Posts Tagged ‘advice’

MIT’s Sherry Turkle at World Business Forum 2012: a chilling warning for our newly connected selves

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012


Sherry Turkle at World Business Forum 2012

Sherry Turkle at World Business Forum 2012

Sherry Turkle took the World Business Forum 2012 podium right after lunch on day one.

Dr. Turkle, a licenced clinical psychologist, the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology and Director at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and that iconic univeristy’s, Initiative on Technology and Self Program in Science, Technology and Society, presented a talk entitled “Alone Together: the Impact of Relentless Communication”.

Dr. Turkle’s talk focused on the importance of reclaiming conversation — because, Dr Turkle believes — if we fail to do so, we are setting ourselves and our society up for trouble.  The trouble she cautions against is a growing inability to feel secure in self reflection.

Dr. Turkle paraphrases Winston Churchill (who was reflecting on the role of architecture): “We make our technologies, and our technologies in turn make and shape us. Our current technologies are psychological and social game changers.” Her warning is that from her analysis of the data, “we are not as strong as technology’s pull”.

The generation of people who “sleep with their smart phones” are “alone together”, in Dr. Turkle’s view.

“Many people have grown fearful of the give and take of conversation. Many people don’t feel secure about their feelings or thoughts until they share them [on social media or SMS]“.

In the New York Illuminant office and in our design studio, it has struck me as quite queer that younger members of our team tend to be more inclined to wear earbuds for much of the time they’re working at their desks. Admittedly, its been quite a while since I’ve been a desk jockey at a desk in a western country (more than a decade, actually), but the sense of shared experience with the office music seems to have become a thing of the past. I do admit to a fondness for the days when my office had that shared feeling of love or hate for the music that some team member had decreed to be the tunes of the hour — that was all a part of the typical ad agency office experience until recently (I’d be interested to hear from other agency heads on their office music policies in this nosebleedingly new decade).

Dr. Turkle expressed concern that we as a society are forgetting that “conversation → connection”. In answer to critics, she says, “no, many small sips of conversation do not add up to one big gulp”. She says there is a certain dynamic of conversation in which we are aware of tone, of nuance, and we’re called upon to see things from others’ points of view. “We learn to negotiate [in conversation]; we learn how to have conversations with ourselves by having conversations with others. We need conversation to have self reflection. Imagine leadership without highly developed self reflection skills.”

Dr. Turkle contends that in this world of constant contact, we measure our performance by numbers of emails sent, by customer tweets responded to, or by our Klout score. However, she says, this communications culture has created a business world in which we are “never uninterrupted”. In other words, we are rarely alone with our own thoughts.

After this chilling warning, Dr. Turkle then moved into a finer discussion on the value of solitude. “Learn to live with what is healthy, what is good for you, what makes sense. We don’t need to throw our technology away, but we do need to develop the capacity for solitude for the good of productivity, creativity, and the capacity to lead.”

“I’m a partisan for conversation”, Dr. Turkle closed.

Its a powerful warning, and one that I’ll be heeding more within our team, our partners and my family.

Thanks to the World Business Forum 2012 team which which kindly invited me to represent Illuminant and attend the conference as their guest.

Please consider all our blogged stories from the World Business Forum 2012:

Management guru Jim Collins, on “return on luck”
NYC property mogul Barbara Corcoran on her top-8 lessons learned from her career as an entrepreneur
MIT psychologist professor Sherry Turkle on the danger presented to society by being always-connected
Interbrand CEO Jez Frampton on what makes a great brand
Nissan SVP Andy Palmer on the importance of melding engineering with marketing and communications
Legendary GE CEO Jack Welch’s choicest quotes from the conference
Harvard Business School’s Prof. Michael Porter on ‘Shared Value’ for-profit CSR
Inspirational entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson’s choicest quotes from the conference


NYC real estate mogul Barbara Corcoran’s top eight lessons from a lifetime of entrepreneurship

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012
NYC residential real estate mogul Barbara Corcoran

NYC residential real estate mogul Barbara Corcoran

Barbara Corcoran, founder of iconic New York City residential real estate agency The Corcoran Group followed management guru Jim Collins at the 9th World Business Forum today (we covered Mr Collins’ talk here).

Ms Corcoran has a sparking style, equal parts stand-up funny and pragmatic business insight. She shared her top eight  lessons learned from a lifetime of entrepreneurship in New York City.

Ms Corcoran actually announced a top ten list but very gracefully rounded down to eight lessons, as her time didn’t allow a presentation of the full list. That she was able to turn an out-of-time event into a charming and funny amending of the objective is probably testament to the value of her second principle!

  1. I am great at failure.
  2. Perception creates reality.
  3. Expand before you’re ready.
  4. Everybody wants what eveybody wants and nobody wants what nobody wants.
  5. There really are only two kinds of people in the workforce: expanders and containers.
  6. Fun is good for business (its the most under-utilized tool in business today).
  7. You have the right to be there.
  8. You need a bully to beat a bully.

Reflecting on Ms Corcoran’s lessons, I have to say that the Illuminant way is largely in alignment with her guidance: we’ve had our share of failure to drive us to our successes; our agency axioms quote Andy Warhol’s great insight, “reality is what you can get away with”; and we are apt to expand (into sectors, markets and technologies) before we’re ready.

Thanks to the World Business Forum 2012 team which which kindly invited me to represent Illuminant and attend the conference as their guest.

Please consider all our blogged stories from the World Business Forum 2012:

Management guru Jim Collins, on “return on luck”
NYC property mogul Barbara Corcoran on her top-8 lessons learned from her career as an entrepreneur
MIT psychologist professor Sherry Turkle on the danger presented to society by being always-connected
Interbrand CEO Jez Frampton on what makes a great brand
Nissan SVP Andy Palmer on the importance of melding engineering with marketing and communications
Legendary GE CEO Jack Welch’s choicest quotes from the conference
Harvard Business School’s Prof. Michael Porter on ‘Shared Value’ for-profit CSR
Inspirational entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson’s choicest quotes from the conference

Jim Collins at World Business Forum 2012: What is your return on luck?

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012

World of Business IdeasJim Collins, author of seminal management book “Good to Great” opened the 2012 World Business Forum at Radio City Music Hall in midtown NYC. This was the 9th annual World Business Forum, attracting a full house of attendees for the two day event.

Mr Collins based most of his talk on the historic Antarctic exploration and the race between Robert Scott and Roald Amundsen to be the first humans to reach the south pole. Scott and Amundsen started out on their missions at the same time, from the same distance to the pole, so the differences in approaching their missions are a useful study in goal setting and achievement. After sharing a number of insights which compared the two teams’ approaches to those of companies which prosper and companies which fail, Collins eventually summarized the difference between the two teams. Amundsen reached the south pole and returned to base camp with every member safe and sound, while Scott and his entire team perished on their return journey.

Jim Collins said that these results paralleled 20 mile marcher” companies versus booming but erratic companies. Amundsen was “a 20 mile marcher” with a daily target which he hit like clockwork; Scott was erratic, didn’t empirically test his equipment or have clear daily goals.

Management guru Jim Collins

Management guru Jim Collins

Jim Collins used this helpful phrase –the 20 mile march– as a simile for setting and sustaining consistent business targets. He demonstrated via data that two companies which differ on constant, conservative progress and goal reaching substantially outperform companies which have exciting bursts of growth.

In summary, Jim Collins encourages businesses to set and achieve a consistent, disciplined target every single year.

