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 (and entirely government mandated) 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 its 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!)
Illuminant clients are coached to not only understand Chinese holidays, but to take advantage of them for better business planning and improved guanxi relationships.
“Its a holiday, Jim… but not as we know it.”
Many people are familiar with the Lunar (aka Chinese) New Year — that moveable date that falls between January and February each year, and which is celebrated not only in China, but also in Asian countries and communities around the world. Few people outside China know very much about the Chinese-specific holidays and vacations though.
Due to religious differences, China doesn’t officially celebrate Christmas, Easter, or any other Judeo-Christian holiday. However China does have a series of traditional holidays, some derived from China’s 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 vary according to the lunar calendar.
China’s central government does, from time to time, make changes to the national schedule of holidays. Currently, the annual schedule is as follows:
|Chinese Name||English Name||Date||Duration||Greetings||Gifts|
|New Year’s Day||January 1st||3 days||Necessary||Recommended|
|Lunar New Year||Varies in January or February, depending on Lunar Calendar||7 days||Necessary||Necessary|
|N/A||Varies in April, depending on Lunar Calendar, but probably April 4th or 5th||3 days||Not recommended||Not recommended|
Láo Dòng Jié
|International Labor Day||May 1st||3 days||Not necessary, but okay for senior government officials||Not necessary|
|Dragon Boat Day||Varies in May depending on Lunar Calendar||3 days||Recommended||Recommended|
|Mid-Autumn Festival||Varies in August depending on Lunar Calendar||3 days||Necessary||Necessary|
Guó Qìng Jié
|China National Day||October 1st||7 days||Not necessary||Not necessary|
The background, significance and opportunities of China’s holidays
元旦 Yuán Dàn (New Year’s Day)
International New Year’s Day is officially marked in China, and has a three day vacation attached to it, however new year 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.
International New Year’s Day is a good opportunity to send greetings to your partners and clients. There isn’t a need or expectation for anything too elaborate — a phone call or a drop-in would be very warmly noted, and if your client or partner uses email (don’t assume she actually reads email, even if she has an email address on her business card) an ecard with a personal greeting would be appreciated. It’s a nice time to send a generic greeting to your partners or clients.
Good Mandarin Chinese phrases to use during the new year are “新年快乐”(xīn nián kuài lè, “Happy New Year”) or “元旦快乐” (yuán dàn kuài lè, “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…
春节 Chūn Jié (Lunar New Year, aka Chinese New Year, aka Spring Festival)
In China, the Lunar New Year is of equivalent importance as Christmas and Hanukkah in the Judeo-Christian traditions. That is to say, its the main holiday in the annual schedule that is celebrated and observed with the greatest gusto by all Chinese people. Lunar New Year is so important in China that we’ve written an advice article for just this holiday.
The most distinctive characteristic of the Lunar New Year in China — from a business perspective — is that every one of the 1.4 billion Chinese citizens will try to return to their hometown, even if it means flying halfway across the globe, enduring the most uncomfortable or dangerous conveyance imaginable, or even in extreme but all-too-common cases, quitting their job to make the journey possible. We should note for the China neophyte that one’s “hometown” means one’s grandfather’s hometown, not “the city where your immediate family currently lives”. Due to the colossal numbers of people who have migrated from rural areas to urban cities over the last few decades, massive numbers of travelers are seen in the days leading up to the Lunar New Year.
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. Its best to avoid time-consuming or expensive business development activities during this period.
Your local partners and clients will expect, at the very least, a season’s greeting from you. It’s also a great opportunity to surprise them with a timely and appropriate gift. Timing is the key here. People will start leaving for home sometimes as early as a week to a month prior to the vacation. So do plan ahead with the support of your local partner, and time your carefully designed greeting cards or gift packs accordingly.
We’ve detailed a range of culturally appropriate Mandarin Chinese phrases in our Lunar New Year article — take care to avoid offence by using the right greetings depending on the recipient’s employment status. You can get ideas for appropriate gifts and cards also from that article, or contact us for specific advice.
清明 Qīng Míng (Tomb Sweeping Day)
Qing Ming is a traditional holiday thus in theory it should be marked on the Lunar Calendar. However, in the past several decades it always falls on April the 4th or 5th of the Gregorian Calendar. Its generally known as Tomb Sweeping Day or Grave Sweeping Day due to the Tang emperor Xuanzong’s declaration, in the year 732, that formal respects may only be made at ancestor graves on the day of Qing Ming.
In contemporary times, Qing Ming day marks the practical start of the new spring, when everything turns to green and new spring growth is once again underway after the winter. The holiday is to be celebrated by going hiking in early morning, and, yes, to visit cemeteries to maintain the tombs of one’s ancestors as a symbolic act paralleling the turning of the season to vibrancy.
