China has one of the most ancient and elaborate cultures in the whole world. With over 56 separate cultural groups within this vast country it’s easy to understand why careful and sensitive preparation for any trip to China can be invaluable. Not only is the ethnicity of this country far different from a westernised society, it is also distinct from its Eastern neighbours, for example India and Japan.


The main problem for visitors, especially those on business trips, can be the expectation of westernising the experience, when in fact the Chinese culture is thousands of years older than the modern western one. Efficiency and organisation are absolutely ingrained in their lives and many Chinese people still feel uncomfortable with open shows of emotion. Thoughtfulness and politeness are highly prized and a more ‘up-front’ interaction can still be unsettling in this culture. Touching another person is unusual in public, although a handshake is acceptable and common practice. But men must take extra care to be sensitive to females, for example asking if she is married can be construed wrongly.


Eating out in China is a thoroughly enjoyable experience but some key points must be noted to ensure no offence is caused. Meals are always served to the centre of the table and all the dishes are for everyone to share. The more formal the meal, the more food there will be. The host may use their own chopsticks to put food into your bowl. This is seen as a polite gesture and you should not be offended. Be careful what you do with your chopsticks – tapping them on the bowl is seen as reminiscent of beggars and consequently is bad manners. Placing them upright in the bowl is very bad. You must lay them over the bowl, as the alternative is a reminder of a death shrine and is seen as wishing death on the host. The spout of a teapot should always be pointing to an empty space; it should never point directly towards someone.


Whilst the demeanour of Chinese people can seem stand-offish to some, their warmth and friendliness can often be seen in their keenness to please; sometimes this need to not disappoint can mean that a person will be vague in answers, not wishing to offend with a direct ‘no’.


A key word you will come across in business transactions in China is the word ‘guanxi’. It means ‘connections’ and understanding these carefully developed ‘connections’ could be a key to understanding Chinese culture as a whole. On average a Chinese citizen has only 40 square feet of living space to themselves and many resources are very scarce. It is customary that social connections are used to establish good relationships and to gain access to useful resources. It is vital that you take time and care to build up your guanxi with your hosts. Gift giving, appropriate to your social standing, is a key part of this and a carefully chosen gift will help this building up of relations. Wrap in colourful paper but avoid clocks, green hats and white flowers as these have connotations with death; something with special sentiment will help the relationship building process.


With careful preparation you can enjoy interacting with and learning more about this beautiful and historic culture.

Article by Linguarama:
Take a Cantonese or Mandarin language course with Linguarama to improve your Chinese, or organise an in company language training course for your employees.