Collins talked also about factors beyond discipline and targets. He said that the “X-factor” of great leadership is “humility combined with will”.  Putting the vision of the business first is the key which successful leaders apply.

The role of luck was also a feature of Collins’ talk.  The management guru tried to rigorously define “luck”, saying it can be the difference between a 3X company and a 10X company. After analysis of copious business data, he said that “luck” did not alone definitively cause 3x to 10x increases in business success, however what companies do with the luck that happens to them does. He defined this factor as a company’s “return on luck” and coached the audience to consider ”how [one does] in good times is first and foremost how you do in the difficult times.”

Mr Collins closed his talk with his top 12 questions that all business leaders should ask themselves:

  1. Do we want to build a great enterprise and are we willing to do what it takes?
  2. Do we have the right people on our bus and in the key seats? 95% of key seats filled with the right people one year from today.
  3. What are the brutal facts?
  4. What is our hedgehog? What can we be the best at with our economic engine and with our passion?
  5. What is our 20 mile march and are we hitting it?
  6. Where should we be placing our big bets based on empiricalvalidation?
  7. What are the core values that we will hold to no matter what?
  8. What is our 10-20 year big hairy audacious goal?
  9. What could kill us and how can we protect our flanks?
  10. What should we stop doing to increase our discipline and focus?
  11. What is our return on luck and how can we improve it?
  12. Are we becoming a level-5 leadership team and are we building a level-5 culture?

In a charming postscript to his talk, Mr Collins related a warm meeting between him and Peter Drucker, during which Drucker scolded Collins to “try to be more useful, Mr Collins@”.  This final thought reflected the depth of humanity in the management canon of Jim Collins.

My colleagues at Illuminant certainly have plenty of experience of the role of luck, in both good and bad ways. I think that we are laser focused to apply our best responses to good luck when it happens to us; we can probably do better at responding in a more disciplined way to bad luck.

Thanks to the World Business Forum 2012 team which which kindly invited me to represent Illuminant and attend the conference as their guest.

Please consider all our blogged stories from the World Business Forum 2012:

Management guru Jim Collins, on “return on luck”
NYC property mogul Barbara Corcoran on her top-8 lessons learned from her career as an entrepreneur
MIT psychologist professor Sherry Turkle on the danger presented to society by being always-connected
Interbrand CEO Jez Frampton on what makes a great brand
Nissan SVP Andy Palmer on the importance of melding engineering with marketing and communications
Legendary GE CEO Jack Welch’s choicest quotes from the conference
Harvard Business School’s Prof. Michael Porter on ‘Shared Value’ for-profit CSR
Inspirational entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson’s choicest quotes from the conference



Gifts in China: what to give, what to avoid (infographic)

Friday, September 28th, 2012

This month’s Illuminant’s Chinese Takeout focuses on China’s gift culture: what gifts are good, auspicious and lucky, and which gifts you should avoid giving!

As our infographic says in its introduction, receiving a gift from a Chinese business or government contact and not having an appropriate gift to give in return causes embarrassment and a sense of debt (which is unhelpful in a Chinese negotiation).  Conversely, the giving of a gift to a Chinese party (and catching him or her without a response) can put you into a stronger position, at least to be able to secure a follow-up meeting!

If you find this month’s infographic helpful, please consider checking our other Illuminant’s Chinese Takeouts: A Realistic Overview of China, Understanding Chinese Holidays for Better Business Outcomes, and Colors to Use and Colors to Avoid in China.

Scroll to the bottom to download a high-resolution version in PDF.

Illuminant's Chinese Takeout Vol-04 Enter the Dragon - Gifts (what to give, what to avoid)


Click to download a high-resolution PDF of Illuminant’s Chinese Takeout: Enter the Dragon (Gifts in China)

Special credit for this month’s infographic goes to our awesome researcher Nicky Ruan for the topic and research, and our funky new designer Gina Kim for her terrific illustrations.


Illuminant's Chinese Takeout, Enter the Dragon: A Realistic Overview of China

Enter the Dragon, Part 1 of 12, “A Realistic Overview of China”

Illuminant's Chinese Takeout, Enter the Dragon: Understanding Chinese Holidays for Better Business Outcomes

Enter the Dragon, Part 2 of 12, “Understanding Chinese Holidays for Better Business Outcomes”

Illuminant's Chinese Takeout, Enter the Dragon: Colors to Use and Colors to Avoid in China

Enter the Dragon, Part 3 of 12, “Colors to Use and Colors to Avoid in China”

Illuminant's Chinese Takeout, Enter the Dragon: Gifts in China (What to Give, What to Avoid)

Enter the Dragon, Part 4 of 12, “Gifts in China: What to Give, What to Avoid”

Enter the Dragon, Part 5 of 12, “Spring Festival: The Lunar (or Chinese) New Year”



China in a box



The Importance of Gifts

Chinese culture is a gift culture. Every important meeting is made auspicious by the exchange of gifts. To be empty-handed when receiving a gift from your Chinese host is not only somewhat rude, but will put you into a position of debt in the mind of the Chinese side—this is obviously not an optimal situation in negotiation between you and them!

Learn the important do’s and don’ts of gift-giving in today’s contemporary Chinese business and government context, and improve your standing and trustworthiness with the Chinese side. Be thought of as a “Zhong Guo Tong” (a foreigner “who understands China”) and prosper in the middle kingdom!


All types of clocks should be avoided as gifts. The word 送钟 (song zhong, send clock) sounds like 送终 (song zhong, the funeral ritual). Giving a clock is the big daddy of Chinese taboos—if you happen to receive a clock from any Chinese source, get your butt to the airport, pronto!


Gifting fruit is a wonderful gesture, especially at festival times, but giving pears means you hope their family will become separated, as the word for pear 梨 (li) sounds like 离 (li, separate/leave/part from). Remember that China has pears that look like apples, so take great care when choosing fruit.


The Chinese word for umbrella, 伞 (san) sounds like the word 散 (san, loose/fall apart). Offering a promotional umbrella to a colleague or partner will make them feel that your relationship has ended.


Handkerchiefs are usually given out at the end of a funeral, as a symbol of saying goodbye forever (to the deceased), so please avoid giving handkerchiefs as business gifts.


Offering implements used to cut things means you intend to sever the relationship. The Chinese say “one slash and it’s in two parts” to mean “make a clean cut in the relationship”. Imagine what it’s like to your business partner or government regulator if you offer the slash!


These flowers are used only at funerals or when visiting graves. Never give them (or images of them) as gifts.


Wearing a green hat (带绿帽子 dai lv mao zi) implies that the wearer’s wife is unfaithful. Promotional green hats are a poor choice for a conference gift (or corporate uniform).


There are several reasons to avoid mirrors as gifts. Firstly, many Asian cultures have superstitions that mirrors attract malevolent ghosts. Secondly, mirrors are easily broken, and “breaking” anything is a bad omen in China.


Like mirrors, shoes should be avoided as gifts for several reasons. Firstly, the Chinese word for shoes (鞋 xie) sounds like 邪 (xie, evil/heretical0, which could prompt negative feelings. Secondly, shoes are something trampled underfoot. Thirdly, if the shoes are small, it would remind people of the traditional Chinese phrase 穿小鞋 (chuan xiao xie, wearing small shoes), meaning “to create difficulties for others”. Finally, shoes can indicate that the giver wants the receiver to “hit the road” by literally vacating or leaving the business he or she is in. Avoid.


These colors are often used during funerals. Symbolic gifts, wrapping paper and envelopes in these colors should be avoided. However, if the product itself is black or white (such as an iPod), the utility of the gift can override the taboo (just don’t wrap a white gadget in white paper, and avoid giving such gifts to people over 50).

