The Chinese Business Episode about a Banquet or Dinner



In many books and on various sites on the internet related to business with foreign countries, Chinese table manners when having meals with clients, which we should know in advance, are written about. My experience showed me that these manners are very friendly and meaningful. I will introduce some of them here.


Several years ago, 4 members of my company were invited to dinner at a Chinese restaurant by our clients, 6 executives of a local company in Beijing. There was a red package of cigarettes beside a finely folded napkin on the dish on the round table in front of each of us. However, as I stopped smoking several years before, I asked the local employee to interpret that I was sorry, but I would not smoke. All the clients were smiling and talking with him. He told me that they were the most expensive and delicious cigarettes called “chun-fa”, which were distributed to all the attendants at the National People’s Congress (the Chinese assembly). They told me that I should try a puff if I had ever been a smoker. I had prior knowledge of Chinese manners about cigarettes: hosts are to offer cigarettes to their guests at a party or dinner. Besides, I was interested in cigarettes which government officials would smoke, so I accepted their offer. Indeed, I enjoyed the sweet and rich flavor of the cigarette and said repeatedly to them, “Hao-chi! Hao-chi!” without flattery. The clients were glad that I accepted their offer, though I had given up smoking, and told me that I did not have to smoke another cigarette if I didn’t want to. Needless to say, they didn’t mind at all even if I declined to smoke, but it is regarded as a good manner to accept their offer pleasantly if I can without any trouble. Afterward, I was offered cigarettes many times, so I smoked only 1 cigarette without telling them that I gave up smoking, and brought the rest of the cigarettes back to my coworkers.


Next, speaking of alcoholic drinks, in Shanghai, a cosmopolitan city, beer, wine and Shaoxing rice wine are usually drunk, and in Beijing or Tianjin, the north part of China, bai-jiu (a Chinese alcoholic beverage made from grain with high alcohol) is popular. In China, at any banquet or dinner (even among family or friends), a person in the highest position among them, who is called “rao-pan” (a chief), usually proposes the first toast (gan-bei: drinking up without pausing), and all the people present follow him. Even after the first drink, drinking alone is regarded as unfavorable, so it is considered to be polite that several people look one another in the eyes and drink at the same time. When we drink bai-jiu with about 50% of the alcohol content even in a small glass, we need to be careful of not getting “blind drunk”. The rao-pan sometimes taps a table with his glass to propose a toast to all, and then everyone drinks up his glass, and shows others its bottom for proof.


Not only rao-pan, but also any other host member is always careful of all guests, and they smilingly make eye contact and lift a glass for a toast when a guest stops eating or talking. If we don’t drink alcohol, we can drink water or tea from the beginning, or if you cannot drink alcohol any more, you can slow down by saying “Sui-yi” (drinking as much as you like) instead of “Gan-bei!” (Bottoms up!) Like cigarettes, we don’t have to force alcohol on ourselves. However, there is no doubt that they will accept us as close business partners when we drink as much as possible with them even if we easily get drunk. Especially, executives of national enterprises looked tough for the first time and only had a superficial talk, but after drinking together at a banquet or a dinner, most of them became friendly with us.


In a Japanese banquet or dinner, business talk tends to be avoided. In contrast, a banquet and dinner in China are an important social meeting place to know one another, where they talk very openly including business matters. Chinese people are usually cheerful and friendly, and their table manners seem to be based on the spirit of hospitality.