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About China

by: Elizabeth A. Tuleja, Associate partner of Hofstede Insights

Currency: Chinese Yuan Renminbi (CNY ¥)
Capital: Beijing
Time Zone: China follows a single standard time (the entire country is one time zone even though the country spans five geographical time zones). The official national standard (domestic) time is called Beijing Time (北京时间) and internationally China Standard Time (CST).


The Geert Hofstede analysis for China

As Hofstede has explained in his ongoing research over the past sixty-years, cultural dimensions are meant to show central tendencies of a given group of people (delineated by a nation-group) which take into account the individuality of all people. That said, China is a land of many paradoxes and we need to keep in mind that while certain tendencies might be common, there are many contradictions that require us to look carefully at each situation and its context.
China is high on Power Distance, which is reflected in the government’s control on certain freedoms – such as speech, Internet access, religion, how many children one can have, and human rights.
China is a highly collective society, based upon millennia of history that creates the core of society within the family unit. While times change, culture changes slowly, and one’s obligation to family is a cornerstone of Chinese culture.
China has low Uncertainty Avoidance, which means that the “letter of the law” can be relaxed, and friendships and favors can take precedent over rules and laws. While there has been a crackdown on bribery and gifts in recent years, this society still functions on the greased wheel.
China has higher Masculinity, which means it is a competitive society. The government’s push to compete globally has been significant in recent decades.  China’s goal is to become number one and everyone – from those in charge – to those who work in small shops – wants to succeed and bring honor to their families and country.
China has high Long Term Orientation which means that it respects its long history and even today’s actions are embedded within the context of the past. Being one of the oldest civilizations, it is no wonder that respect for the homeland is significant.
China has high Restraint which means that people will save their money “for a rainy day”. People work hard and save hard – whether they save money or time or face.  Being controlled emotionally and financially enables people to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

Some cornerstones of Chinese culture


Family is extremely important in China with many aspects of Chinese life tied into honoring one’s parents and ancestors. Confucius’s “five relationships” (see discussion of Power Distance) directly relates to the family – honoring those who have higher status than oneself.


While there are no equivalents to Guānxi 关系 in, say the English language, it roughly refers to the social networking, relationships or connections among people. Social networking in China is very strong and very complex – it is not merely making a connection through exchange of business cards; rather, it is a lifelong process of creating mutual obligation between people – so that each becomes interdependent on the other. This way, favors can be accomplished in order to achieve goals. Guānxi carries an important foundation of trust – most of business in China revolves around mutual trust within a thick web of connections. An outsider wanting to do business in China must take the time to develop the relationships that lead to guānxi, and, the connections must be maintained to ensure one’s positioning for future business.


The direct translation of miànzi (面子) is "face” in English. It means giving face or showing respect to others according to the person's status and reputation in the society. One can gain face, grant face, win face, lose face, regain face, fight for face, and maintain face. It’s a form of social credit – one’s trustworthiness and reliability.  It has been compared to having good credit that allows you to buy a car or a house.  Without good miànzi, you are untrustworthy and not worth the risk.


The closest translation of Rénqíng (关系) in English is “human heartedness” (and is closely related to guānxi and miànzi). The other word for Rénqíng could be favor which is an important element in maintaining guānxi in society. If you receive a favor from someone, you are expected to return the favor to the other person (not right away, but at some point in the future – like “saving for a rainy day”). If not, it could mean you are not giving miànzi (face) to that person and this will affect your guānxi.


All Chinese language is contextual. You build characters by combining smaller characters – each has a meaning and when put together, they create the essence of one larger meaning.  Rén 仁 literally means ‘humanity’. Ren is made of 2 characters person + 2. The etymology (the origins/meaning of words) and the suggestion of ‘2 people’ means that people can’t exist without relationships with each other. Relationships mean possibilities.

