Ask Mei

A land of courtesies and formalities

Drinking rules at a Chinese banquet

A land of courtesies and formalities

I find the Chinese banquet etiquette can be too confusing. Can you explain the essential points? (British reader in HK)

Historically China has been known as a li yi zhi bang (礼仪之邦) or “a land of courtesies and formalities”. But after the Communist Party took power in 1949, and especially during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, many of the “old” formalities were deemed reactionary or forgotten.

However, with the rapid economic development over the past thirty-plus years, certain old dining customs have been revived.

As mentioned in (one of) my previous columns, we Chinese take dining extremely seriously. With many banquets being held across the country every single day, quite a lot of banquet etiquette has been developed too. Of course, given China’s vast population and regional diversity, different regions may have different etiquettes. So let me just use northern China as an example.

First take the seating plan. Assuming it’s the typical round dining table and you are the host, the guest of honour should be seated facing the entrance and you sit to his/her left. The second important guest sits to your left. Please note that the left hand side is perceived as more prestigious than the right in China. So if you are hosting a few tables, you should put the head table at the centre, and tables 2, 4, 6 on the left and 3, 5, 7 on the right.

The second important issue is ordering. When hosting, you should pass the menu to your guests and invite them to order first. Most of the time, they will revert back to you, so it’s better that you know what to order in advance. A taboo for banquet hosts is asking the waiter about the prices as it could be perceived as being cheap.

If you are the guest and the host insists to pass the menu to you, then you can order a straightforward and not too expensive dish, such as pork, tofu, vegetables, then pass the menu to other guests or back to the host.

The third issue is probably the trickiest one – drinking alcohol. There is a Chinese saying: “A banquet is not a banquet without alcohol (无酒不成席).” And the best way to win a Chinese man’s trust, heart and business is by drinking alcohol with him. This is especially true in northern and northeast China.

If you are the host, you should first toast the guest of honour shortly after the banquet starts. More than one person can toast the senior person but only the most senior person can toast multiple people in one go. When you are toasting, you should stand up and say the toasts loudly and clearly so everybody can hear it. When drinking, the Chinese like to gan bei (干杯) or “bottoms up” if they want to demonstrate their sincerity and hospitality. But if you are not a Chinese, you have a bit of leeway: you can use the excuse that you can’t drink too much due to health issues but then still try to drink as much as you can just to show your sincerity. Typically, if you click another person’s wine glass, you should bottom up, especially if the other person is more senior. If you don’t want to bottom up, then just raise it to the guest without touching his/her glass. Also, when you click the glass with a senior person, you should make sure that your glass is a bit lower than his/hers to show your humility.

Finally, it’s better not to talk business before the drinking session starts. The ice can only be broken after three rounds of toasting and bottoms-ups. Typically, if the drinking session is successful (meaning loud, noisy and sweaty), then the business deal is most likely to be successful too.

A native Chinese who grew up in northeastern China, Mei attended an elite university in Beijing in the late 1980s and graduate school in the US in the early 1990s. Over two decades she has worked in the US, Hong Kong and mainland China, both in the media and with two global investment banks, where she has honed her bicultural perspective. If you’d like to ask her a question, send her an email at [email protected]

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