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Banquet etiquette for gaining face

While many foreigners enjoy the Chinese hospitality at banquets, I get the feeling that most of them are trying to survive the meal rather than impress at them. Banquets are a social obligation, and we’ve learned from guidebooks that we shouldn’t stick our chopsticks upright in the rice bowl, and it might not hurt to toast once or twice with baijiu, but do you ever really feel completely comfortable at the big round table? Hopefully these tips will help:

Seating

This isn’t a surprise to anyone who has walked into a private room and heard “please sit down.” It is almost never clear exactly where one should sit, especially when there is more than one guest. In a private room the most important person is seated facing the door, and the least important sits opposite of them. Between those two the importance of guests descends the further from the most important person they are seated, the second highest will be seated to their right, and the third to their left.

While this might seem like common sense after a few outings, I still see foreigners sit as soon as they enter the room, they are missing an opportunity for making a good impression. It’s always best to try and humble yourself in these situations. Try to move someone else up the hierarchy by offering them a “better” seat. As the guest, your position won’t be changed, but this act helps build the relationship and shows that you don’t overvalue yourself.

We had a guest sit in the host’s seat one time. Each member of the hosting delegation glared at the person lowest on the totem pole and had them ask the guest to move. It was embarrassing for everyone, and was an awkward way to start a meal.

Saying “No”

The point of a banquet in China is to symbolize the hosts gratitude and abundance (don’t forget this). Far more food is ordered than could be consumed, and throughout the evening you’ll be told to “please, eat more” as they scoop stinky tofu, eels or other “delicacies” on to your plate that you may or may not like. It’s actually ok just to leave this food on the plate if you don’t want to eat it (it also signifies that you’ve had more than enough to eat).

The host earns face by serving it to you, if you don’t let them put it on your plate they lose this chance.

If the host is rather insistent that you try something that you don’t want to eat, invent a valid excuse. If you simply state that you don’t like X it means that someone has made a mistake in ordering the food, which would reflect poorly on the host. Claiming that you have an allergy, or that you are already much too full from the other dishes allows them to save face, and keeps you from having to try something objectionable.

We have had guests make the most terrible faces when they try foods they clearly disliked from the moment they arrived from the kitchen. They thought they were earning face by trying something new, but their clear disdain for it washed away any gains.

Toasting

Alcohol also features prominently in a Chinese banquet. While women can often opt out of drinking, men find it nearly impossible to do so. Last night I heard one excuse that worked exceptionally well, “We’re afraid that we would enjoy it too much.” It saved face for the leader, even though everyone understood that they simply didn’t want to drink. Claiming a medical condition always works, but it misses the opportunity to “build relationships”. Your hosts are obligated to get you to drink, so don’t give up on your excuse if it doesn’t work on the first try (three to four tries is customary).

If you do decide to drink at the banquet, you may want to start with a short prayer for your liver. Baijiu is usually 50+% alcohol, and the drinking rarely stops after one bottle. The meal starts with a group toast given by the host (don’t eat before this, and wait until a host invites you to start eating), followed by every imaginable combination of toasts between people during the meal (stand up for these), and then another final group toast by the host concludes the meal. During the meal feel free to initiate toasts for your Chinese counter-parts, after the most important person has done one or two (work your way down the hierarchy).

When toasting, don’t simply accept their kind words, but offer something congratulatory in return. It really does matter what is said, as long as it sounds good. Then when clinking glasses, try to lower the brim of your glass below others when they touch (again humbling yourself). It’s something that almost always gets noticed, and often impresses Chinese hosts with your demonstration of proper etiquette. If the toast is a Ganbei (干杯 dry-cup), then show the toaster your empty cup before returning it to the table.

If the bottle of alcohol or pot of tea is on the table (it won’t be at many restaurants) pour for the people on either side of you (closer to the most important person first) before pouring for yourself, and never drink the wine or baijiu without a toast.

Sample toast: “It is so good to be with you here tonight, and we are very much looking forward to our partnership/co-operation/friendship, we hope it will be very successful.”

If you have more tips for dining etiquette I hope you’ll share them in the comment section below.


32 Comments

  1. me says:

    Here’s a toast to Tom for this great post!

  2. Turtlewind says:

    “I don’t drink strong alcohol” can also get you out of drinking Baijiu, but still let you join in the toasts with wine or beer, and I’ve never had anyone react badly to it. (I guess it might backfire if they see you drinking spirits some other time, but in my case it’s true)

  3. Ander says:

    Another excellent post, thanks!
    I’ve heard some odd stories of foreign guests wanting to pay for the meal~
    Any care to share theirs?

