The author, Sean Upton-McLaughlin, is a China-focused business consultant with over five years’ experience living and working in Mainland China. He consults on strategy, marketing, and cross-cultural issues. For more of Sean’s insights into Chinese culture, please visit http://chinaculturecorner.com/.
When doing business in China, business meals and banquets are an important issue that cannot be ignored. No matter whether you are meeting with a private business or the government, or whether you are doing business over dinner or attending a large banquet with multiple parties, the act of dining in China is a channel for conducting business deals, building relationships, and showing respect. While the practices associated with dining in China may be strange or unknown to the average Western or non-Chinese businessperson, and dining customs may vary slightly from place to place, there exist several universal dining customs that the Western businessperson should be familiar with before venturing to China to conduct business. Below are a few key issues to be aware of as you participate in business meals in China.
Seating Arrangements (座次)
The seating arrangements during a business dinner or banquet serve the purpose of denoting where a particular person exists in a hierarchy (business, society, family, or friends) and also clearly defines how much respect or face that particular person is due. Knowing and understanding this hierarchy can not only be useful to Westerners during the course of the banquet (e.g. who to toast first), but can also offer some insights into the internal dynamics and power structure of a Chinese company or government office.
Aside from denoting hierarchy, seating arrangements also serve to give face to attendees, especially those that are guests of the host. When dining at a round table, the seat directly facing the door is generally reserved for the most important or high level attendee. The second highest level attendee sits to the left of the highest level attendee, and the third highest level attendee sits to the right of the highest level attendee. From there the seating hierarchy will continue outward from the seat of the highest level attendee, with left taking precedence over right when distance is equal.
| Barbara Bian
Arts & Crafts Industry, Shanghai “According to the ancient folk customs of the Chinese people, only close relatives and friends would sit together at the table to share a delicious meal. With regard to business, no matter whether one is dining with clients, suppliers, or local officials, it is natural to want to build and strengthen relationships. When two people are able to act as friends, treating each other with honesty and respect, it is much easier to achieve effective connections and communications…..as the saying goes, “if two people cannot even eat a single meal together, how will they be able to converse as like-minded fellows?” Thus the traditional significance of the word “eat” in Chinese often also indicates relationships between several people…..in China, if two parties must remain unrelated, even over a dinner table, it will be impossible to develop a deeper relationship. Because of cultural differences, many foreign friends are unable to understand the intrinsic link between food and relationships in China.”
Ordering and Eating (点菜，吃菜)
Generally, when attending a more formal dinner or banquet, ordering dishes is reserved for the host, or someone from the host company as delegated by the leader. However, is it also common for “Face” to be given to a guest or client by allowing the designated guest or client to order some or all of the dishes. In this event, it is recommended to choose something in the medium-price range, which all attendees are comfortable partaking in. In the event that the menu is completely in Chinese or the guest or client is unfamiliar with the cuisine being served, it is acceptable to politely decline and allow/request a member of the host party to order.
Chinese cuisine is composed of meat and vegetarian dishes, as well as hot and cold dishes, with cold dishes being served before the hot. An average of one dish per attendee is usual; when mostly men are in attendance, more dishes can be ordered and with a larger percentage of meat; when more women are in attendance, it is suggested that the majority of dishes ordered be vegetarian or low in fat. And when ordering it is best not to ask or try to haggle about prices, even in jest, as this can give the impression of being stingy, a trait severely looked down upon.
Eating usually commences with a signal from the host and can be accompanied by a speech at more formal events. By and large most Chinese banquet tables are round, seat eight to twelve people, and contain center turntables on which dishes are placed. Although some dishes contain their own serving utensils, it is more common in China to use personal chopsticks to serve oneself, even at formal banquets. This does not violate any rules of etiquette. It is advised to wait until a dish is directly in front of you before serving yourself and then only in relatively small amounts as doing otherwise can give the impression of greediness. Lastly, when dealing with pieces of meat that contain bones (there are no knives at most Chinese dinners and banquets), it is common, though not required, to place the entire piece in the mouth, chew until all meat is removed, and then place the bone on the plate.