Good: WINE

In recent years, Chinese business and government people have developed a love for wine. Foreign “grape wines” (as it’s called in Chinese) generally are an excellent gift, especially if from your home country. A gift of wine will be seen as a toast to the recipient’s health. Just remember to include a corkscrew—it’s a nice and practical gesture.


One of most “practical gift options”. China has a large population of smokers are not the social pariahs as they often are in the west. Because quality cigarettes are very expensive in China, the gift (to a confirmed and enthusiastic smoker) greatly boosts the giver’s “face” and prospects.


An appreciated gift to older people in China (especially if from your home country). You know you are old when people suddenly are giving you these products!


Peaches are a traditional sign of longevity. The reason is quite complicated. Long story short, peaches are frequently seen on the banquets of gods and demi-gods in Chinese mythology. Consider presenting these, or peach-shaped things, to senior citizens, especially on the occasion of their birthdays. The peach tradition is fading these days, so be a “Zhong Guo Tong” by making the gesture and keeping an old tradition alive!


In China, regional specialties are considered a very proper gift. Ever wondered why airport duty free stores are stacked with [Insert your city here] Chocolates? This is the root of those Chinese-focused souvenir gifts. Say if you are from the USA, a miniature of the Empire State Building might impress people more than a bottle of fine French wine.


With, um, cash inside. Red itself is the luckiest Chinese color, and wrapping cash with a red envelope means good intentions and wishes. People usually give these to family kids during China’s Spring Festival. Certain commercial events also conventionally call for lucky money, but remember that bribery is a serious infringement of the law, but there are (complicated) established protocols and exemptions, so seek the advice of a local expert before deciding on red envelopes.

Good: TEA

Another practical gift option, like wine and cigarettes. Tea is to China what coffee is to Americans. Good quality tea (avoid jasmine tea and consider pu’er tea) is a gift for all people and purposes.


If you’re angling for a lot of “face”, consider giving your gift in sets: 6 and 8 are great numbers for such occasions. 6 represents good luck in pop culture, while 8 means prosperity. 6 bottles of good wine will bring about a great result; 6 iPads will give you a giant measure of “face”.


When offered together, these are very traditional and lucky gifts to newlyweds. Why? Combining the words of the food names 枣生桂子 (zao sheng gui zi) sounds like 早生贵子 (zao sheng gui zi), meaning “will get a baby soon”.

*Please always comply with your home country’s laws concerning the use of gifts in business and government contexts, and observe relevant laws of the People’s Republic of China.

This Chinese Takeout by:


Illuminant’s Chinese Takeout: Colors to use and colors to avoid in China

Tuesday, August 28th, 2012

Illuminant’s first Chinese Takeout covered the absolute basics concerning China as a new market for your business, product or service. Our second Chinese Takeout covered the yearlong schedule of vacations and holidays in China, forming a template for the best times to plan your market visits into the middle kingdom.

With these first two overview infographics, new market entrants should have a decent idea of where they’re going and when to go.

This month’s Chinese Takeout — the third in our yearlong series — addresses one of the fundamentals of how to localize your brand identity for China: the use and misuse of color.

Given China’s relative isolation from much of the western world over the millenia, cultural norms have developed strongly and independently in that massive country. Color is a ‘primitive’ influence on the minds of all people, regardless of national origin or culture. This is especially so in China, due to the relatively higher stake that superstition has in the minds of mainlanders.

Consequently, the correct use of color is an absolute must-do, prior to entering the China marketplace. When encountering color, Chinese consumers simply don’t respond in the same way as westerners do. For example, did you know that if you display a photograph of one of your directors, say in your brochure, with a black border around that photo, Chinese consumers will think that she is dead?  And you want to avoid giving the recipients of your lovely souvenir gifts the feeling of being at a funeral, so don’t wrap those gifts in white. And avoid the embarrassment that a European client suffered when they gave out thousands of floppy green hats at a major tourism trade show in Beijing.

We first wrote about the use of color in China in this blog in January 2011.  That article, Avoiding Insult and Injury when using Color in China, has gathered hundreds of thousands of pageviews, and is consistently in the top-10 list of most-searched-for articles on our website. A short peek into the terms that large numbers of internet users have searched for, and subsequently arrived at that article, include:

  • colors to avoid in china
  • china colors to avoid
  • colors not to use in china
  • what colors shouldn’t you use in china
  • chinese color symbolism
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  • chinese colors
  • chinese color meanings
  • colors to avoid wearing in china
  • popular colors in china
  • wrong brand color in china
  • study of shape, color and culture in china
  • qing color
  • qing color meaning
  • green and gold colors meaning in china
  • use black and white for your collateral materials, since colors have great significance for china
  • …and many more

Without further ado, we’re proud to present this third Illuminant’s Chinese Takeout, Enter the Dragon: Colors in China (What to Use, What to Avoid):

Scroll to the bottom to download a high-resolution PDF


Illuminant's Chinese Takeout Vol-03 Enter the Dragon - Colors in China (What to Use, What to Avoid)

Click to download a high resolution PDF of Illuminant’s Chinese Takeout, Enter the Dragon: Colors in China (What to Use, What to Avoid)


Illuminant's Chinese Takeout, Enter the Dragon: A Realistic Overview of China

Enter the Dragon, Part 1 of 12, “A Realistic Overview of China”

Illuminant's Chinese Takeout, Enter the Dragon: Understanding Chinese Holidays for Better Business Outcomes

Enter the Dragon, Part 2 of 12, “Understanding Chinese Holidays for Better Business Outcomes”

Illuminant's Chinese Takeout, Enter the Dragon: Colors to Use and Colors to Avoid in China

Enter the Dragon, Part 3 of 12, “Colors to Use and Colors to Avoid in China”

Illuminant's Chinese Takeout, Enter the Dragon: Gifts in China (What to Give, What to Avoid)

Enter the Dragon, Part 4 of 12, “Gifts in China: What to Give, What to Avoid”

Enter the Dragon, Part 5 of 12, “Spring Festival: The Lunar (or Chinese) New Year”






The ancient and complex Chinese culture is the big daddy of cultural symbolism. Highly resonant symbolic memes run old and deep.

No Chinese cultural symbolism is as pervasive as color. The hidden meanings of colors are surprisingly different in China than in other world cultures, and in many cases more powerful.

Companies new to China should avoid confusing Chinese consumers and key opinion leaders by ensuring that localized brandmarks and marketing materials are sympathetic to and persuasive within local cultural biases.

Red 红

Don’t confuse the red of China’s political system with “the red of the common people”. The ancient roots of red didn’t include revolution.

In ancient China, red gained positive meaning from fire. The saying, 红红火火 (hong hong huo huo, or literally “red, red, fire, fire”) means that your life is growing, crackling and rocketing like red flame. 火了 (huo le, “caught fire”) describes something very popular. 火爆 (huo bao, “fire and explosion”) describes a place jam-packed with people, or a book or movie packed with action and excitement.

Red is the primary color for celebrations, especially the Lunar New Year and wedding ceremonies, and other happy occasions.

However to overuse red out of context is poor marketing, analogous to Westerners using Christmas decorations in June.

Our advice:

It’s good to use some red to create “Chinese elements” in your marketing, but don’t abuse it.


Don’t handwrite in red ink: it communicates that you’re ending your relationship with your correspondent!

Yellow 黄


Yellow can be dangerous to use in your marketing. If your copywriting refers to a product or service and that is connected to yellow, great care should be taken.

