This is a reprisal of a previous post, but it is so timely I figured that I might as well.

Regular readers know that we seldom write about Chinese etiquette/cultural mores, figuring the real key to doing business in China is to treat people with respect. For examples of this view, check out our posts, entitled, China Cultural Awareness: Going Beyond Not Being An Asshole and Chinese Cultural Awareness Simplified: Don’t Be An Asshole. And we also have not made this a forum where we highlight great cultural gaffes or Chinese tattoos gone wrong, figuring we will leave those things to others.

But I got a great email from co-blogger Steve Dickinson on a cultural gaffe so common as to warrant a post.

Steve sent me a couple of a few New Year “Gung Hey Fat Choy” emails that he had received from American companies doing business in Mainland China– not even in Guangdong. And with those emails, Steve pointed out the following:

Here is one of those odd cultural things. Western folks want to be culturally sensitive. So they send out a Lunar New Year message. But they really mess it up. “Gung Hey Fat Choy” is Hong Kong Chinese [Cantonese], not Putonghua [Mandarin]. So, for the vast majority of Chinese who understand the message, this message could be seen as a brutal and nasty insult, not a positive message. It is a reminder of a former imperialist world where China was ruled from Hong Kong. In fact, to tell you the truth, most modern Chinese would not even know what “Gong Hey Fat Choy” means. They would just treat it as a series of meaningless symbols, insulting in its own way. “Gung Hey Fat Choy” is Cantonese for “gong xi fa cai.” NO ONE in modern China says “Gung Hey Fat Choy.” The phrase is from the old era, which was destroyed by the new regime. So as I say, for the small group of people who even know what this term means, it is an insult, not a positive message.

Brought to you as a public service from the good folks at China Law Blog, who wish all of you a very Happy New Year.

UPDATE:  A number of people have read this post ALL wrong, thinking that we are somehow claiming that saying Gung Hey Fat Choy is always wrong.  WRONG, WRONG, WRONG. All we are saying is that it is a mistake for “Western Folk” (a/k/a Westerners/Americans) to say Gung Hey Fat Choy to Mandarin speaking mainlanders.  We are NOT saying that this expression is wrong in all instances as that would be absurd. I find it very irritating when we get criticized for something that we never said by people who fail to take the time to actually read what we did say!

TweetLikeEmailLinkedInGoogle Plus
Photo of Dan Harris Dan Harris

Dan Harris is internationally regarded as a leading authority on legal matters related to doing business in China and in other emerging economies in Asia. Forbes Magazine, Business Week, Fortune Magazine, BBC News, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Economist, CNBC, The New York Times, and many other major media players, have looked to him for his perspective on international law issues.

  • Michael Rizhakov

    At the risk of sounding pedantic, “Gung Hey Fat Choy” is not “Hong Kong Chinese”, but Cantonese. While the Putonghua [Mandarin] is the official and most commonly spoken dialect in China, Cantonese has over 200 million speakers, and is not going nowhere in the south of China. While not being Chinese, I really doubt that Chinese associate Cantonese dialect with foreign invasion, since Cantonese as a dialect has existed a long time before and after the invasion.

  • Albert Yung

    It would also be a gaffe to infer that most Hong Kong Chinese come from an “old era” that has been “destroyed” by a new regime. Gung Hey Fat Choy and Gong Xi Fa Cai (as appropriate) to all.

  • lew

    Hmmm.. I love when westerners tell me what I think. I heard westerners also celebrate Chinese new year on Feb 3, 2014 instead on Jan 31. I’m glad my proud Cantonese family doesn’t respect your opinion to think we are unimportant in the modern world.

    • Approve.

      Daniel P. Harris | HarrisMoure
      600 Stewart St., Suite 1200 | Seattle, WA 98101
      (206) 224-5657 | Fax: (206) 224-5659
      China Mobile: (86) 138-5425-5238

      The information in this e-mail may be privileged and protected from disclosure. If you are not its intended recipient, dissemination or copying is prohibited. If you think you received this in error, please notify the sender by e-mail and delete the message.
      None of the advice in this communication was intended to be used to avoid tax-related penalties nor should it be used to promote, market or recommend any tax-related matters to another party.

  • r_s_g

    “NO ONE in modern China says “Gung Hey Fat Choy.” I appreciate the sentiment, its obvious that Cantonese is not common in most of China. However, I hear “Gong Hei Fat Choi” (not sure where the former romanization comes from) regularly in Guangdong and even Fujian, as the Hokkien pronunciation is pretty close too. It’s a pretty big stretch to say that “NO ONE” says this phrase, but yes, it is from dialect and is not lingua franca in the Mainland.

    And when exactly was “China ruled from Hong Kong”? Hong Kong was obviously colonized, yes, but this statement is perplexing.

    An even trickier question is what language to use if sending New Years greetings to offices in places like Malaysia or Singapore, but I guess English would work fine–better than trying to decide between Mandarin, Cantonese, or Hokkien…

  • Lucas Blaustein

    As someone who speaks Mandarin, and is a student of modern China, I completely agree with your sentiments. Cantonese is dying a slow but unavoidable death, both within China and abroad.

    As an American, I have seen how extremely sensitive many overseas Chinese, or non-mainlanders are to this conversation. For non-Chinese, it boils down to how you define China. In my eyes “Chinese” does not include the millions of Cantonese that fled or fought and lost against Communism. They long ago left. Their culture and language is separated and different from that of the Chinese. But despite my opinion, depsite the facts, and depsite the sensitive nature of their situation, I do not have the right to take their “China” away from them. No one does.

    Much as America had its civil war, which resulted in a Southern culture permanently changed, a language morphed, and a way of life inexorably dead, it took 100 years for that change to take effect. While I will never attempt to take away Gung Hey Fat Choy, time is a cruel mistress, and in 100 years, just as my American ancestors had to change – so too will the Cantonese.

    No one ever approaches me and expects me to speak German because of my last name. I hope for the millions of overseas Chinese in the United States, that one day they can stand proudly shoulder to shoulder with people like me, and feel comfortable in knowing that while they are no longer Chinese, they are American – and in America they can say happy new year anyway they want.


  • Wang Bahasa

    Well this article was a bit daft, but never mind, the sentiment although a bit presumptuous (and incorrect) was nice. Happy New Year China Law Blog! Kai Ni Nai Nai !!