As China continues to turn its face outwards to engage with the western world, more of us are taking the plunge and moving there. What can you expect from Chinese culture and traditions? I thought it would be interesting to look at the basics of the way life and business works in one of the world’s most fascinating, unique and unusual countries, to help you navigate your first steps in the nation with a reasonable level of confidence.
About Chinese culture and traditions
Chinese culture is one of world’s oldest. The country, home to 1.3 billion or so people, covers a vast expanse, 9.6 million square kilometres in total, making it the world’s second-largest country by land area. It features a myriad different landscapes, geology, flora, fauna and weather. Chinese customs vary enormously between provinces, cities and sometimes even towns. The Chinese government officially recognises 56 different ethnic groups, the biggest of which is the Han Chinese, many of whom have held onto their unique language and culture.
Chinese traditions – Religion in China
Most of China’s social values are inspired by Confucianism and Taoism. Chinese traditions regarding religion major on general obedience, respect for and deference to your elders and a level of responsibility to the community you live in. However China is a communist state with no official religion. Fewer than half the people are formally religious or believe in a deity, only one in four practice Taoism or Confucianism and there are very small numbers of Buddhists, Muslims and Christians.
Language in China – 7 main dialects
There are seven major dialects of the Chinese language, all slightly different:
Putonghuà is the version of Mandarin commonest in the capital Beijing, and it’s also the official national language of mainland China. However a growing number of Chinese people are fluent in English, especially in the business districts and big cities.
Chinese customs – Fabulous food!
Most modern Chinese cuisine is inspired by the country’s historic dynastic period, when emperors would invite important citizens to vast banquets offering a hundred or more dishes at one sitting. Over time the ancient tradition has permeated everyday life and contemporary Chinese meals often consist of multiple small dishes.
Chinese cooking is also influenced by differences in the local geography and ethnic populations. Cantonese food includes plenty of stir-fried recipes, Sezchuan dishes often contain peanuts, sesame paste and ginger. Every area has its own specialities. Rice is the staple carbohydrate and bean sprouts, cabbage and onions feature in many meals. Chinese customs around meat are different, too. The population doesn’t eat much meat compared to the west. Apart from pork or chicken, tofu is the people’s main source of protein. And tea is the nation’s preferred drink.
Chinese culture – The arts
What about Chinese culture? Despite not being a particularly religious nation Chinese art is strongly influenced by spirituality and mysticism, often based on Buddhism. The flute-like Xun is a common traditional musical instrument, along with the zither-like Guqin, and the country’s venerable musical history dates right back to the time the nation was first formed more than 5,000 years ago. Martial arts also originate in China, the birth place of Kung Fu, which actually means ‘human achievement’.
Chinese theatre is often called ‘Chinese opera’, two forms of which are Beijing Opera and Cantonese Opera, both of which feature acrobatics and music. Xiangsheng is a type of comedy involving monologue or dialogue. And shadow plays are also popular, dating back to the dynasty of Empress Ling around 2000 years ago.
What about cinema in China? Cinema arrived in the country during 1896 and the first Chinese film, The Battle of Dingjunshan, was made in 1905. Here’s what Wikipedia says about today’s movie scene:
Following the international commercial success of films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Hero (2002), the number of co-productions in Chinese-language cinema has increased and there has been a movement of Chinese-language cinema into a domain of large scale international influence.
After The Dream Factory (1997) demonstrated the viability of the commercial model, and with the growth of the Chinese box office, Chinese films have broken box office records and, as of January 2014, 6 of the top 10 highest-grossing films in China are domestic productions, with Lost in Thailand (2012) currently being the highest grossing Chinese film in the domestic market and the first to reach 1 billion yuan.
China is the home of the largest film studio in the world, Hengdian World Studios, and in 2010 it had the third largest film industry by number of feature films produced annually. In 2012 the country became the second-largest market in the world by box office receipts. In 2013, the gross box office in China was ¥21.8 billion (US$3.6 billion), with domestic films having a share of 59%. The country is predicted to have the largest market in the world in 2018.
The vast majority of the Mainland-produced movies use Mandarin. Mainland films are often dubbed into Cantonese when exported to Hong Kong for theatrical runs.
The country’s biggest national festival is the Spring Festival, AKA Chinese New Year, which celebrates the start of the new lunar year usually somewhere between mid-January and half way through February. It’s all about honouring your ancestors and the celebrations last a full fifteen days. Children are given money in lucky red envelopes, everyone spring cleans their homes, and there are endless firework displays and dragon dance parades.
September 28th is Confucius’ birthday, when believers make their way to his birthplace in Shandong Province. People also celebrate the birthday of Guanyin, the goddess of mercy, by visiting Taoist temples some time between late March and late April. Mazu (AKA Tianhou) has a birthday in May/June, which is also celebrated, and The Moon Festival takes place September / October.
The Chinese love gambling. The most common game is Mah Jong, the pieces of which can also be used for a multitude of other games including Shanghai Solitaire, Pai Gow and Pai Gow poker.
Business culture in China
CNN has made some valuable observations about business etiquette in China:
Operating in a country with a history of thousands of years – and ways of doing business that go back as far – it is valuable to develop insight into China’s business culture and social etiquette to avoid misunderstandings that could scuttle deals and harm working relationships.
One key aspect of Chinese culture is the concept of “face.” In “China Uncovered: What you need to know to do business in China,” professor Jonathan Story describes face as a mix of public perception, social role and self-esteem than has the potential to either destroy or help build relationships.
Story says that a foreign CEO can give face by attending meetings, accepting invitations, providing suitable expensive gifts and showing sensitivity to Chinese culture. In contrast, entrepreneurs can lose face by insulting someone in public, refusing invitations and gifts or by behaving inappropriately, like losing their temper or crying – acts that are seen as lack of self-control and weakness.
Business outsiders can impress with their knowledge of local customs, acknowledging hierarchy, offering gifts, addressing people by their designation – especially when dealing with state representatives – and appreciating the food. Such awareness of cultural nuances illustrate respect and sincere interest, says Roll.
On the flip side, Chinese business people generally respect cultural differences and won’t expect westerners to be fully customized to their tradition, analysts say. “At the end of the day, the Chinese are very pragmatic,” says Perry. “If you have something they want, they’ll do business with you no matter whether you can hold chopsticks or not.”
The most important thing is, whoever you’re meeting with or whoever you’re dealing with, to treat them with respect. Jack Perkowski, a Wall Street veteran who’s often referred to as “Mr China” for his entrepreneurship in the Asian country since 1993, says developing mutual trust is key to success in doing business in China. “The most important thing is, whoever you’re meeting with or whoever you’re dealing with, to treat them with respect,” he says.
8 top tips for doing business in China
- Find someone who already knows the ropes – tap into your local expat community
- Spend time cultivating the right contacts and decision makers
- Even a basic understanding of the culture will be appreciated, so make an effort
- The Chinese love exchanging business cards so have some printed with your details in English and Chinese
- Try not to actually say no. Perhaps, we’ll see and maybe will deliver much better results
- Humility is a virtue – less ego, more modesty
- Doing business takes time and patience. Expect drawn-out negotiations from start to finish. Accept delays gracefully if you want to build strong relationships. Because the legal system is a bit woolly as regards contracts, good relationships are the best way to get where you want to be
- Find out the difference between a Joint Venture (JV), Wholly Foreign Owned Enterprise (WFOE) and Representative Office (RO) so you’re clear about the differences up front
What about you?
Are you already living in China? We’d love to hear your own top tips for feeling at home and doing business successfully in this remarkable and very different country.