Essential Advanced Business Chinese Vocabulary, Etiquette and Culture Facts Every Professional Should Know
According to the International Monetary Fund, China could be the world’s largest economy by 2030.
This means that learning advanced business Chinese may be one of the wisest investments you’ll ever make.
This post will cover useful business phrases, must-know vocabulary words and essential tips on Chinese business culture and etiquette.
- What 关系 and 面子 Mean in Chinese Business Culture
- Advanced Chinese Business Greetings and Phrases for When You Arrive
- Exchange Traditions with New Chinese Business Connections
- Advanced Business Chinese Vocabulary and Phrases
- How to Make a Toast in Chinese Business Culture
- How to Bid Farewell Before Leaving China
What 关系 and 面子 Mean in Chinese Business Culture
Before doing business in China, you need to understand 关系 (guān xì) and 面子 (miàn zi).
关系 can be loosely translated to “relationship,” though its meaning is broad and complex. People will talk about having “good 关系” with various people or organizations. 关系 is like a person’s reputation or image.
If you’re committed to a long-term business career in China, you’ll hear this word all the time.
面子—literally meaning “face”—is an individual’s image or prestige.
面子 and 关系 are closely related. You can give “face” to someone by complimenting them and making it seem as if you trust and respect them.
You can also make somebody lose face by criticizing them in public.
Losing face is considered a minor tragedy in China, so be mindful of how your actions and statements could affect how someone is perceived by their colleagues.
Keep your cool at all times—nothing is going to make you lose your own face faster than becoming a stereotypical shouting 老外 (lǎo wài) — foreigner!
Advanced Chinese Business Greetings and Phrases for When You Arrive
Discussing your trip to China is a natural way to open the conversation, establish rapport and begin building relationships.
A question you’re likely to be asked on arrival is:
路上辛苦吗？ (lù shàng xīn kǔ ma?) — Did you have a hard journey?
A natural way to answer is either:
有一点。(yǒu yì diǎn) — Yes, a little.
不辛苦，没事。 (bù xīn kǔ, méi shì) — No, not hard, it was nothing.
Other useful phrases for the first business meeting express optimism about the prospects for your collaboration and of course demonstrate your respect for your host:
幸会幸会。 (xìng huì xìng huì.) — Pleasure to meet you!
久仰大名。 (jiǔ yǎng dà míng.) — I’ve heard a lot about you!
Use the last phrase when you greet the most high-ranking member of the Chinese company. It shows respect and gives face.
Exchange Traditions with New Chinese Business Connections
Business Card Etiquette in Chinese Culture
In the West, business cards are kind of throwaway items. We go to a networking event and come home with dozens, most of which we never look at again.
As you may be starting to realize by now, in China, things are different. Someone’s business card is a reflection of him or herself. So how you treat their business card represents how you think of them.
When you receive a business card, be sure to follow these steps:
- Take it with both hands
- Make a show of looking at it carefully and examining it on both sides
- Put it away deliberately in your wallet or somewhere respectful—don’t shove it in your back pocket!
Make sure you bring plenty of business cards with you on your journey, as the exchange ritual will be repeated often.
As you’ll realize, the giving and receiving of 名片 (míng piàn) — business cards is about far more than just swapping contact information. It formalizes and acknowledges 第一次见面 (dì yī cì jiàn miàn) — the first meeting.
Giving Gifts in Chinese Business Culture
The exchange of 礼物 (lǐ wù) — gifts is an established part of 关系 and an excellent way to win favor and show respect.
Chances are, you’ll come home with a few new possessions, so you may feel embarrassed if you show up empty-handed!
To make sure you do it right, there are a few interesting cultural points worth mentioning:
- Receiving a gift is much like receiving a business card. Look at the package with interest and treat the object with respect. Unlike in the west, if the gift is wrapped, you aren’t expected to unwrap it then and there. Save the surprise for when you get home.
- Be aware of the cultural associations of what you’re giving. You don’t need to be paranoid about this—leeway is usually given to foreigners—but some research will pay off. Flowers are associated with funerals. Clocks and watches symbolize death, so leave that second Rolex at home. If you’re going in for wrapping paper, red is a winning color as it’s associated with wealth and success.
