Chinese Culture, Etiquette & Protocol
By Joyce Millet  






Reprint Permission












Great Wall of China

Confucius, China's greatest sage established a system of ethics, morals, hierarchy and behavior, setting the rules for people dealing with other people, and establishing each person's proper place in society. 


These cultural elements, along with others not mentioned, have a direct impact on the effectiveness of doing business in China. This is just "the tip of the iceberg" in a China cultural training program. Leaning to understand what is hidden "below the surface" can mean the difference between success and failure in China. 

The Five Major Relationships of Confucius











Key Concepts in Understanding Chinese Culture

Guanxi: Throughout much of Chinese history, the fundamental glue that has held society together is the concept of guanxi, relationships between people. Today this means who you know and what these people believe their obligations are to you. With a good network of contacts in China, almost anything can be accomplished. Guanxi is how things get done. 

Reciprocity:  This refers to the exchanging of favors between individuals and groups. People will presume upon those with whom they have guanxi, and understand the need for returning favors.

Mianzi:  Face - losing face, saving face and giving face - is very important and should be taken into consideration at all times. Loosing your temper, confronting someone, putting someone on the spot, arrogant behavior, or failing to accord proper respect can cause a loss of face. 

Li and Surface Harmony:  Originally li meant to sacrifice, but today it is translated as the art of being polite and courteous. Proper etiquette preserves harmony and face. Therefore, the true emotions of a person do not matter as long as surface harmony is maintained. For example, a public argument, or a boss reprimanding a staff member in front of others would disturb surface harmony and cause a loss of face. This is why the Chinese often use an intermediary to deliver bad news or unpleasant messages.

The most fundamental cultural difference between Chinese and Americans relates to the role of the individual. The Chinese place great importance on the group and consensus. One’s status in society dictates how one treats others and is treated by others. 

:  Ke means guest and qi means behavior. It not only means considerate, polite, and well mannered, but also represents humbleness and modesty. It is impolite to be arrogant and brag about oneself or one’s inner circle. The expression is most often used in the negative, as in buyao keqi, meaning “you shouldn’t be so kind and polite to me,” or “you’re welcome.”

Inner and outer circles: The rules of behavior set forth by Confucius apply to one's inner circle, i.e. family, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. They do not, as a rule, apply to people outside the circle, i.e. strangers. It is not considered rude to bump into someone without offering an apology. 

The Western concept of being kind to strangers seems strange to the Chinese. This also explains why there is no strong concept of philanthropy in China.

Getting to Know Each Other

Greetings and Introductions

  • Chinese prefer to be formally introduced to someone new. This applies to both Chinese and foreigners

  • Do not be surprised if you are applauded. Be sure to applaud back

  • Always stand up when being introduced and remain standing throughout the introductions

  • When being introduced to Chinese, the accepted form of greeting is the handshake, even among Chinese. Chinese may also nod or slightly bow 

  • Unlike the Japanese, the Chinese bow from the shoulders rather than the waist

Business Card Presentation and Exchange

  • Use both hands when presenting business cards and be sure the writing faces the person to whom you are presenting your card

  • Cards should also be received with both hands. Do not immediately put the card in a pocket or bag—this is considered rude. Never put a card in your back pants pocket. This would be the same as sitting on someone’s face

  • Follow with “I am pleased to meet you/how are you?” Ni hao in Chinese

  • When seated, place cards on the table horizontally. Placing cards vertically indicates hierarchy. This shows respect and is also an excellent way to remember names

  • Never “deal out” your cards across the table like a game of cards – this is very rude

Forms of Address and Titles

  • The Chinese will state their last name first, followed by the given name (may be one or two syllables). For example, Liu Jianguo, in Chinese would be Mr. Jianguo Liu using the Western style

  • Never call someone by only his or her last name. Unless specifically asked, do not call someone by his or her first name

  • Addressing someone by his or her courtesy or professional title and last name conveys respect. In Chinese the name precedes the title. For example, Liu Xiansheng for Mr. Liu, and Liu Jingli for Manager Liu

  • Women’s names cannot be distinguished from men's names. Chinese women use their maiden names even after marriage, but may indicate marital status by using Mrs., Ms., Miss, or Madam. Mrs. Wang might be married to Mr. Liu

  • Courtesy titles for women include:

    • Taitai or Furen = Mrs. or Madam

    • Nushi = Ms.

