Our blog.

March 21, 2019

An Etiquette Guide for a Successful Business or Government Dinner in China

Image: Allegravita.

It is ALWAYS a good idea to try to get a meal with your Chinese partners or colleagues because it will a great opportunity to get to know each other and deepen your guānxì relationship. Having dinner together is an important aspect of doing business in China and should be taken seriously. However, same as scheduling a business meeting, getting a dinner with your partners in China could be challenging. Unless there is already a level of trust established, otherwise, the lǐngdǎo can easily not accept your invitation.

PROPOSE a Chinese dinner.

Propose a dinner as it was to your Chinese girlfriend.

Yes, so you don’t want to propose a dinner right after the first meeting. As silly as it may sound, think of getting a meal with your Chinese partners as asking a Chinese girl out on a nice dinner date. You don’t do that after the first time you guys meet. You wait. Remember, you and your Chinese partners are in a relationship. You are just getting to learn about one another.

One exception to that is if you brought a government leader from your country, who is roughly the same level as the lǐngdǎo. In this case, the lǐngdǎo will certainly come, even if it’s just after the first meeting. However, you have to be careful with the level matching. If you are bringing the NYC mayor to meet the director of the Shanghai Food Safety office, then very likely, the director will still not come. You think you are giving the Chinese a lot of face by bringing a high level government official, but the reality is just the opposite. The Chinese think it is a huge loss of face to not have a person from their side that has the same level of seniority. Therefore, be cautious and play the game to your advantage.

Our advice is to try to propose a dinner after about three meetings if things go well. If the lǐngdǎo is willing to meet with you three times, that shows he/she is interested in your company or products and finds this relationship mutually beneficial. Don’t send the invitation through emails, because if not 100%, 99% of the lǐngdǎos don’t read them. Rather, make a proper phone call to schedule a date and do so one or two weeks ahead of time. Never suggest to get a quick bite after a meeting like how we do in the West. In case you haven’t gotten an idea of how excessive formality can get in China, casual invitations never work.

PLAN a Chinese dinner.

Image: Allegravita.

It’s a big production.

Expect to see a lot of people at the meal — it could go anywhere from five to fifty people , just from the Chinese side. Based on our experience from the past, the average is about ten. Try to match the number as close as possible, or you will definitely lose the drinking game, which will be discussed later in this article.


Play safe.

When it comes to selecting a type of cuisine, our advice is to play safe. You might want to bring your Chinese partners to a Western restaurant where your home food is served. However, most of the lǐngdǎos are not proficient with using forks and knifes which might cause them not come to your dinner because they don’t want to embarrass themselves and lose face. We have learned from years of experience that you can never go wrong with Chinese food. And within Chinese food, you can never go wrong with Sichuan food.

One great alternative is Hunan cuisine, which is even spicier than Sichuan food. Before you say “No, thanks!”, we want to share with you a trick that works every single time. Mention and praise Chairman Mao (Máo ZéDōng) during a Hunan meal as Hunan is his hometown. We guarantee you that the Chinese will laugh so hard and be very impressed. Also, because Hunan food is not as well-known as Sichuan food, that helps to show that you really know China.

The ultimate failsafe is to use your advantage as a foreigner. Normally they don’t expect you to know much about Chinese food anyway. So, if a lǐngdǎo doesn’t like chili because of poor stomach condition, or seriously hates the fish you just ordered, it’s not a big deal. He/she will probably only hint the unpleasant feeling. If that happens, just smile really friendly, hide behind your apparent protective aura of innocent ignorance, and order something else, or simply avoid probing the lǐngdǎo any further with the “wrong” things on the table.

If we’d pick one type cuisine that you should try to avoid, that will be Japanese food. Are you surprised? Due to what happened during WWII, the Chinese are just not big fans of anything Japanese. Especially the lǐngdǎos who were born during the 40s or 50s, their memories about Japan are certainly unpleasant. Thus, inviting him/her to a Japanese restaurant could be a serious insult. Plus, the Japanese enjoy a lot of things raw, just for the freshness. Obvious examples would be sushi and sashimi. But “raw” is one thing that most Chinese don’t appreciate at all. Do you know a very large number of Chinese people would not try a slice of ham because it’s never cooked on a fire thus “raw” by definition? For that matter, avoid ham as well, unless it’s cooked.

A private room….??

As strange as it may seem, but in China, it’s absolutely normal to have your private room at a restaurant, even the shabby ones hidden in an alley. Many times, there are even private restrooms, KTV (aka Karaoke) equipped in those rooms. When you call a restaurant to make a reservation, ask for the different classes of the rooms and alway try to get the nicest one.