  4. sinostand says:

    Once I went to dinner with my girlfriend’s family and some of their friends where I tragically overestimated my tolerance for Baijiu. I made it through dinner but then had uncontrollable vomiting to the point that they had to take me to the hospital the next morning to get the standard 4 hours of IV treatment. The family took turns coming in to laugh at me throughout my treatment. Thank god Chinese culture is more accepting of alcoholism.

    • guy somewhere in china says:

      Very funny. Reminds me of the first time I ever drank in China. Only time in my life I was drunk beyond comprehension. Still can’t figure out how it happened. Managed to vomit in the hotel lobby. Classy. I was mortified the next day. My Chinese mate who took me out seemed pleased that I had drank such a herculean volume of cheap baijiu. I later learned how it’s a real sign of respect. I later noticed how close Chinese friends of mine from the North East who are not drinkers will sometimes get really drunk with me (without any prompting from my side) if we haven’t met for a while. Quite flattering actually.

  5. sinostand says:

    One thing to remember is that a banquet is a long series of one-on-one toasts. You have to toast everyone once, but then you’re free to toast whoever. As a foreigner, everyone will want to keep toasting you, so that essentially means you have to out-drink the collective rest of the table. One strategy is to take the initiative to toast two or three people at a time, so at least you’re getting them drunk as possible.

    If the poison of choice is beer or wine, you can probably hold your own. But if it’s baijiu, no matter how good a drinker you think you are, you will be humbled. So request one of the former if given the choice, and remember, Chinese usually refer to baijiu as wine when speaking English.

  6. The Calculated Adventurist says:

    One thing I learned was that you should serve everyone else first and yourself last. For instance, if I wanted a refill on my tea, I would offer more to everyone else, depending on the situation- give refill even if someone refused and then would refill my own cup.
    Also, when I was pregnant and not drinking alcohol, my husband’s excuse was that he was supporting me in not drinking, so he wouldn’t have to drink baijiu. It only worked some of the time.

  7. Lorin Yochim says:

    Really good post, Tom. Everything you’ve said is spot on in my experience. Another tip, though, is to pay attention to the art of avoiding drinking. One can also gain a lot of prestige and respect by playing at getting others to drink more than you and/or knowing the proper ways to drink less. Some of my favourite drinking at dinner experiences are those where I’ve gone toe to toe with someone over who can drink less rather than more. This varies regionally, but in the heavy drinking places, initiating this kind of contest usually begins with deliberately not touching glasses with the other. The negotiations can then begin and sometimes last for several minutes in which clever turns of phrase and compliments are the currency. It’s a lot of fun.

  8. I recall one of those business dinners. At the time I was working as a side interpreter between an spanish company and a chinese-korean one. We had a dinner to “celebrate” our deal, invited by the chinese part. Oh god, I remember that. I had to be talking all the time. All the delicious-looking huge, and amazing dishes going front of me, and I did not have a second to eat, because I had to translate so much. Tons of leftovers, and I left hungry. But you know the funny part? They did not let me pass on the baijiu toast. Specially those that involved the “females now!!”… it looked like a wedding. It was a really richful experience, I must admit.

  9. mrchopstik says:

    I have to admit that this is always a struggle for me. I rarely understand all of the western etiquette rules, let alone those in China. Some of these were new to me so I thank you for the rules on seating especially.

    I have to admit, I neither drink nor smoke and this has been a problem in China, specifically when it comes to toasting. My family all knows I do neither and have often had to explain to others that I’m just a crazy foreigner or that it goes against my religious beliefs (which is really funny if you know how I feel about religion). Frankly, I’ve had to offend one or two people as a result but I simply do not have the tolerance for it. Fortunately, it’s never put me in a really terrible spot but I can easily imagine that it would under other circumstances. Just an observation on my part, anyway…

  10. yaxue c. says:

    Don’t forget to thank the waitresses (often young girls from the countryside) every time you have a chance. The Chinese seldom do (at least in my experience), and I always feel bad about that. If one of the guests is finding faults with the girls or one of the girls, be sure to find an opportunity to be kind to her.