When the term for yellow, “黄” (huang) is used in connection to any kind of publication or media, it means the thing it describes is pornographic. For example, 黄图 (huang tu, “yellow picture”) means pornographic pictures and graphics, 黄书 (huang shu, “yellow book”) means pornographic writing, 黄片 (huang pian, “yellow clips”) means pornographic movies, and 黄网 (huang wang, “yellow web”) means pornographic websites.

The other key cultural marker for yellow is that in ancient times, pure, bright yellow was reserved for use by emperors of several dynasties. To say someone 黄袍加身 (huang pao jia shen, “to wear the yellow robe”) means he has ascended to the throne, most likely by usurping. Anyone caught using yellow in any way during the dynasty would be put to death.

Our advice:

Be very careful with yellow. Avoid large swathes of yellow, and avoid yellow in your key brandmarks and products. Judicious use of yellow is possible but seek advice of a qualified China-specialist partner.

Gold 金

Gold is a color which has long been used in China as a symbol of nobility and wealth. It is closely related to the ancient emperors “bright, pure yellow” (see “Yellow”, above).

Our advice:

It’s fine to use metallic gold and golden colors in your marketing materials. There are few, if any, cultural faux pas to be watchful for.


Avoid over-use of gold: there was a time from the late ‘80s to ‘90s when practically every Chinese mainlander became crazy about gold ornaments and golden colored paints. This “gold rush” has cased over-use of the color to become the domain of the nouveau riche, and as such, can easily appear to make your massage gaudy and cheap-looking.

Purple 紫

Unlike European and British cultures, purple has deep religious meaning in China. An ancient Taoist symbol of divine presence is canonized as “a purple cloud coming from the east”.

This phrase is always used in connection to anything mortal ascending to immortality. In more recent times, purple has been borrowed from Europe as a symbol of romantic love.

Our advice:

Get creative and consider using purple to your advantage. Purple can be a very effective symbolic method of connecting your brand with positive notions of nobility, immortality, and (amongst younger consumers) wholesome love.

Green 绿

Green is a powerful symbol in the west, but can be confusing in China. While the western idea of “green” has some similarity in China, there are subtle but important differences.

In China’s mainland, green means “clean” or “free of contaminants”. This is not the same definition of “green” that westerners might assume. Mostly when westerners talk about “green technology” or “green energy”, they mean “sustainable” or “eco-friendly”.

However in China, “green” vegetables are free of pesticides, but may contribute to environmental degradation. “Green” milk is milk without toxic melamine. “Green” publications are without explicit or prohibited content. In some cases though, the conceptual mapping of western “eco” green to a similar “eco” meaning in China does exist.

So you see, “green” is a widely-used adjective with much broader and different meaning to “green” (eco) products or services, but sometimes, in the minds of some urban audiences, actually does mean “eco green”!


Symbolically, “getting a green hat” means a man has an unfaithful wife. When preparing gifts, green should be avoided at all costs if the gifts are intended to be worn anywhere on or near people’s heads.

Our advice:

Go ahead and use green for just about any marketing purpose, but do not assume that your “green” product or service will be viewed as “eco”. If you do intend an “eco” meaning for your China green, you must elaborate and give relevant obvious context. And don’t give green hats away at your next trade fair unless you want to become a laughing stock!

White 白

White is used in Chinese funerals. A 白包 (bai bao, “white envelope”) is an packet of money to show the sympathy to family of the deceased, much opposed to the 红包 (hong bao, “red envelope”) given to newlywed couples and children.


White is a color you must avoid for anything festive or celebratory (and that includes product launches) especially in the less westernized (that means most) regions of China. When giving gifts of any kind, never wrap in white.

Our advice:

Be judicious with the use of white according to the context of the marketing material or activity. Seek expert advice before committing to white as a brand or marketing feature element.

Black 黑

Black, when used in copywriting and text, has a wide array of symbolic meanings that include evil, morbid, corrupted, illegal, and/or greedy. As a color it has a hint of formality and solemness in the minds of the Chinese people. Never put black borders around photographs of people.

It means that they are dead and are being memorialized! Avoid presenting someone’s portrait (a phoeo focused on the face) in black and white mode. This makes your audience think of pictures on graves.

When giving gifts of any kind, never wrap them in black.

Our advice:

Take care not to over-use black. It’s often safest to avoid black altogether.

Multi-color and Rainbow Spectra 彩虹

Chinese people seldom use a rainbow spectrum. In ancient times, a rainbow across the sun would foretell that the emperor would soon die or be challenged. And no, the Gay Pride rainbow is unknown in China.

Use of spectra in Chinese marketing materials is likely to make your Chinese audience think that you’re presenting the national flag of a minor country, or that you’ve used cheap, end-of-run colored materials in your production.

Our advice:

If you must use a rainbow or a color spectrum, go right ahead, but any hope for cultural resonance will probably be lost on you audience.

Qing 青

青 (qing, pronounced “ching”) si an interesting color that doesn’t appear in the standard western set of colors.

Fitting qing into the western spectrum, some Chinese say it’s a sort of blue, while others say it’s part of the green family. Culturally, qing is a color that sits anywhere in between blue and green. You can call it green, blue, greenish-blue or bluish-green, and not be thought of as odd.

Adding a little more interest to this unique Chinese-only color, qing may include some grey. So qing can also be described as greenish-grey blue, or bluish-green grey, or any other combination of these shades.

Qing is closely linked to historical buildings and clothing, like qing bricks, and qing pattern porcelain. Also, there is a type of female character in Peking Opera called a 青衣 (qing yi, “qing colored costume”) because they usually wear costumes of this interesting color.

Our advice:

Give qing consideration if you need to instill a feeling of history and traditional culture.


China, as a modern country, has a lot of facets, and a full spectrum of colors. Stereotyping it with red is but a safe but boring practice. Free your creativity and experiment with different color in a different cultural context. The pitfalls outlined in this article are easy to avoid. All will be fine as long as your campaign or design is baked by reliable market research and cultural analysis.

This Chinese Takeout by

London Olympics asks Beijing’s approval for London 2012 website?

Friday, July 27th, 2012

Today, the 2012 Olympic Games will open in London.  A routine visit to the London 2012 website revealed something that amazed our China-watching antennae.

Visit the website now, and scroll to the bottom, you will find, in almost invisible grey font, a tiny line which we’ve highlighted below:

London 2012 website with Chinese government "ICP" approval

Official London 2012 website, fully approved by the Chinese central government’s relevant organ.


Experienced China hands are already chuckling and shaking their heads.

However, readers who do not spend their days studying and working in the minutiae of the Chinese goverment’s, um, diverse, regulatory environment may be wondering what an ICP filing number is. If so, good question.

An ICP, or “Internet Content Provider” filing number is a kind of Chinese business approval license, as you may have already suspected. Its a privilege, not a right, to have a website in China.  According to Chinese laws and regulations, all websites based in China must acquire such a license before being able to operate legally. “Based in China” typically means:

  • The domain is issued by the Chinese government organ which controls .cn domain name space;
  • Or the server is physically located in China;
  • Or the company operating the website is properly incorporated in China (whether they be domestic or foreign).

It makes us wonder: why does London Olympic Games’ website need the approval of The Central People’s Government of People’s Republic of China?