When in China

Good to know

  • Relationships are extremely important as this creates guanxi – which is the cornerstone of values in China. Guanxi is different than its commonly thought counterpart of networking. You build guanxi through trust over time – relationships take a long time, so don’t expect to meet someone and immediately become friends or do business – developing this net of support throughout life.
  • Social dynamics and relationship-building is the fundamental strategy of doing business in China. Knowing this and how to communicate through your actions is critical to successful business relationships.
  • Western companies should take note that their success would be improved by taking a more considered, informed, and proactive approach to guanxi.
  • When giving/receiving business cards, use both hands and take time to look at both sides and comment on the person’s title (this gives them face) and perhaps ask about their duties. Make compliments. When seated at a table, place the cards in front of you. Do not put cards in your pocket or wallet in front of the person giving you their card as this is a sign of disrespect.
  • When eating at a banquet, allow the host to begin serving. The most important person gets served first. It is customary to offer someone a morsel of food before taking some yourself. Usually, food is put in the small bowl, but often plates are used as well. Only take small portions – do not fill your bowl or plate as you do in the West.
  • Always leave some food on your plate or in your bowl – an empty plate/bowl indicates you are still hungry.
  • If alcohol (白酒 báijiǔ) is served – the most senior person will hold the little cup higher than yours – do not elevate your cup above theirs. If you do not drink, simply thank the host for the toast, and briefly state that you cannot drink for health reasons (same for any kind of food that is distasteful to you).

Body language

Chinese people generally are careful about displaying emotion and body language is controlled. For example, if you want to hug someone there may be awkwardness as hugging is not customary in China – and the same for touching a shoulder or patting someone on the back.
Additionally, since China is a face-saving culture, expressions of approval or disapproval are often not demonstrated, so expect to ‘read between the lines’ when trying to decipher facial expression or body language. When Westerners are unhappy, their emotions can be easily perceived through body language, facial expression, and tone. In Chinese display of emotion, it’s a little more difficult to tell how someone is feeling. The norm is to hide displeasure, especially in front of superiors.

Dress code

While Chinese people tend to dress casually, it depends on the person. When in doubt, wear business attire for business meetings.

Keywords to describe Chinese culture:

Subtle, high context, paradoxical, interdependent, respect authority, believe in luck, and good fortune


Doing business in China can be challenging because of:

  • Either/Or thinking – this is called a ‘false dilemma’ whereby opposites are mutually exclusive and results in dichotomy thinking, “Something is either this or that”. However, in China, you need to use a more dialectal form of thinking, “And/And…”. The Ying Yang concept of opposites that are simultaneously interdependent is important to know if you are doing business in China. In Yin Yang, two halves come together to make a whole – but wholeness has two parts – the Yin (shady side) and the Yang (sunny side) that chase after each other – such as in night and day. Neither Yin nor Yang are absolute; they are not static; you need both to form a whole and maintain balance.
  • The common complaint that Chinese behavior is baffling and indecisive is very often the result of not embracing paradox. Cultural paradoxes are situations that exhibit an apparently contradictory nature based on the expectations we have for behavior. 
For example, if Chinese people generally tend to be reserved, then why is boisterous Karaoke and drinking a way to express themselves? This can be explained by Value Trumping: certain contexts mean that certain values take precedence.




Power Distance

China has high Power Distance (80/100).  Power distance relates to how we measure inequality in our society – who are the more powerful members with the authority to make decisions, rule, and control? As a result, people will accept and expect power that is unequal and act accordingly without need for added justification of why. While there may not be an agreement with the power, people know that everyone has a place with different rights and responsibilities to be fulfilled for the good of the society. For example, the ancient philosopher, Confucius, stated that peace and order would come when people knew their right place at home and society – he had a hierarchy of roles: from to the superior to the subordinate: ruler/ruled; husband/wife; parent/child; elder brother/younger brother; elder friend/younger friend. To this day, the teachings of Confucius are influential values for Chinese society.
Employees in Chinese companies are usually willing to follow office regulations and work guidelines made by the owner or the boss. People grow up with a sense of hierarchy and usually don’t want to challenge their supervisors in favor of obeying their decisions or orders. That is, the order of rank is anchored firmly and Chinese workers do not want to insubordinate occupational hierarchy.
In Chinese culture, rank is important in business relationships and it’s necessary to keep this in mind when communicating. When having a company meeting, you usually need to allow those of higher rank to greet you first; and when eating, it is customary to allow the most senior person to start first.


China has low Individualism (20/100). Collectivism (as opposed to individualism) deals with how we tend to interact with others in individual or collective ways – do we think in terms of “me” or “we”.  Do we have strong ties with our clan, family, or in-group where there is cohesion, loyalty, and respect for members of the group? Or are those ties looser and less defined by expectations that we act for the good of the group and therefore can act in our own interest first, which means less responsibility for other’s well-being and less interpersonal connection beyond family and close friends. For example, in business if a work group is successful, it would be more appropriate to praise the entire team rather than single out one person for the accolade – if singled out, it would bring embarrassment to the entire team, losing face for all.

