Cultural differences between China and Canada
By Sheila Foster, ABC
When Canadians visit China and vice versa, they sometimes feel lost and
confused. It’s not just about the language difference. It’s mostly about what we expect of
I’ve visited China about eight times, from east to west and from north to south.
It’s a fascinating journey back into history, and forward into the future. China is on the
cusp of becoming a full partner in world affairs, especially since its induction into the
World Trade Organization. But to fully share with the rest of the developed world, both
we and China must lean how to handle our differences.
In understanding some of the major ways in which we live and work differently
from one another, we must look at history and millennia of experience and practice in
Basic institutional and social values
The attached charts sum up some of the important differences in society, its
institutions and social values.
But from a strictly day-to-day approach, it is the small things that make the
difference in closing the gap between us.
Before you go
Before your first visit to China, make an effort to read and learn about the rich
history and culture of the country. Compare it to our short history and you see where the
depth of traditions come from. Read about the war lord culture and generations of
serfdom, the imperialist era and foreign domination, the emergence of people power in
the 20th century with the MaoTse Tung peasant revolution and the more recent blistering
pace of economic growth.
Armed with your new-found knowledge of this vast and varied country, learn
some basic Mandarin words, or those in languages of the places you plan to visit. The 54
minority groups have their own customs, languages and dress which distinguish them
from what we normally view as typically Chinese.
Take the time to print up a business card, or a name tag with some details written
in Chinese. Learn how to present your card with two hands, not one. Learn how to listen
and observe your hosts’ behaviour before talking or doing anything.
Chinese Mandarin is a very difficult language for most westerners. Because there
are four sounds for the same letter, ma - for example - can mean mother, horse, or two
other things depending on how your pronounce it! These tones often make it sound as
though people are angry, shouting at one another, expressing derision for something,
when in fact they are simply saying the words. Speeches often sound harsh and rude to
us, whereas they are simply stating facts.
If you are speaking through an interpreter, speak slowly and clearly so that your
words can be properly translated. And observe carefully when your hosts are speaking in
Chinese, even if you don’t understand it immediately. Good intentions and a welcoming
smile can go a long way towards bridging the language barrier.
Even when speaking through an interpreter, you can be sure that hosts often
understand much of what is being said but may be intimidated by our language and not
wish to risk making mistakes by speaking themselves.
Unfortunately, many Chinese feel talking themselves throughout formal speeches
is acceptable and that is often a difficult thing for us westerns to grasp!
The ritual of eating and drinking
The Chinese are very hospitable and you will no doubt be invited to spend social
time together. Meals and eating are a ritual, often rather formal, and speeches as a prelude
to a meal can often go on for a very long time.
Learning the art of using chopsticks is important. Learning not to put your
chopsticks into the communal bowl takes a bit more practice. At restaurants you are often
given a spoon, it’s not for soup, it’s for helping yourself from the communal bowl. Often
spare chopsticks are placed on the table for the same purpose. However, you may find
your hosts on both sides will serve you from communal bows. This is a friendly and
hospitable act and even when served with some unidentifiable morsel that you are not
keen to completely devour, at last make an effort to taste a tiny bit. And never ever point
your chopsticks at anyone, it’s rude.
It’s considered bad form to touch your food with your fingers, although this
practice is becoming more accepted. It’s also bad form to drop food from your
Rice often comes at the end of the meal, also soup, it’s the filler and you are
always meant to leave some food on the table to indicate you’ve been more than well fed.
Chinese value freshness above all. So a Chinese seafood restaurant will often
present the live fish/seafood to the diner before cooking it. It’s not the first time I’ve been
in a restaurant where the fish has jumped free and had to be rescued from the floor to get
back in the pot. You just nod your head to the server to indicate it’s OK and away it goes
to the kitchen.
Toasts are a killer! Especially if the host is offering that almost toxic Chinese
libation called MauTai, a fiery liquid that makes idiots of us all after a few quaffs. The
hosts at a dinner will often circulate and make a toast at each table, so never drain your
glass. Interestingly, if you are asked what you wish to drink and you first select water or
juice, you will be served that throughout the meal even if wine or liquor is being served at
the same table. There are many very acceptable Chinese wines on the market now, so
don’t be afraid to try them when traveling in China. However, wine is not yet a normal
mealtime beverage. Beer, on the other hand, is good and plentiful in China and is often
served on the table with soft drinks at no extra charge.
When visiting in China, take along souvenirs, photos, calendars showing where
you come from as gifts for people you meet. A map of Canada always attracts a crowd in
schools and other public places you visit. If you have a special skill, be generous in
sharing it. Can you play an instrument? Sing? Go ahead, the Chinese love to sing and
perform, often your tour bus driver will oblige if you ask.
Contact your municipal representatives, your MLA, your MP and enlist their help
to take along Canadian pins, flags, souvenirs to give and exchange with people and
especially children that you meet. They will be delighted to reciprocate in the smallest
ways especially when language is a barrier.
Some gifts have negative connotations and you can’t be expected to know all
about this. However, among the older generation, clocks are regarded as somehow linked
with death. Sometimes things that sound like another word denote a negative connotation
so it’s often good to ask someone if you’re not sure. The Chinese love stamps and
although western kids have almost long since given them up, Chinese people often have
impressive stamp collections and first issues.
Making a personal connection at your first meeting is very important. It is also
very important to preserve “face” at all times, both yours and theirs. On the road, Chinese
people often don’t want to say they don’t know the answer to your question, so have a
map, have them write it down, buy one of those talking/recording watches so you can let
the taxi driver hear where you are going in the hotel doorman’s voice! Always carry a
card with the name and address of where you are staying in English and Chinese
characters, and have the hotel staff write down where you are going when you venture
Take time to figure out what someone is really trying to tell you and make sure
they appear to be right. It’s an important value for Chinese people. If not, go for the win-
win solution to any problem that comes up.
