As the waitress, or fuwuyuan, swings the door open for you to enter, a table of smiling Chinese men in suits rise from their seats. At the center of the circular table is a glass Lazy Susan with a dozen untouched cold dishes. The men have only been there for five minutes, but the air in the small private room is already filled with blue cigarette smoke. When you begin shaking hands with the group, one by one, you notice two innocent-looking red boxes sitting to the right of the oldest man. You likely cannot read the Chinese characters, and even the Romanized letters spell out an unfamiliar word: Moutai.
This scene, the traditional Chinese banquet, is one of the most common and important settings for Westerners doing business in China. Along with the typical after hours karaoke follow-up, “KTV,” this is the natural environs for building solid relationships with your Chinese counterparts.
Knowing what to expect—and the simple tricks to avoid certain discomforts—can go a long way to ensure the experiences are both successful and relatively comfortable for both you and your liver.
Banquets particularly are a strange combination of what people in the West would consider both formal and informal etiquette. They can be solemn and awkward at the start, and then end two hours later in a raucous and incomprehensible blur.
“It’s so unlike anything you’ve ever done as, say, an American,” Mario Cavolo, an entrepreneur and CEO of KBC Shanghai who has lived in China for the past 10 years, told The World of Chinese. “You’re amazed by the ritual, the friendliness, the etiquette, and the rules of this whole thing.”
Potent Chinese grain alcohol, or baijiu, like Moutai, the country’s most famous brand, looms large at the banquet table. Typically, upon entering private room to begin a banquet, the guest will be toasted and asked to rink a few shots of baijiu before eating begins. Your most senior host ill get the attention of the table, make a brief toast, and everyone will hoist their small porcelain glasses saying ganbei, literally “dry glass,” and own the cup. It will be the first toast of many.
Therein lies a crucial juncture of the banquet—that first drink. “Once you say ‘OK,’ you open the door wide open,” Cavolo said. “To drink with someone is one thing, but they begin tipping their glass to you, and want you to guzzle the whole glass, which can become a real problem if you’re not used to drinking. After that, you’ve got to push it as far as you can push it.
Along with your first offer for baijiu will likely come your first offer of cigarettes.
Smoking, in China, especially among the type of people you’d likely encounter at a banquet setting, is often seen as masculine and as an important show of hospitality. That said, no reasonable person should expect you to light up if you’re not a smoker.
In most cases, simply getting that message across at the start will suffice. If your hosts insist, explaining how wonderful and expensive their brands are, take one, thank them, and place it on the table. Bear in mind that the point of this exercise is simple politeness, and a way to show “face” to your hosts.
Ultimately, though, navigating the baijiu waters will be a bit more challenging.
William Dodson, a Shanghai-based principal for TrendsAsia, Ltd., has attended “a couple hundred” banquets in his seven years in China. He adds that regional variation should also influence your decision whether or not to accept that first drink.
“I’ve always enjoyed doing business in the Yangtze River Delta because banquets are pretty well-mannered, relatively speaking. That is, the percentage of conversation-to-drink is about 80-20. Whereas if you go to the North, in places like Shandong, Liaoning, the Beijing area, and the interior of China, the drinking culture escalates very quickly. The conversation drinking ratio flips to 20-80.”
One clever way to avoid guzzling the local firewater, he suggested, is to use your health as an excuse. Quietly place any sort of tablets on the table next to your plate and, when asked, explain that you are not feeling well. Given that your hosts will want to show they can take very good care of you, they will fall over themselves to make sure you stick to tea, water, or juice.
Will your hosts be offended if you refuse to drink at all? Not necessarily. It’s important to know that a banquet’s guest can determine what will be drunk by all participants. If you drink baijiu, everyone does. If you drink juice, everyone does. Even though your counterparts will surely give you some good-natured hassling to drink alcohol, once you’ve refused, you may find many of them secretly grateful that they don’t have to drink as well. If you do decide to drink, know your limits, Dodson counsels.
“The most ridiculous banquet I ever went to was in Yantai, Shandong Province. It was government and business people who had invited me up to show me an investment project. These guys opened up with two goblets—not the little baijiu-sized cups—of the local brandy, before any food had been served. I had been warned not to even touch it to my lips. The guy sitting next to me got so drunk, he had to go to the washroom, throw up, came back, put his arm around me, and said, ‘I’m sacrificing my health for our relationship.’ They had to literally carry one of the guys out.”