Drinking and Toasting (喝酒)
Drinking during meals is common throughout Chinese dinners and banquets and has deep roots in Chinese history as a method of demonstrating respect. Although this subject in its entirety is too extensive for this article, there are several general rules that can be followed by Westerners doing business China:
- Company leaders or the highest ranking executive are the first to give and receive toasts (host and guest), after which the rest of the attendees can engage in toasting.
- If you are a regular attendee, your first toast should be given to the highest ranking person at the table (the person most deserving respect).
- When delivering a toast, it is customary to stand and use both hands to hold your glass or cup.
- Multiple attendees are allowed to deliver a toast to a single person (e.g. the CEO), but it is against the rules of etiquette for a single attendee to toast multiple attendees, unless the person delivering the toast is the highest ranking attendee.
- If drinking from a larger glass (e.g. for beer), use the right hand to hold the glass, with the left hand cushioning the bottom. Smaller glasses (e.g. shot glass) should be grasped with both hands, one on either side.
- When delivering a toast, it is respectful to dip the tip of your glass below that of the person you are toasting. If you are the leader of the host delegation, this is not required.
- To give the proper amount of face and demonstrate your generosity, it is important to make sure you toast everyone at least once, starting with the highest ranking attendees and moving down.
- A toast should be accompanied by a few words or short speech.
Advice for Westerners
Lastly, aside from the dining rules discussed above, there are also several cultural issues that Westerners should be aware of as they seek to build and develop relationships with their Chinese counterparts over meals:
First, on many occasions while dining in China, there will likely be at least some undercurrent with regard to building relationships. And since Westerners may find that meetings and office environments in China sometimes are often the arenas of unclear communication and half truths, it is therefore advisable, even necessary, to take advantage of meals (formal or otherwise) to get to know your business partners, friends, and acquaintances. Details or facts that a Chinese businessperson may find inconvenient to mention in front of a boss or colleague may come forth more easily when combined with a filling meal, several beers, and an enjoyable time.
Second, as China becomes internationalized, business will conversely become more local, with much new business taking place in second-, third-, and fourth-tier cities. The significance here is that in contrast to the bustling metropolises of China’s Eastern seaboard, many Chinese business people in the more local areas speak English and foreign languages to a lesser degree, and are less Westernized in how they conduct business. Therefore it is likely that developing Guan Xi over meals, as well as understanding the many complex dining rules and customs, will become even more important for Western business people to understand.
And, remember that developing real “Guan Xi” has little to do with having a sharp business presentation, wearing a smart suit, working for a well-known firm, or being introduced by someone. Those factors may get a deal done on one occasion, but be insufficient to convince your Chinese counterpart to engage in a long-term business relationship. Therefore, don’t neglect the importance of the Chinese customs and ideas of proper behavior with regard to dining, such as toasting, showing respect, or sitting in the proper places. Yes, it’s true that many Chinese people have adapted to the Western way of doing things, but remember that to develop “Guan Xi” you must make your Chinese counterpart feel comfortable, not yourself.
Hi-tech Industry, Shanghai“In China, dining is a common method to make friends, understand business partners, and establish interpersonal relationships…..dinner banquets also allow for effective communication, as well as the exchange of feelings and ideas. Through dining together, two people can close the personal distance between themselves by gaining an understanding of each other’s personality, preferences, business background, needs, strengths, reputation, and other important pertinent to business.…. the rapid popularization and application of modern information technology, the establishment of new laws and regulations, and the formation of a comprehensive modern business environment have highlighted specific drawbacks of using Guan Xi to conduct business, specifically high costs and low efficiency. More and more Chinese people are now studying Western methods…..however, the Chinese people’s tradition of emotional exchanges over a meal will continue to be preserved and maintained.”
Reference Material :
Additional Resources on Dining in China:
(English): 5 Chinese eating habits explained