South Africa: When West Meets East

Last Updated: 21 November 2013
Article by Charles You

In 1992, 12 delegates from the Chinese government were tasked with procuring a $30m biochemical equipment deal with an American corporation. In order to please their purchasers from the East, and as a token of appreciation, the Americans prepared a gift for each of the delegates; the gift box was wrapped very nicely in red, which represents prosperity, and was gratefully accepted by the Chinese delegates.

But when the delegates immediately opened the box as requested by the Americans, they found that the gift was a green golf cap. No-one said a word. The Americans were left with an empty space above the dotted line which said "Purchaser". They were puzzled. Their intention was for everyone to enjoy a game of golf after the long hard negotiation. But had they known that the "green cap" (in fact, any cap) symbolises "cuckold" in China, surely they would have chosen a different gift.

This is what happens when you don't do your homework.

With a rich history of more than 5000 years, China has a unique culture and customs and often learning and knowing small things bring unexpected positive results. Reading Desmond Morris' The Naked Ape would have assisted the Americans. A few tips:

At a dinner party/social event

Chinese people like to treat (or be treated) to dinner parties "fan-ju." To understand this phenomenon, we need to go back to the time of Confucius, whose idea and theory has formed the foundation of Chinese culture for the past +2000 years. He believed that emotional ties with family are above everything else and society is an extension of the household. So, by treating many people to a big feast, you are creating a strong bond and relationship with people you know and a sense of "family" around you.

Also relevant is the Chinese attitude towards "mein-zhi," which directly translates to "face" in English, a unique term to describe one's pride and honour as seen by an outsider. Therefore, to attend or be invited to the so-called "fan-ju," is a direct and effective way of showing social status. The power of these relationships should not be under estimated when dealing with Chinese clients.

When being invited or inviting Chinese guests to a party, it is very important to arrange the seating properly. If this is not done, some (especially the older ones) may feel offended. Whether it's the traditional Chinese round table or western rectangular shaped table, the host always sits at the middle of the table furthermost from the entrance to the room. The most important guest is on his/her right and second most important guest on his/her left.

Dress requirements

It is very important to avoid all white or black dresses or clothes. In Chinese culture, white is used only when there considerable sadness involved and black represents unhappiness and disaster. Other colours alongside all-white or black clothes are acceptable, but not white or black only.

A small gift for the host is appropriate. Again, avoid all-black or all-white colours. If a gift consists of more than one piece (such as a set of pens or flowers), an even number is preferable. Though a set of two pens may be acceptable, a gift consisting of four pieces would be frowned on. Chinese people believe that good deeds come in a pairs but the number "4" is pronounced "si," which also means "death" in Mandarin.

Almost every dinner involves drinking alcohol. For those who have experienced the Chinese dinner, you would know drinking is inevitable. Drinking has different significance for Chinese and Western diners. For Westerners guests are encouraged to drink slowly, enjoy the wine and socialise with one another. Chinese drink to show how much they can drink and honour the vibe. A couple of things you need to remember before you start:

  • Drinking starts only after the host has presented a toast (either to his important guest on his right or to everyone).
  • Unless the host is a high ranking executive (in a business sense) or very senior (in a family sense) person, a toast is not proposed to everyone, it is advisable to toast only one person at a time.
  • When toasting and touching wine glasses, your glass may not be higher than your elders/seniors.
  • If you cannot drink (or do not wish to), whatever the reason, make sure you make it clear at the beginning. In other words, when the drinking session starts during a Chinese dinner party, either you do not drink at all, or you drink everything.

In a consulting room

When meeting a client, the adviser should be the one to initiate hand shaking.

After shaking hands, the parties will exchange business cards. In order to show respect, the cards are given in an order that starts with the highest ranking (or oldest) client; hold a card with both hands and make sure the name is facing towards your guest to enable them to see clearly.

When you are receiving a card, it is recommended that you accept it with both hands and place it neatly next to you to show respect and get the name right. Westerners are often confused by Chinese surnames. Do not assume "Chen" or "Li" is the surname. To show respect to your guest and avoid embarrassment, rather ask at the outset if you are unsure.

As much as the Chinese enjoy alcohol, tea is the most common beverage you will find in the consulting room. To show respect you should pour tea for your client and make sure that the cup is always full (unless he expresses otherwise). It is also important to remember not to point the mouth of the tea pot at anyone. The tea pot lid should be held with your other hand while pouring to make sure it doesn't spill.

When the meeting is finished the client (or the person being invited) should be the one to initiate the hand shaking as a sign of saying good-bye.

We have been brought up to know that China is a "li yi zhi ban," which means "nation of manners". Even if it does not appear that way sometimes, its cultures and customs teach us to respect our hosts and guests. It is nearly impossible to explain and describe every single Chinese culture and custom in detail. Those mentioned are just some of the common scenarios we encounter every day in our practice and I can safely add that some of it may not even apply to every single Chinese person. After all, there are over 1.2bn people and 33 provinces in China.

It is still the best option to speak to your Chinese colleague or someone who knows the culture to confirm that whatever you are intending to do is appropriate in order to avoid any embarrassment. 

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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