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:
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.
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.
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.