HOST a Chinese dinner.

Dinner is early in China, normally around 6:00 pm. It also ends early as generally speaking, Chinese don’t like to stay up late. Plus, it would not be fair for the junior people to stay out late as they’ve got a long way to commute back home. And before dinner, always send cars and drivers to pick up if not everyone, the lǐngdǎo and the other senior members.

It’s the same rules all over again.

Image: Allegravita.

Just as attending a business meeting, the same rules apply for a dinner in terms of greeting and seating. You walk into the room with your people lined up in a hierarchy order because that helps the Chinese to understand who is in charge. The lǐngdǎo should always enter the room and be acknowledged first.

The seat of honor is at the middle of the table on the side that is farthest from the door, and the second most important person seats next to it, following the hierarchy order. Even though you are the host, the most honored seat should still reserved for the lǐngdǎo. Unlike a business meeting though, the seat with its back directly to the door (i.e. directly across the honor seat) is considered a “humble seat”, left for low men on the totem, such as children, drivers, assistants, or interpreters. Don’t take that one on your own initiative, since that will be humiliating yourself. If Chinese side shows you to that seat though… just follow the instruction with your innocent smile, and hope they don’t mean anything bad, just want you and the lǐngdǎo to gain a clearer sight of each other. In case you wonder why that seat is “humble”, that answer is that waiters and waitresses will try to bring dishes to the table at that spot, so whoever sits there is more likely to get splashed by soup or gravy. And that guy will also be responsible for closing the door after inconsiderate waiters. And probably because in feudalist times that guy will be the easiest target in the entire room should any assassin breaks in. Anyway, don’t sit there unless you are told to, or have no other choices left.

You order it, you eat it and you like it.

In China, naturally the host will order all the dishes. However, you should only do it if you are experienced. If you have done it several times in the past, go ahead, that will give you a lot of face in front of the Chinese. If you are not sure, then hand it over to the lǐngdǎo, but order about three expensive items first. The reason for doing so is because the lǐngdǎo will be too embarrassed to order expensive dishes, but if you don’t have any expensive dishes at the table, your meal loses face.

Sometimes it can get pretty wild. Image: A hundred books, a thousand miles.

The expensive food we are talking here is probably very different from what’s in your mind. If you think of luxury food in China as something like deluxe fried rice with filet mignon or lobster, then sorry my friend, you couldn’t be more wrong. In China, luxury food could mean very difficult food for foreigners, such as yúchì (shark fin),yànwō (bird’s nest),bàoyú (abalone), xióngzhǎng (bear paws). But before you cancel your trip to China, here are two approaches to avoid difficult dishes that have worked for us in the past:

1. Pretend that you are eating but not really.

2. Claim that you are a buddhist and you don’t eat meat, period. And then you can stick with the vegetables.

However, unless you absolutely can’t eat something, otherwise we encourage you to try all the food while you are in China.

Don’t be surprised if you are not served with rice, which you thought was the essential part of Chinese food. Well, rice is a fundamental item in Chinese cuisine, but it is also the cheapest thing you can get. Therefore, having rice in a nice dinner is considered a loss of face. Or if you are in a certain part of Northern China (Shandong Province will be one great example), people don’t eat rice, they eat bread instead. Excluding such cases, the scientific definition of rice’s importance in China is like this:

It’s considered part of “The Main Food” with fancy capitalized letters, along with steamed bread, dumplings, noodles, and pancakes. All the dishes are considered “decorations” while these are the real belly fillers. A meal is not a meal without any sort of “The Main Food” being served. If you stay in China long enough, you will eventually see that certain people still feel a bit hungry after finishing off five dishes, but get satisfied after one small bowl of rice. Sometimes it’s a psychological thing.

Unless you are with friends and families, don’t ask for any of “The Main Food” until close to the end of the feast. If you order rice or dumplings too early, people might feel you can’t stand the meal any more and want to call it an end. If the Chinese lǐngdǎo asks for some rice or such quite early during the meal, usually it means he/she’s got other things on the agenda, or simply is very tired already.

Other “main food’ in China. Image:nipic.com

In many parts of China, there’s such saying “dumplings for departure and noodles for back”. That serves as a guide to what kind of “The Main Food” to pick. If you are seeing a partner off on a trip, ask for dumplings. Or if he just got back from somewhere else and you guys a having reunion, noodles will be the best choice.

