Mr. Manners Goes to China: Chinese Banquet Etiquette

Category: Culture, Language

Doing business in China, you may find yourself graciously invited to a dinner or banquet. Here are some pointers to help you understand the etiquette of sharing a meal with your Chinese counterparts.

Giving up control

  • Your host will order for you.
  • Communal plates are the norm and typically, there will be one dish per person, sometimes more, at the table.
  • Do not start to eat or drink prior to the host.

Eating

  • Eating is considered a time for relaxation, so refrain from talking about business deals unless it’s initiated by the host.
  • Don’t eat the last piece(s) of food on a communal plate. At the same time, leave some food on your plate — otherwise you’ll end up getting more.
  • If you’ve never eaten with chopsticks, practice, practice, practice before you leave for China. And don’t play with your chopsticks at the dinner table.
  • Don’t be surprised if someone puts food onto your plate with their chopsticks. Take at least one bite of the food. If you don’t like it, leave the rest on your plate; if you do finish it, you’ll find yourself with another one (or two or three) portions on your plate.
  • Watch what your neighbors are eating. If you notice they prefer a certain dish, eat that one as well.
  • Burping is acceptable.

Drinking

  • You will more than likely be drinking constantly due to numerous toasts during a banquet or meal.
  • If you do “clink” glasses during a toast, do so lower than the initiator
  • Try to lead a couple of toasts if you are more senior in your group.
  • If you’re male, try to keep up with the pace of drinking. Chinese still have a very patriarchal culture and will respect the nanzi han in you (i.e., your “manliness”) but control your drink so as to not get drunk….see the next point.
  • Avoid bai jiu (a clear, hard liquor which smells like lighter fluid to the uninitiated) and try to stick to beer. To achieve this, you can say that for medical reasons, you can’t drink hard alcohol.
  • Ganbei means to “empty your glass” …this is said after a celebratory toast just as we use “Cheers.” Watch your host, however, as sometimes they take the ganbei literally and really “empty the glass.” Other hosts might simply take a sip and sit down. Follow the lead of the toast initiator. Again, it’s best to stick to beer if you can.
  • Women do not typically drink a lot of alcohol at meals and do not have the same pressure to participate in the act of a real ganbei. However, if you want to show “toughness” as a boss and gain the respect amongst the men, feel free to fully join in.
  • At the very beginning when bottles of alcohol or a teapot arrives, stand up out of your seat and pour the beverage for your hosts. Pour your cup last. During the meal you can stay seated, but always fill the glasses of your Chinese counterparts who are within reach to your left or right before you fill your own glass. It is highly unlikely your glass will ever get empty anyway since your Chinese hosts will be watching your cup just as intently as you watch theirs.

Money matters

  • Offer to pay for the tab, but do not offer to just pay for your portion. It’s all or nothing.  In the end, you won’t end up paying since you are the guest.
  • It’s considered an honor to pay for the meal, so there may be some heated discussions over who gets to pay for the tab.