Chinese Rules of Behavior For the Uninitiated

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By Sally Yeh and Robert Cain for China Film Biz

December 12, 2012

Back in October I received a mixed response to an article I published here on CFB titled “Sucking Up and Flattering Your Way to Success in China.” One American sent me a rather huffy letter of disapproval, accusing me of insulting Chinese people. But many of my Chinese friends and acquaintances sent me notes of congratulations for accurately pegging the way things work. I’ve consistently found that the people I deal with in China’s film business are far more inclined to be self-effacing than sanctimonious, and most greatly appreciate a good joke that pokes fun at Chinese manners.

One such friend, Beijing based film producer Sally Yeh, was so tickled by the article that she sent me her list of 10 rules for Chinese behavior, which I have published below with her permission. Get familiar with these rules and you’ll greatly improve your ability to understand what’s going on.

Sally’s 10 Rules of Chinese Behavior

1.  Never say “no.”
Due to matters of ‘face’, no one can say no if they want to maintain a relationship. For Chinese and foreigners alike, the trick is to figure out when “yes” means “no” and when it actually means “yes.” And hopefully to avoid assuming a “yes” means “no” when it really means “yes.”  This sort of confusion occurs all the time and sometimes leads to ridiculous results.

2.  Don’t plan ahead
People in China live by Nike’s slogan and see no value in planning ahead. Because things are changing so fast, it makes no sense to plan, forecast and execute.  Cultivating a plan for the next five to ten years is almost completely unheard of.

3.  Only trust your ‘homies’
China’s a big country and home is very near and dear to the heart, so if you’re from my province then we’re somehow ‘related’. There’s a kindred spirit in knowing that ‘family’ exists outside of one’s province.  Foreigners?  They’re foreign – they’ll never even try to figure you out.

4.  Cut corners  
The PRC is so autocratic, people will break rules whenever they can. You can’t make an eggroll without breaking some eggs. And you can’t get anything done in China without breaking a few rules.

5.  Push, shove and kick your way to where you’re going
Just look at how people cut lines at the hospitals, airports, train stations and bus stops!  Pushing people and giving no personal space to others are quite common in China. When those subway doors open don’t let the people inside get out, just shove your way onboard. Never mind the rules of etiquette (or physics).

6.  Never own up
Whatever went wrong, don’t confess.  You can always come up with an excuse at the spur of the moment without showing any wrongdoing or guilt.  That’s why actors are easy to find in China, because everyone’s “acting” when they need to.

7.  Be obedient and never speak up to the boss

From kindergarten onward, Chinese are always rewarded for their obedience.  Hence, many who have graduated from the best Chinese universities cannot think outside-the-box, because they never learned anything else to do aside from getting top grades by taking orders, instructions, and absolutes.  This leaves very little room for creativity.

8.  Always negotiate the price

In China, sometimes the final price isn’t locked until the whole project is over.  Thus, the best estimated budget is a thumbnail approximation and if your relationship was good, it can be less than expected.  If your relationship was bad, it can cost you.

9.  Always buy foreign products, even people

Chinese consumers have completely lost faith in their homemade products.  They will go as far as to have baby milk powder shipped from Germany to China than to buy a locally made milk powder.  This is also trending with people – investors seem to think there are no creative people in China even worth fostering or training. Instead, it’s better to just find out how much Spielberg costs.

10. Numbers rule

Rarely does a Chinese conversation go by without some mention of price, salary, grade point average, sales figures, age  – any number that puts a benchmark on the separation of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’; affordable and unaffordable; comparisons that always emphasize measurements of  numerical value.  The Chinese are the best mathematicians in the world.

Robert Cain is a producer and entertainment industry consultant who has been doing business in China since 1987. He can be reached at and at Sally Yeh is a Beijing-based film producer whose credits include “Bean Sprouts and Salted Fish” and “Chandni Chowk to China.”

6 thoughts on “Chinese Rules of Behavior For the Uninitiated

  1. Your Chinese friend has a good sense of cynical humor. Some of the traits claimed for the Chinese are, of course, also universal. It reminds me that I’ve always favored the Chinese character but never a Communist government.

  2. I was offfered a screenwriting job by a prominent director producer in China. I translated his broken English treatment into an internationally marketable product. His ideas were great and were thus even better after my additions and adapting the ideas to a feature film script. He also told me to register the script in the US in my name. His company was going to invest ten million in our project. Their goal was to find an American production company to match that investment for a total of 20mm. One of the Chinese requirements was for the U.S. producers to visit in person, and get to know each other before signing a contract. Myself being an independent film maker, I had no means to even consider flying to Beijing. In the end my producer contact in China gave me permission to shoot the film in America. To look someone in the eyes can tell a lot about them. To have meals and recreation before business can be vital as well.

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