1. Open a store at the Great Wall.
We could learn a lot from Starbucks on this front. Their store in the Forbidden City has generated enough negative PR to warrant high-level government discussions on closing it for good. Why? Because the move was perceived as an imperialistic invasion into one of China’s most sacred and beloved cultural icons. With China’s recent history of foreign marauders coming in and setting up shop there — without the blessing of average Chinese — the reaction is not surprising.
So if a Chinese official gives you the green light to open up at the Great Wall — or any other iconic cultural location in China — think twice.
2. Fudge your Chinese translations.
Chinese translation is sadly undervalued in the business world. Companies pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for branding, marketing, design and PR — but some expect to get their marketing materials and corporate identity translated on the cheap by a Chinese student. What’s the harm? A lot. Let’s say you do get a Chinese student to do your translations. If that person has little experience in the business world of your country, they may end up using the wrong terminology. Jean Jameson, a professional translator in the UK, underlines the potential risk in her article “Prevention is cheaper than cure“. Here’s an example:
A textile design company went to Shanghai for a major exhibition several months ago, and engaged a Chinese student to translate its marketing brochure. At the exhibition confused visitors pointed out that the brochure did not make sense – the Chinese student had translated ‘rug’ for ‘cushion’!
It could get even more embarrassing if it’s your tagline, company name or your actual name — these are the core of your company’s image.
Remember, your marketing materials and corporate identity are communicating for you when you’re not around, like a Chinese sales rep in print. Will yours be wearing sleek Armani or plaid polyester? The choice is yours.
3. Confuse Japan and China.
China has a love-hate relationship with Japan. They love the economic benefit of Japan’s investments and export purchases from the Mainland. But most average Chinese still hate the island nation. Some of the sweetest, most gentle Chinese people have surprised me with their poisonous diatribes on Japan. It’s not shocking when you consider that the Japanese occupation from the late 1920s to the 1940s was akin to the Holocaust for Chinese.
Yet Westerners continue to conveniently lump together all East Asian cultures. As far as some are concerned, if they look the same, the culture is the same.
This is complicated by popular culture, where Asians even take on roles outside of their respective cultures — sometimes, with volatile results. For example, the recent movie version of Memoirs of a Geisha intermingled Chinese and Japanese screen stars, and had cast mainly Chinese actresses as the leading geisha in the film. Anyone following the news also knows the film was banned in China. The primary backlash stemmed from — what else? — its portrayal of Chinese women as high-class prostitutes, a bitter reminder of the Chinese “comfort women” enslaved during the Japanese occupation.
So, take note: samurai, geisha, teppanyaki, sake, kimonos, manga. None of these are Chinese. And they may be to your conversation what the A-bomb was to Hiroshima.
4. All work and no play.
Remember the Shining and what happened to Jack? All work and no play also makes you a very dull, very undesirable partner to the Chinese.
Here in the US, we’re used to separating business from pleasure. We like to “get down to business,” so to speak. And when the meeting’s done, we shake hands and leave the office.
In China, the meeting is just the beginning. Chinese business partners invite you to elaborate teas, banquets, karaoke parties and even weekend trips to Hong Kong. You get chauffered around in the utmost luxury. All on your Chinese partners’ tabs.
After a few rounds of this, you’re just about ready to put on the breaks the next time you hear an invitation to chifan (eat dinner).
I’ve got news for you. When it comes to doing business in China, all of the above is just par for the course. Some of the most important headway between you and your prospective partner will probably happen while you’re crooning “Edelweiss” (a perennial favorite) together in a karaoke bar.
There’s another reason you shouldn’t miss the socializing. It just might suggest you’re not interested.
In China, people put a premium on the relationship. They want to know you and build trust. That kind of connection only happens beyond the office. I’ve heard from many execs that, by spending more leisure time with their Chinese partners, they experienced major breakthroughs in their business relationships.
5. Ignore superstition.
Superstition in China runs stronger than the Yangzi River. Even Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution, his almost deranged assault on traditional Chinese culture and history, couldn’t stamp out superstition…though it tried.
Examples of it abound in modern Chinese culture.
Consider the upcoming Beijing Olympics in 2008. Now, the number eight is one of the most treasured numbers in China because it sounds similar to the character for making money. China already got lucky hosting the event in ’08. So guess when the Olympics will begin? August — the eighth month of the year — on the eighth day of the month at exactly 8pm.
After the seven-day Labor Day and National Day holidays, work always resumes on the eighth of the month.
The Chinese national flag is in red and gold, the two most traditionally auspicious colors in Chinese culture.
But the question remains — how could superstition derail your business?
Picture this: your prospective Chinese partner invites you to his daughter’s wedding. It’s a great opportunity to get to know him better through social interaction following the advice above. You’ve heard that giving money is pretty standard, so you take out the nicest white envelope from your suitcase and put in the equivalent of $50 — 400 RMB.
Congratulations, you’ve just communicated your death wish for the new couple. White envelopes are only reserved for funerals, and the number four sounds a lot like the character for “death”.
Of course, this is an extreme example. Not all superstition snafus will hurt your reputation. For example, it’s unlikely that Chinese will turn the other way just because you didn’t use auspicious colors or characters in your corporate identity. But just imagine if you did. Chances are your counterparts in China will be impressed that you knew enough to go the extra mile.
Why fight superstition? Go with the flow — and watch your business reap the benefits.