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Chinese New Year Business Customs: What’s Important to Know

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Ced earned a bachelor's degree in communication studies in 1999. His interests include history, traveling, and mythology.

Chinese New Year business customs and traditions for the uninitiated

Chinese New Year business customs and traditions for the uninitiated

How to Celebrate Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year business customs, traditions, and etiquette aren’t anything mythical nowadays, with China being such a huge player in the world economy. That said, they can still be bewildering for those new to working with Chinese people.

It doesn’t help that there are minor variations between China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, and other places too.

In general, though, the following five business customs are universally observed by the Chinese during the Lunar New Year period, wherever one might be. But before all else, it is important to note that many of the following Chinese business customs evolved from Chinese folktales or traditional beliefs.

By observing them in modern times, one is not and will not be considered superstitious. It’s a matter of being culturally sensitive, respectful, and aware. In a way, it is a celebration of a business counterpart’s heritage too.

Business Customs and Traditions for the Lunar New Year

  1. Wearing Red
  2. Exchanging Mandarins
  3. Giving or Receiving Red Packets
  4. Shutting Down and Reopening Businesses
  5. Preparing for Chinese New Year's Eve
  6. Appendix: Chinese New Year Business Gift Ideas

Background and Chinese Zodiac Decorations

The Chinese year runs by the moon, with 12 months of 30 days each. This means that the Chinese Year always begins after the Gregorian Year, typically in the earlier part of February.

So as to keep pace with the Gregorian year, there is occasionally an extra month after the first, too. Chinese do not call this the 13th month. Instead, it's simply referred to as rune yue (闰月).

Furthermore, each Chinese year is presided by an animal horoscope from the Chinese Zodiac. There are 12 of these, and they always follow the same sequence. For example, the year 2021 was a year of the ox. The preceding year was, therefore, a year of the rat, and so on.

Because of this association, Chinese New Year decorations always prominently feature the “incoming” animal, with entire festive bazaars stocked full of them. Expectedly, the sale of horoscopic decorations is also a lucrative business. People are forced to dump their decorations after festivities and buy them again the next year. No one will ever wait 12 years to reuse old decorations too. Doing so is considered terribly unlucky.

For businesses, what’s important to know is to never give decorations based on the Zodiac animal of the “current” year; gifts should always showcase the next animal. Not doing so would invite lots of stares and ridicule.

The Chinese Zodiac

The sequence of the Chinese Zodiac is Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig.

Wearing red. The single most important Chinese New Year business custom.

Wearing red. The single most important Chinese New Year business custom.

1. Wearing Red

Red is the color of luck for the Chinese, and the color is positively everywhere in Chinese cities during the New Year.

Correspondingly, it is an unspoken expectation that you be wearing red when visiting someone’s home or company for celebrations. In fact, this could be considered the most important practice and tradition to know.

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Black, on the other hand, is a big no-no as it is the color of mourning. For guys, this might be an issue as men's pants are frequently black or grey. No really worries here, though. Few expect a man to be decked out like a firecracker. As long as one is wearing a reddish top, it’s considered fine.

At the same time, other bright, cheery colors are acceptable too. For example, yellows, oranges, beige, etc.

In addition, purple is also popular as it is a Chinese color of royalty. No white tops and black pants, though, as that’s what Chinese pallbearers traditionally wear. You will receive a lot of scowls if you turn up in that grim combination.

Mandarin oranges. The traditional must-have gift for Chinese New Year gatherings.

Mandarin oranges. The traditional must-have gift for Chinese New Year gatherings.

2. Exchanging Mandarins

(Note: Mandarins are not oranges. They have totally different names in the Chinese world.)

Exchanging mandarins is customary when visiting someone’s home or company during the Chinese New Year celebration period. The act symbolizes the exchange of gold since the Chinese word for luck has the same sound as mandarins. Typically, the visitor offers two and receives two in return.

A tip on mandarin exchanges. If someone gives you two, but for whatever reason, you have none to reciprocate, you could actually return those two to the visitor/host. Just avoid doing so immediately. *Wait for a while, vanish somewhere in a pretense of searching, then do it.

Additional pro-tip. No matter what happens, you must give back two. Odd numbers are considered unlucky. To give four is, well, fine, but considered odd, especially if you have only received two.

* The Cantonese have a nasty term for the immediate receiving and returning of mandarins. 运吉 (wan guat). It implies an annoying, silly waste of time.

Chinese New Year red packets. Nowadays, they come in many shades of red, pink, and gold.

Chinese New Year red packets. Nowadays, they come in many shades of red, pink, and gold.

3. Giving or Receiving Red Packets

Chinese children love Chinese New Year because they receive red packets, these being festive red envelopes around A6 size that are filled with money.

Vice versa, adults get a headache every New Year because of hefty red packet "expenditures."

Strictly speaking, only married people give red packets, too; singles do not. If you aren’t Chinese, you wouldn’t be expected to hand out red packets as well.

