Chinese New Year Business Customs for Non-Chinese

Updated on January 3, 2019
Chinese New Year Business Customs for the uninitiated.
Chinese New Year Business Customs for the uninitiated. | Source

Chinese New Year business customs aren’t anything mythical nowadays, with China being such a huge player in the world economy. Still, they could get a little bewildering for those new to working with Chinese people. It doesn’t help that there are minor variations between China, Malaysia, Singapore, etc.

Generally speaking, the following five business customs are universally observed during the Chinese New Year period, wherever one might be. One thing to note before reading this list. Many Chinese business customs evolved from folk or traditional beliefs. In other words, they originated as superstitions. By observing them nowadays, one is not superstitious though, especially when commerce is involved. It’s a matter of being culturally sensitive and respectful. In various ways, it is to celebrate a business counterpart’s heritage too.


The Chinese year runs by the moon, with 12 months of 30 days each. This means 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. Chinese don’t call this the 13th month. Instead, it's simply referred to as the “rune yue”(闰月).

Each Chinese year is also presided by an animal horoscope. There are 12 of these and they always preside in the same sequence. For example, Chinese Year 2016 was a year of the monkey. The preceding year was therefore a year of the goat. And so on. Because of this association, Chinese New Year decorations always feature the “incoming” animal prominently, with entire festive bazaars stocked full of them. Incidentally, such sale of horoscopic decorations is also lucrative business. People are forced to dump their decorations after festivities and to buy again the next year. No one will ever wait 12 years to reuse old Chinese New Year decorations, an act considered as terribly unlucky.

The Chinese Zodiac

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

1. Red. Red and Red. The Most Basic Chinese New Year Business Custom

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

Red is the color of luck for the Chinese and it is everywhere in Chinese cities during the New Year. Correspondingly, it is an unspoken expectation that you be wearing red when visiting someone’s household or company for celebrations. This is the most basic of all Chinese New Year business customs.

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

Incidentally, other bright colors are acceptable too. Yellows, oranges, beige, etc. Purple is popular as well, since purple is a Chinese color of royalty. No white tops and black pants, though, as that’s what Chinese pallbearers traditionally wear.

2. Mandarins

Mandarins. The basic must-have gift  for Chinese New Year business customs.
Mandarins. The basic must-have gift for Chinese New Year business customs.

(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 Chinese New Year. 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. Just avoid doing it immediately. * Wait for a while, vanish somewhere in pretense of searching, then do it. Additional tip. No matter what happens, you must give back two. Odd numbers are considered unlucky. To give four is, well, fine, but considered odd particularly if you have only received two.

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

3. Red Packets

Chinese New Year red packets. Nowadays, they come in other shades of red, and gold too.
Chinese New Year red packets. Nowadays, they come in other shades of red, and gold too.

Chinese children love Chinese New Year because they receive red packets, these being festive red envelopes around A6 size and filled with money. Vice versa, adults get a headache every New Year because of hefty red packets "expenditures."

Strictly speaking, only married people give red packets. Singles do not. If you aren’t Chinese, you wouldn’t be expected to give red packets too. If you do wish to give, however, be sure to use a proper red packet. These are widely sold at Chinese stores or bazaars during the festive season. Also, check out the prevailing “rates” for the amount to give. Rates vary depending on the relationship between the recipient and you, and what you want to avoid is to give too little. Doing so suggests you’re miserly.

* It is quite a common Chinese New Year business custom for Chinese bosses to give staff red packets, as a form of gratitude for a good year. Unmarried Chinese also give elders red packets, as an expression of piety.

4. Business Shutdowns and Reopenings

Chinese lion dance.
Chinese lion dance.

Many Chinese companies formally shutdown and reopen for the New Year. Business owners who take this business custom seriously can get very elaborated, with altar worships and grand dinners on shutdown day. During reopenings, they could be festive celebrations like lion dances too.

Shutdowns always last for a few days. (Chinese New Year actually 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 arrival of the New Year. Which day they choose to reopen then depends on the lucky stars for that year.

For non-Chinese, what is important to know is this. Chinese New Year is the most important festive celebration for the Chinese. Thus, Chinese loathe having to work during the shutdown period because they have all sorts of family and social obligations. Some Chinese even consider it downright inauspicious to have to work during the shutdown period. This is especially so for the first day of the New Year.

At the same time, it’s also 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 other words, while you could pressurize a Chinese business counterpart into doing something during his shutdown, you are unlikely to be forgiven. You are also definitely going to be billed a hefty amount, on top of gaining an unsavory reputation.

5. Chinese New Year’s Eve

Chinese reunion dinner.
Chinese reunion dinner.

The eve, or the 30th night, is when the Chinese have reunion dinners with family members. This is the Asian 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 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 an invitation a nuisance.
  • Do not schedule any work for the night of the eve. No tele-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 wouldn’t be open for several days. 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 probably a good time to snuggle up at home.

Appendix: Suitable Chinese New Year Business Gifts

This varies between countries, but in general, the following are "safe" for individuals or businesses.

  • Hampers.
  • Baskets of mandarins.
  • Seafood delicacies, especially abalones.
  • Tidbits and Chinese 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 stuffs, mostly ingredients for festive cooking during the New Year.

If in doubt, hampers are always a safe choice.
If in doubt, hampers are always a safe choice.

Questions & Answers

    © 2016 Kuan Leong Yong


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