    • Xiaojie = Miss 

  • Foreign women may be addressed by using Miss plus the first name. Jane Smith may be Miss Jane

  • Chinese who frequently deal with foreigners or travel abroad on business may adopt a Western first name, such as David Liu. They may request that they be referred to as David, once a relationship has been established

  • Do not use the term "comrade" in China 

  • Among themselves, they often call each other LaoLi, or Xiao Li, in which “Lao” means Senior or older and “Xiao” means young and junior. People are comfortable relating to each other with the age factor clearly defined. Chinese culture stresses respect for the old and care for the young

Personal Questions

  • Do not be surprised when asked personal questions regarding age, marital status, children, family, income, job, etc. This is done to seek common ground

  • On the other hand, the Chinese will be uncomfortable with American familiarity, particularly early in a relationship


  • Unlike the Western custom, compliments are not graciously accepted with a “thank you,” but rather with “not at all or it was nothing.” Accepting and giving direct praise is considered poor etiquette

  • A common Chinese phrase is nali, meaning “where.” However, the Chinese will use this expression to convey “not at all” or “it really isn’t anything”

  • However, among the younger generation and those who often deal with foreigners, they often respond to compliment with a “thank you”


  • Silence is used effectively. Not talking while others do signifies politeness

  • Silence in meetings and during discussions gives one the opportunity to carefully consider what is being said and formulate an appropriate response. Resist the urge to fill the silence and continue talking. Patience is indeed a virtue

  • The Chinese concept of privacy differs significantly from that in the West, where people are used to having their own space, office, room. The Chinese are not accustomed to this luxury. Privacy to them relates to their own thoughts and emotions that they proudly keep to themselves

Saying “No”

  • Refusing requests and saying no can cause a loss of face and disrupt surface harmony

  • The Chinese have many ways of indicating refusal without actually saying “no”. Commonly you will hear “that would be inconvenient,” or “it will be taken under consideration,” or “it is being discussed” 


  • When departing, accompany guests beyond the door of the office or meeting room. Guests should be accompanied to the elevator.

  • The host will accompany a high-ranking guest all the way to the car, and wait until the car has departed before leaving. Don’t turn your back to the car until it is out of sight

Non-verbal Communication

Social Distance

  • Every culture defines proper distance. Westerners, particularly Americans, find that the Chinese comfort zone regarding distance is a bit too close for their comfort

  • Instinctively Westerners may back up when others invade their space. Do not be surprised to find that the Chinese will simply step closer


  • The Chinese do not like to be touched, particularly by strangers. Do not hug, back slap or put an arm around someone’s shoulder

  • Do not be offended if you are pushed and shoved in a line. In some circumstances, the Chinese do not practice the art of lining up and courtesy to strangers in public places is not required

  • People of the same sex may walk hand-in-hand as a gesture of friendship in China

Gestures & Customs

  • Western gestures that are taboo in China include: 

    • Pointing the index finger--use the open hand instead

    • Using index finger to call someone—use the hand with fingers motioning downward as in waving.
      Do not snap fingers

    • Do not put feet on a desk or coffee table. It is rude to show the soles of the shoes

    • Whistling is considered rude

    • Use both hands when handing someone an object, such as a teacup, a gift, or a business card

  • Western gestures that confuse:

    • Shrugging shoulders

    • Winking

    • The “OK” sign (Be cautions when using gestures – they don’t always translate across cultures)

  • Mutually-understood gestures:

    • Nodding the head up and down for agreement, side to side for disagreement

    • Thumbs up indicating approval

    • The smile

    • Laughter. However, a note of caution: Although laughter is the response to something humorous, it can also mean someone is uncomfortable or in a situation where they do not know how to respond. Consider the situation 

  • Chinese customs that are confusing to Westerners:

    • Waving the hand in front of the face to indicate “no”

    • Pointing to the nose to indicate “oneself,” rather than to the chest 

    • Girls covering one’s face and giggling to show embarrassment

Etiquette & Protocol


  • Protocol begins when guests arrive. It is appropriate to greet guests and escort them to the meeting room

  • It is important to have the right attendees for meetings, thus the Chinese desire to have guest lists, detailed information and meeting purpose clearly defined in advance

  • Be sure the highest-ranking person enters the meeting room first, followed by the next ranking official and so on. Otherwise the Chinese may mistake the person entering first as the leader of the delegation. The only exception would be interpreters who need to stay with the leader of the group


  • After everyone shakes hands, guests are seated

  • The more formal the meeting, the more rigid the protocol

  • Guests are seated in descending rank with the interpreters seated behind

  • The guest of honor and other VIPs are escorted to the seats of honor

  • In rooms with seating around the perimeter, the honored guest is seated to the right of the host (on a sofa or chairs at the end of the room). Remaining guests are left to seat themselves. After all the guests have been seated, the remaining Chinese in the group will seat themselves

  • When seated around large conference tables, the honored guest will be seated directly across from the host

Wine & Dine

  • Entertaining guests at a Chinese banquet is a very popular and important way of establishing guanxi

  • The same rules of etiquette apply to entertaining as for meetings regarding greeting guests and proper seating arrangements

  • For more formal banquets, invitations will be sent and place cards will be at the table

  • Guests should sample all of the dishes and leave something on the plate at the end of the meal. A clean plate indicates you are still hungry and it is the host’s responsibility to see that you are continually served food and drink