- Gifts from your homeland that are hard to find abroad make great gifts. It’s always a good idea to gift new business partners something interesting they can show their family and colleagues. I’m from New Zealand, so for me, toy Kiwi birds would make a good choice.
When giving a gift, you can say:
这是我为你准备的礼物。 (zhè shì wǒ wèi nǐ zhǔn bèi de lǐ wù) — This is a gift I have prepared for you.
This clarifies that you’re giving and not just showing or borrowing the object.
Advanced Business Chinese Vocabulary and Phrases
In this section, we’ll learn a handful of essentials and show you how to bring it all together in a meaningful phrase. You can then add in the appropriate keywords depending on your specific industry and situation.
For specialized business vocabulary related to positions, check out this list of job titles.
Advanced Business Chinese Keywords
|生产力 / 生产率||shēng chǎn lì / shēng chǎn lǜ||Productivity|
|年增长率||nián zēng zhǎng lǜ||Annual growth rate|
|国民生产总值||guó mín shēng chǎn zǒng zhí||GDP|
|市场份额||shì chǎng fèn é||Market share|
|业务模式||yè wù mó shì||Business model|
|实体店||shí tǐ diàn||Physical store|
|全球性企业||quán qiú xìng qǐ yè||Global company|
|能力 / 性能||néng lì / xìng néng||Capabilities|
|全局的||quán jú de||Global|
|局部的||jú bù de||Regional|
|当地的||dāng dì de||Local|
|境外游||jìng wài yóu||Overseas travel|
|基础设施||jī chǔ shè shī||Infrastructure|
|市值||shì zhí||Market value (the price at which something will be traded)|
|城市化||chéng shì huà||Urbanization|
|私营企业||sī yíng qǐ yè||Private sector|
|公共部门||gōng gòng bù mén||Public sector|
|一线 / 二线城市||yī xiàn / èr xiàn chéng shì||Tier 1/Tier 2 cities|
Let’s look at how some of the above terms can work in a sentence:
材料价格不合适。 (cái liào jià gé bù hé shì.) — The material price is not suitable.
You can replace 材料价格 with anything you like, for example:
期限不合适。 (qī xiàn bù hé shì.) — The deadline is not suitable.
Now change the negative into a positive. Just remove the 不. For example:
工资合适。 (gōng zī hé shì.) — The wages are okay.
The more exposure you have to advanced business Chinese conversations and exchanges, the easier these structures and phrases will be.
FluentU is an excellent resource for this, since it lets you learn business Chinese in context with authentic videos. Each video has interactive captions, which means you can click on any word or phrase you don’t know to see its meaning, pronunciation and example sentences.
When it comes to business Chinese, practice makes perfect—but thanks to online programs like FluentU, you don’t have to wait until you’re in the first business meeting to practice.
Discussing a Contract in Chinese and How to Raise Objections
I’m not qualified to cover any aspects of the legal writing of a contract, but there are a few useful Mandarin Chinese grammar structures that’ll serve you well if you need to raise objections or zero in on a particular point at any stage of the conversation.
Like other Asian cultures, China favors a less direct and confrontational approach to raising objections than places like the U.S.
As you’ve learned above, helping your counterpart to 保住面子 (bǎo zhù miàn zi) — save face is essential if you want to succeed in the long term.
Let’s explore this in detail with an example concerning a 合同.
Your Chinese counterpart asks you if you’ve seen the contract and if you have any questions:
合同你看过了吗？有没有问题？ (hé tóng nǐ kàn guò le ma? yǒu méi yǒu wèn tí?) — Have you read the contract? Are there any problems?
You have a problem with the 价格. You could state, “I have a problem with the price,” but this direct approach could be interpreted as confrontational.
Instead, formulate your sentence to emphasize that everything apart from the price is okay.
除了价格以外，其他的都没问题。 (chú le jià gé yǐ wài, qí tā de dōu méi wèn tí.) — Apart from the price, everything else is fine.
As we learned above, you can substitute the keyword “price” with any other appropriate term to politely draw attention to the aspect that you want to discuss. For example:
除了期限以外，其他的都没问题。 (chú le qī xiàn yǐ wài, qí tā de dōu méi wèn tí.) — Apart from the deadline, everything else is fine.