There are several possibilities we’ve considered (you may have different theories, which we’d love to hear about in the comments section, below):

  • The website is hosted in China. But this doesn’t make sense. China isn’t a country especially well known for great IT infrastructure, and its internet “pipes” to the world are horrifically constrained by both technical and, um, regulatory reasons. Why not just put the server in the UK or base it in the US?
  • LOCOG is incorporated in China. Again, this doesn’t make much sense. This third London Olympics is the pride of UK.
  • They want to attract Chinese visitors. If so, why acquire a Chinese ICP license without offering a Chinese version of the website? At the top of the home page, there is a language switch… but only between English and Français. Plus, the website has a substantial number of services that can’t be accessed by Chinese users, namely Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.
  • Or the London team has considered the possibility of the website being blocked by China’s Great Firewall (“#GFW” on Twitter), and hopes an ICP license will gain the website a free GFW pass? This may be the most likely answer, although regulatory compliance is absolutely no guarantee that your site won’t be blocked by the GFW.

In our opinion, this maneuver isn’t going to help London 2012:

  • If you just want Chinese netizens to use your service,and you’re not promoting it widely in China, an ICP license is really unnecessary. There are millions of websites do not have the license but still easily accessible by Chinese people. For example:
  • If you want to establish the website as a Chinese-friendly service, an ICP license is the least of the challenge. Much more important for a Chinese audience is a Chinese user interface!
  • If you just want to please Beijing… well, the job is half done. What’s left is to make the ICP license number bigger, stronger, more obvious (not greyed out to the point of being invisible, as in the London 2012 example).
  • If the tactic is for a GFW pass, well, forget about it. China’s relevant government organs can revoke any ICP, at any time, when a leader feels a website is ungood. An ICP license doesn’t produce a protective aura around your online chakras.

With all that said, we wish London a successful Olympic Games!

If any of our readers want to know more about China’s ICP licensing system, feel free to ask us about it.

UPDATE: NEW YORK CITY 2012-07-27 15:25:  According to the Taipei Times, LOCOG told its reporter that London 2012 applied for an ICP because without one it would not have been possible to host some of its content in a China-based Content Delivery Network (CDN) service. However following reports such as ours, the London spokesperson said the ICP was removed from its website to “minimize confusion”.

Illuminant’s Chinese Takeout: Understanding Chinese Holidays for Better Business Outcomes

Wednesday, July 25th, 2012

Every day, hundreds of web users search their way to Illuminant’s website to find out more about  the “Chinese New Year”, as well as the other Chinese holidays.  This topic has become one of Illuminant’s all-time most popular topics.

To address that need, we published articles on Chinese Holidays as well as a special guide on the Spring Festival in our Illuminant’s China blog which have generated huge traffic and very positive feedback.  These Chinese holidays are not only of great significance to the Chinese people, but also have a huge impact on foreign and domestic business in China, good and bad.

There is a lot more to the annual schedule of lunar and fixed Chinese holidays: when understood well, and with the help of a skilled agency such as ours, they can be powerful methods to help your business relationships and sales successes.

To further amplify this advice we routinely provide our clients, we have created our 2nd Illuminant’s Chinese Takeout infographic of the 12-month Enter the Dragon series: Understanding Chinese Holidays for Better Business Outcomes.

We hope that the simple guide that follows will help you to plan your business visits and marketing activities accordingly, and capitalize on these holidays as great opportunities to deepen your guānxī with your Chinese partners, regulators and customers.

Scroll to the bottom to download a high-resolution PDF.


Illuminant's Chinese Takeout: Enter the Dragon volume 2, "Understanding Chinese Holidays for Better Business Outcomes"


Click here to download a high-resolution PDF of the infographic.


Illuminant's Chinese Takeout, Enter the Dragon: A Realistic Overview of China

Enter the Dragon, Part 1 of 12, “A Realistic Overview of China”

Illuminant's Chinese Takeout, Enter the Dragon: Understanding Chinese Holidays for Better Business Outcomes

Enter the Dragon, Part 2 of 12, “Understanding Chinese Holidays for Better Business Outcomes”

Illuminant's Chinese Takeout, Enter the Dragon: Colors to Use and Colors to Avoid in China

Enter the Dragon, Part 3 of 12, “Colors to Use and Colors to Avoid in China”

Illuminant's Chinese Takeout, Enter the Dragon: Gifts in China (What to Give, What to Avoid)

Enter the Dragon, Part 4 of 12, “Gifts in China: What to Give, What to Avoid”

Enter the Dragon, Part 5 of 12, “Spring Festival: The Lunar (or Chinese) New Year”



China in a box



Understanding Chinese Holidays

If you’re a company taking your first steps into the Chinese marketplace, don’t experience disruption to your business plans due to lack of planning around the Chinese mainland’s unique holiday calendar.

For new entrants to the China market, it can be quite disorienting to discover your entire in-market team away on holidays you’ve never heard of. And it’s really very irritating (and expensive) to arrive in Beijing or Shanghai to find that none of the “big potatoes” you need to meet are available due to an incomprehensible slowdown caused by an impending holiday (or one just passed!)

Due to religious differences, China doesn’t officially celebrate Christmas, Easter, or any other Judeo-Christian holiday. Rather, China has a series of traditional holidays, some derived from nationhood and others with ancient agrarian roots. Holidays dedicated to China’s nationhood and political system fall on the same date each year, while traditional holidays very according to the lunar calendar.

We encourage you to understand China’s holiday schedule and to take advantage of your new understanding: you have great opportunities to deepen your business and government guanxi relationships.

Year 年

Yuan Dan (New Year’s Day) 元旦

International New Year’s Day is officially marked in China, and has a three day vacation attached to it, however celebrations are pale and minuscule compared to the Lunar New Year a month later. Due to the short vacation of only 3 days, few mainland Chinese travel much distance during this holiday.

The New Year isn’t at all disruptive to business.

Good Mandarin Chinese phrases to use during the new year are “新年快乐” (xin nian kuai le, “Happy New Year”) or “元旦快乐” (yuan dan kuai le, “Happy Yuan Dan”).

In summary, do take advantage of the new year, but keep your powder dry for the cacophonous glory of the lunar New Year, which will soon be upon us…

Date: 1st Jan

Duration: 3 Days

Greetings: YES

Gifts: YES (Recommended)

Chun Jie (Lunar New Year, aka Chinese New Year, aka Spring Festival) 春节

In China, the Lunar New Year is of equivalent importance as Christmas and Hanukkah in the Judeo-Christian traditions. That is to say, it’s the main holiday in the annual schedule that is celebrated and observed with the greatest gusto by all Chinese people.

The two weeks bookending the beginning and end of the Lunar New Year week is a terrible time to be doing business in China. Much like the “silly season” around the Christmas/New Year period in the west, this is a time of year during which few major decisions are made and few large purchase orders are written. It’s best to avoid time-consuming or expensive business development activities during this period.

Be sure to send greetings! “过年好!” (guo nian hao, “happy getting past the old year!”) “恭贺新春” (gong he xin chun, “sincere congratulations on the new spring”), or more generic “新年快乐” (xin nian kuai le, your typical “Happy New Year”). Avoid 恭喜发财.

Date: Jan-Feb (Depending on Lunar Calendar)

Duration: 7 DAYS

Greetings: YES

Gifts: YES (Recommended)

Qing Ming (Tomb Sweeping Day) 清明

Since the taboo subject of death is involved, the whole business of Qing Ming is quite private and solemn. As a non-Chinese, don’t bother with special greetings or gifts, Best to leave this three day holiday alone.

The Qing Ming period is only minimally disruptive to business, Senior decision makers may be out of the office for a day or two on either side of the holiday, so plan your business activities accordingly.

