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China Etiquette Guide

China Etiquette Guide

Shanghai skyline

The great paradox of modern political reality: How can China, the world’s largest communist nation, also be the world’s largest consumer market? Easy: When it is also the society most experienced in manipulating symbols based on ancient traditions that emphasize integrating potentially conflicting opposites into a harmonized whole.

Communicating in China, therefore, means employing symbols, reducing text and mastering implied meanings when words and pictures are used. Consider that all Chinese languages are still written with pictographic characters and the old Chinese saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

Speech is often guarded and filled with symbolic and metaphorical meanings. Look for the meaning of things not in the words, but in the context.

Turning a Bar of Iron into a Needle

There is an old Chinese puzzle: How do you change an iron bar into a needle?

The answer is by striking the iron bar over and over again. The moral of this story? Perseverance. Tenacity. Repetition. The Great Wall was built brick by brick. Time and action are different in China.

Another old Chinese saying states, “If you go to the stream in the morning, you observe that a rock in the stream has the power to part the waters rushing over it. But if you return to the same stream in 100 years, you see that the water has washed away the rock.”

Your Chinese associates should perceive you as someone who is working in China for the long haul. This takes long-term thinking and commitment. Remember: Trust and relationships go a long way in China. Adjust to the culture’s requirements, and do not expect immediate results.

To help acclimate yourself, check out these quick tips on Chinese culture:


Red: Traditionally associated with the emperor (and more recently, the communist party), this color is still symbolic of wealth and success when used with products and services.
Gold and Yellow: Associated with success and power.
White and Black: Typically associated with funerals, so they are to be avoided.


Feng Shui: Don’t move things around in a home or office. They may have been placed there auspiciously.
Chicken Heads: Kept at the business banquet table facing the host (if the head points to anyone else at the table, it is a symbol that they will be fired).
The Number Four: Considered very unlucky, as in Chinese the word is pronounced similarly to the word for death.
The Number Eight: Very lucky, and any association means lots of good luck, wealth, health and happiness.

Eating Customs

Chopsticks: At the banquet table, never stick your chopsticks into the rice standing up (a symbol used at funerals), and always lay them down parallel on the side of your plate when you are done. Never make an “X” with them or separate them on either side of the plate.
Drinks: Never serve yourself a drink at the banquet table, but always fill your neighbor’s glass. This is his cue to fill yours.
Dining: You should not take the last bit of food on the serving plate, and always leave a little food on your own plate to indicate you are finished.

This article originally appeared on

Back to other countries in our Country-by-Country Etiquette Guide.

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