    • NiubiCowboy says:

      +1

      I completely agree, Yaxue. I was always amazed by how rude people were to their waiters and waitresses, even if they themselves looked like they worked in some kind of service capacity where they too were probably abused by customers.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      Heartily agree, Yaxue. I have been fortunate to work with and travel with female Chinese colleagues are invariably very kind, even motherly, towards those waitresses/waiters even as others in the room were not. Also, the director/VP of our section is a very kind man in this regard. Still, coming from a society where treating anyone dismissively or with disdain is a risky business (for an example, see former Canadian citizen Conrad Black’s fate), means that I struggle with that poor treatment and sometimes try to compensate by engaging those workers in conversation, etc. Coming from Canada, though, is only half the reason. I also come from a decidedly working class family in a small northern town. Living in a relatively rich country, migration typically means many opportunities for education and status mobility, so the comparison is not entirely appropriate. I can, however, relate to the “hidden injuries” that accrue when one is reminded every day just how low one sits in the hierarchy.

    • Lao Why? says:

      Absolutely agree. The worst job in China is being a wait staff in a restaurant. I have seen absolutely shocking behavior by customers to the point where I think it is all a put on by the customer who wants to show his/her guests that he/she is in control and all powerful. And I would also point out that while most of this behavior is indeed exhibited by men, I do see mainland women participating in this browbeating from time to time. In fact, a woman screeching “fuwuyuan” at the top of her lungs has a particularly adverse effect on me, a bit akin to fingernails on a blackboard.

    • guy somewhere in china says:

      Your hosts will notice it too and sometimes even compliment you on it (happens to me all the time, though I don’t do it for that reason).

      When I was a smoker I even had one friendly host comment on how civilized I was because I blew my smoke away from the table. God, what an oxy-moron. A civilized smoker! haha. Glad I quit. Great post.

  11. James says:

    I’ve only been drunk twice in my life, and it was because I knuckled under to the pressure and toasted with baijiu. Both times it was 15+ people toasting me. Since then, I start each banquet by telling my hosts I don’t drink alcohol, and stick to it.

    I’ve also smoked three cigarettes in my life, two of them at banquets where the host insisted (read: INSISTED) that we smoke together.

    For anyone who’s never been to a Chinese banquet and is reading this for advice, it can be good to have a small snack before you go, so you aren’t starving when you get there.

    If they say the banquet will start at 5pm, by the time everyone arrives at the meeting place, and you all get to the restaurant, get the food ordered, (with the hosts insisting that you order some dishes) and the food arrives, it can easily be 6:00 or later. Scarfing the food of the first dish won’t impress anyone when you’ve got 10 or more meat dishes, 4 dofu dishes, and 4 vegetable dishes yet to arrive, and you still need to save a bit of room to politely try the ‘main food’, (fried rice/noodles/jiaozi) at the end of the baquet.

    People probably will not take the food home as leftovers, but if your hosts are old enough to remember the 1960’s they might take home the leftovers. If you know your hosts well enough, bring it up as a topic of polite conversation, and then you’ll know whether you can ask to take home those fantastic smoked bacon and diced vegetable baozi.

    I some cases they also will not want to waste so much food, and since you’ve chatted about it, they’ll feel more at ease taking home some of the leftovers.

  12. Lao Why? says:

    As a veteran of the bai jiu wars, here’s a few tips. Prior to drinking the moutai (or its equally potent rival, Wuliangye) consider drinking some of the liquid yogurt drink, which is often offered as a second liquid. It seems to help coat the stomach and dampen the effect. Secondly, 7 out of 8 moutai bottles are fake. So be careful, and while it would be very bad face for a host to serve jiade jiu, it happened to me. Avoid drinking the stuff out of the plastic squirt bottles, which look a little like lighter fluid bottles (and its contents are just as flamable!) If you must drink this, then sip it and then discretely spit it into the yogurt drink throughout the meal.

    I have found a way to avoid the baijiu is to stake my drinking claim to fame in red wine being from northern california. This diverts the drinkers in a macho challenge in my territory, red wine. Throws them off their game and gets me drinking 12% alcohol instead of 53%. The sad thing is seeing guys throw back 4 or 5 oz of $1000 bottle French bordeau in one gulp with no clue what they are drinking.

    And by the way, the content of the speeches and toasts don’t matter so much because no one remembers that stuff after about 3 rounds. Allegories and metaphors work great. “Our new relationship is like a ship setting sail, we will see many beautiful places and even though there may be some stretches of rough seas, we will guide our vessel with great skill, always keeping our eyes on our destination…” yadda yadda.
    Gambei!

