China is the most populous country in the world and has one of the largest economies. Indeed, many fiscal commentators believe that it will become the world’s biggest economy in the next few years – so there has never been a better time to do business there.

However, while there is a lot of potential to succeed, doing business in China is not the same as doing it in the UK. It takes a long time to travel back and forth from China and so setting up there can take time, which is why some business insiders suggest establishing a team there first. This could mean approaching a Chinese partner to work with, or sending over some of your team from home to open a new branch. By having a permanent base in the country that is able to network with and build a pool of local talent, businesses can turn this inside knowledge into success.

For guidance on the more technical aspects of doing business in China, it’s worth heading to UK Trade & Investment’s website for information on trade laws and exporting. However, there are other aspects that are also worth considering if you wish to successfully expand your business in China. These include the local language and culture, and the etiquette expected from visitors to the country. By carefully researching this side, there’s a greater chance you will make the right impression and come away with the result you hoped for.

It’s not only vital to understand Chinese business etiquette in order to secure investment, find a partner or attract clients, but also so you can guarantee continued commercial success in the country. By becoming an expert, there is every chance your operation will flourish.

Language Of China

As China continues to provide bountiful opportunities for business, it is widely agreed that Mandarin Chinese is fast becoming the corporate language to know. However, the country is so vast it is home to a multitude of other languages and dialects.

Chinese is actually the name given to several mutually unintelligible languages. Before jetting off for your business meeting, it is vital you find out which one the people you are meeting speak.

Mandarin and Cantonese are the most widely spoken languages in China. Mandarin is the official language of the mainland, but it is far from being the only one spoken there. Cantonese is spoken largely in the south of China as well as Hong Kong. The two languages are similar, but Cantonese is more closely related to ancient Chinese and has a more complicated writing system. The Mandarin writing system is simplified and less traditional. The other key differences between the two languages are in their pronunciation and grammar.

Before you travel, find out what system is used in the region you are visiting. Cantonese is more traditional and complicated than Mandarin, so it’s beneficial to be aware of these differences ahead of your arrival.


The most important Chinese cultural concept to be aware of is ‘face’. This is a manifold sociological idea that incorporates elements of self-worth, respect to others, wisdom and pride. Before meeting with business people in China you should read up on ‘face’ and make sure you know how to give it, show it and save your own while you are there.

When you meet your hosts, greet the most senior – usually the oldest – person in the room first. Shaking hands is an acceptable form of greeting and you should only address people by their title and surname unless instructed by them to do otherwise. Be certain to hand each person a business card and when you receive one from them accept it carefully with both hands. It is worth printing your details on one side in English and getting them translated into Mandarin (using the correct writing system) on the other side, as this shows you have made an extra effort to localize your business for China.

Chinese society is more group than individual-led. This means that the needs of the group are put ahead of the feelings of the individual. At meetings, it is considered impolite to speak over someone else as it suggests you think your opinion is more important than theirs – and this is also a way of causing them to lose ‘face’.


Body language and facial expression is as important a part of communication as the words you say. Try not to frown or roll your eyes while someone is talking, as it takes face from them. Smile a lot as it helps you look open and appreciative.

While body language is important, eye contact is less well received. While in the west maintaining eye contact with someone is a sign you are interested in what they are saying and not trying to hide anything, in the east it is seen as encroaching on someone’s personal space when you stare into their eyes. Don’t be surprised if your hosts don’t maintain eye contact with you – and avoid doing it to them.

If you are invited out to dinner as part of your meeting, don’t tuck into your meal until your host has begun – and try to use chopsticks! You should attempt to sample everything and compliments for the chef and host will be well received. However, you should not finish every last thing on the table, as this is actually regarded as a sign you are not full and that the host has failed to be generous enough.

In the UK, people are typically happy to get down to business straight away at meetings as it saves time. This is not the case in China, where it would be considered impolite. Instead, it is customary to exchange pleasantries first and build up a rapport – so don’t be surprised if early meetings don’t result in much business chit-chat. This should not be regarded as a failure though, as the better your relationship the more chance you have of building loyal business links.

Due to the importance of ‘face’ in China, the language people use is typically more positive and diplomatic than what westerners might be used to. Make sure you understand this so you don’t come away from a meeting with false hope. Instead, carefully negotiate and show you are willing to make concessions where possible – this is the best way to convince your hosts to work with you.

Doing business in China is so different to making deals in the western hemisphere, but by taking the time to prepare and research the language, culture and business etiquette, you will substantially increase your chances of success.