Date: April

Duration: 3 DAYS

Greetings: No (Nor necessary)

Gifts: No (NOT Recommended)

Lao Dong Jie (Labor Day, aka May Day, aka International Workers’ Day) 劳动节

Labor Day is marked with a three day national vacation beginning on May 1st every year. The holiday was introduced by the post-1949 government of Chairman Mao. The holiday is a modern one: it doesn’t have any traditional cultural importance. Like most Chinese holidays, you should assume that more senior decision makers will take a few extra days on either side of the holiday, so avoid important business during the week leading up to and the week after the Labor Day period.

Date: May 1st

Duration: 3 DAYS

Greetings: No (Not necessary)

Gifts: No (Nor necessary)

Duan Wu (Dragon Boat Festival) 端午

Originally a day to honor ancient poet Qu Yuan, this day turned into a holiday in recent times. This three day holiday is the time that Chinese mainland people will eat 粽子 (zong zi), a glutinous rice package wrapped in bamboo leaves. Everyone in China eats zongzi, although few actually race dragon boats these days.

From a business timing perspective, you may find some locally engaged staff-members or business collaborators to be absent from work for a week during this period, especially if they are active participants in dragon boat teams, and are attending race in far flung cities.

Date: May (Depending on Lunar Calendar)

Duration: 3 DAYS

Greetings: Yes

Gifts: YES (Recommended)

Zhong Qiu (Mid-Autumn Festival) 中秋

This important and beloved festival marks the dead-center of autumn in the Lunar Calendar. The Mid-Autumn Festival is second only to the Lunar New Year in the year’s most important holidays.

The effect of the Mid-Autumn Festival on business availability is analogous to that of the Lunar New Year. It’s best to lower your expectations that decision makers will be of a mind to make major decisions for the fortnight leading up to and after the holiday period.

Be sure to plan well in advance to take full advantage of the Mid-Autumn Festival with gifts of mooncakes and a party for your team, their spouses, your best customers and allies.

A good greeting is 中秋佳节快乐 (zhong qiu jia jie kuai le, “Have a happy time during the pleasant Mid-Autumn Festival”).

Date: August (Depending on Lunar Calendar)

Duration: 3 Days

Greetings: Yes

Gifts: YES (Recommended)

Guo Qing Jie (China National Day) 国庆节

Every country has its day. October 1st is China’s day. This is the day that marks Chairman Mao Zedong standing on the rostrum at Tian’anmen Gate, in 1949, declaring the People’s Republic of China. China National Day is the beginning of an annual seven day vacation.

There will be a lot of fireworks exploding overhear, but people don’t celebrate it personally. There is no need or real opportunity to improve personal business relationships during this seven day vacation—however large businesses commonly take out full-page advertisements in major newspapers to congratulate China on her birthday each year.

The most common Mandarin Chinese phrase used on National Day is 欢度国庆 (huan du guo qing, “Enjoy the National Day Vacation”)

Date: Oct 1st

Duration: 7 DAYS

Greetings: NO (Nor necessary)

Gifts: NO (Not necessary)


The principle of making good use of Chinese holidays in your business development and corporate communications campaign can be summarized into three main points:

·Be aware of all upcoming holidays, taking care to ascertain the actual dates each year.

·Ensure good timing on your promotional activities and events.

·Be different from everyone else. Make your greetings, cards, gifts and events stand out from an ocean of mediocrity.

It can take some time to become accustomed to Chiense holiday timing, and a solid localization effort to distill a communications style and voice that fits the Chinese cultural context and your brand identity well. The easiest solution for a fast and successful program is no engage the services of a local expert. Your local partners will be your calendar, your alarm clock, your copywriter, your design team and your event manager. If you’re still without such a partner, please do consider Illuminant’s battle proven services.

This Chinese Takeout by:

An insight into the Chinese online media’s copy-and-paste techniques

Friday, July 20th, 2012

Kudos to this guy on Sina Weibo for providing us “the big picture”, literally

Today provides us with a fascinating look behind the curtain of Chinese media, its hidebound hierarchical system, and its approach to fact-checking.  This short post concerns how an erroneous story published by a respected Chinese news source can blanket the Chinese online news media in a matter of minutes.

The image shows China’s four dominant web portals, QQ, Sohu, Net Ease and Sina, reporting on the same story.

According to today’s reports, the world’s most famous bicycle race, the Tour de France, is caught in a huge crisis, in which 1,832 riders have quit the race!

A normal media consumer, Chinese or otherwise, might ask, “Is this possible? A bicycle race with over 1,800 riders?”

A quick web search on any of the abovementioned portals reveals that the Tour de France 2012 has 22 teams competing against one another, each featuring 9 riders. 22*9=198. So, according to China’s online news behemoths, today in France 1,832 out of 198 riders have left the race.

This kind of erroneous news publishing is not uncommon in China’s fast ‘n’ furious media sector.  Today’s example unraveled as follows:

  • Xinhua, the state-owned news agency of China, is covering the Tour de France in France. A Xinhua journalist was writing about how 156 out of 198 riders made it to the end. However, maybe due to a jerk of fingers, he/she accidentally hit the “8″ key one extra time. 198 became 1988. The journalist didn’t spot the tiny typo though. A click on the submit button, and the news is out on the infallible Xinhua wire.
  • The People’s Daily, the premier Chinese state-owned newspaper, picked up the story. Apparently the editor on duty has some “independent thinking”. He/she took the initiative and did the math: started with 1,988 riders, now only 156 left. That will make big news!
  • Sina’s editor saw the news on People’s Daily, and forwarded it with a casual copy & paste job.
  • And another casual copy & paste job by a Net Ease editor.
  • And another casual copy & paste job by a QQ editor.
  • And another casual copy & paste job by a Sohu editor.
  • Full house! Now the entire Chinese web believes le Tour de France is doomed, because 92.2% riders supposedly don’t think it’s worth their while. Could such an event have any future?

Curiously, throughout the entire process, not a single media professional involved questioned the figures, or to check other sources than People’s Daily or Xinhua.  Ironically the only one in the entire chain who exercised some independent thinking was the People’s Daily editor, and unfortunately he/she grasped the story in an entirely wrong way.

By now (July 19 2012, 11:32PM Beijing time), the crazy story has been circulated about 1,910 times across the Chinese web, including all sorts of leading portal sites, sports sites, bicycle hobbist sites, and state-owned news sites, and local newspapers. You can keep a track of the total count here.

[UPDATE at July 20 2012, 10:00PM Beijing time: we now see the number of Chinese media reports has increased to 2,470).

Key points, especially for those unfamiliar with China’s PR and news sector, are:

  • Have “key targets” when doing public relations in China. For example, know that Xinhua is one of the only two state-supported news wires. Get one story on Xinhua, and it will be picked up by thousands of media outlets before you can say “sweeet”.
  • Chinese web portals share news from print media and each other very fast, and they rarely apply filters to check if the story is true. Actually they rarely proofread. Quick copy & paste is the order of the average online newsroom operator. If a PR agency can manage to sell one story to one of these portals, or an important enough print media, it will be all over the web in a blink of the eye.
  • And the communications team with the Tour de France might want to clear the air a bit in China before anything stranger happens.  Feel free to call us for help, guys!

How to have a successful Chinese business or government meeting (an etiquette guide)

Tuesday, July 17th, 2012
"Chinese Meeting Etiquette" Image by Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China

You can’t be too Chinese doing business in China. Image: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China.

Chinese meeting etiquette is complicated and culturally significant, but exercising good meeting etiquette could not be more essential for business success in China. Read on and allow Illuminant to light your path, step by step:

Step 1: Getting a Chinese business or government meeting

This is China, so tough it out.