    • Mac says:

      Nice post!
      Agree with above, some of the monologues these business guys come up with are worthy of an Oscar. Really entertaining to listen to after a few rounds of bai

  13. Lao Why? says:

    The art of saying something that sounds good without saying anything. I thought US politicians had reached the pinnacle until I came to China and realized that it is a perfected art here.

  14. Chip says:

    To get out of drinking, I’ve found these excuses usually work pretty well:
    对不起,我的信仰不让我喝酒(sorry, religious reasons)
    我不能喝酒,过敏(allergic)
    我不能喝酒,身体有点毛病 (I have health reasons)
    我不喝酒 (“I don’t drink”. if you’re white, you can just keep saying this, they’ll figure its just another symptom of your foreignness)

  15. Lorin Yochim says:

    张主任,不好意思,我没有您那么厉害!

  16. […] on the subject, so i cannot resist. The post is at Seeing Red in China and it is entitled, “Banquet etiquette for gaining face.” Nothing new or unusual there, but very nicely lays out how to act at a Chinese banquet so as […]

  17. […] on the subject, so i cannot resist. The post is at Seeing Red in China and it is entitled, "Banquet etiquette for gaining face." Nothing new or unusual there, but very nicely lays out how to act at a Chinese banquet so as to […]

  18. Rick says:

    Great post and I love everyone’s comments / war stories. My friends & family have had to listen to my tales of the banquets and I have made more than a few mistakes along the way. My wife was always thinking my stories of how awful Baijiu was were exaggerations until I brought a bottle home on my last trip. One sip and she now understands completely!

  19. gregorylent says:

    the napkins as folded signal where the host sits

  20. […] Banquet etiquette for gaining face | Seeing Red in China – While many foreigners enjoy the Chinese hospitality at banquets, I get the feeling that most of them are trying to survive the meal rather than impress at them. Banquets are a social obligation, and we’ve learned from guidebooks that we shouldn’t stick our chopsticks upright in the rice bowl, and it might not hurt to toast once or twice with baijiu, but do you ever really feel completely comfortable at the big round table? Hopefully these tips will help: […]

  21. guy somewhere in china says:

    A common excuse I’ve come across for not drinking is ‘I used to drink so much the doctor said I had to stop. Sorry, I can’t drink or I’ll die.’.

  22. foang says:

    Good post, but actually the Co-host will sit opposite the main host (not the least important person as you pointed out)

    • Tom says:

      If it is at a round table (as banquets usually are) the person opposite the host would have their back to the door, and are the least important person at the table typically. Often this is where the driver or most junior person would sit, at least that has been the case at all of the banquets I have been to.

      • foang says:

        I have been to hundreds of banquets and the driver is rarely invited to sit at the table. Sometimes he will sit on the 2nd table (staff table as opposed to VIP table).

        In my case host (1) has the 2 (2,3) most important guests next to them, co-host (4) has second level guests (5,6) and then seats 7,8,9,10 sit in the middle area are often for Director level employees or translators.

        However, the fact you and I are still discussing where to sit on a round table, kind of proves the point of your article 😉

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        The disagreement here might relate to variations in the kind of dinner and perhaps the kind of enterprise putting on the dinner, the number of tables, etc. My experience in an SOE working in the public education sector has been largely similar to Tom’s. The driver always sat at the main table, even if there was more than one table. Of course the number of “VIPs” in attendance matters, as does the fact that, in my case anyway, I was the only foreigner.

        We’ve also not taken gender into account here. In our situation, drivers were always male and quite often the only other men at the table. Therefore, at least until drinking and driving laws were made stricter, the driver also had the important job of building relations with the host through drinking. Women, unless they were managers or directors, which was out of the ordinary, tended to sit far from the host, no matter their relative importance vis a vis the men in attendance.

        Anyway, I think we all know that laying down the rules of these things only serves to remind us of the exceptions. My feeling is that the rules we are pointing to are more principles to guide practice rather than laws to follow. I think the trick to getting by is to skillfully apply these principles to negotiate the seating arrangement at the moment of seating…which I suppose is what foang’s final sentence above suggests!

  23. Lorin Yochim says:

    Sorry, I forgot to say also, that I believe that foang is right about the co-host. On my comment about drivers, I meant to add that in our company, the drivers tend to have authority disproportionate to one’s expectations. Gender, again, matters, but drivers also tended to be quite close to company leaders for obvious reasons. I suspect that this power is on the wane, though, as many directors and managers now drive themselves.

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