  • Under no circumstances should chopsticks be placed in the rice standing up. This symbolizes death. Always place on a chopsticks rest or horizontally on the side of a dish

  • There are no firm rules regarding dinner conversation. Depending on the closeness of the relationship, business may or may not be discussed

  • Drinking is an important part of Chinese entertaining and is considered a social lubricant. The drinking officially begins after the host offers a short toast

  • It is always a good idea for the guest to return the toast either right away or after a few courses have been served

  • Be prepared with an appropriate toast

  • Safe topics for toasts are friendship, pledges for cooperation, the desire to reciprocate the hospitality, and mutual benefit

  • Remember that China is the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan is the Republic of China – this is a terrible gaffe. Don’t talk about Taiwan, Tibet and other sensitive topics

  • The Chinese understand if you are unable to drink alcohol. You may use tea or a soft drink for the toast. Stating medical reasons is always a good way to get out of drinking alcohol

  • The most common expression for toasting is Gan bei, meaning “dry cup”, or bottoms up, literally. Another expression, Sui yi, means “as you wish” or at your own pace. It is important to pace yourself throughout the evening

  • The Chinese are not as understanding of tipsy guests as are the Japanese or Koreans. If you feel you have had enough, smile and politely indicate this to your host

  • Do not pour your own drink. It is the responsibility of the host, not the waiter, to attend to the guests. The person seated next to you may pour a drink for you. You should reciprocate

  • The host will see the guests to the door, although a member of the host group may see them to the car. The host will remain behind to pay the bill

  • It is considered impolite to handle money in front of the guests

  • Tipping is not officially sanctioned in China and is still not common. Service staff in local restaurants, hotels, and taxis do not expect tips. However, if you want to acknowledge special service or assistance, do it in private by slipping some money or a small gift to them

  • Today in China, there are more opportunities for late-night entertainment. One of the most popular is karaoke, or singing

  • Karaoke (pronounced ka ra OK, not kereoki) is the popular Japanese invention and means “empty orchestra” because singing is done to the accompaniment of music CD’s and laser discs

  • You are expected to participate but not expected to be a professional singer

  • Do not underestimate the importance of participating in dining and after-dinner entertainment. It is an excellent way to build guanxi

  • If invited by private individuals or organizations, try to reciprocate. The Chinese will always refuse your invitation for meals or drinks at the beginning but insist at least three times to show your sincerity

Gift Giving

  • A very important way of creating and building guanxi in China is through gifts

  • Gifts are given for various reasons: gratitude and appreciation, gratuities, requests for favors

  • Gifts should be business, rather than personal, gifts

  • Chinese etiquette requires that a person decline a gift, invitation, and other offerings two or three times before accepting. It is expected that the giver will persist, gently, until the gift is accepted. But the more westernized young people may accept it right away with an expression of appreciation

  • Be sensitive to genuine refusals. This can indicate an unwillingness to incur an obligation

  • Chinese and Westerners differ in the approach to gifts. In the West, a sincere thank you or a thank you note is an acceptable way to extend appreciation. In China, a more tangible form, or gift, is preferred

  • Never give a gift that would make it impossible for the Chinese to reciprocate—this would cause a loss of face and place them in a very difficult position

  • Gifts should be presented with both hands, and presented to the most senior member of the host group

  • Be sure to travel with enough gifts for everyone. If giving gifts to individuals in a company, be sure than are of equal value. Senior members should be given something of greater value

  • The Chinese usually do not open gifts at the time they receive them. When receiving gifts from the Chinese, do not open them unless they insist

  • Don’t be surprised to receive a gift unwrapped. While the westernized Chinese normally wrap their gifts before presenting them to guests, many local Chinese still don’t have this habit of gift wrapping

  • If you don’t have appropriate gifts, you can invite those who have done you great favors as a friend or colleague to a meal or a drink. Remember, don’t invite opposite sex to dinner unless you expect a more personal relationship

    Suggested Gifts

    • Gifts should reflect the giver and the recipient

    • Consider gifts from your country, state or region

    • Small items such as key chains, scarves, golf balls, or calendars with a company/organization logo are a good thing to take along

    • Gifts with a company/organization logo are also of interest providing they do not include things that are considered taboo

    • Other possibilities include: desk accessories, framed art, particularly if it is from your own area, and books.

    Gift Taboos

    • Be sure not to give in denominations of four. Four is a very unlucky number and signifies death

    • Any gift which carries an association of death or funerals such as clocks, cut flowers, white or black objects

    • Do not give scissors or anything sharp as it symbolizes severing relations

    • Be cautious when giving food items—it can suggest poverty

    • Always wrap gifts, but do not use white or black paper—it symbolizes death

    • Red and gold are the best. Avoid elaborately wrapping gifts

    • Never write anything in red ink

    • Never give a man a green hat.

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