Eat, Drink and Be Merry


Eating, Drinking and Being Merry

The standard form of greeting in many western cultures is the handshake. We offer our right hand, which was in the past the sword hand. Traditionally, this gesture showed that there was no ill intent on the part of the person making the greeting. Both parties looked into each other’s eyes, as a further means of demonstrating goodwill. This greeting became a means of judging a person’s character, and even today the ‘wet-fish’ handshake is usually interpreted as a sign of a weak character, while a shifty eyed person is never trusted. While first impressions are not definitive, this initial greeting tells us much about the character of the other person, within the space of a few moments.

Unfortunately, the handshake and the frank gaze are of no use in China. In older days, to look directly into the eyes of a superior meant likely death. When the Emperor ventured forth from his palace, the roads were cleared, and any unfortunates who encountered his entourage would prostrate themselves as low as they could go and would never dare look directly into the eyes of so magnificent a being as the Emperor. Similarly, there was no form of greeting between the ancient Chinese that developed into a means of communicating one’s character equivalent to the handshake. This presents a problem for the western businessperson. How can the true character of a person be assessed at an initial meeting?

Fortunately, there is way in which Chinese people assess each other: it all takes place at a banquet or a meal. Banquets and meals Eating is a national pastime in China, and dominates the Chinese psyche. The importance of food cannot be underestimated. Even the standard greeting between Chinese people, ‘Chi fan le mei you?’, means not ‘Hello’, or ‘How are you?’, but ‘Have you eaten rice today?’. Eating is the key to the Chinese psyche.

Some knowledge of the behaviour prescribed at banquets and meals can assist the westerner greatly. While there are formal rules governing matters such as seating order, the informal rules governing how a host behaves are more important.

Let’s start with the formal rules. If you are hosting your first banquet or meal, remember that the host always sits in the chair facing the door. The guests are seated according to their status or rank. The most important guest is given the place of honour — next to the host, on the right hand side. The least important sits furthest away from the host, with his or her back to the door. (This custom may very well have come about because it was considered appropriate to expose the least important guest to the danger posed by any potential intruder or assassin — if there is a better explanation, it has been lost in the antiquity of time.)

Toasts are conducted as soon as the first food arrives. To drink before the first toast is considered rude. The guest must be offered the first food; to eat before he has eaten would be very rude.

The informal rules concern the host’s responsibility to make the guest feel truly welcome. The host must ensure the guest receives the best selections from the dishes; the guest’s bowl should be continually filled with delicacies. If the guest smokes, cigarettes should be offered at frequent intervals.

The host’s aim should be to overwhelm the poor guest with generosity and hospitality. The impression created must be one of total concern for the guest. Chinese people use such occasions to sum up the character of the other person, forming their judgments on the basis of his or her behaviour at the banquet.

It is not simply a matter of pushing more and more food, drink and cigarettes at the guest — your sincerity as a host will be carefully observed. Are you truly concerned with the guest’s wellbeing or merely seeking to impress? Do you deny yourself the best, looking after your guest, or do you think about yourself first? Are you really interested in the guest’s opinions and thoughts, or merely paying false homage to the guest? These are the questions that will be answered in the minds of Chinese guests at a banquet.

A meal with your host is always a good chance to assess the Chinese party with whom you are considering doing business. Don’t worry too much about how your own behaviour will be interpreted — remember that you are a foreigner and are not expected to understand the nuances of Chinese etiquette. You will be forgiven any little gaffes you make.

What will not be forgiven however, is any slip in generosity. When you host a banquet, do not do anything that will appear to be less than totally generous in the eyes of the guest. You are at the banquet to make genuine friends with the guests, and the Chinese believe that genuine friends do not stint on anything that will add to a guest’s enjoyment. I once witnessed an Australian property developer kill any chance he had of developing a successful relationship with a group of Chinese businessmen by arguing over a taxi fare, after spending a great deal of time and money preparing for what could have been a very lucrative deal. By haggling over a small sum, he showed his true character to the Chinese group, who immediately fixed him as an ungenerous host. (I will provide more details about this particular story in a case study in chapter 10.) The lesson is clear — a foreign host must show the utmost generosity, and anticipate the guest’s every need.

It is not necessary to spend huge sums of money, going only to the most expensive restaurants. Many people make this mistake, and then worry about the cost. It is better to choose a restaurant which is within your budget, and then act unstintingly. Think carefully beforehand — if everybody had the most expensive dishes on the menu, would you realistically be able to afford it? If the answer is no, then choose a restaurant further down the list. Some of the most successful banquets I have attended have not been at top restaurants, but created a favourable impression because the hosts were able to offer the best level of hospitality available at the particular restaurant chosen, and were therefore able to show their true capacity for generosity.

Having said this, if you are hosting the general secretary of the local Communist Party, or the governor of a province, don’t embarrass yourself and your guest by going to a down-market place. Remember this individual’s position, and the fact that he or she is usually hosted in the best places by the largest companies. You may give the impression that your financial capacity is not very substantial if you treat such a guest to a meal at a less than well accepted restaurant. A Chinese banquet is not just a meal; it is a business forum, an opportunity to assess the character of potential partners in a deal, and the basic building block in forming relationships. Banquets are also hosted as a means of expressing gratitude.

