It’s been years since I’ve written about the etiquette at Chinese banquets, but just saw a really good post (with really good comments) on the subject, so i cannot resist. The post is at Seeing Red in China and it is entitled, “Banquet etiquette for gaining face” [link no longer exists] Nothing new or unusual there, but very nicely lays out how to act at a Chinese banquet so as to make a good impression.

Before I talk about Seeing Red’s post, however, let me set out the two key things you have to know about these events, beyond which, all the rest is commentary:

  1. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Nobody is going to expect the laowai to know every aspect of Chinese banquet etiquette. Read Seeing Red’s post, be respectful, have fun, and try your best, and you will do just fine.
  2. You have to go and you have to partake, at least a bit. Acting as though you can and should do business in China just the same as you do business in Kalamazoo.  I am not telling you to discard your values. Not at all. But I am saying that you should be flexible. When in Rome….

Seeing Red’s post discusses the following aspects of a Chinese banquet:

  • The Seating. I have found that the key here is to hang back and wait for the host/leader to instruct you where to seat. It matters!
  • “Saying No” on food. I do not eat meat so I have to say “no” more than most, but I have never found this to be a problem. I do not think it right for my eating habits to influence a table of 6-12 so I typically do not mention my not eating meat until the food has come, at which point if anyone asks me why I am not eating a meat dish or looks askance at that, I explain that I do not eat meat. This usually leads to a long discussion as to why I do not eat meat and then that’s it. I always play up the fact that I love Chinese food and that I love the tofu, the noodles, the fish and the green beans (all true) and nobody seems to care at all. Seeing Red would say it is because my not eating particular dishes reflects solely on me and not on the host’s choice and so the host has lost no face. Again though, I do make it a point to gush over the best dishes, but since I love food, that is no problem.
  • Toasting/alcohol. I love toasting but I am, admittedly, a wimp when it comes to drinking. Let’s face it, most Americans are. So what I do is what one of the commenters suggested. I talk up the beer and joke about the baiju. If you can avoid the baiju, you have a better than 50-50 chance of making it out alive.

I also should note that most of my big meals in China are with Chinese law firms with whom my firm has had long term relationships. Virtually none of these lawyers smoke and they are generally more worldy/civilized (I am betting) than factory owners in Handan. This means that the pressure they exert is probably far less than at a typical China banquet and so I would love to hear more from those who attend these in their more basic form. China banquets. What say you?