Chinese Etiquette & Protocol
By Joyce Millet. President, Cultural Savvy

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.

The five major relationships set forth by Confucius:

Ruler -- subject Husband -- wife
Father -- son Brother -- sister
Friend --- friend

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.

Mianxi - Face - Losing face, saving face and giving face is very important and should be taken into consideration at all times.

Li - Originally li meant to sacrifice, but today it is translated as the art of being polite and courteous. Proper etiquette preserves harmony and face.

Keqi - Ke means guest and qi means behavior. It not only means considerate, polite, and well mannered, but also represents humbleness and modesty.

Getting to Know Each Other

Greetings and Introductions

  • The Chinese usually do not like to do business with strangers, and will make frequent use of go-betweens. Whenever possible, try to use established relationships, or an intermediary known by both sides, to make the first contact
  • Chinese prefer to be formally introduced to someone new. This applies to both Chinese and foreigners.
  • The Chinese may seem unfriendly when being introduced. They are taught not to show excessive emotion, thus the reference to Chinese and other Asians as inscrutable.
  • 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). One would then present a business card.

Business Card Etiquette

  • 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.
  • Follow with the standard "I am pleased to meet you, or "ni hao" in Chinese.
  • When seated, place cards on the table. This shows respect and is also an excellent way to remember names.
  • Business cards should be printed in English on one side and Chinese on the other.
  • Be sure to use simplified Chinese characters for China, not the classical characters used in Hong Kong and Taiwan. If traveling to China and Taiwan or Hong Kong, it is a good idea to put the different cards in separate boxes to avoid mix-ups.
  • Remember that China is the People's Republic of China and Taiwan is the Republic of China

Titles & Forms of Address

  • 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.
  • 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

Personal Questions & Compliments

  • 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. The arm around the shoulder or pat on the back with "just call me Bob" approach should be left at home.
  • 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. Do not be gushy with thank yous.

Social distance, Touching & Gestures

  • Every culture defines proper distance. Westerners, particularly Americans, find that the Chinese comfort zone regarding distance is a bit to 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. 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.
  • Western gestures that are taboo in China include:
    • Pointing the index finger--use the open hand instead.
    • Using the index finger to call someone-use the hand with fingers motioning downward as in waving.
    • Finger snapping
    • Showing the soles of shoes.
    • Whistling is considered rude.
  • Chinese customs that are annoying to Westerners:
    • Belching or spitting on the street
    • Lack of consideration when smoking and failure to ask permission to smoke
    • Slurping food
    • Talking while eating

Dining and Entertainment Etiquette & Protocol

  • Entertaining guests at a Chinese banquet is an important way of establishing guanxi.
  • 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.
  • There are no firm rules regarding dinner conversation. Depending on the closeness of the relationship, business may or may not be discussed. Follow host's lead.
  • 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 to the group.
  • It is always a good idea for the guest to return the toast either right away or after a few courses have been served.
  • Safe topics for toasts are friendship, pledges for cooperation, the desire to reciprocate the hospitality, and mutual benefit.
  • The Chinese understand if you are unable to drink alcohol. 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.
  • 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 shows a lack of protocol.
  • Do not underestimate the importance of participating in dining and after-dinner entertainment. It is an excellent way to build guanxi.

Gift Giving

  • Gifts are an important way of creating and building guanxi in China.
  • 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. Be sensitive to genuine refusals.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Suggested Gifts & Gift-giving Taboos

  • Gifts should reflect the giver and the recipient.
  • Consider gifts from your area. Gifts with a company logo are fine as long as they do not include things that are considered taboo and are not too showy.
  • Gifts of foreign cigarettes, cognac, fine whiskey, quality wines are acceptable.
  • Do not give anything in sets of four or gifts that carry the association of death or funerals such as clocks, cut flowers, white 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 paper-it symbolizes death. Red and gold are the best. Avoid elaborately wrapping gifts.
  • Never write anything in red ink.

It is often said that imitation is the highest form of flattery. Taking time to learn something about Chinese culture and customs can only pay dividends.

Copyright © 2021 Joyce Millet, Cultural Savvy. All rights reserved.

Back to Article

This article is copyrighted and may not be published, broadcast, re-written or otherwise distributed in any form without the prior written consent of our authors.
Please contact us at:

Copyright © 2000-2023  Protocol Professionals, Inc.™ All rights reserved.