Open any guidebook with a crash course on Chinese etiquette, and you may find yourself overwhelmed by long lists of warnings on the minutiae of Chinese dining culture. Conventional wisdom says: Don’t place your chopsticks at a certain angle, don’t gesture with your hands, don’t touch anyone, and don’t eat all the food on your plate. The list goes on and on.
In reality, however, not much of it holds up. “There was no protocol,” Dodson said of his Yantai banquet. “Unless it’s a very high-level meeting, there is really no protocol. Manners that mom taught us at home will do. Quite frankly, it will do more than enough.” As a general rule, accept your hosts’ generosity with politeness. For food, Chinese etiquette does not dictate that you eat everything put in front of you. For one thing, it would be impossible given that your hosts will surely order two to three times more food than the table can possibly eat. Also, Westerners are generally not expected to be accustomed to local delicacies like locusts, dog meat, or duck blood. It’s a nice thing if you are willing to try a bite of a donkey’s member, but it is not going to make or break a business negotiation.
The same principles hold for attempts at speaking Chinese, for those unfamiliar with the language. Taking the effort to say simple, complimentary things to your hosts will almost certainly be appreciated, but it’s not absolutely necessary.
“Speaking Chinese should be used as you’re building a rapport with people,” said Cavolo. “Crossing the language barrier is crossing the cultural barrier. It’s a way to build interest and respect. They genuinely appreciate it.”
There is one thing to never do at the banquet table: complain. Complaining about food—or any other aspect of your host’s hospitality, for that matter—is truly a major offense. When faced with eating something you can’t even bring yourself to try, politely decline or, failing that, simply keep it on your plate and wait for the fuwuyuan to clear it away. Nothing more will be said of it.
On the conversation front, one of the best ways to engage your hosts is to
inquire about all things local. Ask about the local food, the local sites, and the local dialect. Getting government or business counterparts onto familiar ground not only makes them comfortable, it demonstrates your interest in them. Banquets are not the time for detailed business negotiations.
“You could get up and make a toast, and use that opportunity to share your overall view, express that you are pleased or excited to work with them,” Cavolo said, then added, “I don’t recall any situation where it gets any more specific than that once it’s eating and drinking time.”
If banquets are intended to be semi-formal affairs, KTV singing is where everyone really lets their hair down. Your hosts will reserve a private room with a large TV, blasting speakers, and a couple of microphones. If the group is entirely made up of men, you are likely to have female company, to help drink and sing. We should be clear, they are simply hostesses—someone to join in and keep you company, as you endure a few hours of typically bad singing.
To really impress your Chinese counterparts, you may want to consider learning a Chinese song in advance. Even if you’re terrible, and miss your tones, the effort will be very appreciated. One overplayed hit, “Laoshu Ai Dami,” or “A Mouse Loves Rice,” is sure to win you some favors. You can find pinyin lyrics with a quick Google search.
What is the purpose of drinking, dancing around, and singing silly songs, you may wonder? In an interview last year with CRI English, psychologist Gesang Zeren said that karaoke is a means of self-expression for many Chinese people.
“Our culture values the cultivation of self-restraint. People are not encouraged to be aggressive and show individuality. But, in KTV clubs, they can unleash themselves and perform anything they want.
It’s a way to relax. Chinese people also tend to shoulder pressure internally instead of turning to others for help. It’s a good way to vent their emotions, whether it be depression, pressure, happiness, or aspirations. Singing can help express various emotions.”
In a business context, consider KTV a form of bonding. Even though the topic of negotiations will likely never be broached in front of the glowing television, trips to KTV are intended to build integrity into your relationships and foster camaraderie. There is also a sense of confidentiality that goes along with the KTV experience in a business setting—what happens at KTV stays at KTV. At least until you return home with wild stories to tell.
Most Old China Hands will tell you that some of their most memorable experiences have come at the banquet table or the KTV parlor. Both truly are settings for learning much more about Chinese culture, and how business here gets done.
Just remember: Have fun. It should be entertaining.
- Thank you, but I don’t smoke.
- What do you call this dish?