subtle. Sound familiar?

Interpreters. They are an essential part of doing business in China. Finding one who is both bilingual and bicultural will be the key to your success. Make sure that he/she has a good understanding of the issues involved in your meeting. Brief your interpreter in advance, and try to speak in short sentences or avoid using words that can be misinterpreted. Pausing after every few sentences is a good way to let your interpreter catch up; practice ahead of time with them if necessary.

Introductions. A handshake or a slight bow from the head to the shoulder is an acceptable greeting. Full titles should be used when making introductions. The head of the Chinese team will make a statement before the presentation. Likewise, at the end of the meeting, the head of the team will signal closure.

Meeting Protocol. Punctuality is a sign of respect, so do your best to be on time if not early. Have an agenda and stick to it. The agenda should be sent in advance with the names of your team in order of rank along with their biographies. The Chinese assume that the first to enter the meeting will be the head of the delegation, and therefore have the highest rank. Everyone is greeted in the room in descending order of rank.

Safe Topics of Discussion. Family, weather, fashion, travel, art, food, and sports.

Superstitions. The power of numbers is evident in China. Five numbers in particular have special connotations in business: The number 4 signifies death. Rather than having a fourth floor, Chinese buildings have 3A and 3B. The number 6 represents luck and also stands for the six spirits of nature (wind, mountain, river, moon, sun, and lightning). The number 8 is considered the luckiest of all numbers, especially in multiples of two or three, such as 88 or 888. The number 9 stands for longevity, and 13 implies bad luck, just as it does in the West.

Time. The Western concept of “time is money” is widely known to the Chinese, but they generally resist being constrained by deadlines. In China, time is fluid; the importance of deadlines is related more to convenience and respect than to closing a deal.

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]Lisa Mirza Grotts is a recognized etiquette expert, an on-air contributor, and the author of A Traveler’s Passport to Etiquette. She is a former director of protocol for the city and county of San Francisco and the founder and CEO of The AML Group (, certified etiquette and protocol consultants. Her clients range from Stanford Hospital to Cornell University and Levi Strauss. She has been quoted by Condé Nast Traveler, InStyle magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times. To learn more about Lisa, follow her on and

Follow Lisa Mirza Grotts on Twitter.[/author_info] [/author]

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