Any serious negotiations will be accompanied by a banquet and to refuse to eat with the Chinese party after a round of talks is impolite in the extreme. It is not customary to discuss the details of a business deal at a banquet; however, it is quite acceptable to refer to the overall goal of the cooperation. The emphasis is on developing the relationship by toasting future success and ongoing cooperation between friends. Eating in a quiet and thoughtful manner is not a Chinese habit. The Chinese are a convivial people and attend banquets with a firm desire to enjoy themselves. Because of this, it is sometimes easy for westerners to assume that they enjoy a greater degree of friendship with the Chinese party than they really do. Displaying ‘friendliness’ to entice a business connection into a deal is a common strategy, and a wise person will not confuse the ‘hail-fellow-well-met’ spirit evident at a banquet with a true friendship.


There are two separate sets of rules governing drinking in Chinese society, and they are in opposition to one another. Which set you must abide by will depend on the people with whom you are dealing. Be prepared to meet both abstemious teetotalers and hard drinkers in your dealings with the Chinese.

The first banquet is easy, as you only have to follow the formal rules about eating with people for the first time. There will be perfunctory toasts, nothing out of the ordinary, toasts that can quite acceptably be made with tea, soft drink, peanut milk or whatever. Please note that it is rude to refuse a toast offered at a banquet. It is a sign of disrespect and tells the person proposing the toast that he or she is not important enough to share hospitality with. You will be expected to drink at least one toast with every single member of the other party to the negotiations. (Maybe even two, if you are lucky.)

Watch carefully and see if the Chinese guests drink at all, or if they are really abstainers. This will be important when you deepen the friendship at a later date. If you are not a drinker yourself, then say so. It is considered very bad manners to force others to drink if they do not want to, so generally your beliefs and customs will be respected; however, there may be occasions when you find yourself partaking in a bottle of what I call ‘jet fuel’ and there is often little you can do to avoid this.

Jet fuel is bai jiu, pronounced ‘buy joe’, a clear spirit which is China’s national drink. Though I am told that it is made of mixture of grains and herbs, bai jiu tastes so strong, and is so potent, that I am convinced that the Chinese alcohol industry is an offshoot of the jet industry — that when aeroplanes land at Chinese airports, someone siphons off the excess fuel and bottles it. It is little wonder that the traditional cup used for toasts is as small as a thimble, because if you drank much more than this you would be flying right out of the room.

Bai Jiu comes in many different varieties, five of which are famous throughout China. During a protracted round of banquets and negotiations, you will be probably offered all five, so that you can appreciate the national drink. If you have the liver of an ox, and the constitution of a horse, then go for it, but beware — this stuff is deadly. If you become very close to a Chinese group, and break through the formal barriers, you might find yourself going round for round with your hosts, until everybody’s face is as red as a beetroot, and there is only one place for you — your bed. If you find yourself in such a situation you have two options: either bow out gracefully, choosing not to participate, or throw all caution to the winds, making prior arrangements to get yourself home. In China, as elsewhere, the misguided perception that only the strong can hold their liquor often prevails, and you may be called on to hold up the national flag in this matter. It is sometimes easier to let down your country than live through the experience.

I once saw an Australian businessman who prided himself on his ability to hold his liquor take part in a bai jiu drinking session in which the usual thimble-sized glasses were replaced with large wineglasses. He swears he will never look at the stuff again. I myself had very quickly developed a ‘stomach-ache’ when I observed the host buying the largest bottle available — 1.5 litres. (In China, hosts do not buy a round of drinks, but instead buy a bottle, which must be finished before leaving the restaurant.) Unfortunately for me, the businessman was staying on the sixth floor of an apartment building with no elevator, and it fell to me to get him home — no easy task.

After this experience I asked my translator what he had done, because he was still sober. He had found a typical Chinese solution to the problem, He told me that after each toast, he would politely wipe his mouth, and spit the drink into his napkin. Everyone thought he was drinking, when in fact he was cheating. This tactic is worth considering, but don’t get caught, or you find yourself drinking double, without a napkin.

Beer is cheap, and is often a perfectly acceptable alternative to drinking bai jiu. There are many very good local beers as well as full range of foreign beers. If you find bai jiu hard to stomach, you may get away with only one or two bai jiu toasts, making further toasts in beer, as long as you lay down the rules in the beginning, explaining that this is your preference. Still, you should not miss an opportunity to develop close ties with a person because of different taste in drinks.

Try not to attend a lunch or a dinner before taking part in negotiations. It is very common for the other side deliberately to put you to the test with endless toasts. Schedule all important meetings for when you are completely sober.

Although it may be better for your health to deal with abstainers, it is sometimes harder to forge with them the kind of friendship required to do business successfully in China. Drinking sessions are good icebreakers, and drinkers generally click with other drinkers in a social setting. If you are with a non-drinker, then do not drink yourself, or drink very sparingly. You do not want to be branded an undesirable companion because you are a non-drinker. Find out about your contact’s interests instead, and use these as a basis from which to develop the friendship.

This is also the approach I would recommend western businesswomen take. The rules for women in this area are quite different to those for men. It is not considered acceptable for women to drink more than a little. Chinese women these days drink various kinds of alcohol, but women drinking bai jiu are still generally frowned upon. When women do drink, it is usually only for the sake of politeness, but this need not be an impediment to developing the same depth of relationship with prospective partners that men would build through a night on the town. In fact, many Chinese people do not find the prospect of a night of drinking and carousing at all inviting. When such people meet with prospective female business partners, they feel a certain relief in being able to enjoy a quieter social occasion without the need to indulge in large quantities of beverages.

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