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.
劳动节 Láo Dòng Jié (Labor Day, aka May Day, aka International Workers’ Day)
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.
There is no need for any special greetings or gift giving, unless you have guanxi relationships with senior members of the Chinese Communist Party. If so, an email to that government official wishing them a well-earned Labor Day will not go unnoticed. If you were to mention that you sincerely intended to study the works of Karl Marx during the holiday, you would gain extra points. We’re not kidding.
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.
端午 Duān Wǔ (Dragon Boat Festival)
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 (zòng zi), a glutinous rice package wrapped in bamboo leaves. Everyone in China eats zongzi, although few actually race dragon boats these days.
Greetings or no greetings, it’s a good time to send your Chinese friends, clients and partners some zongzi, since every single one of them will be wanting to eat some. Better still if your zongzi are professionally made, and presented in a corporate-themed package (which Illuminant frequently produces on behalf of our more culturally attuned clients).
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 races in far-flung cities.
中秋 Zhōng Qiū (Mid-Autumn Festival)
As the English name suggests, 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 Mid-Autumn Festival is all about family — getting together, sitting around a table, appreciating the beautiful full moon and eating moon-shaped cakes. This is the idealized picture of the modern, prosperous extended Chinese mainland family.
However in contemporary times, for reasons of employment, Chinese families are usually scattered across the country (or the world). Therefore, the most common holiday activity is now boiled down to mooncakes (月饼, yuè bǐng). Even if the entire extended family of dozens of people can’t get together during the holiday, there are always mooncakes to keep the flame of the celebration alive.
The only problem is that to today’s palates, traditional mooncakes taste kind of awful. They tend to be greasy, very salty (often due to a duck egg filling) and usually very hard to chew and swallow (due to the dense, hockey-puck presentation). Notwithstanding the difficulty of actually consuming traditional mooncakes, it is of critical importance that they be given as elaborate gifts to all your clients, partners, staff and friends.
The Illuminant approach over the last decade of our client work has been to get creative with mooncakes, designing and commissioning special, modern, one-of-a-kind mooncake treats that are loved by our clients’ recipients. To benefit from some of our sweet and modern ideas to delight your clients and partners, please feel free to contact us.
Due to the fact that the Mid-Autumn Festival is now only a three day holiday, your locally-engaged staff may request additional leave to travel to their hometowns during the holiday (pressure from Chinese parents is a force greater than the Enterprise’s tractor beams). Many employers may also notice mysterious seasonal illnesses around this time of year (although to be fair, these may be legitimately caused by the consumption of aforesaid mooncakes).
Good Mandarin Chinese phrases to use during the Mid-Autumn Festival fall into two main categories, and its seemly to use them both. The first category is concerned with family reunions — you can say 阖家团圆 (hé jiā tuán yuán, “whole family reunited, round and full”). The second category is more generic, such as 中秋佳节快乐 (zhōng qiū jiā jié kuài lè, “Have a happy time during the pleasant Mid-Autumn Festival”.
The effect of the Mid-Autumn Festival on business availability is analogous to that of the Lunar New Year. Its 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.
In summary, plan well in advance to take full advantage of the Mid-Autumn Festival. Be sure to have your gifting plans ready by July each year. At minimum, gift quality mooncakes to a small number of your key contacts. Better yet to design and gift custom corporate mooncakes to opinion leaders across your clients and partners. Best to do this as well as to host a pre-Festival party or reception at a nice hotel for your most important clients.
国庆节 Guó Qìng Jié (China National Day)
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 overhead, 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 (huān dù guó qìng, “Enjoy the National Day vacation”), or 祝贺伟大祖国的[insert a number]岁生日 ( zhù hè wěi dà zǔ guó de __ suì shēng rì, “Congratulations to the [insert a number] birthday of the great motherland”). These phrases are better suited to print advertisements, or banners in your workplace, rather than personal greetings — as previously mentioned, people don’t celebrate China National Day in a personal sense.
As the China National Day vacation week is not connected to traditional family values or familial piety, many middle- and upper-class Chinese citizens use this period for recreational travel (increasingly, overseas travel). Hence, the month of October can be problematic to secure meetings or commitments from business partners and stakeholders. Best to not assume that anyone of importance will be available during October.
The principle of making good use of Chinese holidays in your business development and corporate communications campaign can be summarized into three main bullet points:
- Be aware of all upcoming holidays, taking care to ascertain the actual dates each year.
- Have good timing on your promotional activities and events planning.
- 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 Chinese 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 to engage the services of a local expert. Your local partner 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.
Article by Kane Gao, Illuminant’s head of research, and Simon Cousins, Illuminant’s chief exec.