As far as China has come today, most enterprises are still state-owned. Even if a company is privately held or publicly traded, a certain degree of government influence in business operations and organizational culture could be present. Not surprisingly, for some large state-owned companies (especially those being local economic pillars), there will very likely be government officials present at every meeting. This, in turn, means the meetings are going to be harder to schedule, to choreograph and to yield a decision or go forward plan. Knowing who you are meeting with, their level, position and their role in the government, business or Party is extremely important.

In the past, we have had many clients complaining about the difficulties of getting a meeting plan scheduled (and confirmed) in China. The lǐngdǎo (the most senior government person from the Chinese side) or the lǎobǎn (the business sector equivalent) is always “busy” and plans his/her agenda not based on who scheduled a meeting first, but rather, who will bring the most benefit to his or her government organization or enterprise. Meetings are often not confirmed until the day of the meeting because the lǐngdǎos are trained in Party School to keep their options open for something better which might come along at the last moment. Unfortunately, the best advice we can give our clients in most of these situations is — This is China, tough it out. We do advise them to not take any of these issues personally or to be insulted. It is very common to not receive meeting confirmations until the last minute. Some old China hands say that the typical delays in confirmations, ambiguity of attendees and excessive formality serve China’s interests better than if the western system be adopted.

Step 2: Prepare for a Chinese meeting

When we say be prepared, we really mean it.

Ok, so you finally have a meeting date confirmed with your Chinese partners. The first thing we want you to be prepared for is knowing that Chinese meetings are very formal. Think “meeting the king and queen”, which is commonly a big cultural shock to Westerners especially in a complex culture like China. Expect to meet a substantial number of people from the other side, and what we mean by “substantial” is approximately ten or more Chinese senior attendees. Substantial is not only the number of people but the lǎobǎnyǐ (literally, the “boss chair”) and the lǐngdǎo formally siting on the other side of the table.

Like a boss. Image: Luoli Furniture

Rule #1 Never go alone. Illuminant counsels that “more is more” in China, so ensure that you have proper back-up for the meeting. Try to find out who is going to be on the Chinese side, so that you can get an idea of how many people you should bring. Try to match numbers, lest you be outnumbered and you “lose” the first round.

Rule #2 Material Support. Bring printed copies of all the materials that you have previously faxed or sent to the Chinese side as well as your business cards. Always have abundant supply. It will be quite insulting if you run short and some of the important senior members do not receive a copy. Business cards need to be in both Chinese and English. Do NOT just transliterate everything as your phonetic name in Mandarin could mean something vulgar, obscene or worse unlucky. All support material should be premium quality and finish. For help on your Chinese naming strategy, contact Illuminant for advice.

Rule #3 Gifts create a bond and a memory, especially since the Chinese side may have trouble remembering your face and your name. It is highly recommended to bring a gift to the meeting, in fact, never attend a key or initial meeting without a gift. Gifts indicate that you are interested in building a business relationship and more importantly, it creates an obligation for the other side to at least take a second meeting with you. If the Chinese did not prepare gifts for you, that is very good because that has just created an even larger obligation. Gifts should be appropriate, preferably something that represents the country or region where you are from. Beware of the commercial value of your gift. For although sending gifts is common enough in Chinese culture, there is such thing as bribery in China. Make sure your gifts are memorable, but inexpensive (except sometimes… ask us for advice).

Step 3: Attending a Chinese meeting

You can be just as Chinese as the rest of the people in the room. We believe in you.

Upon arrival

Who is in charge?


Once you arrive at the building in which the meeting will take place, ask your group to line up in hierarchy because the Chinese side needs to understand who is in charge. The first is the most important. When you enter a room, the most senior person must come in first. We know it can be embarrassing in the Western context, but it is extremely important to do it the Chinese way while you are doing business there. So just be Chinese during that moment.


Now you gaze around the room, find out who the lǐngdǎo or lǎobǎn is and shake hands and warmly greet him/her first. Usually he/she is the “different” one in the room, for example, seated at the very center of the room, or sitting while others are standing. Don’t worry so much about the lǐngdǎo-spotting game though, as the Chinese side will eagerly introduce you to a series of people, the most important lǐngdǎo first, then everyone else according to their positions, in descending order. One thing you need to remember at all times is that the lǐngdǎo is the most important person in the room, and he/she should alway be acknowledged first. Be patient, and wait for the lǐngdǎo to introduce his/her group and then shake the others’ hands accordingly. If there is a few people in the room that the lǐngdǎo did not introduce, that means the lǐngdǎo doesn’t think they are important or worth mentioning. Do NOT shake hands or do introductions with those people or it might cause an insult to the lǐngdǎo. Watch, listen and follow the cues of your host, just be highly observant and constantly take cues from the lǐngdǎo. Being a foreigner is actually your advantage here, since the other side will usually expect you to be disoriented, and actively guide you through the process. If they do so, just follow every instruction without questioning.

Business cards

Show business cards, show respect. Image: Illuminant.

Politely present your business cards with both hands to the lǐngdǎo, Chinese text “facing” him/her so the lǐngdǎowill be able to read it without having to turn it around. Don’t bow while presenting your business card. Bowing to everyone you meet is the Japanese and Korean tradition, which looks strange and obviously out-of-place in China. And then the rest of the contingent from the Chinese side. When presenting, ensure that the Chinese side is up for the recipient. When receiving a business card, hold the card with both hands. Pause and examine the card for some seconds before you put it down , if possible on the table top where you are seated. Note and mention their position, name, and show that you are impressed by whatever that is written on the card. Compliments and acts of respect can always increase the other person’s face, which is very beneficial in building relationships. Holding a business card with only one hand or putting it into your pocket without even looking at it is considered rude and shows that you are not taking the other person or the meeting seriously.


In China, the seat that is positioned facing the door is the seat of honor, and of course, that seat should always be reserved for the lǐngdǎo however it will frequently be offered to the leader of your delegation, as an act of respect by the Chinese side. If there are no “tent cards” for seating arrangements, it is quite appropriate to just ask the lǐngdǎo directly but politely where he/she wants you and your group to sit. It is a simple question but can help you avoid lots of trouble. Once the lǐngdǎo gives your instructions, follow it. But remember, sit after the lǐngdǎo, always.


Now finally, everyone’s sitting down, and you are feeling a bit of worn out already. We know it has taken a lot to come to this stage, but hang it there, you are only halfway.

You are in charge…

Maybe the lǐngdǎo is not that intimidating after all. Image: UK Dept of Business Innovation and Skills.

The meeting normally starts with the lǐngdǎo giving a short speech, after which you can briefly introduce yourself, your company and perhaps your products. In Chinese meetings, the bosses do all the talking. Do not defer to your subordinates as is typical in the West to ensure that you reserve the power and allow discussion. This is very atypical in China. The leader of your side is responsible for engagement, discussion and decisions. If it is a very technical question then deferral to a specialist is allowed. Otherwise, only the bosses are expected to speak during the whole meeting. One side note is to avoid telling Western jokes when you are in a conversation with the lǐngdǎo. Jokes are not appropriate during a Chinese business meeting, unless you have already established a genuine friendship or warm rapport. Plus, given that many jokes are idiomatic and culturally specific, they rarely translate across cultures and will cause confusion. As a lǐngdǎo, not being able to do something is considered a big loss of face, for example: failing to get the punchline of a foreign joke. Worse still is if someone else present gets it. So, for safe play, just don’t try this stunt.