Uncertainty Avoidance

China has low Uncertainty Avoidance at (30/100), which is about how a society tolerates ambiguity or the degree to which people feel anxiety when they find themselves in unfamiliar or uncertain situations.  Uncertainty Avoidance cultures tend to minimize unstructured situations through strict behavioral codes, laws, and rules. China is generally comfortable with uncertainty and the best example is the structure of the language. For example, in many westernized societies clear-cut truths and laws are welcomed, while relaxing the rules based upon personal friendship (guanxi) is understood and accepted.

Masculinity and Femininity 

Masculinity and Femininity (66/100).
A “masculine” culture refers to a society that leans towards competition, achievement, and success which are typically considered masculine roles within traditional society whereas a “feminine” culture values cooperation and caring. In a feminine culture, there is more role separation – where men can be modest, tender and focused on the quality of life, and both men and women can deal with facts and figures.
Generally, Chinese people feel intense pressure to ensure success for their children that they sacrifice family and leisure priorities to work. For example, many parents take on migrant farming or factory jobs in faraway provinces or cities and leave children behind with grandparents while they work to support the family. This puts great personal stress on the family as well as on society as everyone strives to achieve. Also, children’s entire day from middle through high school is taken up with studying for the gāo kǎo 高考, which is a highly competitive and stressful entrance exam for University. How well a student does on this exam determines what University they get into and what discipline they can study. All of this is competition driven by the hope for obtaining a better quality of life – and better standing (miànzi – face) in society.

Long-Term/Short-Term Orientation

Long-Term/Short-Term Orientation (87/100) refers to how a society values traditions and values – whether holding onto values that are steeped in a society’s history and tradition dating back centuries and millennia, or whether they are more recently created.  
Long-term values included perseverance, thrift, relationship status, and shame.  
Short-term values were associated with quick decision-making and self-autonomy.  
The premise is that countries in East Asia had common cultural roots that date back in history – (also known as Confucian Dynamism) because of many of the teachings of Confucius speak of the nature of relationships and status, perseverance, shame, etc. For example, adaptation, hard work, perseverance, and strategic planning for future endeavors has been solidified into the Chinese society as well as their culture. Today, it is estimated that many Chinese families save 30% or more of their earnings each year.

Indulgence and Restraint

Indulgence and Restraint (24/100).
Indulgence refers to societal standards for immediate gratification of basic human needs in order to enjoy life; restraints stands for a society that believes one should control and regulate gratification – and does so through strict social norms.
The indulgence and restraint orientations deal with how children are socialized into society and the extent to how they are taught to control both desires and impulses ‑ weak control is indulgence; strong control is restraint. China is a Restrained society and places emphasis on hard work to obtain what one needs to live versus emphasis on leisure time and the delayed gratification of what one wants. Social norms play a big part in the perceptions regarding people who overdo their indulgence in life. Also, in contrast to Indulgent societies, Restrained societies do not put much emphasis on leisure time and control the gratification of their desires, as we can recall from students who study for the difficult college entry exam. People with this orientation have the perception that their actions are Restrained by social norms and feel that indulging themselves is somewhat wrong.
For a more detailed analysis on the Cultural Dimensions, and how China compares to other countries, please visit Hofstede Insights’ Country Comparison tool.

Some additional facts about China

  • China is the world’s most populous country, with almost 1.4 billion people, and the second largest country by land area.
  • China is the world’s largest exporter and second-largest importer of goods.
  • Despite being blocked in China, the major social networks still have many millions of Chinese active users who use various stratagems to access these services. Google+ has 100 million users in China, Twitter has 80 million, and YouTube has 60 million.
  • More people go to church on Sunday in China than in the whole of Europe.
  • A new skyscraper is build in china every five days.
  • China has 4 megacities of over 10 million people, the most of any country. The population of Shanghai, a cosmopolitan world city has expanded almost 50% since 2000, and the ancient capital Beijing and the southern commerce and industrial hub of Guangzhou have grown nearly as rapidly. The U.N.'s growth projections suggest that the future list of megacities will include Chongqing, Tianjin and Chengdu.
  • Air pollution in China increases snowfall in California.
  • All giant pandas outside China are actually on loan from the country. The panda is China's national symbol, and the nation's semi-official "panda diplomacy" — lending pandas abroad as a sign of goodwill.

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