While beers, wine and even liquor becoming very popular in China nowadays, the Chinese are still extremely proud of their own national drinks, such as báijiǔ (white spirit) and huángjiǔ (yellow spirit).  Báijiǔ is like the Chinese Vodka with alcohol percent ranging from 20% all the way to 60%. Thanks to the special yeast involved in the making, its taste and smell are very different, in a negative way to most Westerners. But again, it’s the luxury national drink which assembles lots of Chinese pride, so be prepared to drink a lot of báijiǔ in China. Compared to báijiǔ, huángjiǔ has less alcohol and relatively tastes better, therefore it is always a good alternative if it is available. When ordering drinks, alway praise the quality and flavor of Chinese wine. Compliments never fail in China.

Yep, it’s all about competitions.

Remember, always wait for the lǐngdǎo to first sit down at the table. And it is the best not to drink or eat until lǐngdǎo does so. And don’t touch anything with your chopsticks before the lǐngdǎo does. But very often, the dinner will start with a conversation as below:

          Lǐngdǎo Li: “Hi Mr. Smith, since you have come such a long way to China, why don’t you go first?”

          Mr.Smith: “Thank you so much lǐngdǎo Li, but you are my honorable guest tonight, so of course you  

          should go first.”

          Lǐngdǎo Li: “ No no no, you go first.”

          Mr. Smith: “No no no, please, you go first.”

                 (repeat at least 3 times)

          lǐngdǎo Li: “Why don’t we start together?”

          Mr.Smith: “Sure. Great!”

And this has just officially marked the beginning of the competition. Of course, it will look silly if the conversation repeats forever. If your lǐngdǎo still insists you should go first, just do it. Smile, and play your “innocently ignorant foreigner” card well. This will get you a long distance. What’s about to happen is practically duel between two sides. The last man sitting wins.

Gānbēi! — bottoms up , drain the glass!

Image: Allegravita.

The meal has finally began. Be the first one to propose a toast with the lǐngdǎo — the guest of honor. When toasting, stand up, hold your glass with both hands and make a short speech. Some of the common themes of toasts include: health, well-being and friendship. Remember to ways hold your class a bit lower than the lǐngdǎo’s to show respect. Don’t get shocked by the tiny little glasses. They are tiny for a reason. You will be doing hundreds of shots that night. If not, then you are not doing your job properly. Throughout the meal, you need to toast with every single person at the table in the same hierarchy order multiple times. Or if you don’t, they will toast with you.  There’s no escape either way.

It’s ok if you don’t know how to use the kuàizi (Chinese chopsticks) very well. However, the Chinese will be very impressed if you can use them proficiently. Don’t use your kuàizi to dig into the dish trying to find the “treasure”, or try to reach the plates in front of other people. Those behaviors are considered very bad table manners in China. Also, don’t try to refill everyone’s glass. That’s supposed to be done by an errand boy or a dedicated waiter if the restaurant is posh enough. Fill glasses for others only when you want to toast with them and only when their glasses are empty already. Should this happen, fill theirs first, and your own glass after everyone else’s. Part of table manner.

You don’t know what you are eating? It’s ok. We’ve all experienced it before. Just try to be as polite and open-minded as you can. If the food is really too difficult for you, use the two approaches that we recommended earlier in the article. You will survive. Regardless of whether you really like the food or not, we highly encourage you to praise the food, as well as the wine and the taste of the lǐngdǎo all throughout the meal. In fact, compliments are expected.

Don’t stress out. Have fun! It is a great opportunity to get to know the lǐngdǎo and build the guānxì that will be tremendously beneficial for your business success in China. Conversations should be very casual and leave the controversial and business matters for later.

The Drinking Game — Should we win or should we lose?

Image: Allegravita.

Here comes to the climax of the meal — the drinking game, which our clients often find very interesting but complicated at the same time. The dilemma here is, should we win if we appear to be much more alcohol-resistant than the other party?

Our advice is to always decide your strategy ahead of time and make sure your people are all on the same page. You should win only if you know the other side very well or if you have a lot of high level government officials in your delegation. Otherwise, your strategy should “lose” to the Chinese to give the lǐngdǎo face. You can do that by politely saying that you genuinely cannot take no more gānbēis, and the lǐngdǎo will understand.

WRAPPING UP a Chinese dinner.

Probably earlier than you expected, thelǐngdǎo says the dinner is over. Same as a business meeting, only the lǐngdǎo can end a dinner. You all stand up after lǐngdǎo gets up and shake hands again before you leave. Gifts are not necessary but do tell the lǐngdǎo how much you appreciated his/her time and pay for the bill. Send a car and a driver to take lǐngdǎo home and now finally you can call it a night. CONGRATULATIONS!




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