How to Elegantly Apologize in Chinese Without Losing Face
As a visitor in a foreign land, you’re not expected to be perfect. You’re clearly going the extra mile, and making an effort in Chinese will be noted and appreciated.
If you accidentally or unthinkingly cause someone to 丢脸 (diū liǎn) — lose face, or trip up in another way, a simple apology can go a long way toward getting you back on firm ground.
There are many ways to apologize in Chinese and their English translations can seem quite drastic. The most common three are:
- 对不起 (duì bù qǐ). This is the closest English equivalent to “I’m sorry” that’s useful in most situations. It literally means “I cannot face you.”
- 不好意思 (bù hǎo yì si). This apology phrase is used to express embarrassment—if you mistake someone’s name or make a language faux pas, then 不好意思 is probably the safest bet.
- 抱歉 (bào qiàn). This is the most formal option for an apology, which is typically used in written Chinese. 抱歉 is a more heavy-duty expression than 对不起 or 不好意思. Unlike the other two, it’s not something you’d use if you bumped into someone in the subway or spilled your drink.
Lastly, if you’re on the receiving end of an apology, you can politely brush it aside with 没关系 (méi guān xì).
How to Make a Toast in Chinese Business Culture
No affair in China is complete without a sumptuous 宴会 (yàn huì) — banquet, accompanied by an unhealthy number of toasts with China’s favorite spirit, the sorghum-based 白酒 (bái jiǔ).
Sometimes misleadingly translated as “white wine,” 白酒 is typically as potent as vodka, with a strong, pungent flavor many foreigners struggle with.
Most Chinese expats have a few 白酒 war stories. The experience of toast after toast has been described as an alcoholic knife fight!
While it’s not absolutely essential to participate in a toast, if the offer is made, you’d be wise to accept—with caution!
The phrase you’ll hear most often is 干杯 (gān bēi). It’s used as we would use the word “cheers” in English, but means “dry glass.”
As in English, it’s normal to drink to health and success. The simplest formula is: 为 (wèi) — for, followed by what you’re drinking to, followed by an enthusiastic gān bēi!
为更好的未来干杯。 (wèi gèng hǎo de wèi lái gān bēi.) — Cheers to a better future!
为合作成功干杯。 (wèi hé zuò chéng gōng gān bēi.) — Cheers to our successful cooperation!
If you’ve had a few too many drinks already and the long phrases are falling off your tongue, the simple 理解万岁 (lǐ jiě wàn suì) — “long live our understanding” is a good fallback.
An interesting quirk of the toast in China is that it’s respectful to clink glasses lower down.
The lower on the other person’s glass you clink, the more face you give them. This can result in hilarious situations when you chase each other’s glasses from high over your shoulder to right down to the table, with each of you humbly vying for the lower spot!
How to Bid Farewell Before Leaving China
With your work done, a bag full of souvenirs and a cracking 白酒 hangover, it’s time to head back home.
As with your arrival, you want to go beyond the simple 再见 and leave your Chinese hosts feeling good about your stay.
It’s appropriate to express regret that your trip has ended and optimism that you’ll meet again and that your cooperation will continue.
Earlier in this post, we looked at three ways to apologize: 对不起, 不好意思 and 抱歉.
Believe it or not, there’s yet another phrase you can use: 遗憾 (yí hàn).
This one expresses regret, passively blaming something unfortunate on luck or circumstances. It’s a nice way to express that you, unfortunately, have to go home, but you really don’t want to:
很遗憾，我明天需要回美国。 (hěn yí hàn, wǒ míng tiān xū yào huí měi guo.) — I regret that I have to return to America tomorrow.
Another phrase that has a similar effect is:
我不得不说再见了。 (wǒ bù dé bù shuō zài jiàn le.) — I have to say goodbye.
Like 遗憾, it connotes that the decision to leave is out of your hands. You don’t want to go, but you have to!
So that’s that! I hope these points and phrases will give you a leg up over the competition, endear you to your hosts and take the edge off the culture shock.
Many thanks to the Chinese instructor Ding Yi of Hutong School for assistance with some of the example phrases above—any errors are my own.