Chinese Culture 101 | Part 8 – Practical Tips

This post is the last of a series exploring Chinese culture. To get up to speed see the links at the bottom of this page for more.

When working with Chinese teams/partners here are some practical tips which will hopefully make things a little smoother:

  1. Spend as much time as you can in China to learn and form relationships. Remember that western logic does not apply and a long-term patient approach will be required.
  2. Never openly criticise, ignore or make fun of a person in front of others (even jokingly). When discussing individual performance emphasize good points before bad ones.
  3. Be very specific when assigning tasks, defining schedules and setting expectations. Any ambiguity could be used as an excuse for inaction or misinterpretation.
  4. Incentives of compensation (money), promotion, or the potential to gain face (mianzi) are all good motivators. Encourage and reward the type of behaviour you wish to build (e.g. creative thinking, delegating decision making etc.).
  5. Hiring good local people is often the key to success as they will know best how to operate within the local environment but be sure that they are trustworthy before entering any partnership. The Chinese don’t consider contracts as seriously as in the west so be very explicit about the terms of your engagement. Expect changes down the road.
  6. When meeting someone for the first time having a suitable small gift (such as food/drink from your home country) is a good gesture. Business cards should be presented and accepted with both hands and read before being put away (as a sign of respect).
  7. Chinese may ask you personal questions or make observations about your age, income, religion or appearance but don’t take it personally. Likewise Chinese rarely say “please” or “thank you” as this is seen as an unnecessary formality between friends.
  8. Dining is about showing respect and hospitality to the guests and is often used as an extension of the boardroom. The host should propose the first toast and this should be reciprocated later on by the guest. Seating may be arranged in order of seniority also.
  9. Be aware that some colours have different meanings in China, the most obvious being red which symbolizes prosperity/luck in China but warning/danger in the west. This is important to take into account when publishing or designing products.
  10. Try to avoid sensitive topics of conversation regarding politics, especially concerning Tibet or Taiwan. Close Chinese friends may be happy to discuss these things but not openly in the workplace. Playing the moral high ground will earn you no respect.


To be successful in China requires that you recognize and accept that there will be differences which may make you feel uncomfortable or frustrated from time to time. Different ways of thinking and reacting to whatever situation you are in will be needed.

Go forward comrads!
Photo by HKmPUA

At the end of the day, China and Chinese people are hard to define or understand, and not just to foreigners, even Chinese people find themselves fairly incomprehensible at times. Chinese historian Professor Yi Zhongtian puts this well:

The Chinese people are frank yet tactful, honest yet sophisticated, suspicious yet gullible, stubborn yet flexible, unscrupulous yet loyal, advocate etiquette yet often appear unmannered, stand for the golden mean yet are extreme, value the quality of being thrifty yet like to parade their wealth, maintain traditions when convenient yet love to chase modern fashion, believe contentment brings happiness yet often daydream about becoming overnight millionaires, believe the word of the fortune teller yet lack affiliation to any religion, like to form groups yet often fight, love to be controversial yet know how to smooth things over, do not like to be meddlesome yet love to gossip, know how to “seize the day” yet always talk about taking life easy…

In many respects, China is one big contradiction which refuses to be placed in a box. With this in mind take the advice given here as guidelines rather than hard-and-fast rules. Remember to trust your intuition (common sense still applies) and that people will be more forgiving to foreigners if you make the occasional cultural faux pas! In China, you will find all extremes but that’s all part of the challenge and adventure of doing business here. Be patient and have fun!

While this is the end of the series I’ll be following up soon with an expanded and consolidated version to download – I hope it’s been an interesting and useful look at Chinese culture. If there’s enough interest I may write another to delve more deeply into other aspects of life in China.

Update (29 Sept 2009): I’ve used some of the content from this series in a number of presentations about understanding cultural differences.

Other posts in this series:

  1. History
  2. Language
  3. Society
  4. Education
  5. Food / Dining
  6. Core Concepts
  7. Key Differences
  8. 10 Practical Tips (this post)
David avatar

4 responses

  1. On point and truly helpful. Not only just good reminders but also real eyeopeners. Thanks for the insight.

    1. Thanks Stephen, I was rather expecting more angry comments telling me I’d got everything wrong but so far things have been positive. Glad you found it helpful.

  2. Adeel avatar

    You know you could have posted this like a month ago when I was in BJ :). Quite true and as Stephen said good reminders.

  3. Gareth avatar

    great work! so many good points. thanks for sharing.


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