Opportunities abound for savvy businessmen in Chinese marketplace

Follow etiquette, culture and manners while doing business in China.

China is believed to have the oldest continuous civilization, with a long history of 5,000 years. The official language is standard Chinese, which is derived from the Mandarin. Most business people speak English. There are many dialects in China, as well as varied written languages in different regions.

According to Google Analytics, as of January 1, 2017, the population of China was estimated to be a bit over 1.38 billion. The Chinese practice a variety of religions, and Confucianism is observed widely throughout the country.

Gerard Hendrik (Geert) Hofstede, a Dutch social psychologist, Professor Emeritus of Organizational Anthropology and International Management at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, developed a cultural dimensions theory ─ Power Distance, Individualism, Uncertainty Avoidance, Masculinity, Long-term Orientation, and Indulgence vs Restraint.

Power Distance: This dimension deals with the fact that all individuals in societies are not equal — it expresses the attitude of the culture toward these inequalities among us.

Individualism: The fundamental issue addressed by this dimension is “the degree of interdependence a society maintains among its members.” It has to do with whether people’s self-image is defined in terms of “I” or “we.” In individualist societies people are supposed to look after themselves and their direct family only. In collectivist societies people belong to “in groups” that take care of them in exchange for loyalty.

Masculinity: A high score (Masculine) on this dimension indicates that the society will be driven by competition, achievement and success, with success being defined by the winner/best in field. A low score (Feminine) on the dimension means that the dominant values in society are caring for others and quality of life.

Uncertainty Avoidance: This has to do with the way a society deals with the fact that the future can never be known: Should we try to control the future or just let it happen? This ambiguity brings with it anxiety, and different cultures have learnt to deal with this anxiety in different ways.

Long-term Orientation: This dimension describes “how every society has to maintain some links with its own past while dealing with the challenges of the present and future,” and societies prioritize these two existential goals differently. Normative societies which score low on this dimension, for example, prefer to maintain time-honored traditions and norms while viewing societal change with suspicion.

Indulgence: This dimension is defined as “the extent to which people try to control their desires and impulses” based on the way they were raised. Relatively weak control is called “Indulgence” and relatively strong control is called “Restraint.” 

Geert Hofstede’s analysis of China indicates a society’s time perspective and an attitude of persevering; that is, overcoming obstacles with time, if not with will and strength.

The Chinese rank lower than any other Asian country in the Individualism ranking, at 20 compared with an average of 24. This may be attributed, in part, to the high level of emphasis on a collectivist society.

The low Individualism ranking manifests a close and committed member “group,” be that a family, extended family, or extended relationships. Loyalty in a collectivist culture is paramount. 

As the most densely populated country in the world, opportunities abound for the savvy foreign business person or otherwise business entity seeking a presence in the Chinese marketplace. 

However, I attach a caveat to this remark for those who foolishly subscribe to the notion that by simply turning up in China, a pot of gold awaits. Observing certain procedures will be of value for those entrepreneurs imbued with an intrepid spirit entering the Chinese marketplace.


Always present and receive cards with both hands.

Appearance in China

Conservative suits for men with subtle colors are the norm. Women should avoid short-sleeved blouses. The Chinese frown on women who display too much. Subtle colors should be worn by both men and women. 

Men and women can wear jeans. However, jeans are not acceptable for business meetings. Revealing clothing for women is considered inappropriate to Chinese businessmen.

Behavior & manners

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.

It is considered improper to put your hand in your mouth. Avoid acts that involve the mouth. Gift giving is a very delicate issue in China. It is illegal to give gifts to government officials, however, it has become more commonplace in the business world. It is more acceptable to give gifts either in private or to a group as a whole to avoid embarrassment. The most acceptable gift is a banquet. Quality writing pens are considered favored gifts.

The following gifts and/or colors are associated with death and should not be given: clocks, straw sandals, a stork or crane, handkerchiefs and anything white, blue or black.

Always arrive on time or early if you are the guest. Do not start to eat or drink prior to the host. As a cultural courtesy, you should taste all the dishes you are offered. Sample meals only, there may be several courses. 

Never place your chopsticks straight up in your bowl, because it will remind your host of joss sticks which connotes death. Do not drop the chopsticks as it is considered bad luck. 

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. 

Tipping is considered insulting; however, the practice is becoming more common.

Communications in China

Bowing or nodding is the common greeting; however, you may be offered a handshake. Wait for the Chinese to offer their hand first.

Applause is common when greeting a crowd; the same is expected in return. Introductions are formal. Use formal titles. Often times Chinese will use a nickname to assist Westerners. 

Being on time is vital in China. Appointments are a must for business. Contacts should be made prior to your trip. Bring several copies of all written documents for your meetings. 

The decision-making process is slow. You should not expect to conclude your business swiftly. Many Chinese will want to consult with the stars or wait for a lucky day before they make a decision. 

Present and receive cards with both hands. Avoid writing on a business card or putting it in your wallet or pocket. Carry a small card case.

The most important member of your company or group should lead important meetings. Chinese value rank and status. Develop a working knowledge of Chinese culture. Finally, allow the Chinese to leave a meeting first.

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