Writing for a Chinese Business Audience
While many of the genres and conventions of business writing in English are found everywhere, some are unique to particular contexts, and may prove challenging to those attempting to do business in those contexts. Being able to create appropriate formal and informal written business documents in these contexts not only contributes to a more efficient business enterprise, but also enables the writer to be seen as knowledgeable and culturally sensitive.
This handout is designed to provide basic information on writing effectively in English for business audiences in the People's Republic of China. While the information in the handout is designed from the perspective of familiarity with the norms of North American business writing, it will also be helpful as a guide for anyone who is unfamiliar with business writing in China, including students from China. The information included below is meant to serve as a quick and ready reference sheet on Chinese business writing. Information borrowed directly from other writers are marked with one or more asterisks (*) and are listed at the end of the page.
The topics discussed in this handout are:
- Letters and Memos
- Style considerations
Two important notes must be made:
- This handout is designed only for business writing in mainland China, not for writing based in Hong Kong or in Taiwan (the Republic of China).
- Since English is a foreign language in Chinese contexts, and not an adopted second language as it is in India, the standards for letters and memos below will not always apply. If you are writing from an organization in an Anglophone (English-speaking) country, the standards of business writing in Anglophone countries may be expected. Conversely, if you are writing within a Chinese context-as a member of a Chinese company, for example-the Chinese norms may apply. In either case, if you are writing to a Chinese audience, apply the information on style and social consdierations below to the standard that you choose. Check with colleagues for the standard practices of your company.
Letters and Memos
The purposes of business letters and memos in China parallel the purposes they serve in North American businesses: introducing a candidate for employment, requesting information, making complaints, disseminating information to an office, proposing projects, making sales, and so on.
- Make sure that your letterhead includes a fax number. If it doesn't, type it directly beneath the letterhead. Faxing continues to be an important component of doing business in China.
- If a letter is generated on organizational letterhead, enter a document number on the far right side of the page, below the letterhead. This number identifies the letter's place in the organization's history of letters, as well as other information. North American use of reference numbers is not as common as it is in Chinese companies.
- Beneath the document number but on the left side of the page, type only the name of the addressee's organization (not the address), followed by the name and appropriate title of the individual addressee. Chinese names are traditionally written with the surname (family name) first, followed by the given name. If your addressee has already written it with the given name first, though, continue to follow that form.
- Write a salutation ("Dear ______:") as you would in a North American letter, then body of the letter, with an introductory paragraph, body paragraph(s), and a closing paragraph.
- The sender name and date are typed toward the right side of the page, without a complimentary close. Dates are typed immediately under the sender name, in year-month-day format without commas (ex: 2007-05-16), rather than in the month-day-year North American format (May 16, 2007). Use of numbers instead of month names is a more regular occurrence.
- As with a North American letter, type "CC" for anyone receiving an additional copy of the letter, followed by their names. A list of enclosures is optional.
YOUR ORGANIZATIONAL LETTERHEAD
New Millennium Electronics
Ms. Chang Biyu
Dear Ms. Chang:
I am writing to provide more information on the sales presentation taking place on Friday, June 15.
The merchandise samples, brochures, and presentation slides have all been prepared, and our sales team is in the process of tailoring their presentation to the particular needs of your company. I have enclosed a copy of the brochure and photographs of the merchandise samples for you to inspect. Right now, we believe the presentation will take about one hour. If you would like more or less time, we are very flexible and would be happy to accommodate you.
Please do not hesitate to e-mail (NAME@company.co.cn) if you have any questions. I am looking forward to meeting you in person on the fifteenth.
- Memos are printed on organizational letterhead, and in many cases, all contact information (address, e-mail address, telephone, and fax number) is included. If any of these are missing, type them on the bottom after your name, not on the top.
- Memorandum numbers, comparable to the letter reference numbers noted above are included near the top of the page, underneath organizational letterhead, on the left side of the page. Enter the date immediately below the memorandum number.
- Below the date and in the center of the page, type the subject (you don't need to say “subject” or “re”), and below that, type "From" and your name. Unlike North American memos, there is no explicit mention of the recipient's name.
- Type the body of the memo.
- Type your name again along the left side of the page. Include contact information if it is not included in the letterhead.
YOUR ORGANIZATIONAL LETTERHEAD
June 15 Sales Presentation Preparations
Photographs of the merchandise to be displayed during the June 15 sales presentation will be circulated over the next week, along with copies of the sales brochure. Please enter your comments on both in the feedback form below this memo, and send them to me by 5:00 p.m. on Monday, May 21.
As is the case in nearly every country, Chinese businesses use A4 paper (210 × 297 mm/8.27 × 11.7 inches), rather than the 8 ½ × 11 inch (215.9 × 279.44 mm) letter and 8 ½ × 14 inch (216 × 356 mm) legal sizes that are standard in the United States and Canada. You will also find B5 paper (6.9 × 9.8 inches, 176 × 250 mm) in use on occasion, although not nearly as often as A4. Format your documents accordingly, by changing the paper size used by Microsoft Word (click File, then Page Setup; click the Paper tab, choose the paper size from the pull down menu, then click OK). You can also format PDF files, by clicking File, then Page Setup, and choosing A4 from the Size pull down menu before clicking OK—but this is not something you will be forced to do, since Adobe Reader and Adobe Acrobat both re-size pages to automatically fit the user’s paper size. Web pages and other electronic documents that are not meant for print follow universal display standards, and do not need to be formatted differently.
For domestic mail in China, it is important to use only 260 mm × 185 mm (10.24 × 7.28 inch) envelopes. Domestic mail sent in envelopes that do not correspond to this size will be returned.
For the most part, the norms of North American business writing are valued in Chinese business writing. There are, however, some subtle but important variations in discourse that your writing should reflect, enabling you to better connect with your audiences.
“Cold calling” as it is understood in North America happens far less often in Chinese contexts.* This does not mean that strangers do not communicate with one another to open talks for business, of course. It does mean that a writer will refer to any commonalities they share with their addressee. This can be a reference to a common acquaintance:
My long-time colleague, Mr. Li Jianguo, has often mentioned the quality of your company’s electronics repairs.
It can also take the form of an assumed awareness of the addressee’s particular circumstances (an important strategy in sales letters):
Your firm is growing, so of course you would be interested in finding out how to access new overseas markets.
Official communications, letters and other written communications that are not primarily personal, come under the general heading of the term “gongwen.” Within gongwen, there are three kinds of relationships: superior to subordinate (“xiaxing”), equal to equal (“pingxing”), and subordinate to superior (“shangxing”). What constitutes “xiaxing” (ex., a memo announcing layoffs) and “shangxing” (ex., a human resources report to a supervisor) is usually obvious across cultures, but “pingxing” encompasses most sales writing, as well as official letters. In each case, remain conscious of the language that you use to convey deference, respectful leadership, or equality of status.**
Use titles and family names in all your business correspondence. Do not use given names by themselves.
Notes and References
* Boraks, David. “Chinese Business Culture: Doing Business in the Chinese-Speaking World.” 31 May 2007. http://chinese-school.netfirms.com/doingbusiness.html
**Zhu, Yunxia. “Business Writing in Mainland China: A Look at the Development of Sales Genres.” Intercultural Communication, 3. 2000. 31 May 2007. http://www.immi.se/intercultural/nr3/zhu.htm