Present your gift towards the end of the meeting. Same as business cards, you should also give and receive gifts with both hands. Actually, this “both hands” trick is a part of Confucianism that says ”I’m doing this with all my respect”. Some old-fashioned folks even shake hands with both hands. Don’t appear to be surprised if the lǐngdǎo at the meeting does this to you. And don’t try Chinese hand shaking 2.0 on your own initiative either. Just see what they do, and react. Before the meeting is dismissed, if possible, always try to get a photo with the lǐngdǎo, he/she can’t say no. Or more likely, he/she will ask before you do. Many times, the whole delegation is in the photo as a group. It is a strategically important approach as it helps the meeting to end in a good atmosphere and assists your follow-up with the lǐngdǎo after the meeting. One week later, you can send the lǐngdǎo this photo and remind him/her of you and your company. It will greatly increase the chance of you getting another meeting.Finally, the meeting is over, because the lǐngdǎo says so. You and your group leave the meeting room in the hierarchy order, with you being the first.

Step 4: What happens after a Chinese meeting

Know the secret.

The meeting went well, and now you are relieved it is all over. But before you go back to the hotel and get yourself a strong drink, there is one very important thing that you need to do — debrief the interpreter. Why? Because you want to know how the meeting really went. The interpreter is the only person that understood everything that just happened in that meeting room: the chit-chat between the lǐngdǎo and the guy next him, or the phone call one of the Chinese officials made right after you guys discussed prices. Naturally, the interpreter would always tell you that everything was perfect even if it was not because he/she wants to make you feel good and give you lots of face. So in this case, you need to be persistent and praise your interpreter hard for truthful and useful information. This is incredibly valuable and insightful information you have paid for but need to ask for in order to get. Also you might want to brief the interpreter before the meeting, tell him/her to record every conversation among the Chinese guys, just in case the interpreter just wants to do a quick job and be over with it.

You can’t rush China and you don’t have the guānxì you think you do.

Don’t get discouraged or frustrated if no business deal was made during that meeting. You have to understand that for the Chinese, business is never to be done at the first meeting with some foreigners who they’ve just met. In China, the importance of building personal relationships with business partners and getting to know one another can not be overemphasized. What you ought to do now is again, to be patient, wait for a week, send the lǐngdǎo the photo you took together (both a beautifully framed printed-out copy as well as the digital file), and then try to schedule a second meeting. Take one step at a time, and you will be close to successfully getting your business done in China.

Please feel free to reach out to Illuminant for support in developing your business in China, or to help guide a recovery after a series of missteps.


Illuminant’s Chinese Takeout: Enter the Dragon (a realistic overview of China)

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

Since establishing our first North American office in NYC about a year ago, we’ve often been asked by new US-based clients for a “back to basics” overview of today’s China.

We’re normally accustomed to providing deeper and narrower market intelligence and analysis of China’s business, government and consumer opportunities. However we’re always eager to support our clients’ market and cultural intelligence needs, so we’ve created a 12-month program of infographics to address this basic overview of China today.

We’ve called our year-long series Illuminant’s Chinese Takeout.

We’re proud to release the first part of 12: Enter the Dragon.

Scroll to the bottom to download a high-resolution PDF.

Illuminant's Chinese Takeout Volume 01 - Enter the Dragon (a realistic overview of China) infographic

Click here to download a high-resolution PDF.


Illuminant's Chinese Takeout, Enter the Dragon: A Realistic Overview of China

Enter the Dragon, Part 1 of 12, “A Realistic Overview of China”

Illuminant's Chinese Takeout, Enter the Dragon: Understanding Chinese Holidays for Better Business Outcomes

Enter the Dragon, Part 2 of 12, “Understanding Chinese Holidays for Better Business Outcomes”

Illuminant's Chinese Takeout, Enter the Dragon: Colors to Use and Colors to Avoid in China

Enter the Dragon, Part 3 of 12, “Colors to Use and Colors to Avoid in China”

Illuminant's Chinese Takeout, Enter the Dragon: Gifts in China (What to Give, What to Avoid)

Enter the Dragon, Part 4 of 12, “Gifts in China: What to Give, What to Avoid”

Enter the Dragon, Part 5 of 12, “Spring Festival: The Lunar (or Chinese) New Year”





China in a box



Many people are surprised to learn that China’s landmass is slightly smaller than the USA’s: 3.7 sq.mi vs. 3.85M sq.mi.

The people’s Republic of China views Taiwan as a province and it should be referred to as “Taiwan, China” in all dealings on the mainland. Similarly, refer to China’s two SARs as “Hong Kong, China” and “Macau, China”.

Many Chinese netizens say that the map of China resembles a chicken.



Population: US: 313 million China: 1.3 billion

Mobile phone subscribers: US: 258 million China 1 billion

Internet users: US: 245 million China: 513 million



51.27% male, 48.73% female means that 34 million Chinese men probably won’t be able to find a wife.

Due to the one child policy (or “Policy of Birth Planning”), a typical Chinese family is only allowed a single child. Chinese men and women have equal rights in all social aspects, but in certain parts of China, particularly rural areas, people still value boys over girls because boys can carry on the family name and can bear heavier agricultural work.



The overwhelming majority of Chinese citizens are of the Han ethnicity. However, “ethnic minority groups” do exist in clusters. In certain regions, such minorities are actually the majority, such as the Uighur people in Xinjiang Province, and the Hui people in Gansu, Shaanxi, and Ningxia.

If you plan on doing business in such regions, it’s of critical importance that you study local “ethnic minority” cultures and religions.



China’s unique form of socialism diverged from that of North Korea or the former USSR since Chairman Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping introduced economic reforms in 1979.

The Chinese government formally defines its political/social system as “Marxist-leninist Socialism with Chinese characteristics”. It features a partial market economy with key sectors controlled by the government or state-owned enterprises.

When you’re working within the Chinese economy keep in mind that it’s still socialism, regardless that the few square miles around your fance hotel look a lot like capitalism.



All major world religions have some influence in China. Buddhism has traditionally been the most popular. Followers of Islam and Judaism are often related to specific ethnic groups. Taoism has been falling out of favor. Christianity (especially Catholicism) has developed substantial momentum in recent years since some “benign” forms of religious observance were decriminalized.

Technically, the 60M members of the Chinese Communist Party are now allowed to participate in religious institutions, however only a small minority do (certainly the more powerful the bureaucrat, the less likely he or she will declare themselves religious).



Mandarin Chinese (“Putonghua”) is the standardized form of Chinese speech and writing however only around 840M (of 1.38) Chinese citizens can speak Mandarin! Hundreds of distinctly different dialects and languages are used for verbal conversations in different regions.

In the southern Guangdong province and Hong Kong, Cantonese (“Yue”) is has it’s own written and spoken forms and claims 71M speakers/readers. Aroung Shanghai, hundreds of different Shanghainese (“Wu”) dialects are mutually unintelligible by the language group’s 77M speakers. “Min” is spoken by 60M; “Xiang” is spoken by 36M; “Hakka” is spoken by 34M; “Gan” is spoken by 31M. Hundreds more non-Mandarin dialects and languages are spoken by tens of millions more.



Modern Chinese students are mandated to learn English starting in middle school, and a certain level of English is a requirement for all Bachelor’s degrees. However, that doesn’t mean all Chinese people are English-capable. Since it’s mandated on all students, a huge number of Chinese people dislike the language with a passion. In China it is therefore important to conduct all business in Chinese if possible. For written communications, there is no question that beautifully written Chinese will be more effective than trying to communicate in English.



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