The above said, if you do wish to give, be sure to use a proper red packet—these are widely and affordably sold at Chinese stores and bazaars during the festive season.

Lastly, always check prevailing “rates” for the amount to give. These vary depending on the country you're in and on the relationship between the recipient and yourself. What you want to avoid is giving too little. Doing so suggests you’re miserly.

Note: It is quite a common Chinese New Year business custom for bosses to give red packets to staff before or during the New Year. This tradition is considered a form of appreciation. Unmarried but working children also give elders red packets as an expression of piety.

Festive Chinese lion dance during the New Year.

Festive Chinese lion dance during the New Year.

4. Official Business “Shutdown” for the New Year

Many Chinese companies formally “shut down” and reopen for the New Year. Business owners who take this business custom seriously can also get extremely elaborated, with altar worships and grand dinners on shutdown day. During reopenings, there would be symbolic festive celebrations like lion dances and, in the case of Malaysia and Singapore, the tossing of Yu Sheng.

Shutdowns also always last for a few days. (The Chinese New Year stretches for fifteen days, even though only the first few days are public holidays in Chinese cities) Typically, companies shut down one or two days before the Eve. Which day they reopen then depends on the lucky stars for that year.

Don't Plan on Working During the Shutdown

For non-Chinese, what’s important to know is the following.

Chinese New Year is the most important festive celebration for the Chinese. Thus, the Chinese loathe having to work during the shutdown period because they have all sorts of family and social obligations.

Many Chinese, especially employers, even consider it downright inauspicious to have to work during the shutdown period. It implies one would have to slave throughout the next year. This is especially so for the all-important first day.

Business-wise, it’s frequently very challenging for Chinese bosses to summon workers back during shutdown; they would have to promise double or thrice the usual wages. In good years, seven times is not unheard of.

In summary, while you could pressurize a Chinese business counterpart into doing something during his New Year shutdown period, you are unlikely to be forgiven. You are also definitely going to be billed a hefty amount, on top of gaining an unsavory reputation as someone with no business etiquette.

A gourmet ribs dish during a Chinese New Year Reunion Dinner.

A gourmet ribs dish during a Chinese New Year Reunion Dinner.

5. Preparing for Chinese New Year’s Eve

The Eve, also known as the 30th night, is the big day when Chinese families have reunion dinners, this being the equivalent of Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. In China, where family members could be working all over the massive country, this brings about a notorious annual transportation crush.

For non-Chinese, reunion dinner, therefore, means two things:

  • You could invite your Chinese buddies to party on the Eve. Just don’t expect them to turn up early, if at all. Actually, most would consider such invitations a nuisance.
  • Do not schedule any work for the night of the eve. No Zoom conferencing or the likes of, etc. If possible, avoid the whole day entirely.

For non-Chinese people working in Chinese cities, Chinese New Year's Eve also means several other things:

  • A lot of shops do not operate beyond noontime on the Eve. Get your daily supplies beforehand, please.
  • Popular shrines and temples would be full of worshipers nearer to midnight. Unless you are interested in the spectacle, avoid these areas.
  • Chinese restaurants would usually only serve reunion dinner packages on the Eve. They would also be fully booked way in advance.
  • Non-Chinese restaurants that are operating might also be offering very pricey pre-holiday menus.

In short, unless you have been invited to someone's family celebration, the Eve is a good time to snuggle up at home.

Hampers are always great festive gifts for Chinese business counterparts.

Hampers are always great festive gifts for Chinese business counterparts.

Appendix: Chinese New Year Business Gift Ideas

This varies between countries, but in general, the following gifts are considered "safe."

  • Hampers. These are especially ideal for business partners.
  • Baskets of mandarins represent financial prosperity. They are great for bosses, on top of being relatively affordable.
  • Traditional seafood delicacies, especially abalones.
  • Chinese tidbits and New Year snacks. The latter is usually sold in containers with gaudy festive decorations and red caps.
  • Wine. (Except for those who do not drink, of course)
  • Festive packages sold by Chinese companies. These contain a variety of foodstuff, mostly ingredients for festive cooking during the New Year.

Additionally, it is important to note the following:

  • When offering such festive gifts to one’s employer, something symbolic of great business wealth is the best choice. For example, (faux) golden pineapples, golden carps, decorative golden ingots, etc. Take note not to give something too extravagant, though. You don’t want your Chinese boss to get the impression you’re being paid too much!
  • Lucky and Feng Shui objects based on the Chinese Zodiac should be carefully approached, no matter how appropriate they seem at first glance. Under geomancy rules, the zodiac sign and birth date of the recipient must be taken into consideration for the person to truly benefit. Best avoided unless you have extensive knowledge in this area.
Gaudy and affordable, faux “buckets of gold” are great Chinese New Year business gifts for all.

Gaudy and affordable, faux “buckets of gold” are great Chinese New Year business gifts for all.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Ced Yong

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