Where getting your name in print really matters
I NEVER leave home without them. Last week in Shanghai I dispensed about 50. At a recent diplomatic reception in Beijing I gave away 12, and received the same number in return. Even at small dinner parties one always needs a spare half dozen to hand.
Without visiting cards in China you simply do not exist. The wife of one foreign correspondent I know got so frustrated with not having a card that she eventually got some, giving her title as "Spouse".
When introduced to someone new it is considered polite to shake hands and then immediately exchange business cards. There is a ritual attached. The card must be proffered with both hands, while saying your name, surname first. It's a bit awkward trying to do this while extracting a card from a wallet, so most men keep them in the breast pocket. Gifts must also be proffered and accepted in the same way.
The name card has a long history in China, dating from before 1500, when they were printed on white paper. Then the famous eunuch regent, Lui Chin, introduced personalised visiting cards printed on vermilion paper as big as postcards, and for a long time white cards were only used by people in mourning. Nowadays the big pink and red cards have almost fallen into disuse and the white wallet sized version is universally favoured.
The ritual of presenting and receiving cards - I now have several bulky "volumes" of card holder books on my desk - is part of an elaborate system of etiquette which foreigners must master while in the Middle Kingdom.
Everyday life is not, however, as ritualised as it used to be. Some modern world wide practices like the handshake are now common throughout China. The ancient practice of raising the hands to the forehead and executing a low bow before a superior has largely disappeared, though outside the big cities many Chinese will cup the hands together - left over right - and raise them slightly while bowing to strangers.
It also used to be considered rude to talk to someone without first removing one's spectacles (which the Chinese invented), just as in the West it is the practice to take off one's hat before speaking.
Some social conventions which we take for granted are nevertheless still taboo in China. A foreigner must never, ever, kiss a Chinese woman on the cheeks in public the way people do in the West when greeting friends. Some guide books will tell you that prudery is so widespread that you never see couples kissing in public or holding hands.
That, too, is changing through the influence of foreign films and TV shows, and it is quite common today to see, for example, a couple riding together on bicycles with their arms round each other, or wandering hand in hand through a department store.
Another practice which takes foreigners by surprise is that of the siesta, a la Mexico. Taking an after lunch nap dates back to the days when agricultural workers laboured from sunrise until midday and then had a long snooze while the heat of the day passed.
The practice is dying out in the cities but many workplaces still have beds for the staff to take their nap. I know that the one time of day when there will be no traffic jams on my street is from noon to 2 p.m., as almost everyone is eating or resting.
While the midday lunch hours are certainly not the time to try to get business done, evening mealtimes can be quite productive. Some of the most important deals are confirmed at banquets.
Here, knowledge of proper etiquette is essential, especially for diplomats. Ambassadors in Beijing have been known to tear their hair out trying to get the seating just right at these functions.
The chief guest is always seated to the left of the host, a convention also dating far back in Chinese history. As most people would use the right hand to wield a weapon it was seen as a conspicuous way of expressing trust in an honoured guest.
Other guests are then seated in order of importance. Problems begin if an important official arrives, inspects the placings and insists on a different seat. Then frantic changes have to be made, without insulting anyone else.
This is not just snobbery. Saving face is all important In Chinese social intercourse. In the West, values tend to be based on religious principles but in China they are based on respect for human feelings.
"Face" is a device which makes society function harmoniously.
It's also expected of the host, no matter how many servants are tending to the table, to fill the guests glasses himself or herself, making sure he or she gets all the names right by consulting the visiting cards laid out in a row.
At these formal official functions, the Chinese will also sometimes greet a particularly important guest on arrival with a round of applause. The proper response is to applaud back. I have not had this experience yet, but I'll know what to do when it happens.