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China - Etiquette

China calls itself a li yí zhi bang, nation of etiquette. And this belief is particularly entrenched among the people of Shandong Province, hometown of Confucius (551-479 BC) and Mencius (372-289 BC). The philosophy of Confucianism emphasizes morality and proper social relations. When it comes to the Chinese etiquette, its history is an eternal topic. China has been a land of courtesy since ancient times. Etiquette is not only the precious legacy of Chinese civilization, but also a valuable wealth that deserves to be passed onto the coming generations.

Many of the ancient ceremonies are no longer performed in modern Chinese society, but the core concept of "Etiquette" remains intact over ages and becomes even more relevant today. Traditional virtues such as respecting the elderly and caring for the young, respecting teachers and promoting education, as well as reciprocal courtesy, find their way deep into the Chinese people's heart and are widely honored and followed.

Understanding the ins and outs of Chinese etiquette, from proper banquet behavior to gift-giving and business card exchange, can only help to enhance business relations and avoid embarrassing faux pas. Etiquette is especially important on occasions such as weddings and funerals.

Do not use large hand movements. The Chinese do not speak with their hands. Your movements may be distracting to your host. Do not have too much personal contact. It is highly inappropriate for a man to touch a woman in public. Do not point when speaking. To point, do not use your index finger, use an open palm.

In China, the most fundamental etiquette is da zhao hu, to offer greetings. The first phrase learned in Chinese might be ni hao, hello. In the old days of Beijing when people came across the acquaintances they usually asked “ni chi le ma?", “Have you eaten?” Some elderly locals still exchange such greetings today.

In China, people are seldom addressed as Ms. or Mr. instead, they prefer to use people’s titles and surname, for example, Wáng Zhu rèn, Director Wang. Otherwise, they would say lao shi, teacher, as a substitute when a person (not necessarily with a teaching job) does not have a specific title. Such forms of address change according to the situation. For example, shi fu, master, a respectful appellative usually for the working class, is how you would address a taxi driver.


Chinese value rank and status. The Asian concept of face, or mianzi, is similar to the Western concept of face, but it is far more important in most Asian countries. Face is associated with honor, dignity and a deep sense of pride. Causing someone to lose face, even if the offense was unintentional, could cause serious damage to a relationship.

In addition, the concept of face is important in the business world. In China, sending someone of lower status to receive a high-ranking guest could cause the guest to lose face. Similarly, seating someone of high rank inappropriately at a banquet, where guests are seated according to rank, could damage that person’s sense of honor and dignity.

If a guest attends an event planned in his or her honor and later reciprocates with a similarly impressive display, both sides can gain face, the host because he or she had the means to put on such an impressive event, and the guest because he or she warranted the event. The absence of the guest of honor from an event that was especially planned could damage the host’s face.


Guanxi (connection) combines aspects of face, obligation, reciprocity and hierarchy. Simply put, it is a network of relationships that carries a certain expectation of mutual benefit.

A guanxi network is made up of people one can count on and trust, who can pull strings and arrange for extra help. First and foremost, these people are family, then perhaps classmates or colleagues.

In granting a favor or help, there is the unspoken expectation of reciprocity, and the receiver is somewhat in debt until the favor is returned.

Generation gap

Guanxi and face are interconnected and are both critically important in understanding Chinese business practices. However, a generational and geographical gap in the importance of these cultural concepts is emerging in China today.

Thus, though it is essential for foreign business people to have a deep understanding of face, guanxi and the more subtle aspects of Chinese culture when meeting with older Chinese colleagues, those concepts are slightly less important when interacting with younger urbanites.

The rising importance of sound business principles and credentials makes it easier to accomplish things without relying exclusively on guanxi connections in contemporary China. Also, China’s shift toward the rule of law is weakening the need for guanxi.

Guanxi is certainly still relevant — it is a simple fact of life that the right connections help anywhere, but it is no longer the golden ticket to obtaining good jobs and accomplishing business objectives in China.

Subtle communication

Comprehending the differences between expats and Chinese communication styles is crucial for business success. For example, Americans tend to use a direct communication style in which “yes” means “yes” and “no” means “no.” In China, however, a direct “no” would cause the person whose proposal is being rejected to lose face, so an indirect style of communication prevails. Thus, a nod of the head could mean either “yes” or “I hear you, but I disagree,” and silence does not necessarily imply consent.

Learning how to maneuver through this language takes time and attention to indirect nonverbal cues. This is important for foreigners to keep in mind at a business meeting. Do not eat all of your meal, because the Chinese will assume you did not receive enough food and are still hungry. Women do not usually drink at meals. Bowing or nodding is the common greeting.

Young people in China today may not have a clear understanding of Confucius’s “Analects” or of his influence on Chinese and other East Asian civilizations, yet aspects of Confucian principles still pervade China today. Despite the current emphasis on making money, concepts like manners and humility are arguably as important today as they were in ancient times.

It is considered impolite to boast or brag, so a common response to a compliment or praise is to be self-deprecating. Complimented on an exquisite home-cooked meal, a Chinese host would be more likely to make a self-deprecating response about the evening than accept a compliment about the food.

Accepting compliments straight out is considered impolite. Yet a distinction must be made between humility and humbleness, for though it is considered polite to show humility in one’s actions, the tendency for China’s nou-veaux riche to flaunt their wealth is anything but humble.

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Page last modified: 14-12-2017 17:07:12 ZULU