Chinese Language Blog

Surviving the Banquet Posted by on May 19, 2008 in Uncategorized

“Sooner or later everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences.”
– Robert Louis Stevenson

The art of the business deal here in China goes one step further than the boardroom, and it’s in the arena of the banquet hall that many a deal can be made or unmade. A banquet is a way of bestowing respect on a visiting business partner, and should be an expected part of the business experience in China. Indeed, the Chinese put a great deal of importance on the building of relationships, a term that is best understood through the catchall term guanxi, and it is during the banquet that guanxi is established. In fact, it may be that the real decision makers of a Chinese firm will only appear during one of these events to judge the steel of their potential business partners, to see if their partners are compatible on a personal level. Beware, though, because the Chinese banquet is often a long, arduous undertaking involving a great deal of food which may not be familiar to the Western palate, a great deal of toasting with baijiu, just about the closest thing to real firewater out there, and what one might assume to be a friendly after work dinner party can quickly become what looks like ritualized hazing. Here are a few pointers on what to expect, mastering the etiquette, and how to get through a banquet anywhere in the Middle Kingdom, from Harbin to Guangzhou.

1. The business card, or mingxingpian:
Chances are you’re going to meet people who you haven’t met before the banquet truly begins. Be prepared with your business cards, and don’t make the mistake of giving it to the recipient one handed or off the cuff. Chinese present their cards the way they would present themselves: with respect and humility. Use both hands to present your business card, and the recipient will receive it in the same way. Give and receive with a ni hao and a xie xie, respectively.

2. The drinking:
Depending on location in China and the type of person the boss is, there will be a few introductory rounds of toasts to start things off joyously, each toast raised with the ubiquitous baijiu or more likely, maotai, a pricier version with the alcohol content you could just as easily use for sterilizing medical instruments. The standard toast is a ganbei, which literally means ‘dry the cup,’ or ‘bottoms up.’ While it is acceptable for foreigners to only drink a little bit instead of draining the thing, polishing off your cup is encouraged and will show your hosts that you’re a serious contender and a good person, one of the first steps towards building good guanxi. This is, however, a vicious cycle, as doing one ganbei indicates to your host that you’re not averse to doing another, and the pressure to get on with it and have way more than you’d planned on will become more and more intense over the course of the banquet. A toast before food will be only the first of many, so go easy, and remember to never fill your own glass without filling the glasses of those nearby you, nor to ever drink the baijiu alone – meet the eye of another, raise your glass or simply say “ganbei!” Or circumvent the problem, never with an outright refusal, but with a face saving lie. “I’m sorry my good man, I’m on medication.” This will be generally understood and will get you out of what often turns out to be the downfall of many a foreign businessman.

3. Etiquette
Your meal will most often consist of a bowl of rice (mi fan) or noodles (mian tiao), or some other staple, for you personally which will be placed in front of you. Everything else will be put on communal plates for everyone. As you’re all using chopsticks (kuaizi), the concept of ‘double dipping’ does not exist here in China – get over it.

The most important person at the table (and there will not be less than 8 people there), is bestowed the honor of taking the first pickings from the communal plates, with the second most important person (probably the guest, you), picking second. Don’t take more than your share, and always be sure to leave something on the plate. Finishing off the food gives the impression that your hosts have not provided enough food for everyone, and can be disrespectful.

As this engagement is likely to go on for hours, it’s important to remember that there will be a lot of food. Ten to fifteen courses would not be considered in the least bit excessive, consisting of an assortment of cold dishes, 8-10 hot dishes served one after the other, a few whole dishes such as a whole fish (which has an etiquette all its own in presentation, but more on that at a later date) or a whole chicken, with soups coming at various intervals and steamed pastries supplementing the staple. The banquet will end with fruit, and baijiu will flow freely throughout.

Under no circumstances should you stick your chopsticks into the bowl of rice upright when finished with the meal. This is extremely poor form as it’s a tradition used in sacrificial ceremonies, and will highlight you as a true waiguoren (foreigner).

Ten course of dishes, not necessarily prepares in huge quantities, would not be considered excessive, and a few people would blink at sixteen. A standard banquet will consist of four to eight prepares cold dishes, eight hot dishes served one at a time, two to four whole-size showpieces dishes, such as a whole fish, a whole suckling pig or a whole chicken, in addition to soups, steamed rice and pastries. The dinner finishes up with fruit to cleanse the palette.

While a Chinese style banquet can prove to be a bit overwhelming to the uninitiated, following a few of the basic rules, maintaining the necessary etiquette, and being personable and maintaining your sense of humor throughout can make them a lot less painful. And it isn’t out of the realm of imagination that you might even grow to enjoy the intricacies of this fundamental aspect of doing business and maintaining relationships in China.


guān xì relation / relationship / to concern / to affect / to have to do with / relations / guanxi
白酒 bái jiǔ spirit usually distilled from sorghum or maize / white spirit
你好 nǐ hǎo hello / how are you
谢谢 xiè xie to thank
名片 míng piàn business card
茅台酒 máo tái jiǔ maotai (a Chinese liquor)
干杯 gān bēi to drink a toast / to propose a toast / cheers
米饭 mǐ fàn (cooked) rice
面条 miàn tiáo noodles
筷子 kuài zi chopsticks
外国人 wài guó rén foreigner

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  1. Jeremy Borne:

    Wisdom is understanding that you know nothing.

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