Travel in the large cities is a cinch. Street names are now in English as well as
Chinese and with the Olympics coming to Beijing soon, the Chinese are making great
strides in trying to overcome travel problems. Taxi drivers in Beijing now carry an
English phrase book and can at least point to things if they can’t say them. You too can
point to things in their book.
Numbers and shopping
Mastering the basic numbers is easy. But also learn the signing (like for the deaf)
for the numbers one to ten, which you’ll observe people using all the time. Keep a small
calculator handy, not just to convert yen to dollars but also to be sure you are talking the
same thing when bargaining.
Talking of bargaining, shopping is a totally new experience for the North
American first visiting China. Who knows what the “right” price for anything is.
Certainly visitors pay a lot more than local people, but that’s because local pay scales are
generally much less than ours. But they are hard bargainers. Decide what you want to pay
for an item and don’t go over that. But in markets, bazaars and many stores, it is expected
that you will bargain. Once you have agreed on a price, you must not back out but be
prepared to pull out your cash and pay! And one you’ve both seen it on a portable
calculator, there’s no doubt about what the final price is. Sellers in bazaars will always
try to wheedle a little more out of you but that’s just the way they do things and not
Doing Business in China
It’s a whole new world if you want to trade in China. Many years ago, the oil and
gas exploration and development company I worked for opened an office in Beijing. We
drilled the first dry hole in China – our claim to fame – and shortly afterwards packed up
our things and left! This has been the past experience for a number of companies and
organizations who found it simply too frustrating to try to do business the Chinese way.
In the ensuring years, both parties have made some allowances for the other and many
bridges are being built between the two countries.
However, it is still a minefield for Canadian organizations. The lack of protection
for personal property and intellectual property rights has been a stumbling block. Recent
progress is being made but organizations are still wary of sharing proprietary information
with Chinese partners for fear of them stealing those rights and selling the goods and
services directly. With its acceptance into WTO, China will have to follow more strict
compliance rules or lose the goodwill of trading partners.
Many groups of business and municipal leaders are traveling to western countries
to learn more about what is expected of them. They return to China with a better
understanding of the commitments they must make and adhere to different and higher
standards of property rights and ownership if they wish to trade with the rest of the world.
This exchange of ideas and customs is helping bridge the gap between China and nations
around the world.
Westerners often say that the Chinese and other Asians for that matter are hard to
discern. We don’t know whether they agree with us or not. They say one thing, mean
another and do yet another. We feel it is due to something we said or did. But often, it’s
simply the difference in the way we see ourselves and others.
Perhaps the best last word belongs to the revered Chinese philosopher Confucius,
born in a poor family in the year 551 BC.
"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you".
Confucius promoted the basic ideal of Jen – which means benevolence, true
manhood, altruism, character, human-heartedness, steadfastness, and humanity. When
Jen is applied to human relations it becomes Te, which is translated as "virtue". He
believed the basis for living lay in Zhou religion rituals which establish harmony in the
individual, the home, the village, and the country.
If we strive for harmony in our relations, I believe Chinese and Canadian people
will be closer together to move into our shared future.
Sheila Foster, ABC
President, Canada-China Friendship Association of Calgary
Secretary, Federation of Canada-China Friendship Associations
Table 1. Societal and Institutional Differences between China and US
Institutional Aspect China North America
Government : In transition from Market economy
Economy planned economy to
Government : In transition from Rule of Law
Legal System "Rule by the
Governor" to "Rule of
Government: Serve the people; Personal success forms basis of
Fundamental Beliefs principally public social progress;
and Motivation ownership Private ownership
Ethnic Culture centered around centered around "individuals"
"Messianic;" let’s "save the world"
minding his/her own
with "strangers" and
people outside of the
Source of Trust Trust those around Trust the contract; don’t get into
you; don’t "lose face" legal hassles by not fulfilling the
and credibility by agreement
failing to live up to
written or oral
Business culture Quiet and reserved; Outspoken; eloquent; effective
Negotiation Style group decision; final more individual authority and
say by the "boss" distributed decision making
Dealing with Indirect; courteous; Direct; more matter-of-factly;
business counterparts takes things memory for conflict superceded by
personally; long business objective
memory for both
Language Ability [Chinese dealing in Strong (English)
conversation/speech: Almost negligible Chinese
weak language capabilities; except
where ethnic Chinese
written: slightly better intermediaries are involved
reading: good (if there
is no time pressure)
Ability to make weak strong
Table 2. Significant Value Differences Between China and US
Social Values China North America
Interpersonal "relationship" comes first "economics" comes first
on "humility" "humility" viewed as a "humility" is a sign of
virtue weakness; there is every
reason for the abled to be
Time Horizon accountable by the accountable by the quarter
generation (~30 years) (~3 months)
What commands respect respect for seniority, respect for success,
wisdom, ability achievement, wealth
on "family" children learns to respect children should learn to be
the elder, love the young independent
and rely on the "extended
on "the strong" and "the it is not righteous to bully it is an honor to win;
weak" business is all a
competition; it is only
natural that the strong prey
upon the weak
Discipline (in following strong depends on the individual
procedures and schedules)
Tolerance of Diversity / Openly - very receptive; More open
Openness to alternative but actually, less so
(possibly opposing) ideas
Shame or Humiliation long memory; need and tends to be superceded by
urge to exonerate business priorities
Priorities mixed: business, almost strictly business
nationalistic and political
Source: Bridging US-China cross-cultural differences using internet and groupware technologies. Zhouying
Jin, Center for Technology Innovation and Strategy Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing,
China; Robert M. Mason, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL. USA Peter P. Yim, CIM Engineering,
Inc., San Mateo, CA. USA